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Open Orthodoxy: A Response to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

In Proud to be Open Orthodox! (The Commentator, Nov. 26, 2013), Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz presents an upbeat, passionate vision of Orthodoxy, branded as “Open Orthodoxy”, with which few would argue. A casual reading of Rabbi Yanklowitz’ essay leaves one inspired and probably asking, “Isn’t this what all of Orthodoxy is about? Aren’t the concepts of a dynamic service of God in an halachically inclusive manner, an engaging study of Torah, a burning desire to enrich the lives of our fellow Jews and to elevate humanity and the world at large, while maintaining robust faith, common to all of Orthodoxy, be it Modern, Traditional, Chassidic, or otherwise? What is 'open' or different about Open Orthodoxy?"

Unfortunately, the answer to this question was not really contained in Rabbi Yanklowitz’ essay, for an objective and complete presentation of Open Orthodoxy brings to the table a massive array of highly controversial innovations on the part of that movement which Rabbi Yanklowitz' essay omitted.

When one attempts to define Orthodoxy - be it Modern, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Religious Zionist, or any other permutation of Orthodoxy – one envisions an objective and uncompromising commitment to Torah, both in terms of Torah laws as well as Torah values, with the differences between the subcategories of Orthodoxy being in the realm of application: How does the Torah instruct us to interact with modernity? How does the State of Israel fit into the Torah’s vision for Jewish governance? Does the Torah stipulate that a Jew serve God primarily through Torah study or through prayer and effusive emotion? All of the established expressions of Orthodoxy lay claim to an objective, a priori commitment to that which the Torah commands and which its values mandate, with the application of the Torah's commands and values resultantly yielding the various manifestations of Orthodoxy.

Open Orthodoxy has departed from this model. In contrast with the established expressions of Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy has chosen a predetermined social and ideological agenda toward which its actions and approach to Torah have been tailored and fit. Rather than arrive at a social and ideological outlook based on a raw application of the dictates of Halacha and the classical hashkafic sources, Open Orthodoxy has first embraced a social and ideological agenda and thereupon crafted a version of Orthodoxy that satisfies and promotes this agenda.

One illustration of this agenda-based approach is the Open Orthodox embrace of contemporary, secular feminism, which Open Orthodoxy has translated into a comprehensive feminization of Torah practice. Toward this end, Rabbi Avi Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, where women are ordained for rabbinical roles and are issued a semicha certificate, signed by Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber (the latter of whom currently serves as chancellor of the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School, a non-Orthodox institution run by Conservative rabbis), and Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. The rabbinical leaders of Open Orthodoxy have attempted to replace the beracha of She-lo asani isha (and She-lo asani nochri), they have championed partnership minyanim, in which both genders divide up the service, they have charged women to lead entire Kabbalat Shabbat services (with the full endorsement of Rabbi Weiss) and to read the Torah and the Megillah in their synagogues' main sanctuaries, with men in attendance and on behalf of the men, and they have set out on a program to revamp tefillah and the synagogue structure in order to reform the gender roles therein. (This video of the sweeping feminization of the synagogue service and religious leadership at Congregation Ohev Sholom/The National Synagogue, under the direction of a leading Open Orthodox rabbi, provides significant insight into these innovations. The video, which is a product of the synagogue and accurately represents its position, sheds light on the impetus behind the above innovations, for the interviewees in the video explain that the innovations were prompted by the discomfort of some congregants with the traditional Orthodox male-led service, and that the innovations were also prompted by the positive feelings that are engendered on the part of women who demonstrate that they too can ritually "show their stuff"; glaringly absent from the presentation are objective halachic motivations.)

In the realm of religious belief, prominent Open Orthodox rabbinic leaders have denied the singular divine authorship of the Torah, have denied and condoned denial of the historicity of the Torah (including denial of the existence of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah at Sinai), have denied the existence of prophecy and the conveyance of the Torah to Moshe, and much more. The most fundamental theological axioms regarding all that defines Orthodoxy have been subject to complete denial, as other Open Orthodox leaders have defended the right to such denial, even as they often disagreed with the denial. (Online readers are invited to read this article about top-tier Open Orthodox leadership's defense of the denial of Torah Mi-Sinai and other principal articles of faith on the part of a prominent Open Orthodox rabbi.)

A similar approach has been taken by leading Open Orthodox rabbis regarding Torah study. One such Open Orthodox rabbi classified a statement by the prophet Isaiah and the Talmudic articulation of that statement as "offensive", another leading Open Orthodox rabbi publicly condemned the values of the Talmudic Sages in formulating the beracha of She-lo asani isha. The rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Open Orthodox rabbinical school, has referred to the "original" commands of the Akeidah and the obliteration of Amalek as immoral (this same rabbi regularly disparages the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs in his weekly divrei Torah, writing that Abraham was a negligent father who did not love Isaac, that Jacob was socially inept and only knew how to lash out when confronted by a problem, and so forth). Another Open Orthodox leader wrote that Abraham failed the test of the Akeidah, for Abraham should have refused. These radical, quite unOrthodox approaches, are predicated upon a commitment to contemporary secular, social values, ideologies and educational approaches, which are then placed upon the Torah, frequently resulting in a rejection of the Torah's values, ideologies and approaches in favor of the contemporary secular ones.

Although we must treat all people with dignity and show sensitivity to those who have same-sex attraction, Open Orthodoxy’s rabbinic leaders have waged a campaign to promote, defend and celebrate gay marriage rights, just as they have hosted LGBT Shabbatonim and programs at their synagogues. Embracing the contemporary secular-liberal trend to secure and protect gay marriage rights and positive public expression of homosexuality, Open Orthodox rabbinical leadership has crafted halachic arguments that the homosexual act is not as problematic as perceived, positing that gay men who cannot be celibate should be encouraged to commit to a relationship with one partner, and that such relationships should be celebrated in the synagogue.

