As Open Orthodoxy becomes the subject of more and more controversies, I have long felt the need to weigh in. One thing has held me back, however, and that is my friendship with, and appreciation of, many of the people involved. I can only imagine their response to yet another open letter questioning the Orthodoxy of Open Orthodoxy.
Not only that, this time it would be from a friend – from someone who in the past would recommend YCT over RIETS and who is appreciative of much of what they are trying to do. Of course, such a letter would be more gentle and constructive than most of what has been written. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that it is something they will be eager to read.
In the end, such a letter must be written and I will do so shortly. But before that, I think it important to put it in its appropriate context and to identify myself as someone who still has great admiration for much of what Open Orthodoxy is about and as someone who would be greatly disappointed if it makes moves that will push it beyond the ideological and cultural parameters of the Orthodox community. It is from such a perspective that I have put together a list of ten things that I admire about Open Orthodoxy.
While I am aware that many of these items are not unnuanced, I believe each one of them worthy of admiration – at least in theory, if not always in practice.
1. Its willingness to try new things
There is a great deal of stagnation in mainstream Orthodoxy. There is a lot of doing things simply because it is how they were done in the past; without properly evaluating whether it meets our needs today. I have long been a critic of the curriculum in most of our schools on that basis. But what is true in our schools is also true in our shuls and in our communities. New ideas need to be more welcome, even it means changes that make us uncomfortable.
2. Its understanding that new rabbis need a great deal more than the standard rabbinic curriculum
Rabbis are not properly prepared to meet most of the challenges and issues that they will face in the community. While YCT has not created the perfect curriculum, it shows a better understanding of the preparation required for most rabbis in the field.
3. Its creation of a career track for women who want to be involved in religious leadership
While one can disagree with the contours of this track, there is no question that there are many women who have talents and aspirations that can and should be positively channeled by the Orthodox community. In the same way as many synagogues employ youth leaders to deal with the particular needs of that population, it is entirely appropriate that women be hired to cater to the specific needs of women in our communities.
4. Its creation of a traditional institution in the United States that allows women serious access to the yeshiva curriculum
It is natural and positive that some adult women want to better understand what is studied in yeshivot and how it is studied. Such women sometimes study at Yeshivat Maharat because there is simply no other alternative it in a community of approximately six million Jews.
5. Its commitment to social justice
Taking this area back as a central part of the Orthodox Jewish tradition is a well-needed corrective.
6. Its strong desire to reach out to the non-Orthodox
Much of what the contemporary Orthodox community advocates transcends denominational boundaries. There is much room for cooperation and most communities will be better served by reaching out to non-Orthodox institutions.
7. Its youth and vibrancy
There is a great deal of energy in Open Orthodoxy, largely because most of its rabbis are relatively young and ideologically engaged. There is no question that our community can greatly benefit from this vibrancy.
8. Its intellectual honesty
While this is a highly sensitive area, it is certainly appropriate to address hard issues and to do our best to be true to ourselves as well as to our tradition.
9. Its appreciation of the role of spirituality
While less well known, soulful prayer, meditation, esthetics and a strong interest in Chassidut are more pronounced than in mainstream Orthodoxy. These are areas that need more attention throughout the community.
10. Its strong desire to be Orthodox
While it has what to gain by classifying itself as Orthodoxy, it doesn’t stop there. Open Orthodoxy has shown a commitment to the methodology, texts and rabbinic precedents of the Orthodox community. It has done so out of a sincere identification with Orthodoxy as the most authentic and successful expression of Judaism today.