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An Affront To Rabbinic Autonomy

Seplowitz-072012

Many years ago when I was helping my congregation write a new constitution, I submitted a first draft to an expert who had been involved in setting up new shuls.

One paragraph read, “All matters of halacha (Jewish law) will be determined by the congregational rabbi.” Pretty straightforward, I thought.

“Not good enough,” said the expert. “What will you do when the board of the shul decides that a particular matter is not a halachic issue and tries to force your hand?”

So we added the phrase “…including the determination of what constitutes a matter of halacha.”

The role of the rabbi is to serve as a teacher and posek for his congregation. He sets the halachic tone; his congregation is supposed to follow it. His word, as the rabbi of his congregation, is the final one. Opinions of outside rabbis should be irrelevant, unless the congregational rabbi seeks their advice.

It has now become popular to seek to undermine this concept.

The call has now come, from various fronts, to insist that rabbis may not officiate at weddings without a prenuptial agreement (PNA). One organization has already established this policy, and Rabbi Michael Broyde, a member of the RCA’s Beth Din of America, has joined the call. Under the proposal, rabbis who choose not to utilize PNAs could face expulsion from their rabbinical organization.

Let me be clear. My purpose here is not to argue against the use of prenuptial agreements. Greater and more learned rabbis than I strongly advocate their use. However, there are also greater and more learned rabbis than I who oppose their use.

I do not use a prenuptial agreement, but I do not stand in the way of a couple arranging it through someone else. No, I am not insensitive to the plight of agunahs. Rather, I am following the guidance of my teacher, who objects to its use.

This call for organizational pressure is an affront to rabbinic autonomy.

I can’t speak about other organizations but I can tell you as a member of the Rabbinical Council of America that I feel it would be a mistake for our organization to follow this path.

When members of the RCA have taken public positions that were, if you’ll pardon the expression, unorthodox, the organization has, for the most part, not pressured them to relent. RCA members have written radical views on leftist blogs, pushing the envelope of halachic and hashkafic propriety, much to the silent acquiescence of our organization.

(For years, RCA members served congregations with mixed seating and microphones, though thankfully that is much less common today.)

On all of these issues, and more, I don’t hear calls for expulsion of the “perpetrators.” The argument I have often heard is that the RCA should not be dictating to individual rabbis as to how they should conduct their individual pulpits. Our organization is a “wide tent” with room for many opinions within the spectrum of (supposed) Orthodoxy.

Yet while the RCA tent is wide enough for those who advocate far left positions, a rabbi who, for halachic or other reasons, chooses not to do a PNA risks finding himself on the outside of that tent looking in.

Consider the RCA’s monumental GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards), which has standardized Orthodox conversion to a level acceptable to the Israeli rabbinate. This was a major accomplishment by the RCA. It has brought standards to an American rabbinate that sorely needed them. Yet the RCA doesn’t force its members to follow those standards. I know of RCA rabbis who perform conversions that do not conform to GPS. Should we expel those rabbis from the RCA? (Now that’s a policy I could see myself supporting.)

The cause of those who wish to encourage fellow rabbis to use prenups would be better served by engaging those rabbis in learned debate as to their advantages and disadvantages. But the suggestion that we engage in strong-arm tactics to force members to do it our way would demean our organization and the rabbinate.

However, that is not what bothers me the most about this discussion.

To further buttress this policy, members of shuls are being asked to press their rabbis to stop doing weddings without prenups and to mandate that no such weddings take place on the synagogue grounds.

This, I believe, totally undermines the relationship of a rav to his congregation.

The role of the rabbi is to be a leader. The congregation turns to him for guidance and inspiration, not to tell him how to run his pulpit. Should synagogue policy be determined based on what concessions members can squeeze out of the rabbi? (Can you envision the scene? “Sorry, Moses, 80 percent of the Jewish population has decided that we want to stay in Egypt. Drop your 10-Plague Plan or we’re dropping your contract!”)

The notion that people should be instructed to force their rabbi to ignore his own or his teachers’ halachic opinion boggles the mind; it certainly doesn’t sound like Orthodox Judaism.

Your rabbi is your teacher, your spiritual mentor. Please don’t insist that he do that which he feels is wrong.

If you don’t trust his judgment, you shouldn’t have hired him in the first place.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, is a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. His blog on the weekly parshah can be read at TorahTalk.org.

About the Author: Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, NewYork, is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His blog on the weekly Torah portion can be read at TorahTalk.org.


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