In the realm of conversion, marriage and divorce Halacha, Rabbi Avi Weiss recently called for the performance and potential acceptance of non-halachic conversions in the State of Israel and for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to be stripped of its authority over conversions. Another Open Orthodox leader recently called for a seismic overhaul of Orthodox marriage and divorce procedures, utilizing rejected positions that portend a catastrophic outcome and an irreparable split in the Jewish People. In both of these cases, the values of egalitarianism, pluralism and human rights, which indeed have their time and place, were grossly misapplied and imposed on Halacha by the relevant Open Orthodox rabbis, as can be seen in the articles by these rabbis that were penned to promote the aforementioned innovations. (Online readers can open the above hyperlinks and see for themselves.)

Open Orthodox rabbis continue to push for changes to the contours of Orthodoxy, engaging in interfaith activities and studies that significantly breach the accepted, precedent guidelines established by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Interfaith text study with Christian seminarians and the hosting of church choirs for synagogue performances are among the many problematic activities in this regard. (Online readers can click here for an account of Catholic leaders' visit to YCT, replete with a beit midrash session and hand-in-hand singing and dancing with YCT faculty and students. Readers are also encouraged to open the other hyperlinks in the online version of this article for citations and details of the countless hair-raising challenges and reforms to Orthodoxy that have been introduced by Open Orthodox leadership. It is all very shocking, and a comprehensive list of the breaches is too lengthy to present in this article.)

Immense concern pertaining to the actions and trajectory of the Open Orthodox movement has been expressed by rabbis across the Orthodox spectrum. Serious criticism of Open Orthodoxy has been voiced by Rabbis Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Steven Pruzansky, Gil Student, and many others. (Online readers should please click here for the link to one of Rabbi Pruzansky's articles on the subject, here for the link to Rabbi Student's article, here for the link to an article rebutting the recent argument by Dr. Ben Elton of YCT that Open Orthodoxy is within the parameters of Orthodoxy articulated by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger, and here for an important exchange between Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of YCT, and Rabbi Pinchas Lipschutz, editor of Yated. An exchange I had with an Open Orthodox leader about his movement's ordination of women can be accessed here.)

While Rabbi Yanklowitz' essay avoids mention of the highly controversial side of Open Orthodoxy and the movement's many significant modifications to the Orthodoxy that we all know. One section of his essay reveals a theological perspective that helps us understand the Open Orthodox quest to modify halachic practice and religious belief in many instances.

"For me, halakhah is not about blind irrational submission but about intentional transformation (tikkun atzmi, tikkun kehilla, tikkun medina, tikkun olam).  Halakha literally translates as 'progress.' While it’s deeply rooted in the past and guided by core Torah values, it’s primarily future looking to help solve societal problems, bring holiness into our lives, and cultivate the ethical personality."

This concept - that we approach Halacha as a means to intentional transformation, with the goal of Halacha being the solving of societal problems and so forth, and that Halacha "is not about blind irrational submission" - stands in clear contradistinction to the Rav's teachings that one must harbor an attitude of surrender to Halacha and that halachic observance is indeed about submission. Although the approach of Rabbi Yanklowitz, when contrasted with that of the Rav, would appear merely to be a theoretical matter of emphasis within Orthodox theology, the difference between the two approaches is in actuality vast and quite dispositive in terms of defining Orthodoxy.

The Rav insisted on an objective fealty to Halacha - a "surrender", in his words - regardless of our understanding of the purpose or message of a given halachic rule. This concept of submission to Halacha as the primary and exclusive religious mandate is indicative of an Orthodoxy in which the dictates of the Torah come first and are to be adhered to for the sole reason that they were commanded to us. Any moral message or broader ethical meaning conveyed by Halacha comes afterwards, as our motivation to observe the Halacha for no reason other than the Divine imperative must always come first. (Online readers are urged to read the Rav's seminal exposition of the concept of surrender to Halacha and the pivotal role of Mesorah, as presented here by Rabbi Steven Weil.)

In contrast, the Open Orthodox vision of Halacha is one of Halacha being the means to a broader goal; one's commitment to the means is stimulated with an eye on the goal. Halacha in effect becomes a tool for Tikkun Olam and social agendas; modifying Halacha to fit these and other agendas is a very feasible potential result of such an approach. As one of my friends commented, Orthodoxy is about responsibilities, and our responsibility is to fulfill the Will of God simply because He commanded us to do so; post-Orthodox halachic observance is about rights, utilizing Halacha to achieve one's goals and feel self-fulfilled.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of Open Orthodoxy's approach of first committing to certain contemporary social agendas and values and then trying to understand and apply Torah in light of those agendas and values is to be found in the writings of the YCT rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer.  In an article (Milin Havivin journal, vol. 1, p. 36) about perceived inequities in the Talmud toward non-Jews, Rabbi Linzer wrote that although some Talmudic opinions can be read to give non-Jews more equitable standing in the limited area of the article’s discussion, “the halakha follows the interpretation that the Gemara gives to the statements of the Tana’im and Amora’im. Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halakhic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system, and are to some degree disingenuous and lacking in integrity. ‘Should we be bending the halakha to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?’ is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud those voices that articulate those same values that are driving us.” Rabbi Linzer's shocking suggestion that Halacha should perhaps be bent to conform to modern notions of egalitarianism speaks for itself.

Yes, let us dynamically serve God and passionately engage in Torah study, mitzvah performance and Tikkun Olam, but with an undiluted, authentic, and objective commitment to the Torah's immutable laws and values. This is what Orthodoxy is truly about.

Avrohom Gordimer is a graduate of Yeshiva College, RIETS and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the New York Bar. The opinions in the above article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any other individuals or entities.