Dividing the soul of Orthodox Judaism

In addressing the recent controversy concerning the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its investigation of Rabbi Avi Weiss and other rabbis, Rabbi Marc Angel accused the Chief Rabbinate of “Poisoning the Soul of Judaism.” I stand in full agreement with Rabbi Angel and most members of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, from Tzohar’s Rabbi David Stav to the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), concerning Rabbi Weiss’s honesty and trustworthiness. Indeed, I am not aware of any Modern Orthodox rabbi who would refuse to accept his testimony. That being the case, however, Rabbi Angel’s central question should be more puzzling – “How then is it possible for the Chief Rabbinate to discredit him?” One tempting answer is a conspiracy theory involving a Haredi “mafia” that is attacking “the entire modern Orthodox Jewish community of America.” Yet how could this be, when the RCA enjoys a better relationship with the Chief Rabbinate than it has in many years, and operates a successful and effective conversion system with the approval of the Chief Rabbinate?

We ought to consider not only the Haredi composition of the Israeli rabbinate, but a developing schism in American Orthodoxy as well. Rabbi Weiss’s actions as a leader of the growing “Open Orthodox” movement in America have likely played a significant role in placing him and other Open Orthodox rabbis in the unenviable position in which they now find themselves. Open Orthodoxy is not merely a “creative, open, modern Orthodoxy,” as Rabbi Angel describes it, and it alone was the target of the Rabbinate’s investigation – not the Modern Orthodox community in America as a whole.

It is no secret that Open Orthodox leaders and rabbis have engaged in many violations of normative Orthodox Jewish practices. Some of these violations have been openly condemned by a unanimous RCA convention resolution or the board of the Orthodox Union. Even Open Orthodoxy’s institutions have sometimes struggled to either condemn or distance themselves while saving face. For example, when the conversion coordinator for the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), Open Orthodoxy’s rabbinical group, denied the divine authorship of the Bible, Avi Weiss’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) defended this contention as within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, despite its disagreement with it, and despite the IRF’s apparent decision to force his resignation.

Open Orthodox leaders like Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the President of YCT, have represented their movement as Modern Orthodox. Yet they have a problem not merely with Haredi detractors who have openly rejected them as unorthodox. Open Orthodoxy has also been criticized by many Modern Orthodox rabbis, including the RCA’s Honorary President. Since YCT was never formally recognized by Modern Orthodox institutions, whether the RCA, Young Israel, or the Orthodox Union, Open Orthodoxy was forced to establish the IRF as a shadow institution. More Modern Orthodox rabbis have recently voiced their objections, and the RCA has officially gone on record to state that a majority of its members believe that Rabbi Weiss has made decisions that possibly or clearly violate Orthodox Jewish law. Like Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Angel, and myself, many or most of these rabbis do “not wear a black hat, nor have a long beard, nor hang [their] tsitsith outside [their] pants.” Yet they are extremely troubled by Open Orthodoxy’s attempt to incorrectly redefine Modern Orthodoxy.

If Open Orthodox rabbis continue to embrace unorthodox practices, their problems will likely worsen. The Chief Rabbinate will have an increasingly difficult time trusting American Orthodoxy generally if it sees a divergence between claims and practices. This could lead to a worsening situation in which Open Orthodox rabbis, unwilling to embrace Orthodox norms, would engage in increasingly desperate moves to obtain legitimacy, such as Rabbi Weiss’s call for the imposition of Reform and Conservative norms on an Israeli society with hardly any followers of those movements.

When its conversions were investigated by the Chief Rabbinate in 2006, the RCA used a crisis as an opportunity. It built a better and more professional conversion system that quickly gained the approval of the Chief Rabbinate. As part of this effort, the RCA’s committee on conversions, led at the time by Rabbi Barry Freundel, demonstrated to the Chief Rabbinate that RCA rabbis are proudly both modern and Orthodox. It seems quite possible that Rabbi Weiss and Open Orthodoxy are on a different path. Hosting Christian choirs for joint synagogue-church memorials, employing Reform Jewish practices in synagogue services both jointly and independently, promoting Passover as a holiday of homosexual liberation, ordaining women rabbis, and accepting human authorship of the Bible as an Orthodox view are simply not accepted in Orthodox Judaism. The question is: will Open Orthodoxy renounce unorthodox practices and join Modern Orthodox efforts to promote relationships with Israeli Jewry? Or will it strike out on its own, and continue to place all of the blame for its legitimacy problems on the flaws of others?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University's James Madison Program. He is also a Chaplain in the New Jersey Army National Guard with the rank of Captain, and the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. He lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and two daughters.
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