Insights from the Rabbi Who Wrote the Book on ‘Open Orthodoxy’

September 25, 2019

“Orthodoxy” with a capital “O” is a misunderstood and misused word in Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy is used to identify the mainstream of strictly observant Judaism, of course, but “ultra-Orthodox” is an adjective that is applied to the Charedi, Chasidic and Yeshivish movements in Judaism, each of which is distinct from the others. 

So, where does “Open Orthodoxy” fit into the Jewish world?

The single best source for an answer to that question is the man who coined the phrase, Rabbi Avraham Weiss. As the founder of the two yeshivot that ordain rabbis in the community of Open Orthodoxy, he is respectfully and affectionately known as “Rav Avi” by his students, staff and colleagues. The rich, resonant and sometimes provocative story is told by Rav Avi himself in “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” (KTAV Publishing and Urim Publications), a blend of memoir and manifesto that must be regarded as a Jewish classic immediately upon publication.

“Though Rabbi Avi Weiss avers consistently, and has demonstrated, that a vibrant religious movement cannot be synonymous with any single individual, Open Orthodoxy has unquestionably been closely identified with his thoughts and actions since the late 1990s,” explains Jeffrey S. Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, in his foreword to “Journey to Open Orthodoxy.”

The foundational document of Open Orthodoxy is a 1997 article by Rabbi Weiss, “From Modern Orthodoxy to Open Orthodoxy,” which is reproduced at the outset of his new book. At that time, he was serving as the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a New York synagogue known by its members as “the Bayit,” but the article was a call to action to the Jewish world at large.

“As a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, I profess an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the Halakhic system,” Weiss declared. But he also insisted on making a crucial distinction between Modern Orthodoxy and what he called the Orthodox Right. “For the Orthodox Right, disciplines that are not pure Torah are hol (profane). … We Modern Orthodox disagree. Chemistry, language, medicine, and all disciplines are potentially aspects of the Torah. In a word, there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint.”

For a rabbi seeking a readership among highly observant Jews, each one of these topics is a minefield. As if to anticipate his adversaries and critics, Weiss insists that “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.” 

That article was only the first step on the journey that Weiss describes in heartfelt detail in his new book. “Movements are generally not announced; they evolve,” he writes. The meaning and proper use of various aspects of the Jewish world — Israel, the Holocaust, the role of women, the attitude toward homosexuality, rabbinic authority over marriage and divorce, the relationships among the various movements within Judaism, and much more — are explored and explained with the greatest delicacy and compassion but also with vision and courage.

Although Rabbi Weiss writes with respect and restraint, he is clearly aware that many of his ideas and aspirations will be off-putting to readers in the Orthodox communities. For that reason, he is careful to acknowledge the primacy of halachah, and he insists that he embraces the same reverence for mesorah (tradition) that is the benchmark of Orthodoxy. “Halakha, with its strictures and demands, may seem to weigh us down, but if halakha is suffused with holiness, we will be able to soar, to reach higher and higher in our mission to impact our people and redeem the world,” he writes. As if to inoculate Rabbi Weiss against the criticisms that he expects to hear, Gurock writes in his foreword: “[H]is openness is not newness.”

Yet it is also true that “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” embraces an approach to Judaism that may be more familiar and more appealing to non-Orthodox readers. A chapter on “Creating Spaces for Those With Disabilities” includes a quotation from a beloved Leonard Cohen song: “Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” While Weiss declines to conduct gay weddings, he points out that “to demand that gay people not have a life partner is, for many, akin to a death sentence,” and concludes that “we must do all we can to find a way for halakha to help guide gay couples to live in loving partnerships.” He calls on Orthodox Jews to reach out to Reform, Conservative and nonaffiliated Jews but warns that “coercion — social, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise — alienates rather than attracts” and calls for “a moratorium on the spirit of negativism that so often engulfs our communities.”

For a rabbi seeking a readership among highly observant Jews, each one of these topics is a minefield. As if to anticipate his adversaries and critics, Weiss insists that “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.” He is careful to link even his most innovative proposals to the Torah, Talmud and halachah. But he argues that “like the Torah from which it emerges, halakha is an eitz hayyim, a tree of life, and a living organism,” which has always responded to “the needs of the day” and should do so now.

Weiss embraces both creativity and compassion in confronting even the hardest problems that come with inclusion. He acknowledges the importance of separating men and women in synagogue with a mechitzah, but he also insists that the women’s section should not be placed or constructed such that “women should see or hear less.” His test of “a fully welcoming” mechitzah is “when no one is in the sanctuary, one should be unable to know on which side the men or women sit.” And he defends the practice of ordaining women with the title “Rabba” rather than “Maharat,” which is more widely used in Orthodoxy, on the grounds that it does not change the function of a woman in a role of spiritual leadership but affords her “more dignity and respect.”

“In Conservative and Reform Judaism, a woman’s role is identical to a man’s role,” he explains. “In Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90% of areas, but there are distinctions.” A woman can conduct a wedding ceremony, including the reading of the ketubah, for example, but she cannot sign the ketubah. She can conduct religious services “as halakha permits,” but she is not included when counting the minyan. Still, Open Orthodoxy has gone where Modern Orthodoxy had not gone before, and Weiss declares himself and his movement to being “deeply committed to halakha and open and welcoming to all.”

Rabbi Weiss insists that American Jews are ready for the full flowering of Open Orthodoxy. “People are looking for something new that speaks more directly to their inner convictions and passions,” he writes. “They are looking for an Orthodoxy that is inclusive, non-judgmental and open.” He invokes an urgent lyric from the Song of Songs, “one of the more beautiful pleas in the Tanakh,” to justify his principle of inclusivity: “The voice of my beloved is knocking — open the door.” In a real sense, the key to that door is the book he has now bestowed on us and our posterity.

