Can Open Orthodoxy help revive Judaism?


There are two ways to look at the controversy raging in the Orthodox world right now over a fledgling movement that calls itself “Open Orthodoxy.” One way is to put the controversy under a microscope and go through all of the arguments and name calling. I will do that, don’t worry. The other way is to consider a question I’m much more interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

First, the name calling, and I mean that literally. One of the big issues in the controversy is whether the Open Orthodox movement — which believes in greater religious leadership roles for women, among other things — can call itself Orthodox. This issue has been brewing for several years, but it came to a head last week when a group of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, after examining statements and positions put forth by representatives of the Open Orthodox group, proclaimed that the movement is “beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.”

This proclamation followed one a few days earlier from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest association of Orthodox rabbis, banning members from employing women clergy in their synagogues, regardless of the title used. 

In response to the RCA proclamation, Los Angeles Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, whose Orthodox synagogue B’nai David-Judea in the past year hired its first female clergy, wrote a heartfelt and somewhat defiant column in the Jewish Journal, saying: “This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged — however grudgingly — as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.”

Now, if you’re a liberal Jew, like most American Jews, you might be looking at this and thinking: “Are these Orthodox leaders for real? Haven’t there been female rabbis in other movements for more than 40 years? Don’t they have anything better to worry about?”

Part of me shares that sentiment, but another part has a deep appreciation for the value of maintaining tradition. The easy thing to do would be to label the RCA position as sexist or retrograde, and just dismiss it or get angry. After all, in today’s world, the notion that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to do something only because she’s a woman is not just out of date, it’s offensive.

But what may look like sexism to the modern eye can, to a traditional eye, be a respect for gender roles. Generally speaking, the more you move to the right in Orthodoxy, the more a woman’s religious role is seen as shining inside the home rather than in public. This boundary may offend some people, but it’s not without merit or context.

As Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student wrote in Haaretz, “The synagogue is where we gather for a few hours each week, for some each day. Take away the synagogue and you can still have Judaism. Take away the Jewish home … and Judaism disappears in a generation.”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Rabbi Avi Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos.

I can tell you from personal experience that the most important link in my own Jewish journey has been the thousands of Shabbat and holiday tables that my mother lovingly prepared in our home, with all the rituals involved and the family joy that came with it. She didn’t teach me Torah, but she taught me to love Judaism.

Still, that doesn’t mean Orthodoxy is not broad enough to meet modern challenges. The traditionalist’s question is, always, “Where do we draw the line?”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy, is clearly in the camp of broadening the Orthodox tent to include a greater religious and public role for women.

“There is no question whatsoever that throughout the generations women have often provided halachic and spiritual leadership as is shown from Sarah the prophetess to Deborah the judge,” he said last week in an interview in the Jerusalem Post. Riskin also cited rulings from major halachic decisors, such as former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who, according to Riskin, “state that women can become the great religious leaders of the generation, the gedolei ha’dor, and that they can provide rulings for halachic direction.”

Respect for halachah is something you hear over and over again when you speak to an Open Orthodox rabbi, which is what makes the movement hard to dismiss.

Many years ago, I met with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., who founded the flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and is credited with inspiring the movement. Before leaving his office, I picked up a copy of one of his books, titled “Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups,” and read it on the flight back home. I got the point: The man takes Jewish law seriously, whether it’s about guidelines for women’s prayers or a yeshiva for women clergy. 

At the heart of the controversy is Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva for Orthodox women in Riverdale founded by Weiss and Sara Hurwitz, the first formally ordained “rabba” and the dean of the school. So far, the yeshiva has enrolled 20 women and ordained five. Maharat is an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader and is a title used by some of the ordained women, in addition to or in lieu of rabba.

It is this religious leadership role for women that most irks the RCA. In its recent statement, the RCA specified that its resolution does not apply to “non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha [advisers on Jewish law], community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS [Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study], and non-rabbinic school teachers.” But a clergy status for women? That crosses the line.

