By: Benjamin Koslowe  | 

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper Speaks at YU: Community Reacts to Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s Harsh Criticism

Last night Rabbi Aryeh Klapper delivered a shiur in Wilf campus’s Rubin shul. The shiur was titled “Lo Ra’inu Eino Ra’aya: The inference from ‘hasn’t been’ to ‘ought not to be’ in Halakhah.” It ran from roughly 10:30 PM until after midnight and attracted an audience of 40-50 men and women from YU. Joshua Skootsky, a YC senior, said, “Rabbi Klapper gave a shiur based on Rishonim, Achronim, and Shulchan Aruch. The core of the shiur revolved around reading two teshuvot of the Maharik (170 and 171). The shiur was well-attended and well-received.”

The event gained much attention when, in advance of the shiur, The Commentator publicized that Rabbi Hershel Schachter had torn down promotional posters for the shiur from the doors of the Glueck beit midrash, and that he had referred to Rabbi Klapper as “a meshugana” and “an apikores,” explaining that inviting him is “like inviting a Reform rabbi to speak in YU” and that Rabbi Klapper “shouldn’t be invited here” and “doesn’t belong here at all.” Dean of RIETS Rabbi Menachem Penner wrote to The Commentator at the time that “I believe there is a difference between defacing signs (childish) and removing them and between students acting out and long-time Roshei Yeshiva taking action.”

Rabbi Klapper’s shiur sparked much discussion on Facebook and around YU about issues of censorship, the role of Roshei Yeshiva, and journalistic ethics. This morning, Rabbi Penner took to the bimah in the Glueck beit midrash at around 10:15 AM. Speaking to the crowded room of Yeshiva Program students, Rabbi Penner addressed the controversy directly for around six minutes. He said that “there are lessons to be learned about what I believe didn’t have to happen in any way yesterday.” Rabbi Penner added, “I actually feel very bad for Rabbi Klapper, because unless he insisted that he come to YU … and I have no reason to believe that he did, and insisted that he speak only about a topic of paskening halakhah, and that he’d come to YU and only speak about a topic of paskening halakhah that has to do very much with the women’s rabbi issues at a time when many of the Roshei Yeshiva here just wrote a tshuvah about those issues … I actually feel bad for him. Because I believe that he was set up for failure. And I believe that the story here is not about Rabbi Klapper or Rabbi Schachter, but it’s about signs that are put up a day before for a lecture that’s going to obviously be controversial and wasn’t discussed with anybody.”

Rabbi Penner continued to explain how it is not his place to discuss what a Rosh Yeshiva can and cannot do. He described how he is “often in the uncomfortable position of being the boss of the people who are the Roshei Yeshiva.” He told that “taking down signs is a provocative act. But putting up signs is also a provocative act. There is perhaps a lack of respect in taking down the signs, but it can also be a lack of respect putting up a sign.”

Rabbi Penner insisted that YU is a place that welcomes alternative views within its community. “Roshei Yeshiva do not insist that you agree with them,” Rabbi Penner explained. “But if you ask them what they think of something, they might just answer you. If you ask them for their opinion, then you may have to deal with whatever that opinion is if that’s what you asked for. Will you be blasted publicly if you take a stance that’s different from the Roshei Yeshiva? It may very well depend on how and where you voice that opinion.”

“I’m not up to defend Rabbi Schachter,” Rabbi Penner asserted. “I’m nobody compared with both of these individuals, to be honest. I’m not putting Rabbi Schachter and Rabbi Klapper on the same level and they would both agree with that.” Rabbi Penner continued, “Something needs to be clear here … Rabbi Schachter did not blast anyone publicly … Rabbi Schachter said nothing publicly. The Commentator did.” The Commentator reporter who approached Rabbi Schachter yesterday to ask why he had removed signs for Rabbi Klapper’s event explicitly asked Rabbi Schachter for permission to interview him on behalf of The Commentator. After agreeing to be interviewed and then commenting harshly about Rabbi Klapper, Rabbi Schachter told the reporter, “you can quote me on that if you want.”

Rabbi Penner proceeded to call for a forum where parties sit down and talk. He suggested that it would be preferable for Rabbi Klapper to speak with Roshei Yeshiva rather than to converse directly with students about controversial topics. He emphasized that “I don’t blame [Rabbi Klapper] for any of this.”

Rabbi Penner concluded with a call to talk as a community. “Let’s not talk by reading The Commentator,” Rabbi Penner requested. He suggested that we avoid talking about semantics and fliers, and ended his speech with these words: “Why don’t we actually talk about the issues? Why don’t we talk to each other rather than at each other? … Let’s drive forward, let’s push. Let’s sit down and talk. You might be shocked to find out that if you sit and talk, you can talk to Rabbi Schachter.”

Around 30 minutes later, Rabbi Penner took to the bimah again for around 20 seconds and apologized for impugning the motives of the organizers of the shiur in his previous speech to the beit midrash.

“I didn't hear Rabbi Penner’s sicha,” wrote Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior Mashgiach Ruchani at YU. “It isn’t clear yet what Rabbi Klapper said or wrote that motivated Rabbi Schachter’s reaction. It will take time to calm the situation and reduce tensions. There are people I trust working on it. The latest developments in social media move too quickly for those of us who are trying to lower the heat of conflict.”

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper (YC ‘89, Revel, RIETS ‘94) is a well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi who is currently the Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. He taught at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts from 1994-2003, and has been involved as a Talmud Curriculum Chair since then. He has been a member of the Boston Beit Din since 2001. Since 1997, he has been Rosh Beit Midrash of The Summer Beit Midrash, which operates for several weeks every summer at the Young Israel of Sharon in Sharon, Massachusetts. He has published in Tradition, Meorot, Dinei Yisrael, and Beis Yitzchak.