‘Journey to Open Orthodoxy’  by Avraham “Avi” Weiss
Excerpted from “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” by Avraham “Avi” Weiss (KTAV Publishing and Urim Publications). Used with permission. 

Not many people can say they have lived to see their professional dreams realized. My dream began when I became the Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) — an amazing congregation affectionately known as “The Bayit.” The dream continued when, during these years, I had the great fortune of participating with our community in various activist causes on behalf of the Jewish people.

In the last two decades, the dream carried on with the establishment of two rabbinical schools: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) for men and Yeshivat Maharat (YM) for women, and the formation of a new Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization: the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). At a time when Modern Orthodoxy has been moving precipitously toward the right, these institutions — and others such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), the International Beit Din (IBD), the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah (PORAT) here in America, alongside Beit Hillel, Beit Morasha and Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah in Israel — stepped into the breach. While many were convinced we could not succeed, we’ve exceeded expectations.

Around the time I was contemplating stepping back from the senior rabbinic position at the Bayit and transferring the mantle of leadership of YCT and YM to the next generation of spiritual leaders, my granddaughter Ariella Levie suggested that I collect into a single cohesive volume the essays I had written over the years reflecting my vision of Judaism — a vision that I have come to call “Open Orthodoxy.”

The title of the book, Journey to Open Orthodoxy, can be understood in two ways. First, as worldviews evolve over time, the word “journey” attempts to capture the various stages of my religious quest. That quest, I pray, will continue — never static, always forward. At the same time, “journey” is also meant as an imperative. It invites the reader to evaluate the book’s content and consider his or her own journey, leading, it may be hoped, to a consideration of the principles of Open Orthodoxy.

While it is fully committed to the divinity of the Torah and the meticulous observance of halakha, it seeks to promote a Judaism that is open, non-judgmental and inclusive.

Inclusivity: At its core, inclusivity sets Open Orthodoxy apart. This means interfacing with the non-affiliated, other streams of Judaism and other faith communities; it also means lovingly embracing the most vulnerable — LGBT+ Jews, the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged. For me, as I explicate in the opening article of this section, the nation of Israel is family. As family, boundaries soften, they fray and even disappear. As a loving family unconditionally embraces all its members, so, too, should Am Yisrael.

Spirituality: Open Orthodoxy seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights, the subject of our next section. For me, spirituality offers the wings which allow halakhic observance to soar. This understanding has framed my approach to prayer, learning, ritual, interpersonal relationships and lifecycle events. Through song, dance, explanation, introspection, and silence, one can give greater spiritual meaning to rites of passage, whether a brit (circumcision), simchat bat (girl baby naming), bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, wedding, funeral or burial.

Gender: Here, Open Orthodoxy parts with the non-Orthodox community, as halakha is not fully egalitarian. There is, rather, an overlapping of 90% of halakhic roles, with 10% of those roles having clear distinctions that cut in both directions, i.e., what women can do and men cannot, and what men can do and women cannot. In the same breath, I part with the Orthodox right, believing that women not only ought to study Torah on the same quantitative and qualitative level as men, but that they can be ordained and serve as spiritual leaders with appropriate titles (Maharat, Rabba …).

Faith: Life is complex. Challenges, both personal and communal, inevitably surface, sometimes precipitating deep struggles concerning God’s benevolence and God’s ethics. While feeling God’s presence in the good times and bad times is at the core of my very being, I, too, have had moments of feeling abandoned. Open Orthodoxy encourages expression of these doubts without fear of being ostracized or cast aside. The gateway to increased spiritual striving is via open, honest and respectful dialogue.

Leadership: Open Orthodoxy recognizes the need for strong leadership. What’s needed are women and men — rabbinic and lay — with a deep love for Am Yisrael, who have the courage, within halakhic parameters, to institute change. Included in this section, as well, are other fundamental principles of leadership. Indeed, built into strong leadership is humility and the self-awareness of limitation. The best leaders express their views with softness and patience — setting out to be persuasive rather than coercive.

Conversion: An example of leadership that unfortunately falls short is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Its consolidation of rabbinic authority and use of coercive powers have alienated much of Israel’s citizenry. Unfortunately, the rabbinate has placed barriers and stumbling blocks before tens of thousands of Israelis who wish to convert. To wit: Of the 300,000 Soviet emigres to Israel who are not halakhically Jewish, only 20,000 have been converted over the past 30 years. In America, too, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) capitulated to demands from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and has now centralized its conversion process, making it unnecessarily onerous. I believe we should  ease the pathway to become Jewish. This can be done by providing guidelines within which local Orthodox rabbis —who best know the situation of prospective converts in their communities — have the autonomy to form a beit din (Jewish court), apply the vast corpus of halakha that is more welcoming to converts, and perform conversions. This, in general terms, is the position that the International Rabbinic Fellowship has adopted.

Mission: Judaism ought not to be only functional, i.e., promoting halakhic observance, but mission driven, seeing observance as part of a larger mission to powerfully impact Am Yisrael and the world. Open Orthodoxy does not view halakha as a noun, but a verb, guiding us to fulfill the Torah mandate of “keep[ing] the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).

My understanding of Open Orthodoxy goes well beyond such controversial issues as women and halakha, interdenominational and interfaith relations and LGBT+ inclusion. For me, Open Orthodoxy is holistic, all encompassing, embracing the whole of Jewish spiritual, religious, halakhic and national life. 

Excerpted from “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” by Avraham “Avi” Weiss (KTAV Publishing and Urim Publications). Used with permission. Buy the book on Amazon here. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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