The RCA’s position against female clergy, which it has expressed several times in the past, is based on previous rulings by halachic heavyweights such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, according to an article in Cross Currents by RCA executive committee member Avrohom Gordimer.

Sara Hurwitz is the first formally ordained “rabba” and dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains Orthodox women clergy.

So, both sides claim Jewish law is on their side. Where does that leave us? Can both sides be right? What is the heart of the dispute?

“The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity,” Weiss wrote recently in Tablet, in a piece titled, “Defining Open Orthodoxy.” He asks: “Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women — encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership?”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos. For example:

• Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools?

• Do we respect, embrace and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological and ethical questions?

• Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halachic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding?

• Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions?

• Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

These questions may sound outdated to my liberal friends, but in the Orthodox world where I live, they are deeply disruptive and uncomfortable. When the world is changing so fast around us, when secularism and hedonism and commercialism are encroaching into religious communities like never before, there’s a tendency to circle the wagons and get overly protective.

Weiss is going in the other direction. He looks at the hurricane of social change and sees opportunities. Instead of building walls of protection, he wants to build bridges of connection. Instead of seeing the outside world as a threat, he sees a healthy engagement with it as enriching the Jewish experience.

“Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick — obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in — or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century?”

Because Modern Orthodoxy has moved to the right in recent years, the word “modern” has lost some of its relevance. As Weiss writes, “'Modern' issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.”

Weiss believes Open Orthodoxy can inject some vitality that will help Orthodox Judaism better address these issues and challenges. A number of institutions and organizations have emerged over the years that follow in that spirit. In addition to Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat and Amcha– The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, these include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Edah, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

Which brings me back to the question I mentioned earlier that I’m most interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

Let’s go back to my mother’s Shabbat table. One thing I’ve learned from decades of sitting around a joyful Shabbat table every week is that you can’t build a lasting Jewish identity with just words or ideas. You need action. Sacred action. 

Orthodoxy, more than any other denomination, is obsessed with sacred action. It doesn’t matter what you call it—halachah, rituals, commandments, rules — the net effect is an unbending dedication to the kinds of acts that connect you continuously to your Jewish identity. Chabad's success is very much based on this primacy of Jewish action.

I have this theory that the transformational ritual of Orthodoxy is the prohibition against driving on Shabbat. The simple act of walking on Shabbat, whether to a synagogue or a friend’s house, organically creates Jewish neighborhoods and tight-knit communities where Judaism becomes a way of life, not just an occasional episode.

The downside to this way of life, however, is that it can also make you more insular. When your Jewish experience is concentrated in one place, it sometimes feels safest just to hunker down and shut out the rest.

Open Orthodoxy is trying to balance two ideals: It wants to keep the neighborhood-like intimacy and rituals of Torah Judaism but make them more open and inclusive.     

“It’s the model of our forebears Sarah and Abraham,” Weiss writes. “Unlike Noah, who is best known for his ark — insulated and separated by high walls from the rest of society — Abraham and Sarah dwell in a tent. It is open on all sides, welcoming not only those who come in, but they are also prepared to run out of the tent and greet all passersby, encouraging them to drink from the waters of Torah.”

Of course, these waters of Torah will always be open to interpretation and criticism. Liberal Jews may criticize Open Orthodoxy because its interpretation of Torah is not egalitarian enough, and the Orthodox establishment will criticize it because it goes too far. There’s no way around that. It is the fate of the struggler.

In Weiss’ case, his struggle is to insist on the “foundational divinity of Torah and observance of Halachah,” while aiming for an Orthodoxy that “is not rigid” and “open to a wider spectrum.”

This effort to put a genuinely open face on Orthodoxy may be controversial, but it also presents opportunities. For one thing, it makes Open Orthodoxy an ideal movement for Jewish outreach.

