Is Orthodox Judaism orthodox?

In its strict, etymological sense, orthodoxy refers to “straight opinions” rather than accepted practices.  To restate the question: Do traditionally observant Jews profess a uniform set of theological doctrines?  Must they?

Some of the confusion around this question arises from terminology. “Orthodox Judaism” is an unfortunate, yet persistent, misnomer.  As a label for the religious community it describes, it is inadequate and misleading.

Jews who self-identify as Orthodox observe Halakhah, which is defined by practice rather than theology.  A creed of some kind may be important — perhaps critical — to the members of a religious community.  But dogma need not be a religion’s defining feature.  Beyond a few basics — what exactly these are is debatable — leading Jewish thinkers over the centuries have taken radically divergent positions on some of the most fundamental theological questions.  Doctrinal conformity was never our strong suit.

And the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” of Maimonides?  They were, indeed, an attempt by our greatest philosopher-halakhist to define the dogmas of Judaism.  However, the Principles — the very idea of a theological credo and some of their specific content — were a significant departure from biblical and Talmudic Judaism and roundly contested by equally great halakhists ever since they appeared.

If practice defines halakhic Judaism, there were junctures in Jewish history — typically at times of communal crisis — where dogma received inordinate attention.  When a community is threatened by competing ideologies, it will naturally draw its red lines (this was a major factor in the formulation of the Thirteen Principles).  With an explicit formulation of fundamentals, orthodoxy stakes out its ideological boundaries.  That which remains outside the border is heresy.

In modern Jewish history, heresy has largely been the preoccupation of traditionalists who believed they were engaged in a desperate struggle with destructive modern ideas.  But history has been unkind to the heresy hunters.  At some point, after all, heliocentrism, the Enlightenment, Zionism, evolution, and modern biblical scholarship were each branded heretical by rabbinic authorities.  Yet every one of these ideas endures.  And while nearly all remain anathema to some — few rational people of any stripe still promote geocentrism — each has been integrated in some form into the Modern Orthodox worldview.

A relic of another age, heresy has become an unlikely current issue.

Take, for example, the question of ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis, an effort associated with the movement now known as Open Orthodoxy.

Detractors have advanced essentially three objections, argued in three stages.  The first response maintains that ordaining women is halakhically forbidden.  But sensing the weakness of that approach, other rejectionists invoke the fuzzier concept of “mesorah” (tradition), claiming that the appointment of female rabbis would violate a sacred, if unwritten, code of values passed down through the centuries.

The third and most fundamental argument against the ordination of women seeks to undermine the entire project as heresy.  From the start, in this complaint, the endeavor is incompatible with the supposed “orthodoxy” in Orthodox Judaism.  And this strategy takes one of two forms: Either the very idea of gender equality is heresy or, for completely unrelated reasons, the Open Orthodox movement is represented by heretics and therefore illegitimate.

Among his other objections to ordaining women, Rabbi Herschel Schachter of Yeshiva University is a proponent of the feminism-is-heresy thesis.  He considers Orthodox feminism a heretical movement that channels the schisms of the Sadducees and early Christians.  Those ancient heresies, Rabbi Schachter contends, also rebelled against rabbinic Judaism for its perceived discrimination against women.

In contrast, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, believes the supporters of ordaining women are guilty of much more serious theological crimes.  As Rabbi Feldman argued in a recent interview:

The RCA recently released a statement against Open Orthodoxy’s ordination of women. That is totally missing the point. The problem of Open Orthodoxy does not come down to whether women should or should not be Rabbanim (rabbis); it is the fact that they deny the most basic fundamentals of belief in Torah.

This is in line with the Council’s previous declaration that leaders of Open Orthodoxy “reject the basic tenets of our faith.”

Charges of heresy by clerical authorities may have once been effective at suppressing dissent.  But today, the means are obsolete and the end is unattainable.  Inquisitions, excommunication, and book banning have no place in a modern society, even a deeply religious one.

An appetite for heresy hunting may lead us down a slippery, dark path.  Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future — one familiar to George Orwell and Joseph McCarthy — in which an Un-Orthodox Activities Committee investigates suspected heretics, subpoenas witnesses to testify about their alleged thought crimes, and pressures them to name associates. The suspects are blacklisted.

We ought to consider carefully if that is the dystopia we want to leave our children.