The UTJ is a trans-denominational education and outreach organization dedicated to promoting the principles and practice of Judaism as guided by Jewish Law (see our Statement of Principles). Our resources have been used by a wide range of synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions and communities throughout the Jewish world. Our goal is to bring the greatest possible number of Jews closer to an open-minded, observant Jewish lifestyle.
Since our founding in 1984, the UTJ has promoted “open-minded observance,” that combines commitment to Halakhah (Jewish law) with intellectual openness and loyalty to K’lal Yisrael (the totality of the Jewish people). We affirm that Halakhah encompasses ritual (prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, etc.) as well as ethical obligations which combined are intended to bring all of us closer to God.
Yes. Our philosophy is summarized in the phrase coined by our Reish Metivta, Rabbi Professor David Halivni: אמונה צרופה ויושר דעת (Emunah Tzerufah v’Yosher Da’at )– Genuine Faith with Intellectual Integrity.
The Jewish community has become increasingly polarized with the religious right adopting previously unheard of stringencies and the assimilating left abandoning Halakhah altogether. In contrast, the UTJ maintains the principled stance that we should neither embellish Jewish law nor dilute it (Deuteronomy 4:2). Cognizant of history, appreciative of science and ultimately committed to age-old rabbinic wisdom, the UTJ attempts to stay true to the Halakhic tradition rather than be swept away by reactive sociological currents in one false direction or another.
In a responsum concerning the credentials of rabbis serving on a Bet Din (Jewish Court), some of the UTJ’s leading halakhists ruled that rabbinic qualifications “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.”
While it may be safely assumed that collective Halakhic commitment increases as rabbis and their movements are surveyed from the most progressive to the most traditional, specific determinations can be made on an individual basis only.
The UTJ is committed to the primacy of Halakhah.
At one time, Conservative Judaism professed similar commitment. Sadly, policy decisions of recent decades belie that claim. Examples of the Conservative Movement’s current attitude include doctrinaire egalitarianism, advocacy for non-halakhic conversion in Israel, extension of synagogue membership to non-Jewish spouses uninterested in conversion and officiation at gay weddings. When it comes to the social causes of the day, the Conservative Movement may offer Halakhah a token voice in its legal deliberations, but not a veto. In contrast, the UTJ believes that secular norms must be addressed in religious deliberations, but never have a veto over Jewish law.
On the other hand, 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 centerpiece of their ideological mission. Of those who do, many seek to draw their recruits closer to a sectarian conception of Jewish belief and practice. The UTJ, by contrast, seeks to “draw [Jews] closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12), i.e., to a non-politicized observance of mitzvot.
As well, we are committed to understanding ourselves and our past in the context of History. There are many in the ostensibly religious Jewish world who see the universe only through rabbinic texts and do not accept the notion that Judaism has always existed in a larger historical context. While we view the world through the prism of Torah, understanding our history juxtaposed to that of the rest of the world in which we live gives additional depth to the Torah lives we lead.
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 do not have same force as legal obligations. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:8, Bavli 29a) rules that only a legally obligated Jew may discharge ritual obligations for the public. That is why in practice, even women who voluntarily assume the obligation of public worship three times a day cannot serve as shelichei tzibbur of men. The Codes concur (Maimonides Hilkhot Shofar 2:2, Tur/Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 589:1-2). They may, of course serve as prayer leaders for women.
We see no reason to exclude women from any leadership roles in Jewish organizational life. On the contrary, we encourage such participation as a benefit to the Jewish community. In fact, the UTJ preceded the Reform and Reconstructionist denominations as the first Jewish religious movement headed by a woman, Dr. Miriam Klein Shapiro z”l. See our approach to women and Torah text learning .
The UTJ was the first Jewish organization to endorse women’s prayer groups. While noting certain halakhic limitations to such groups, we believe 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 developments – notwithstanding bans promulgated by various “authorities.” The fact that such groups might 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 rainu eino reayah” – “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, has granted rabbinic ordination only to men, its classes have always been open to women as well. Further, there is no bar to women teaching Torah to both men and women.
The ITJ המתיבתא ללימודי היהדות (also known as the “Metivta”) is the school of higher Jewish learning of the UTJ. From 1991 through 2010, The Metivta provided the semikhah (Rabbinic Ordination) Program, a Beit Midrash Program, and Continuing Education for Rabbis. It also offered, in cooperation with nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University, the world’s first Masters in Public Administration degree with a concentration in Jewish communal service. Since 2010 and the UTJ’s move to New York from New Jersey, the Metivta has offered only on-line learning. Re-institution of semikhah studies is under consideration.
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 served as Professor of Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University until his Aliyah to Israel. He continues to give seminars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Ronald D. Price, Dean Emeritus of the Metivta, is also the Executive Vice-President Emeritus 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. Rabbi Price was succeeded by Rabbi Hayyim Solomon as Dean.
Our faculty also includes such prominent scholars as Rabbi David Novak, Hakham Isaac Sassoon, Rabbi Gershon Bacon and Rabbi Alan Yuter.
Nobel Laureate Prof. Elie Wiesel z”l served as a founding board member of the ITJ for many years.
Among those who have served as members of our Academic Advisory Council are Professors Reuven Kimelman, Sylvia Barak Fishman, Menachem Elon z”l and Eliezer Berkovits z”l.
The UTJ holds Shabbatonim and conferences open to all members. Past conference themes have included “Fear and Faith in an Age of Crisis”, “Tradition and Modernity”, “Abuse in the Jewish Community”, “Conversion: Crisis and Opportunity”, “Who’s Afraid of Traditional Judaism?”, “Women in Jewish Law” and “Finding Love in the Jewish Community”. The UTJ has also created the first traditional Jewish Living Will and Advance Directive, which reflects an halakhic approach to advances in medical technology. It also offered the first Passover hotline using a toll-free number beginning in 1987 commanding national attention and continuing today on-line.
The yahrzeit lectures commemorating the passing of the GRA”SH, Rabbi Prof. Saul Lieberman zt”l, have included lectures by the late author Rabbi Chaim Potok z”l, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z”l, Professors Marc Shapiro and Lawrence Schiffman as well as scholars from the ITJ faculty and other institutions of higher Jewish learning.
Publications have included Halakhah and the Modern Jew, Tomeikh kaHalakhah vols.1-3, Kosher Nexus, 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 outside organization, institution, movement or government. 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 Jewish life in the Diaspora as well as in Israel is the result of institutional and sociological factors and does not accurately represent either the imperatives of the halakhic tradition or the inclinations of the rank and file Jew. 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 contributions of financial support but also on the active involvement of those who share its commitment to open-minded halakhic living. There are numerous opportunities for anyone who wishes to get involved in our various committees and projects. If you would like to volunteer or receive more information please contact us.