Open Orthodoxy's Last Ditch Struggle for Recognition
Lately, Open Orthodoxy, the fringe left movement of Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), has been getting lots of negative publicity from all corners of the frum world. This publicity was accelerated by Rabbi Weiss’ recent call for the performance and acceptance of Reform and Conservative marriages and conversions in Israel, with his condemnation of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) for policies that he claims deny rabbis’ autonomy.
Rabbi Weiss’ unthinkable claim - that non-halachic geirus should take place in Eretz Yisroel and be subject to acceptance by Israeli society - sparked a firestorm of criticism. Much of the criticism brought back into the fore recent seminal and historically important critiques of Open Orthodoxy, such as Yated editor Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz’s formidable takedown of YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and Rabbi Avi Shafran’s “Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodoxy” and Rabbi Steven Pruzansky’s “Rise of the Neo-Cons” articles, demonstrating that Open Orthodoxy is the new Conservative movement. Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer took Open Orthodoxy’s leadership to task for an array of deviations, Rabbi Arie Folger explained the basis and need to expose the dangers of this movement, and Rabbi Gil Student valiantly defended and explained a recent statement by over 60 RCA-oriented rabbis who distanced themselves from Open Orthodoxy and placed the blame on the latter for creating an enormous schism within Orthodoxy. All parts of the Orthodox spectrum came together, each in its own way, to send a message of disapproval to Rabbi Weiss and his group, and to signal that it descended deep into the abyss of non-Orthodoxy.
Open Orthodoxy did not take this bruising sitting down, and its young stars have begun a public relations damage control blitz. One such damage control article, by YCT student Dr. Ben Elton, attempts to show, through a 1960 essay by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger, that Open Orthodoxy does not fit into the category of Conservative Judaism and that it instead remains within Orthodox thought. In that essay, Rabbi Wurzburger demonstrated that no matter how ritually observant the Conservative movement was, its rejection of the immutable and authentic character of the mesorah placed it at odds with Orthodoxy, be it Traditional or Modern Orthodoxy:
“Long before the advent of the Historical (Conservative movement) school, the traditionalists (Orthodoxy) fully recognized that they were entrusted with a Torat Chayyim - a living La… Because the halakhic process is characterized by a continuous interaction between subjective and objective components, it is natural that changes in historical conditions will lead to far reaching repercussions in the realm of halakhah. This is not at all a question of “adapting” or “adjusting” the law to meet novel conditions, but of interpreting and applying it within the frame of reference of new circumstances… It must be borne in mind that this dynamic character of the law is an integral part of the massorah, the chain of tradition dating back to Sinai, not something that was grafted upon the Torah later on to prevent its obsolescence and decay… It is the function of the halakhah scholar, employing creative halakhic processes, to unravel the specific meaning which the timeless message of Sinai holds for his own time.”
Elton proceeds to then quote from Rabbi Avi Weiss, who has also written of his movement’s commitment to the mesorah. Elton concludes that since Rabbi Weiss’ professed ideology is within that of Rabbi Wurzburger, Open Orthodoxy is indeed Orthodox:
“One can argue whether Rabbi Weiss has made the right judgment about women’s roles, but it is difficult to claim that his basic approach to change within Judaism and the role of the mesorah is substantively different to approaches which were not only accepted but promoted in Modern Orthodox circles half a century ago.”
What Elton misses - the elephant in the room - is that Open Orthodoxy, irrespective of its founder’s theological writings, has in its actions very much followed the Conservative movement. In fact, it has outpaced the Conservative movement, which took almost a century to ordain women rabbis and cantors, to recognize and promote to’eivah unions, and to tamper with the siddur. Open Orthodoxy has done this all and more in the matter of a mere decade.
What’s more, as was explained by Rabbi Dov Fischer in his “Painting the Bulls-Eye Around the Arrow” essay, the historical development of Conservative “p’sak,” enabling the implementation of innovative and dangerous practices, is very much parallel to the contemporary Open Orthodox approach. In fact, the similarity is uncanny. One first decides his social agenda and then scours the sources to try to find some opinion somewhere to justify it. This is what the Conservative movement did in the mid-late 1900s, and it is again being done by Open Orthodoxy now. Any sense of mesorah, of objective halachic process, is discarded. (Rabbi Fischer’s August 2011 article titled “Thou Hast Not Made Me a Liberal Rabbi,” which addresses the Open Orthodox attempt to replace the brachah of “Shelo Asani Ishah,” details the mindset of the Open Orthodox reformers in pushing their agenda. First comes allegiance to secular social norms, and halacha is then fit into it by the Open Orthodox rabbinate.)
The Open Orthodox departure from mesorah, from listening to Torah sages who set limits and established precedents for our conduct, can be clearly seen from some recent and current programs of YCT/Yeshivat Maharat (the latter being the Open Orthodox rabbinical school for women). This summer, YCT joined Union Theological Seminary (Christian) for a two-week Elijah Interfaith Institute, where YCT and UTS students studied the fundamentals of each other’s religions and discussed other interfaith issues, under the direction of Jewish and Christian theologians, with text study and lectures.
