“Open Orthodoxy is open in that our ideology acknowledges, considers and takes into account in varying ways a wide spectrum of voices. It is Orthodox in that our commitment to Halacha is fervent and demanding.” So said Rabbi Avi Weiss in his 1997 article in Judaism. (file:///C:/Users/Michael/Downloads/aw-open-orthodoxy.pdf) A Google search suggests that Rabbi Weiss has sparked an intense debate over the veracity of his approach to Orthodoxy since he first published the article defining his views. More than 17 thousand links appear when “open orthodoxy debate” is entered into a Google search. The arguments against Open Orthodoxy tend to revolve around the singular theme that it is simply not Orthodox Judaism as it should be practiced.
Jay P. Lefkowitz, an Orthodox lawyer in New York who was a policy advisor to George W. Bush recently stepped into the Orthodox debate when his article The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A personal Account appeared in Commentary magazine. (http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-rise-of-social-orthodoxy-a-personal-account/) For me the most salient point in his well scripted article is summed up by the following:
“Whether in synagogue or summer camp, making Shabbat dinner with friends or traveling through Israel, I always felt “home with your own” and “well protected.” Being Jewish meant being a member of a club, and not just any club: a club with a 3,000-year-old membership, its own language, calendar, culture, vast literature including histories and a code of law, and, of course, a special place on the map.”
These few sentences describe my own sense of belonging to and harken back to days in Yeshiva when the Rabbis would teach us that “No matter where you go, in the entire world, if there are Jews you will find kosher food and a place to daven and a Shabbat meal.”
Not unexpectedly, Mr. Lefkowitz received his “bashing” in the Hamodia for his views. Called a “reconstructionist” he may be wrong but not for the reasons his critics insist. Mr. Lefkowitz drew an analogy from naaseh v’nishma – we will do and we will listen, the emphasis on doing the tasks of religion without necessarily understanding why – to his vision of Social Orthodoxy. I believe his argument would carry more weight had he used the saying, mitoch shah lo lishma boh lishma – or ‘fake it ‘til you make it.”
In an article I wrote several years ago I argued that simply practicing does not necessarily lead to belief and that to be truly observant requires a spiritual mind set. (http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/126261/2008/05/21/) I also stated that I believe we must do more to accept people into religious belief at the level they are able to belong. Yet, there is a movement on the part of those who object to the concept of Open or Social Orthodoxy that implies that blind devotion is all that is needed and those who cannot act in that manner cannot join. I have come to call this approach the Country Club view of Orthodox Judaism. Only members who act and dress exactly as the rules state can join, and those rules have been for the most part arbitrarily set by the club elders to deliberately limit membership.
I am not sure that Open or Social Orthodoxy would describe my view of religious practice but neither does a firmly inflexible approach. The Country Club scheme appears to be working superficially. There are many quick to cite data that indicates that this rigid form of religious practice is the strongest, durable and most likely to last. I would not know as there is no way to predict the future but there are some interesting issues that lead me to doubt that feeling. The first few are anecdotal. For all the fire and brimstone spend time in any shul of any Orthodox stripe and you will find people holding on to their prayer books and staring into space. You will find people socializing with their friends in the middle of services and you will find all forms of communal politicking in progress. There is a universal approach to the prayer service despite the differences in siddur used or attire of the congregants. The old joke of one Jew having three synagogues is part of this landscape. “This is the shul I belong to. This is the shul I daven Maariv at and I never set foot in this shul is precisely what Mr. Lefkowitz is speaking about. We all chose the space that appeals to our social instincts. For people to be critical of his honesty is to belie reality.
I have not seen the raw data of the now famous Pew report on Jews but I have read it through. There are several indicators that suggest to me that the most right wing members of Orthodox Judaism have a higher dropout rate than indicated by the Pew findings. The reason this finding is obscured is due to the high birth rate which skews the overall membership.
What Rabbi Weiss and Mr. Lefkowitz are describing is the fact that there have to be places for Orthodox individuals of all stripes to feel comfortable without a dismissive attitude. I admire their forthright approaches and while I would not subscribe to their overall philosophy I would gladly welcome them to pray with me. Jewish Orthodoxy has always been defined by adherence to Shabbat and Kashrut. People who observe these two categories of Halacha, regardless of how they practice other aspects, deserve access to the Orthodox lifestyle, regardless of any other individual philosophies they may have.