The British novelist Terry Pratchett once said that “the trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” In a nutshell, that is the problem with the movement self-entitled “Open Orthodoxy.” Too many people are coming along and dropping into the Open Orthodoxy box ideas, values and practices that are more “open” than they are “Orthodox.” After all, Orthodoxy is not an intellectual, moral or behavioral free-for-all. It is a system of beliefs and practices that guide our lives and with which we seek to shape the world around us. Orthodoxy naturally clashes with a society that is more amenable to “anything goes” than the absolutes of commandments that reflect the will of G-d.
This has been an ongoing controversy in the Jewish world for several years running, addressed here quite a while ago, and has heated up again in the last few weeks. The new president of YCT , Rabbi Asher Lopatin, penned a piece in Haaretz, of all places, essentially blaming the ultra-Orthodox for the continuing castigation of his institution. This was followed by a response by a sizable group of decidedly not ultra-Orthodox rabbis (including myself) which underscored that the opposition to YCT, and especially the excesses of some of its ordainees, comes in large part from the mainstream of the Orthodox world –meaning that almost the entire orthodox world as currently constituted finds its program flawed and wanting.
The defense from an academic – again in the secular Jewish media – came swiftly, as well as a bizarre attack on the traditional rabbinate by a fringe group that invoked the Holocaust as well as all the modern buzzwords of abuse but never addressed an iota of the substance. Even the academic defense was inaccurate, attributing the “Statement on Open Orthodoxy” to a rogue group of RCA members – “none of them, it should be noted, an officer of the RCA.” In fact, one signatory is a present officer, several are past officers and present members of the Executive Committee, and at least two are past presidents. It is a widely representative group and assembled ad hoc and on short notice. In any event, this group was assailed for disassembling the “Big Tent” of Orthodoxy and compared to the troglodytes of right-wingers in the 1930’s who ostracized the members of the fledgling RCA.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two unresolved problems. The first is that no one I know is interested in ostracism, tiny tents, witch-hunts or quarrels. Indeed, both Rabbi Lopatin and his predecessor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, are extremely charming, genuine people, with sterling personal qualities who both have accomplished much for the Jewish people. Most people I know are reluctant to deal with this openly because of the respect both men have garnered over the years, notwithstanding the controversial positions they have taken. But this is business, not personal.
Added to this brew is the contretemps over the rejection by the Israeli rabbinate of some of Rabbi Weiss’ letters vouching for the Jewish credentials of Americans wishing to marry in Israel – an admittedly strong step – and we have the makings of a real brouhaha. But it is a brouhaha that is inevitable when we realize that the Torah must stand for something, and that something has to be defined, embraced and loved.
The second problem is internal. On some level it is unfair to attack an institution for statements or acts of its alumni, and the same is true for rabbinical institutions. RIETS, for example, has had a number of its ordainees openly leave Orthodoxy in the past, teach at non-Orthodox seminaries, or otherwise espouse heretical views. But RIETS at least has a tradition that is nearly a century old. Its musmachim have included notable Torah figures and Rabbis who shaped the Torah world. The YCT sample size is much smaller, and therefore disproportionately representative of the institution.
When some YCT graduates deny the divine origin of the Torah, assert that our forefathers never existed and therefore the entire narrative of the Jewish people is false, or insinuate that there was no divine revelation at Sinai, they have done more than force a band of rabbis to constrict the size of the tent; they have departed from Orthodoxy and lost the right to present themselves as Orthodox rabbis.
Similarly, when some YCT graduates remove parts of the davening that they find offensive, when they celebrate the nuptials of two homosexuals, when they invite non-Orthodox female clergy to lead the prayers, when they host or join interfaith prayer services, or, indeed, when they demean and distort the traditional role for women in Jewish with untold ramifications, they are bound to attract the opposition of the traditional, mainstream Orthodox rabbinate. Indeed, as our statement enunciated: “But if Open Orthodoxy’s leaders feel some distance developing between themselves and mainstream Orthodoxy, they should not be blaming others. They might consider how they themselves have plunged ahead, again and again, across the border that divides Orthodoxy from neo-Conservatism. Why are they surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of a dividing line?”
Similarly, no one rejoices in the rejection of Rabbi Weiss’ letters, neither personally or professionally. I genuinely feel for him and his congregants who are affected by this, and I hope an appropriate resolution is found. But there is a point at which the Orthodox world will take note of certain spiritual choices made, and say, “Enough; this is beyond Orthodoxy.” It should be no surprise that the ordination of women will strike the Israeli Rabbinate as the hallmark of the non-Orthodox clergy, as will the hosting in shul of church choirs, as will having a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat, as will the embrace of halachic leniencies that are far outside the consensus of Orthodox practice. Surely, his new demand for the recognition by the Israeli rabbinate of the conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis is not generally associated with the leanings of an Orthodox rabbi.
Can an Orthodox rabbi really endorse granting Israeli citizenship as a Jew to a “convert” who does not accept the mitzvot, did not go to Mikveh, has no intention of leading a Jewish life? Or, as is Reform practice, can it be expected that Rabbis who cherish unity in Jewish life will nonetheless acquiesce to ascribing Jewish status to the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother? In one fascinating exchange earlier this week, the white knight of the modern Orthodox rabbinate (I say that half in jest), Rav David Stav shlit”a, the head of Tzohar and erstwhile candidate for Chief Rabbi, retorted to a Reform rabbi: “The problem of assimilation among American Jews isn’t just an American problem… Chelsea Clinton married a Jewish man. I don’t dispute your right to think what you want, [but] do you want me to recognize Chelsea Clinton’s child as a Jew? You want me to recognize the rabbi who married them as a rabbi? He added that we sometimes have to pay a steep price in terms of public relations and even love of Torah by not-yet observant Jews, but “we are willing to pay this heavy price because of our responsibility to the people of Israel, and our desire to keep the people of Israel united – even though in the short term, it leads to enmity toward the Torah and its sages.”
Undoubtedly, YCT has a number of fine musmachim, as did JTS in an earlier incarnation of neo-Conservatism, and they must surely recoil at the intemperance of some of the classmates. They have a critical role to play before the reputation of their alma mater is cemented in the public eye as neo-Conservative, if indeed it is not too late already. With the demise of the Conservative movement, there is that niche to be filled – but wouldn’t the ultimate consequences be the same?
There is a limit to which the Torah world can embrace modern notions. Pluralism, egalitarianism, and moral relativity make fine contributions to the Western world, and are an improvement on paganism and ritual sacrifice. But just because they define Western society does not make them Jewish, or even desirable.
If you take the “-dox” (belief) out of Orthodox, then you are left with Ortho-, and we might as well be selling specialty shoes. We are defined by what we believe and what we do, by our fidelity to the Mesorah, our respect for our Sages and our willingness to conform our desires to G-d’s will rather than the converse. A wise person once said that “even an open mind has to close at a certain point or nothing stays in.” The boundaries of “Open Orthodoxy” have to be delineated not in platitudes, clichés and slogans – but in deeds, thought, values and Torah commitment.
In that process they will find the Orthodox world a reliable ally – or a steadfast opponent.