Just as Chabad is the outreach arm for ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Open Orthodoxy can be the outreach arm for Orthodox Judaism. Open Orthodoxy could be especially appealing to a new generation that welcomes and expects a more open and inclusive Judaism, including, not least, a leadership role for women.

If the wise sages of the Orthodox world were able to pull back for a minute and look at the big picture, they would see Open Orthodoxy not as a threat but a potential asset.

They would see that the real threat to the Jewish future is a Jewish house that is on fire while we squabble inside about the rules of the household.

Every Saturday throughout America, the great majority of Jews prefers to do anything but visit a house of prayer, and every Friday night, that same majority prefers to do anything but sit around a Shabbat table. When Orthodox Jews complain about a slippery slope, that’s the slope they should worry about most — Jews slipping away from Jewish action and Jewish identity.

If a movement like Open Orthodoxy can come along and make sacred Jewish action more inclusive and attractive to a vanishing generation, what’s not to like? 

And if having Orthodox women as religious leaders means expanding the richness and breadth of Torah study in our community, what’s not to like?  

Our communal bond has eroded in recent years in part because we’re missing a genuine and respectful engagement between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism. This is a shame. Open Orthodox rabbis regularly engage with Jewish religious leaders with whom they may have ideological or theological differences, and they’ve taken a lot of heat for it. But if that kind of courageous bridge-building doesn’t promote diversity and Jewish unity, what will?

There’s no bigger mitzvah in the Torah than Kiddush Hashem — sanctifying the name of God. This happens when the world sees Jews doing good deeds in the name of their religion. Perhaps the most memorable example in America was the image of a pious Abraham Joshua Heschel walking alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1960s civil rights march. Rabbi Weiss, who for decades has been marching for human rights while proudly wearing his yarmulke, is the Orthodox embodiment of social justice and Kiddush Hashem. Doesn’t that reflect well on all of Orthodoxy?

Here’s what I would say to the big guns at the RCA and others who agree with them: Have different branches. You can call yourselves Traditional Orthodox and call this other group Open Orthodox. Embrace them as an asset. Let them wrestle with this crazy, changing world while you stick to your guns. It’ll make all of Orthodoxy look good.

I know, I’m dreaming. I don’t expect the RCA to do any of that. The RCA believes it must protect its turf and its standing, so it will probably dig in and double down, especially because it believes it has the truth, the whole truth, on its side.

The problem is that you can ostracize Open Orthodoxy, but the issues they’re dealing with won’t go away. If anything, issues such as changing women’s roles will become even more urgent with time. An Orthodoxy that ignores the most crucial social issues of our time is an Orthodoxy that becomes more narrow and less relevant. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that, according to the latest Pew Research Center study, only 48 percent of people raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox.)

Religious luminaries, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, like to say that their Torah is the only “authentic” one. But they’re overlooking something else that is exceedingly authentic: the societal changes Open Orthodoxy is fearlessly confronting within a Torah context. Instead of showing a little respect for this difficult and complex work, some prefer to smugly malign it under the guise of “inauthentic Torah.”

What I’ve always found admirable about Open Orthodox rabbis is that, no matter how alienated they feel or how poorly they’re treated, they refuse to leave Orthodoxy. They believe in it. They don't believe they're on a slippery slope to non-Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is their home. It’s their tent.

That’s why it’s worth noting that, from what I hear, one place where they feel more welcomed is at the Orthodox Union, a “big tent” global Orthodox organization that over the years has embraced a kind of Orthodox pluralism — refusing to alienate either the right or the left. Let it become a model for Orthodox tolerance.

Ultimately, all the arguments over religious labels and Jewish law, and the antagonism from the establishment, will matter a lot less than the facts on the ground. If Open Orthodoxy can grow from the painful birth pangs of its beginning and become a movement that significantly impacts Jewish identity in America, every Jewish institution in the country will take notice — even groups that refuse to call it Orthodox. 

They may even conclude that Open Orthodoxy is good for the Jews.

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