Rabbincal Council of America conference 1986 – the last reign of the pulpit rabbis

The year was 1986, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish was head of the RCA and former head of the RCA Rabbi Gilbert Klapperman was head of the Synagogue Council of America (including Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis). The issue which was to occupy them for several years was the lack of a successor for Rav Soloveitchik and no potential prospects. Three months after this conference they created a law committee but left the chronically infirm Rav Solvoeitchik as its head. The following year’s conference in 1987 was a debate about what Rav Soloveitchik had meant in various decrees and a bemoaning of not having anyone to resolve issues anymore. Artscroll bothered them a lot. I include the entire article as read by OCR software. (Photos are both Rabbi Walfish)

RCA struggles to carve out centrist Orthodox stand – Long Island Jewish World Feb 14-20, 1986-Larry Yudelson

Even as participants in the Rabbincal Council of America’s midwinter conference struggled with the question of dialogue with non-Orthodox colleagues off to the left. they were looking regularly over their shoulders towards the Orthodox right. Indeed, much of the conference shaped up as a forum for defining and staking out a position of “centrist Orthodoxy” by the RCA in the face of the apparent ascendancy of Orthodox fundamentalism.

Whether the RCA can work with the non-Orthodox on questions of basic Jewish identity depends on whether it can resist pressures against such contact from the right.


Several speakers at the conference attacked rightwing Orthodoxy, but despite the rhetoric, many members of the RCA acknowledged the Orthodox right’s influence.

The distinctive tenets of the RCA were implicit in the conference theme of “Initiative and Innovations Within the Parameter of Halacha”: a rejection of the 19th century Orthodox maxim that “anything new is prohibited by the Torah,” and a firm acceptance that any charge must take place within, and not against, the framework of halacha.

Rabbi Tobias Roth, from Long Branch, N.J.. distinguished centrist Orthodoxy from Reform and Conservative. who ‘ legislate without halacha” and from right- wing Orthodoxy which, he said, made political and social issues such as siting on a board of rabbis with non-Orthodox rabbis, into matters of halacha. He decried the right wing “tendency for fundamentalism, which is encouraging the separation of the observant and the non-observant,””Even within Orthodoxy,” he continued, “the only bridges are unidirectional, leading to stringency in observance.”

Centrism No Compromise
Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, Ontario called for the RCA to “become much more aggressive in the ideology it espouses.”

“The middle of the road should not be looked at as a compromise,’ he said

He took the right-wing to task for what he charged was its growing distancing from the State of Israel He asked why the modern Orthodox tolerate statements from Orthodox circles that “we’re not anti-Israel we’re just against the Israeli government,” when claims from anti-Semites that they’re “just anti-Zionist” are rightly protested.

“We’ve capitulated on our own domain,” he said, noting that a yeshiva shows religiosity by not doing anything on Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

“Any ideology that doesn’t recognize the State of Israel should be fought very aggressively,” he said. Bulka cited the popular ArtScroll series of Jewish books as an example where the right’s approach is tolerated. The new ArtScroll siddur, he said, omits the prayer for the State of Israel; a translation of an Israeli halachic work eliminates references to the religious Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham Kook; and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the RCA’s halachic authority, is never quoted in their anthologies of Bible commentaries.

“I’m not saying we should boycott ArtScroll,” he said. “But we should say, we represent the Torah community too. What right do they have to say that the ideology of the RCA has to be excluded from the realm of legitimate interpretation.”

He criticized what he called “terror tactics” that are used to decide matters of halacha. “Great luminaries, halachic masters, are threatened and cajoled by the yeshiva world. It ends up distorting the halachic process.”

Bulka further attacked the right for its parochial reaction to events in Israel.
“When tragedy involves someone from the religious segment of the community, immediately there are prayers in yeshivas and public outcries. But if it’s someone non-observant, there’s a strange silence whim the religious community,” he charged.

Roshei Yeshiva Too influential
Rabbi Yossi Adler of Teaneck, called on the centrist Orthodox to win back the educated Orthodox community from the roshei yeshiva or yeshiva heads, who, he said, indoctrinate their students not to respect synagogue rabbis.

He asked why the RCA held the conference isolated in the Catskills. saying the public should know that innovative changes can be made within the parameters of halacha.

[Rabbi Jacob] Rubinstein echoed that view, decrying the “myopic” and “irresponsible” view that there are no so such things as innovation in halacha.

In an interview after the conference, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the RCA, said that “a major problem in Jewish life today is that roshei yeshiva have become poskim (decisors of halacha).”

In the European communities, he said, the community rabbi decided halacha. Roshei yeshiva, he said, don’t have a good perspective on the problems of the community.

“This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your rebbe questions on the laws of kashrut or Shabbat,” Walfish said. But he distinguished between relying on a teacher for the fine points of halacha arid for answering sociopolitical questions “where halacha is not involved.”

According to Walfish, “the younger element (of the RCA) is more dependent on the roshei yeshiva.”

RCA Israel Excutive Team 3

Orthodox Stringency
In his session on “Halacha Confronts a Changing Society.” Rabbi David Berger, a professor of Jewish History at City University of New York, discussed a change in the direction of halachic decisions in the modern period when the Jewish People divided between observant and nonobservant Jews

One reaction, he said, was greater strictness. The rabbis feared that if they gave the increasingly rebellious community a finger, they would take a hand.

And ironically, he said, the pressure for leniency decreased as those pressing for leniency split off from Orthodoxy. No longer would ordinary people, burdened by a halachic decision. return to the rabbi h hi in pain. They would just walk away from the Orthodox community.

Because of the voluntary nature of Jewish observance in the modern era, those who cared about halacha cared strongly enough to accept stringent opinions, said Berger. Even when Reform Jews were right in the technical halachic sense, he said, some Orthodox rabbis argued for inflexibility as a matter of public policy.

Today, the question of women’s prayer groups, he said, in a certain sense falls into this category. The condemnation is “a public policy decision based on a judgment of the consequences of this particular step.”

“It’s explicit in the discussion,” he said. “It’s couched in halachic, or quasi-halachic terminology, but it’s really a public policy issue.”

“Someone who reacts positively towards the religious complaints of Jewish feminists is more likely to be lenient,” he said.

6 responses to “Rabbincal Council of America conference 1986 – the last reign of the pulpit rabbis

  1. so very sad, in retrospect. It does, however, underscore the fact –30 years later–that the RCA is an irreparably flawed entity no longer worth saving. Simply throwing good money and effort after bad. Other institutions will emerge to replace it. Much like REITS and YU, I strongly suspect. The only calls for its support come from those with vested (and highly invested) interests in remaining in power and profit.

    • Since you are new here, can you please stick to comments that elucidate the given post without posts thta have the potential to elicit from others the name calling found on other blogs? My goals are generally descriptive, to let my friends know about interesting documents. If you must use a post for the usual attacks found in blog comments then please re-post it elsewhere.

  2. It would be interesting to trace the evolution of The RCA of 1986 to present ?

  3. This gives historical context to where R’Avi Weiss was coming from with Open Orthodoxy. Where are these kinds of public liberal voices now within the RCA?

  4. And yet, we still hear the same complaints today, especially regarding Rabbi/Dr. David Berger’s point.

    What became of Rabbi Walfish?

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