‘Your Semicha or Your Wife’: A False Dichotomy

By: Shoshana Bachrach  |  February 27, 2014
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UPDATE: An agreement has been reached and the student will be receiving Semikha. 

The Jewish Week published a story yesterday entitled “Your Semicha or Your Wife,” a write-up on the latest YU scandal. The piece explained that RIETS is withholding rabbinical ordination from a student who held a partnership minyan in his home. The student explained that the only reason he held the minyan was to enable his wife to be called to the Torah to recite a “blessing of gratitude” after being ill—ostensibly birchat hagomel. The article, though responsibly bringing quotes from both sides, largely sympathized with the student’s plight.

The Jewish Week’s representation presented the case as an ultimatum: either his wife says her blessing, or he gets ordained. However, this ultimatum is a false dichotomy. Why? Because there isn’t really a choice involved. While one is always entitled to do what he wants to help his wife, no one is entitled to rabbinic ordination. The choice for ordination, at any institution, is not in the hands of the participant but in the hands of the school. One doesn’t receive a PhD after they do their research, but after they defend their thesis before a board. If the scenario is as it was represented, the choice was not between an ordination and a perceived duty. The choice was between following the institution’s rules or not.

Secondly, if indeed his wife was reciting a prayer that required a minyan, she would have had other options for the blessing besides a partnership minyan. These other options would have been accepted by the RIETS administration. In that case, this student wasn’t deciding between his wife and semicha, he was deciding whether to abide by RIETS’ brand of Orthodoxy or not.

This is not a question of the brand of Orthodoxy of RIETS; whether or not they’re too stringent and right wing is a discussion for a different piece. The point is that these standards are in place, and they are a prerequisite for receiving rabbinic ordination at this specific institution. If you want recognition from an institution, you comply with their rules. For example, JTS requires its rabbinical students to keep a certain standard of kashrut and family purity laws. One must consider these standards before entering into a a quasi-contract.

In any case, “contrary to discussion on the Internet in recent days, a source close to the case said the issue was not about participation in the service,” wrote The Jewish Week. “Rather, it hinged on whether the student was willing to acknowledge that he should consult with his rabbinic authorities before participating in a minyan that is not acceptable to traditional halachic authorities.” The fact is that this student made a decision that has implied to the RIETS administration that he does not necessarily believe he should consult with rabbinic authorities before making halakhic decisions. RIETS has the right to define its own halakhic perspective.

One could argue, of course, that just because an institution has a right to make certain rules, it doesn’t make them just. For years Jews were denied entrance into universities or job positions because of their religious beliefs. Today, having a prerequisite of a certain skin tone or age would be unacceptable. However, as far as the standards of pluralism go, RIETS has the right to define its halakhic and religious parameters. Partnership minyanim are outside of those parameters. That’s part of the RIETS mindset. Meaning no disparagement to the student—after all, we can only speculate about the details beyond those revealed thus far—it is possible that he does not fulfill RIETS’ qualifications. One could even argue that it’s in fact probable, because though he claimed he was not personally invested in continuing with the partnership minyan, he continues to attend them.

What is quietly disturbing is how semicha has come to be perceived as a given. It is understandable to feel outraged about this student’s situation. He has, after all, put time and effort into this enterprise—five years of classes and tests worth, in fact. But shouldn’t receiving the mantle of ‘Rabbi’ be something more than that? We do not dispute the rounds of questioning and investigation endured by civil servants prior to Senate confirmation. Is it really so absurd to put our future religious leaders to the test?

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