Open Judaism: Judaism wins if all denominations win

There’s a nasty food fight going on right now in the Orthodox world between the stringent groups and the more open ones.

This latest brouhaha was ignited when the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) yeshiva invited non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars to a roundtable discussion during the installation of YCT’s new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. 

As reported by JTA, the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued a statement condemning the roundtable, saying it “does violence” to the principle that a yeshiva should shun rabbis of non-Orthodox movements that have led Jews “down the path toward Jewish oblivion.”

Since then, a verbal war has broken out over the appropriateness of YCT’s inclusive beliefs and actions, and whether its open views on many issues disqualify them from being considered “Orthodox.” 

The aspect of the dispute I want to focus on is the underlying premise from the more stringent groups that the Orthodox have little or nothing to learn from the non-Orthodox.

Are groups like Agudath Israel and others so insulated and sure of themselves that they can’t possibly see the value of engaging with non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars?

In the wake of the recent Pew study of American Jewry, and the subsequent conclusion among many Orthodox that “our side won,” I’m afraid that this sentiment is likely only to get stronger.

That is a real shame, because, in many ways, the future health and vibrancy of Judaism in America will depend on our ability to learn from one another.

Judaism will only win if all denominations win.

The paradox that comes out of the Pew study is that “religion” is both a savior and an obstacle. Raise your kids Orthodox and send them to Orthodox day schools and, not surprisingly, the odds will go up that they will remain Jewish and marry within the faith.

But this Orthodox segment to which I belong still represents, after all these years, a strong yet distinct minority of Jews. A large majority are simply losing interest in “religion” under any denomination. As The New York Times reported, the study found “a significant rise in those who are not religious.” 

The question we must answer, then, is this: For the large group of Jews who are turned off by anything “religious,” what can Judaism offer that will instill in them a strong Jewish identity?

Hint: It’s not just tikkun olam and ethics. The only answer I see is: Everything.

Yes, everything that can strengthen their Jewish identity, including Jewish culture and learning the story of their people.

The biggest failure, in my view, of the American Jewish community has been the failure to marry the obvious “do-goodism” of religion with the compelling “knowism” of Jewish culture.

It’s as if they exist in two different worlds — as if you can’t recite prayers and learn Jewish poetry in the same place, or study Torah after you study Philip Roth, or learn the story of King David and the story of medieval Jews, or debate the role of the Chasidic movement in Jewish history while debating a Chasidic tractate, or study Jewish music and art while also engaging in social activism.

I consider Shabbat one of Judaism’s greatest gifts, but why does it have to be only a religious experience? Why can’t we fully observe the Sabbath, recite all the prayers and follow all the rituals, while still incorporating Jewish poetry, history and philosophy? 

In so many ways, we have divorced Jewish culture from Jewish religion and, as a result, have ended up with a narrow-box Judaism that turns off most Jews of the new generation.

Trying to upgrade the religious experience is fine, but it’s hardly enough. What we need is to add more items to the Jewish menu to strengthen Jewish identity. Culture can do that. 

It’s easy to cancel a membership to a synagogue. It’s a lot harder to cancel a membership to a 5,000-year-old people whose story and culture are your own.

Our cover story this week on the success of the Skirball Cultural Center points the way to a more vibrant Jewish future — having more synagogues in America open up to the riches of Jewish culture and the Jewish story.

A big part of this opening-up process is opening up to one another. In the same way that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has begun an “open Orthodox” movement, we ought to begin an “open Judaism” movement.

Yes, the non-Orthodox and non-religious have plenty to learn from the Orthodox, but this quaint notion that it doesn’t work the other way around is borderline offensive. Just look at one scholar of the Reform movement who was on the YCT roundtable, Rabbi David Ellenson.

My Orthodox friends will be happy to know that Ellenson is a renowned expert on … Orthodoxy. In fact, if you pick up his book on Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, a prominent contributor to the creation of Modern Orthodoxy during the late 1800s, you’ll learn how Hildesheimer promoted the keeping of Orthodox tradition while also introducing certain innovations to meet the demands of modern life.

It makes you wish we had more Hildesheimers around today, or at least Orthodox synagogues that would invite scholars like Ellenson to share their knowledge.

Learning from one another doesn’t dilute our identity. It enriches it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at