What the right and left can learn from each other

The situation has gotten quite ugly between the “ultra orthodox” and “open orthodox” movements. There seems to be no middle ground for discussion between the two groups. The far right has dismissed open orthodoxy as heresy and won’t even dialogue with the Open Orthodox. The extreme left have flagrantly crossed a number of red lines and in some cases have snitched on the Orthodox community for not going along with their innovations to the secular media. The tension can be cut with a knife.

I believe that if there is any chance of bringing both sides together,it will have to come from a mutual understanding of what exactly each side is bringing to the table. Both groups are fulfilling a true need in the community, or at the very least have a unique appeal. The popularity that both movements are enjoying shows that they are both fulfilling a real need in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community is mostly liberal and secular, and many have trouble relating to traditional orthodoxy. What the open orthodox have done is that they have successfully appealed to two values the Jewish community at large does care about: social action and tolerance. It’s not that the orthodox community hasn’t been charitable. It would be difficult to find another community that has been as philanthropic. However, it’s one of the best kept secrets. This is because of the not-so-well kept secret that orthodox p.r. is a horror show. Rather than being perceived as giving, the orthodox are perceived as judgmental, intolerant, and isolationist. The open orthodox have been able to put on a better face for the world by their dedication to social action and willingness to engage people outside of the bubble. I sincerely believe that even in the most right wing segments of the population there are ways to engage the broader population without compromising their value system.

However, people of all walks of life can be heavily involved in social action and tolerance. These are not values exclusive to Judaism. What is missing from Open Orthodoxy’s brand of Judaism is something called Jewish exceptionalism. This is the understanding that there is something fundamentally great and special about being Jewish, something we have that the rest of the world does not, which we have to offer. I am not talking about when Jews proudly tout the accomplishments and works of Jews like Einstein, Kissinger, or Perry Farrell for that matter. That’s not being proud of being Jewish; that’s being proud of how well we are able to be ‘just as good’ as non-Jews. Jewish exceptionalism is rooted in our 3,300+ year old tradition that started with the Exodus and continues through to today in that massive body of knowledge called the Torah. We are literally G-d’s witnesses (Is. 43:10), a claim no other nation can make, and our Torah is the product of that unique relationship we have with G-d. This is not to say non-Jews can’t and don’t have a relationship with G-d, but ours as the Nation of Israel is qualitatively different.

It is clear this concept of Jewish exceptionalism makes some members of the Open Orthodox movement so uncomfortable that they would rather deny the entire foundation of our faith rather than deal with the consequences of its truth. By the fact that they define themselves as Open Orthodox, they clearly want to identify positively with the Jewish tradition. At the same time, they wish so much to be accepted by the secular left and the non-Jewish world entire that they would rather defend a view on the Torah that is more consistent with agnosticism than to taking a risk that their religious views might be deemed unacceptable to people whose opinions may or not be favorable to religion in general.

Both the most right and most left of the scale of Orthodoxy have virtues that the other lacks, and both have major flaws they must correct. For the ultra Orthodox it is a matter of form while for the Open Orthodox it is a matter of substance. Ultra Orthodoxy presents a strong, substantive message that Jews can be proud of, but need to learn to package that message appropriately for people outside of their narrow world. Open Orthodoxy’s on the other hand present a message that while immediately appealing to some groups is a recipe for disaster in the long term. The attempt to erase the distinction between Jew and non-Jew has already killed the Conservative movement and is in process of killing Reform. In order for Jews to not only survive but thrive in coming years we must be able to articulate Jewish exceptionalism for the wider audience: the idea that Judaism offers something invaluable that nothing else does.

About the Author
Rabbi Eric Kotkin is the founder of TheCollegeRabbi.com, 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.
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