Rabbi Klapper garnered significant attention early in his career when he published an article titled “Ha-Zaken ha-Mamre keGibbor ha-Masoret” in Beis Yitzchak 26 (1994), a YU student Torah journal which has been published since 1952. In this Hebrew article with classic lomdus style, Rabbi Klapper describes a scenario in which a member of the Beis Din finds himself stuck between disobeying his colleagues and being a Zaken Mamre (rebellious elder), versus obeying them and violating something which, according to his view, is an aveirah which is yeihareig ve’al ya’avor (the halakhic requirement of “let him be killed rather than transgress”). The article resulted in some strong disagreement at the time, largely because of its suggestion that a Zaken Mamre, who is typically understood to be an evil person trying to undermine the halakhic system, might be a champion of tradition.

In March 2008, Rabbi Klapper and Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem, co-authored a letter to the Jewish Week criticizing Rabbi Schachter’s speech to a group of post-high school students at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. Rabbi Schachter told these students that “if the army is going to give away Yerushalayim, then I would tell everyone to resign from the army — I’d tell them to shoot the rosh hamemshalah [prime minister].”

In a recent article on the Center for Modern Torah Leadership blog, to which Rabbi Klapper regularly contributes, he writes, “My goal in this essay, the first of an intended series, is to begin tracing the history of a phrase that lies on the fault line between halakhic radicals and halakhic conservatives.” The article, which is titled “Does ‘It’s Never Been Done’ Imply ‘It Should Never Be Done’?” – the same title as his recent YU shiur – deals with “the attempt to prove halakhah via negative evidence. It’s never been done that way, so it must be wrong to do it that way.” He asks, “Does that argument have force in Halakhah?”

Later in the article, Rabbi Klapper writes: “It should be clear that properly answering this question has significant implications for contemporary conversations about women and Orthodoxy, and I expect to draw those morals explicitly in the course of this series.” Later he explains that “Whether Modern Orthodoxy is a safe haven for halakhic radicalism, then, should depend on whether our community is halakhically sophisticated. I think that by historical standards it surely is.”

Many were wondering after yesterday’s news why Rabbi Schachter took issue with Rabbi Klapper to warrant his tearing down the fliers. When asked if he thinks that Rabbi Klapper is an apikores, Rabbi Schachter today explained, “I don’t think he’s an apikores.”

Rabbi Schachter continued, “I don’t have to be insulted in my own institution. I have rabbanim in New Jersey who are always attacking me, always attacking all the faculty here in the Yeshiva. So it’s bad enough that they attack us in New Jersey, in the newspapers, and so on. We have to invite them into the Yeshiva to be mevazeh all the rebbes? They give an opinion that none of us know anything, they know better than all of us – I think that’s a chutzpah. Congress wouldn’t invite a communist to speak in Congress to explain communism. We’re not interested in communism. So we shouldn’t invite Avi Weiss to speak over here either. So we don’t need Klapper either. He represents a different shittah, a total insult to all the rebbes in Yeshiva.”

When pressed if he takes issue with a specific article or statement issued by Rabbi Klapper, Rabbi Schachter responded to the author, “You were born yesterday. I’m a little older than you. We have known the man for many years. He doesn’t represent our hashkafah at all! I think there are more important things to write in The Commentator. I said a fantastic shiur today and yesterday – why don’t they write that up? Why do they write stupid things? This is not newsworthy. The shiur that I said is newsworthy.”

Rabbi Klapper recently wrote an article for The Lehrhaus where he spoke briefly about Rabbi Schachter. He writes how “various YU roshei yeshiva such as Rabbi Hershel Schachter and my teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, have emerged as genuine leaders. Some of the distortions of ‘gadolatry’ remain all too present, but I think it would be dishonest and churlish not to acknowledge that they regularly take, publicize, and sustain novel, idiosyncratic, controversial, and courageous positions on issues ranging from the prenup and anti-me’agen demonstrations to kashrut to niddah to Zionism.” He later writes, “even those who think that Rabbi Schachter is unequalled in the area of halakhah recognize that he is not an incomparable lamdan or baal mahshavah.”

As for the Rabbi Klapper event itself, which received considerable attention, it wound up proceeding mostly business as usual. “I thoroughly enjoyed the shiur,” described Avi Hirsch, a YC sophomore. “I had been to a shiur by Rabbi Klapper at YU earlier this year, but there were a lot more people there this time.” He added, “some of my friends who were at the shiur told me that they hadn’t planned to be there, but had changed their minds after hearing about the controversy and the Commentator article about it.”

Joshua Skootsky, after describing the attendance, added that “Rabbi Klapper had a chiddush about the Maharik that was not speculative, but rather emerged forcefully from reading the sources carefully. It seemed certainly correct. There is a recording of the shiur, people should go to the Center for Modern Torah Leadership’s website where it should be uploaded soon.”

“I think it’s important,” said Dovid Simpser, currently the Vice-President of SOY, “that we recognize that, as an institution, YU serves a broad community of individuals who hold for themselves different values and perspectives.” He added, “it is imperative that before any actions are taken on the individual level, there is a conversation, with consideration and open-mindedness for difference in values, with the councils, offices, and administrations involved with campus events.”

“Rabbi Klapper went through the vetting process,” continued Simpser, “and was approved by the Office of Student Life as they believe him to be an appropriate speaker for students to hear from. He is also a musmach of YU and respected by many rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva within the YU community. Furthermore, he has spoken on campus multiple times in the recent past without any incident.”

Speaking about the specific Rabbi Schachter incident, Simpser reflected that it “shows that there needs to be greater dialogue between the Roshei Yeshiva of RIETS, the University Deans, and the Student Leaders.”