Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unhealthy Obsession- Gil Student's RCA Fiasco

I hesitate to write this, and it is with a sense of regret that I do so. Rabbi Gil Student is a talmid chacham and someone who has helped spread Torah, both through Torah Musings, as well as through articles he has written, and books which he helped publish. I have personally gained a lot from many of his writings. He is a man of integrity and yiras shamayim. Still, in what I can only describe as his obsession with pushing Open Orthodoxy out of the door of Orthodoxy, he has crossed the line of propriety and judgment.

Nearly two years ago, I reached out to Student in the hope that, as someone who was a moderate thinker in the Right-Wing Modern Orthodox camp, he could help try and bridge the chasm that was growing between the MO and OO worlds. He made it clear that not only was he not interested in closing the gap, but that he wanted to do the opposite, and see that the OO world would be clearly seen as being outside of  the world of Orthodoxy. As disappointed as I was, I saw his decision as regrettable, but not severe enough to change my view of him as a moderate thinker who ought to be speaking for his community.

Recently, as Rabbi Avraham Gordimer became the self-appointed, and seemingly single-minded, critic of all things OO, Student appeared more temperate and balanced, and to my mind was not worthy of strong criticism. However, as the one who brought the ill-fated RCA Declaration on female rabbis to a vote, he seems to have crossed the line into obsession and lack of judgement, and thereby joined the ranks of Gordimer and others. Even for those who are opposed to women’s ordination, or to the approach to women’s ordination taken by the OO world (as is true about myself for reasons that I will not elaborate upon here), the timing of the proposal was clearly ill-conceived, and the lack of anticipation of a negative reaction was shocking. As Yoel Finkelman convincingly and astutely noted, the proposal had the very opposite effect that Student and those who share his opposition could have hoped for. Not only did it galvanize those who support women’s ordination, and bring new supporters into their ranks, but it also made those who oppose it seem clumsy, sexist, and biased.

More problematic is the fact that Student’s connection to the RCA is questionable. As someone who has private semicha, he would not be entitled to membership  in the RCA, if not for a recent rule change. Additionally, as opposed to the many members who are shul rabbis, and thus have a mandate to speak for their community (many of whom opposed Student’s proposal), Student is not a practicing rabbi, and has no constituents to whom he must answer. While he does consult with several rabbis about what he posts on Torah Musings, one of those with whom he consulted, Micha Berger, a noted talmid chahcham and thinker, was removed from his position, apparently for pushing back too much on Student’s zealotry. Furthermore, while he enjoys and makes use of the power that comes with membership in the RCA, he seems to speak with a degree of dishonesty when he says that women do not need semicha, as it does not give one more power.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that Student not only does not regret his actions, but continues to believe that he was correct in forcing the RCA vote. While he might justify his actions as he has in the past by saying that he consulted with a posek on this issue, choosing a posek who is not American, does not understand the facts on the ground here, and is not always so sociologically astute again suggests that Student has lost the ability to be a moderate spokesman on this, and, perhaps other issues.

Watching the fiasco that he started and the damage that it brought about, I can’t help but think of Ahab the obsessive captain in Melville’s Moby Dick, whose inability to back off from his goal, proved so costly to his crew and ultimately himself. A chacham, we are told in Pirkei Avos is one who can anticipate the results of his actions. When a talmid chacham loses this ability, it is either time for him to look more critically at his actions, or for those who trusted him to look for a more temperate, honest and responsible voice.


"I hesitate to write this, and it is with a sense of regret that I do so. Rabbi Gil Student is a talmid chacham and...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, November 10, 2015


  1. I think speculations about why I was only on Torah Musing's staff for its inaugural year (transitioning from blog to e-zine) are inappropriate. You are buttressing your conclusion with assumptions.

    1. While it is an assumption, it seems like a reasonable conclusion.

  2. I don's see what R' Student has done other than push the RCA to reaffirm 2 - 3,000 years of prior practice and tradition. It is hard to see how this can be characterized as a radical move, other than it being opposed by some or many.

    1. If you look at it's effect, it had the exact opposite effect of increasing kavod HaTorah.

    2. I agree with the thesis, and FOR THAT REASON am very opposed to the move. The opposite effect is inevitable... it added to the momentum away from tradition.

      By making this declaration (yet again, with no specific trigger event), the RCA made it less tempting for those who disagree to stay. And therefore the whole ultimatum "if you ordain women you aren't one of us" actually pushes the rabbi it is supposedly talking to toward being less interested in staying. In addition to the more obvious hardening of the opposition's position and increasing their determination to move forward.

      And if this truly is a Torah issue, where are the halachic and Jewish value arguments? Why proceed with the declaration without having that in place? What are you trying to say if not the Torah of it?

  3. Pesach are you a supporter of female ordination.
    Are you upset with the negative position Gil has taken, or are you upset with his tone.

    1. If you read the post carefully, I explain where I'm at.

  4. Pesach,
    Considering the positions taken by OO on so many different issues which are truly incompatible with our mesorah, not to mention the very unambiguous statement of the Moetzes which most MO bnai Torah would not wish to reject, how exactly did you expect to "bridge the chasm that was growing between the MO and OO worlds" ?

    1. Inquiring minds want to know...

      We have a movement in which

      1- Denying the historical Exodus, Moses, the notion that the words of the Torah date back to a revelation in Sinai do not cost you you membership in the rabbinic arm, not even losing your job in their conversion court.

      2- Acceptance of homosexuality in law is praised, often with "progressive revelation" arguments. (In contrast to accepting homosexuals...)

      3- Feminism is being expressed in changing the practice of tefillah betzibur and the rabbinate.

      I am not sure there is a bridge that can span that far.

      That said, I don't think there has to be. I would be happy with just not pushing other people away. We live with a lot of self-identifying Orthodox groups that push ideas I consider heretical. We literally have people who turned a religion that is supposed to be about partnering with G-d to bring good to the world, about doing His Will, and turned it into hunting for segulos and figuring out which mitzvos could get Him to do ours. No one makes them insecure in their membership in the Orthodox club.

      IOW, I am more worried by the threat posed by groups like Kupat haIr, which aims to subvert people from wanting to do good and be good than I am with Open Orthodoxy. And that is just one example of a group that undermines the central message.

      (Which gets us back to the thesis of this blog post, and the effect of the RCA declaration.)

    2. At the time I believed it was possible. now I am less sure.