This is the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list for the Union for Traditional Judaism. It's intended to provide quick answers and reduce the noise level on the UTJ-L email list that results when new people join and ask the same questions new people ask.WHAT IS THE UNION FOR TRADITIONAL JUDAISM?
The UTJ is a trans-denominational education and outreach organization dedicated to promoting the principles of traditional Judaism. We support and encourage traditional Jewish practice among individuals, congregations, institutions, scholars and religious leaders across the spectrum of the Jewish community. Our programs and resources are used by a wide range of synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions. Our goal is to bring the greatest possible number of Jews closer to an open-minded, observant Jewish life.
The UTJ promotes "open-minded observance," i.e., commitment to Halakhah (Jewish law) combined with intellectual openness and loyalty to Klal Yisrael (the totality of the Jewish people). We affirm that Halakhah encompasses ritual (prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, etc.) as well as ethical obligations, both of which are intended to bring of us closer to God. The authoritative formulation of the UTJ's religious philosophy is our Declaration of Principles.
The unique ideological position of the UTJ contrasts with what is rapidly becoming the norm of Jewish denominational life. Keen observers of Jewish life have noted that, within the Jewish community, the Right is moving farther to the Right and the Left is moving farther to the Left. The UTJ aspires to become the focal point of an emerging center of Jewish religious life.
Many Jews exaggerate the significance of contemporary denominational labels.
The UTJ, by contrast, believes that these labels often obscure more than they clarify.
In a responsum concerning the "credentials" of rabbis in a Bet Din (Jewish Court), the UTJ's Panel of Halakhic Inquiry ruled that the qualifications of rabbis "stand independent of any movement affiliation….'Orthodox', 'Conservative', 'Reform', and 'Reconstructionist' are categories that have no halakhic validity and ought not be recognized as such. They are political distinctions. Either a Bet Din operates halakhically or it does not. If it does, then its actions are valid. If it does not, then its actions are invalid."
The UTJ is committed to the primacy of Halakhah in the formulation of all religious policy decisions. Historically, Conservative Judaism affirmed a similar commitment. Sadly, many policy decisions of recent decades indicate that today's Conservative Movement is, at best, selectively loyal to Halakhah in general and the halakhic process in particular.
Examples of the Conservative Movement's new attitude include prayer book revision, egalitarianism, redefining halakhic boundaries of sexual relationships, and advocacy of Israel accepting conversions that are non-halakhic even by Conservative standards. Moreover, these changes often proceeded without prior review by the Conservative Movement's own halakhic authorities. The Conservative Movement thus appears to endorse the notion that changing societal norms can supersede the proper application of halakhic sources.
The UTJ is committed to using the methods of science to deepen our understanding of Torah while using Torah wisdom to help us find the kedushah (sanctity) in science. While some Orthodox institutions profess a commitment to both Torah and secular learning, most of institutional Orthodoxy has never applied scientific method to Torah study and sees the world of secular learning as separate from the world of Torah.
Few within establishment Orthodoxy today make outreach to non-observant Jews a part, let alone the centerpiece, of their ideological mission. Of those who do, many seek to draw their recruits closer to a narrow conception of Jewish belief and practice. The UTJ, by contrast, seeks to "draw [Jews] closer to Torah" (Avot 1:12), i.e., to an open-minded, non-politicized observance of mitzvot.
"If a case is too baffling for you to decide," says the Torah, you are to follow the advice of contemporary legal authorities; moreover, "you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left" (Deuteronomy 17:8,11).
Many within Orthodoxy, based on these verses, espouse a dogma sometimes called Daas Torah (understood as "THE Torah view"). This dogma obliges every observant Jew to defer uncritically to the pronouncements of specific rabbinic leaders (Gedolim) on all matters of public policy. Though identified primarily with "right wing" Orthodoxy, the belief in Daas Torah has influenced much of Modern Orthodoxy as well.
