New Canadian Rabbinical School Opens, Proclaims Itself Pre-Denominational

Read all about it at the JTA.

Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, president of the yeshiva and rabbinical school, told the National Post newspaper that the definition follows the European Judaism of the 1700s in which denominational differences were absent.

"We don't think the struggle between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox is a good thing for Jewish life. We believe that it is destructive," he said. "There's reasons why during the Enlightenment these groups began, but it is important to go back to when Jews were just Jews."

That sounds nice in theory... In fact, however, all varieties of trans-denominationalism (or, as in this case, pre-denominationalism) basically amount to heroic and well-meaning forms of self-deception.

The school will not ordain women, though they will be able to attend and receive a degree in Jewish theology.

See? No denominationalism there.

The Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School has an About page that compares itself to segments of the Orthodox and Conservative worlds. (A ctrl+F search shows that the words "Reform," "Liberal" and "Progressive" literally do not appear on the page.) "We, however," the page hastens to add, "do not see ourselves as some kind of 'Conservadox,' as that would imply a mixture of the two, which we are not. Rather, we hark back to the ever-lasting pre-denominational Classic Judaism from which both derive."

Of course this is all anything but non- or trans- or pre- or post-denominational. This is denominational, in that it takes a stand on a number of critical issues which define many denominational boundaries. Does this new vision correspond to any one existing denomination? Well, perhaps. It bears a striking resemblance to an existing (if small) denomination. But perhaps not. Either way, it makes choices which have denominational valence.

I could see my way to agreeing that this vision of Classic Judaism is multi-denominational, embracing segments of Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. But pre-denominational? You can't put the toothpaste back in that tube. Lines have been drawn. Sides have been taken. Either you will ordain women or (as in this case) you won't. Either (as in this case) you will embrace halakhah as a binding obligation or (as in the cases of Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular Humanist Judaism) you won't. There is no splitting this baby. There is no Schrodinger's Denomination.

At least, there isn't for rabbinical schools. Many individual Jews have paradoxical views and denominational identities, but rabbinical schools don't exist on the same plane as individual Jews. Once a school ordains a female rabbi, or refuses to do so, it has taken a side in one of the major denominational battles of our time. An individual Jew in the pews can be of two minds on the subject, but an institution must choose one action or the other.

This critique, of course, applies just as much to liberal schools which pretend trans-denominationalism as it does to the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School. Hebrew College Rabbinical School, the Academy for Jewish Religion, and other such supposedly trans- or non-denominational institutions really represent a range of denominations -- the range which is not Orthodox. Even if one or two self-defined Orthodox students are ordained at such places, they must still certainly be considered as representing the range of denominations which is not Haredi -- unless Haredi Jews somehow don't count in the grand unity we all seem to envision.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the new Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School. I congratulate them on their opening, and I wish them all success. Indeed, my personal religious ideology accords rather well with the vision laid out on the CYRS website. Sign me up for Classic Judaism! Just don't sign me up for pretending my chosen position isn't an ideological stance in an ongoing normative argument over what Judaism ought to be -- a stance which holds its own accepted range of views to be right and various other ranges of views to be wrong -- in other words, a distinct denominational position, whether singular or multiple.

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For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.

 

Independence Day J-Vault: Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas

USA

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Happy Independence Day! Today, a special patriotic installment of the J-Vault:

Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas "The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution" (1905)

In this excerpt from the 1905 American Jewish Yearbook, N. Taylor Phillips profiles Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas, the Hazzan during the American Revolution of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (which happens to be the oldest congregation, though not nearly the oldest synagogue building, in the USA).

...He was an ardent patriot during the preliminaries to the struggle for independence, and it is related that when at length the crisis came, rather than continue the Synagogue under British auspices, he closed the doors of the edifice, which act was fiercely contested, even families being split apart as the result of it. Many of the members of the Congregation were merchants in active business in New York City, and their interests naturally were with the Tories rather than with the feeble little band of patriots endeavoring to secure freedom for the Colonies. When the patriot members of the Congregation were about to flee from the city upon the appearance of the British fleet in New York Bay in August, 1776, preparatory to the occupation of the city by Lord Howe, the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas preached a sermon in English, in which he feelingly stated that the service on that occasion might be the last to be held in the historic old edifice situated in Mill Street (now South William Street), then approaching the half-century mark, and we are told that it was delivered with such force and eloquence that tears were shed by all present, men and women alike...

...[T]aking with him the sacred objects of holy worship, [he] established at Philadelphia the Congregation Mickve Israel, a majority of the members being patriot refugees from New York...

[Note: Mikve Israel's own web page traces the congregation's history back to before Rev. Seixas's arrival. See this page.]

Hazzan Seixas

...On the inauguration of President Washington as the first President of the United States, at New York, 1789, the Rev. Mr. Seixas with thirteen other clergymen of various denominations participated in the ceremonies, which notable fact may serve to remind American citizens for all time that our republic is founded on the very broadest principles, tolerating every race and creed, and American Israelites should ever recall with pride that the lives of Hebrews like the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas and his brothers, who cheerfully offered their lives and fortunes for the establishment of American independence, give to their brethren throughout the world a right of asylum on these shores which no truehearted or grateful American will ever have the temerity to challenge...

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