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An open letter to the leaders of Open Orthodoxy

The new approach has great strengths, but don't be so open-minded, as the saying goes, that your brains fall out

While I have decided to maintain the public nature of this letter, I am pleased to report that it has already elicited a positive response by at least one of the main leaders to whom it is addressed. My hope is that its publication will help and not hurt the maintenance of unity in the Orthodox camp.

In a recent essay, I wrote about what I admire in Open Orthodoxy (I have since learned that is a label that some of its leaders would prefer to no longer use). No matter what happens in the future, I will continue to admire these points and many others.

It is precisely because of my admiration for — and sometimes even identification with — Open Orthodoxy that I write this letter. I think you should already know that when the critique is coming from people like Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and Prof. David Berger, it may be time to listen. Besides long being identified with the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy, both men have been known for their thoughtfulness, intellect and sensitivity. At the risk of redundancy, I will add my name to those who feel it is time for Open Orthodoxy to take stock of where it is, not just as a favor to us, but — more importantly — as a favor to itself.

Much of what passes for critique these days is just self-serving harangue and rabble-rousing. No doubt, Open Orthodoxy is tired of having to deal with so much of that since its inception. And it could be that after getting so much unfair criticism, it has become immune to all criticism, even when it is in place. Yet our tradition tells us quite clearly that the wise man loves critique. Difficult though it may be, I call upon you to realize that there are some very important questions now being raised by those who think of themselves as your friends.

Indeed, accepting the critique of others is what kept many of Judaism’s most important movements within the pale, to the benefit of those offering the critique, as well as those accepting it. It is what kept the followers of Rambam from reducing all of Judaism to a metaphor for Greek philosophy. It is also what kept the early Kabbalists from turning into polytheists, substituting the sefirot for God Himself. More recently, it is what kept Hassidut from antinomianism and its turning away from the centrality of Torah study and observance. I need not point out that movements that rebuffed legitimate critique fared less well.

Rabbi Goldin raised the issue of method, Prof Berger of substance. To address the first, there are many — even within Open Orthodoxy — who have misgivings about the confrontational style adopted by several of its most prominent exponents. Personally speaking, I believe that much more is accomplished by those that seek a broader consensus for moderate change than those working for radical change within more narrow confines. But more immediately relevant is that if Open Orthodoxy cannot control its firebrands from burning bridges to the mainstream, it should not be surprised to wake up to a situation where these bridges no longer exist. In such a situation, it will have defined itself out of Orthodoxy on sociological grounds, if not necessarily on substantive ones.

Unfortunately, however, there are true substantive issues that threaten to pull us apart as well. Prof. Berger focuses on the authorship of the Torah and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s inability — or lack of desire — to provide clear red lines on what is probably (along with the nature of Halacha) Orthodox Judaism’s most important issue. To be fair, YCT President Rabbi Asher Lopatin endorsed the traditional understanding of revelation at Sinai. But, by the same token, he has — so far — refrained from placing any alternative as outside of Orthodoxy’s boundaries. This is not the place to go into the intricacies of this issue, which I and others have discussed in other forums. Suffice it to say that while Judaism’s red lines are intentionally fuzzy, there is no question that they exist. And one of the major items defining Orthodoxy as a movement has been its willingness to unapologetically proclaim and defend those boundaries.

There are other issues, but my point is not to create a laundry list of complaints. It is to simply say that it is time to listen.

I appreciate the desire to hold on to people on the religious and intellectual left. There has always been a tacit understanding that an individual need not follow every belief or law to have a place within the Orthodox community. Hence, all sectors of Orthodoxy would do well to continue to make room for those Jews who disagree with us and to do everything we can to make them feel welcome. But there are limits. One of them is that the leadership, both in the yeshivot and in the synagogues, has always supported a series of public red lines that define the community’s contours. It is really not about defining others, it is about defining ourselves.

The point is that for Open Orthodoxy to be Orthodox, it cannot be open to everything. And though it may hurt some people by saying so, it will ultimately hurt many more if it does not.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.