By contrast, the UTJ affirms the pivotal role of each mara d'atra (local rabbinic authority) in halakhic decision-making. Any rulings by those considered Gedolim must be judged on the merits of the arguments advanced, not on the prestige or charisma of the scholar advancing them. In the Talmud, R. Joshua ben Korchah interprets Deuteronomy 1:17 ("Fear no man") as an obligation not to defer to any authority when Truth is at stake (Sanhedrin 6b). Indeed, failure to "speak up" violates the commandment to "keep far from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). This view is accepted by the Codes (Maimonides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 22:2; Tur/Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 9:7).
Among the greatest resources available to the UTJ are our world-renowned scholars, some of whom participate in our Panel of Halakhic Inquiry. The Panel fields difficult questions of Jewish law from lay people and rabbis around the world. Thus far, the UTJ has published two volumes of Panel responsa entitled Tomeikh ka-Halakhah, covering issues found in all four sections of the Shulchan Arukh. Topics include: synagogue ritual practices, issues of kashrut (dietary laws), questions related to marriage, and the definition of a "qualified" Bet Din (Jewish court). A third volume is now in progress.
Panel member Rabbi Wayne Allen, in his introduction to Tomeikh ka-Halakhah vol. 2, makes the following observations on the methodology of the Panel:
"The Panel of Halakhic Inquiry shuns monolithic extremes in favor of a more refined, thoughtful, and sophisticated approach based on the commands of Jewish law and not merely on the demands of advocacy groups. For the Panel, the substance and process of Jewish law sets the standard, not a preconceived sociological bias of one sort or another. Accordingly, some questions evoke a decision which seems ‘liberal’ while others result in a decision which seems "conservative." On the surface this may appear to be inconsistent. In fact, it reflects a coherent methodology: faithfulness to the integrity of Jewish law as well as to its inherent subtlety and flexibility."
The UTJ affirms that Jewish tradition reserves for men and women distinct religious roles of equal importance. These roles are complementary but not interchangeable. Hence, the UTJ is not "egalitarian" as that term is currently understood, but maintains that Halakhah allows some latitude for women's participation in synagogue ritual.
The UTJ upholds the Talmudic rule (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, Bavli 29a) exempting Jewish women from positive time-bound commandments. This rule - and its few legitimate exceptions - are codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 12:3).
While women may assume commandments from which they are exempt, voluntary obligations never rise to the level of legal obligations. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:8, Bavli 29a) rules that only a legally obligated Jew may discharge ritual obligations for the public. Thus, even women who assume the obligation of public worship thrice daily are ineligible to serve as prayer leaders of men. The Codes concur (Maimonides Hilkhot Shofar 2:2, Tur/Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 589:1-2).
In a written responsum, the Panel of Halakhic Inquiry has enthusiastically endorsed women's prayer groups. While noting certain halakhic limitations to such groups, the Panel concluded that "it would be counterproductive to forbid women's prayer groups… where committed Jewish women come to serve God with love and reverence."
Since there are no explicit precedents for prohibiting women’s prayer groups, the UTJ views them as permissible (indeed, positive) developments – notwithstanding bans promulgated by various "authorities." The fact that such groups may not have existed heretofore is no halakhic impediment. In a different context, R. Joseph Karo (Beit Yosef to Tur Yoreh De'ah chapter 1) notes an important principle: "Lo ra'inu eino re'ayah" - the fact that we have not seen such things in the past is no proof [that they should be forbidden now]."
The UTJ affirms the desirability of Jewish women pursuing Torah study on the most advanced levels. Although the Institute of Traditional Judaism, in keeping with long-standing traditional practice, grants rabbinic ordination only to men, its classes are open to any women who meet its academic standards.
The ITJ (also known as the "Metivta") is the school of higher Jewish learning of the UTJ. The Metivta provides the Semikhah (Ordination) Program, the Beit Midrash Program, and Continuing Education for Rabbis. In addition, we offer, in cooperation with nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University, the world's only Masters in Public Administration degree with a concentration in Jewish communal service.
