Agnostic Trends in Open Orthodoxy

I think the recent statements of the Novominsker Rebbe against Open Orthodoxy at the recent Agudah convention took many people by surprise, and not just in the more liberal parts of the Jewish community.  The Novominsker, as much as he is a Haredi rabbi, is also a quite tolerant and inviting individual who has been at the forefront of kiruv.  He certainly has dealt with Jews from all streams and quite frankly I’ve never heard anything bad about him (though I fully expect now that I’ve said this someone will make sure I do).  My point in making this assertion is that when the Novominsker makes such a statement, we really need to examine: is what he saying actually true or just slander against a community of Jews?

There have been number of incidents that have called Open Orthodoxy’s fidelity to Orthodoxy and to the Torah in general.  Probably the most notable of these was R’ Zev Farber’s declaration that he believed that our forefathers Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov never existed and that the Torah is a book of folklore rather than a factual history of formative Judaism.  However, there seems to be much more than just a reexamination of Jewish belief in light of modern scholarship.  Underlying the supposedly “open” examination of the texts is what appears to be a vein of agnosticism, though this is certainly a risky statement to be made.

  • R’ Ysoscher Katz, chair of Talmud at YCT, recently had the insight on his FB page on May 22, one he shared on Shabbat with a Conservative synagogue, that the Rabbis were really liberal progressives in their interpretation of the Sotah ritual in contrast to the Bible, which in his opinion is “capricious and patriarchal”.  I had the question “How could anyone call G-d sexist and Hazal liberals?”.  The only answer I could come up with is that he doesn’t believe G-d wrote the Torah and by extension the Rabbis had no tradition on how to understand it. Now, just because someone doesn’t believe in the divinity of the Torah doesn’t mean they don’t believe in G-d, but it certainly means he’s not stuck to the concept of the G-d of Israel.
  • R’ Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of YCT, made the statement on May 23 that “some people will seek to enter the Temple on a regular basis, others may only enter in once a year, or perhaps never, but each one of these people can have God (sic) in his or her midst.”  This also came as a surprise to me considering the Biblical commandment to visit the Temple on each of the three festivals, which would make this commandment a suggestion rather than a mandatory action.  From the statement it seems this is belief about all of the Biblical commandments, which Orthodox Judaism believes are the vehicle by which we have a relationship with G-d.  Given this being the case, could it be that he doesn’t believe in a Commander, one who gave the Torah at Sinai, an event we will be commemorating next week?
  • R’ Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, just published an article in the Wall Street Journal in support of vegetarianism, asserting that the Orthodox meat industry is cruel and therefore no one should be eating its products.  However, in an earlier article he had written in the Times of Israel he had made it clear that his reason for becoming a vegan had to do with Aristotelean ethics and not just specific problems in the meat industry that can be and hopefully will be resolved shortly.  Quite frankly I found the WSJ article insulting because he must think that those reading his material aren’t paying attention to the fact that he’s presenting one message to the Jewish community he believes will be palatable while presenting another one to a non-Jewish media outlet that makes our community look terrible. Whichever article you take, it seems very clear he believes either modern rabbis (WJS) and/or the Torah itself (TOI) are morally challenged.  One cannot say that the Torah is both written by G-d Himself and is morally challenged at the same time.

It would be wrong of me to say definitively that these men are atheists or even agnostics.  I cannot know what is in the hearts and minds of men.  However, these statements are not statements that seem compatible with a belief in G-d, at least in the G-d of Israel.  I would also like to make it clear I don’t believe all or even many Open Orthodox rabbis up to a certain point in history hold these beliefs.  However, after R’ Farber’s statements it would be much more difficult for a current YCT student to argue that they don’t.  After all, if these beliefs are rampant among the YCT faculty and they are distasteful to the individual student, then why is that person still studying there?

About the Author
Rabbi Eric Kotkin is the founder of, the online chaplaincy for Jewish college students. He received ordination from Rav Ephraim Greenblatt and Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a member of the RCA, and received an Advanced Certificate in Education Administration from YU’s Azrieli School of Education.