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New ‘liberal halachic’ rabbinical school taking shape in Toronto

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

December 9, 2010 | 12:48 pm

When the opening of a new rabbinical school is announced, the obvious first question for many is: What denomination is it?

In the case of a new yeshiva and rabbinical seminary planned for Toronto, the answer isn’t quite clear.

For now, the plan is for the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School, which calls itself “traditional yet modern,” to open fully by 2012.

The idea of opening the rabbinical seminary is to train liberal halachic rabbis who will be well suited to meet the needs of Canadian Jewry. Organizers say they are aiming at a middle ground between Conservative Judaism and what they describe as an increasingly rigid Orthodox movement.

“I’m somewhat disenchanted with what’s happening in the rabbinic establishment in the United States, especially the direction Yeshiva University has taken, which has moved to the right,” said Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Talmud professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and 1992 winner of the Israel Prize.

Sperber, an outspoken rabbi on the left edge of Orthodoxy, has agreed to serve as the new yeshiva’s chancellor.

It will be the first rabbinical school in Canada, a country with more than 350,000 Jews and some 250 synagogues. The institution already has a board of governors, trustees, some 40 faculty members and a list of potential students.

Sperber says he was drawn to the institution’s vision of “a more liberal, more friendly approach to halachah,” or Jewish law.

The school will not be affiliated with any existing synagogue movement.

“We’ve shied away from terminology,” said Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, the driving force behind the new yeshiva and past president of the Canadian region of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Association. Saying that the program “is not for everyone,” Tanenbaum described its worldview as “totally halachic and particularly Canadian.”

Canada’s synagogues are served now by rabbis trained in the United States or overseas. Tanenbaum says they often are unfamiliar with the Canadian scene and “look toward Washington instead of Ottawa.”

Canadian Jewry is more traditional than its U.S. counterpart. A number of Conservative congregations recently left the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to join the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues, and several of the new yeshiva’s leaders have been affiliated with the Union for Traditional Judaism, which split off from the Conservative movement decades ago and is based in Teaneck, N.J.

The Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School has been invited to join the Toronto School of Theology, a consortium of seven Christian seminaries connected with the University of Toronto. If the deal goes through, the school will be able to grant advanced degrees jointly with the university, a bonus Tanenbaum hopes will attract students, faculty and funding. The school will be housed on the university campus.

The new institution has not yet launched fundraising or recruitment campaigns, and needs approximately $7 million to open, according to Tanenbaum. Full-time rabbinic students will receive free tuition and residence.

“We won’t open until we can guarantee that a student who begins will be able to finish,” he said.

Sperber, who is on the advisory board of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in New York founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, says the major hurdle will be attracting more Orthodox faculty. If the new school becomes identified as a Conservative institution—a possibility, given that most of its leadership is Conservative—Sperber said he will withdraw.

Noting that the Rabbinical Council of America, the main body representing Modern Orthodox rabbis in North America, does not accept graduates of Chovevei Torah, Sperber said, “It is precisely for that sort of reason that one has to support [halachic] institutions of a more liberal nature.”

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