I’m an Open Orthodox Rabbi; Aren’t You?

This past Shabbat, walking to shul, I had two insights that made me realize I have allowed others to imply I am not something I think I am and certainly strive to be. A scene from an old movie played in my head: Michael Douglas, playing the titular The American President, calls out a political opponent for mocking him as a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

Since the ACLU is an organization whose sole purpose is the defense of the Bill of Rights, he challenges, why wouldn’t his opponent be a part of that organization? It’s a movie, so the other character never has a chance to respond. The response might have been along the lines of historians’ quip about the Holy Roman Empire, that it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. The stringing together of words to make a title isn’t always the only way to read those words, nor necessarily an accurate one.

It is in light of those thoughts that I came to realize that it is high time that I announced that I am and strive to be an Open Orthodox Rabbi.

That is, I am Open: I believe I should do my best to accommodate as much as I possibly can in the people around me, should find all reasonable avenues to seeing their actions in the best possible light, and react to them as such. I strive, in all my interactions, to be open to all the various ways of serving Hashem, and to support and further as many of those as I can. I work, when facing conflict with others, to find solutions that will bring us together rather than separate us, and to find all the common ground we can.

True as that is, the moniker Open Orthodox reminds me that my Openness is but an adjective of my Orthodoxy. Orthodox, as I understand it, invokes a commitment to a chain of tradition of laws, attitudes, and perspectives. As part of that larger group called Orthodoxy, I recognize that I subordinate myself and my ideas to that system, finding all possible room within it for Openness while also accepting that I often have to follow the consensus of the Orthodox world, even when it tells me that my ideas are not proper, or at least not proper at the current time.

Certainly, as part of Orthodoxy, Open as I may be, I cannot celebrate when others, Jews or non-Jews, violate that which my tradition tells me God wants and expects of us, Jews or non-Jews.

And, finally, I am a Rabbi. I earned that title by four years of intense study, which built on a foundation of a somewhat reasonable Jewish education. I flatter myself that I worked hard and assiduously during those four years. But just as we don’t expect graduates of medical schools to come out at the top of their professions, I have no illusions about what my rabbinic degree certifies me to do. It does not make me a world expert in Torah law, in Jewish thought, or, truthfully, in anything. At most, it certifies that I know how to do research necessary — including consulting with experts on hard questions — to discover how to guide others in advancing their Jewish lives.

Not only am I an Open Orthodox Rabbi, I think most of the rabbis I know are at least as Open and Orthodox as I am, whether or not they trumpet it. They work tirelessly, whether in synagogues, schools, or Jewish communal organizations, to help others find their way closer to God. They do that by being open to where people are now, to finding entry points for those people to a greater service of God, and they do it, by and large, without judging, without castigating, without denigrating. They do it with love and open arms.

So let me echo Michael Douglas. For the record, yes, I am an Open Orthodox Rabbi. And my question is, to all the many wonderful and open rabbis I have met over the years, why aren’t you declaring this as well, reminding anyone who doesn’t yet know it that to encounter an Orthodox rabbi today is — and, by the way, responsa literature shows us that it has always been the rule more than the exception — to meet an Open Orthodox Rabbi, as I’ve defined it here, whether he chooses to make a fuss about it or not.

Maybe it’s time for more of those rabbis to make that clear.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.