So too, YCT and Yeshivat Maharat, with the participation of Hebrew Union College (Reform), Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), Drisha Institute and Machon Hadar (non-Orthodox), are currently holding a weekly Community Open Beit Midrash Program, where YCT rabbis and a female “rabba,” along with non-Orthodox clergy and Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinical students, lecture and discuss themes in Chumash, halachah and hashkafah.
It is well-known that Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetchik set boundaries for communal interfaith and interdenominational discussion, barring such discussion when relating to religious matters, and permitting Orthodoxy to engage in it with the non-Orthodox movements only for non-theological matters, such as battling anti-Semitism. Most other roshei yeshiva, including several from Yeshiva University, disagreed and banned all communal discussion with the non-Orthodox movements, regardless of is nature. Yet, the core rabbis and organs of Open Orthodoxy flagrantly breach these boundaries - YCT students studying Christianity in a Christian seminary and learning Torah from heretics. This is commitment to mesorah?
And contrast Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words about interfaith dialogue and about religious discussion with non-Orthodox clergy with the practices of Open Orthodoxy, which not only learns from such heretics and embraces them, but also honors them as the main speakers at its most important events:
Orthodox rabbis uniting with non-Orthodox Jewish clergy:
“It is my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung. It is impossible for me to comprehend, for example, how Orthodox rabbis, who spent their best years in yeshivos and absorbed the spirit of Torah Shebaal Peh and its tradition, for whom Rebbi Akiva, the Rambam, the Rama, the Gra, Rav Chaim Brisker and other Jewish sages are the pillars upon whom their spiritual world rests, can join with spiritual leaders for whom all this is worthless... From the point of view of the Torah, we find the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism much greater than that which separated the Perushim and the Tzedukim in the days of Bayis Sheini, and between the Kara'im and traditionalists in the Gaonic era. Has Jewish history ever recorded an instance of a joint community council that consisted of Kara’im and Torah-true Jews?" (from Rabbi Soloveitchik's 1954 Yiddish article in Der Tog Morgen Journal).
“We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyze or rationalize our faith in dialogues centered about these ‘private’ topics which express our personal relationship to the G-d of Israel" (from an open letter by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the RCA in 1964).
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words and sentiments are the antithesis of Open Orthodoxy. His words are foreign to the attitude of “I’m okay, you’re okay. Let’s engage in Judaism together and let’s learn Torah from each other” that emanates incessantly from YCT leaders.
Current and past Open Orthodox practices are in crystal clear violation of the above red lines. The Open Orthodox break from tradition in this crucial area leads to the same conclusion: Open Orthodoxy is not within the bounds of Orthodoxy.
“Partnership minyanim,” in which men lead some parts of the davening and women lead other parts, have been condemned by the greatest of poskim. These groups, promoted and halachically backed by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, a Yerushalayim rabbi and attorney, and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, chancellor of a non-Orthodox rabbinical seminary led primarily by JTS graduates, have great backing from Open Orthodox leadership. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of YCT, gives partnership minyanim his full support: “I consider partnership minyanim, with a mechitzah, within the fold of Orthodoxy: They’re following halachah and following the p’sak [legal position] of a recognized halachic authority. Partnership minyanim are definitely part of the Orthodox world.”
So too, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, YCT Advisory Board member, has sanctioned women reading the haftorah and Megillas Rus for menand women leaving shul before krias haTorah for their own krias haTorah, where women lain the Torah. Rabbi Avi Weiss has a women’s program at his shul in which women lain and serve as chazzan at their own “minyan.”
These deviations by senior YCT rabbis and their following clash with the rulings of the greatest of poskim, including rabbeim of Yeshiva University. Yet, due to their liberal social agenda, Open Orthodox rabbis have dismissed the worldwide halachic consensus in favor of rulings by two obviously less authoritative rabbis, one of whom leads a non-Orthodox rabbinical school. How Orthodox is this? Is this approach really part of the mesorah of gedolei Yisroel throughout the ages? As Rabbi Shafran wrote, YCT and Open Orthodoxy cannot “lay claim to the adjective ‘Orthodox,’ at least not if words are to have meanings.”
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, head of the YCT Talmud department, issued an ugly attackon Rabbi Student’s article, ending with: “Debating issues is acceptable. Publicly expelling a whole community from Orthodoxy is reprehensible.” What Rabbi Katz and his colleagues do not realize is that it is they who are walking themselves out of the door of Orthodoxy. Even if, as Dr. Elton writes, Open Orthodox leadership does believe in the immutability of halachah (despite some Open Orthodox rabbis publicly denying ikkarim of emunah), actions speak louder than words. When one’s movement is built around modifying Orthodoxy to fit a liberal social agenda and the like, and fundamental practices are scrapped, contravening the consensus of all of the greatest of Torah authorities, call it what you want. Whatever it is, one thing is certain: it is clearly not Orthodox.