The Metivta is headed by our renowned Reish Metivta, Rabbi David Halivni. Rav Halivni is a yoreh-yoreh yadin-yadin musmach from Sighet, Hungary and Mesivta Chaim Berlin in NY. Author of the multi-volume Mekorot U-Mesorot and of many English works, Rav Halivni also serves as Professor of Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
Rabbi Ronald Price, Dean of the Metivta, is the Executive Vice-President of the Union for Traditional Judaism and a founder of the Metivta. Originally ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, he received traditional semikhah from Rav Halivni in 1992.
Our faculty also includes such prominent scholars as Rabbi David Novak, Hakham Isaac Sassoon, Rabbi Gershon Bacon and Rabbi Alan Yuter.
In the words of ITJ Dean Rabbi Ronald Price: "The Metivta is a place where our students have the freedom to learn Torah in a depoliticized atmosphere, where one can be fully committed to faith and halakhic adherence, yet comfortable in expressing and researching philosophical and textual questions. Thus our motto of emunah tzerufah v’yosher da’at, Genuine Faith and Intellectual Integrity…Rabbinical students must also be educated with a variety of study methodologies in order that they appreciate the ‘Torah’ of different religious communities. In addition to the approach of our founder and teacher, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, Metivta students are exposed to faculty of different backgrounds, that of Brisk and Mir as well as to traditional Sefardic text study."
In addition, Metivta students utilize critical methodologies in their study of the Bible and the Talmud. The ITJ accepts such methodologies as a valid approach in the study of sacred texts.
The ITJ rabbinical program focuses on the intensive study of Talmud, Halakhah, and Tanakh. Students also take classes in Jewish thought, theology, history, counseling, homiletics, and communal service. All students are expected to complete a Master's degree either before entering the program or concurrently with their Semikhah studies.
Graduates of the ITJ have obtained positions in Modern Orthodox synagogues, UTJ-affiliated synagogues, non-affiliated traditional synagogues, and traditional Conservative synagogues, as well as in day schools and communal organizations such as CLAL.
Although congregations affiliated with the UTJ receive our services at discounted or rebated rates, affiliation is not required in order to subscribe to our services. Among the services that we provide are rabbinic placement, youth programming, a speakers’ bureau, the MTV Challenge, and bulk subscriptions to the Kosher Nexus (the UTJ's kashrut newsletter), as well as access to other UTJ programs and publications (as described under Question 17). Our Congregational Services Committee is continuing to develop new programs and services for the benefit of traditional congregations.
The UTJ holds an annual Shabbaton and conference, generally at our Teaneck, NJ headquarters. Past conference themes have included Jewish Unity, Tradition and Modernity, Conversion: Crisis and Opportunity, Who's Afraid of Traditional Judaism?, and Women in Jewish Law. The UTJ has also prepared the first traditional Jewish Living Will, which reflects an halakhic approach to advances in medical technology, and also sponsors a lively internet discussion list and Operation Pesach, a Passover hotline which has commanded national attention.
In addition to Tomeikh kaHalakhah and Kosher Nexus , we publish Hagahelet: a quarterly newsletter outlining the activities of the UTJ, Cornerstone: a journal of traditional Jewish thought, and Taking The MTV Challenge: a pre-packaged curriculum including videos and a thorough teachers' guide with classical sources that create a tool enabling Jewish teens to view television with a critical eye.
The UTJ does not rely on a budget from any organization, institution, or movement. We are an independent body whose support comes from members and others who believe in our work.
The UTJ believes that the increasingly divisive polarization in North American Jewish life is the result of institutional and sociological factors and does not accurately represent either the imperatives of the halakhic tradition or the inclinations of North American Jewry. Through our growing roster of programs and publications, we aim to give voice to the halakhic center and to provide encouragement and support to those who seek to live lives committed to Torah, K'lal Yisrael, and intellectual integrity.
The UTJ depends not only on broad-based financial support but also on the active involvement of those who share its commitment to open-minded observance. There are numerous opportunities for anyone who wishes to get involved in our various committees and projects.
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