Modern Orthodoxy’s Right: In Search of a Message

Avraham Gordimer sees a schism (See here), and in that divide, he finds historical solace; the relish of Simchat Hatarat Hasfeikot, the joy of resolving doubts (to borrow a quip from the REMA). For Gordimer, the coming split within American Orthodoxy is but one more point on the historical continuum of the primordial fight pitting correct traditionalists against errant reformers. Open Orthodoxy is, in his view, simply Conservative Judaism writ Shomer Shabbat; no less insidious, no less errant, no less doomed to failure, no less worthy of expulsion from the Torah true camp. In fact, based on the totality of his writings regarding Open Orthodoxy, it seems pretty clear that he and the subgroup of Modern Orthodoxy to which he belongs want precisely that, a schism. But his pursuit of a split, his confidence in Modern Orthodoxy’s ability to emerge stronger, if smaller, by eschewing its left flank, is simply not true. It also reveals Modern Orthodoxy’s right wing’s biggest weakness.

Gordimer lists the sins committed by Open Orthodoxy as: 1. Opening new seminaries to train men and women to be Orthodox clergy; 2. Forming a breakaway rabbinical organization; 3. Innovating new approaches to conversion of non-Jews; 4. Welcoming to its ranks rabbis who do not cleave to traditional tenets of faith; 5. Welcoming into its ranks rabbis who endorse non-traditional marriages (I assume he’s referring to those Open Orthodox rabbis who advocated for making gay marriage legal in the days leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges) 5; Welcoming into its ranks rabbis who engage in banned interfaith dialogue; 6. In Israel, certain left wing rabbis have sought to undermine the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, via alternative conversion courts.

I don’t intend to diminish the gravity of the issues underlying each of those alleged transgressions. Indeed with the exception of the first two (They really should be no surprise to anyone. After all, a lack of movement in the mainstream to address the left wing’s concerns about how P’sak Halacha has been hijacked by Chareidim and the role of increasingly sophisticated and Torah educated women led to great frustration. That frustration motivated the creation of new institutions to address those concerns), those issues cut to the core of what Modern Orthodoxy stands for, and how it should respond to a changed Modern Orthodox social landscape.

I don’t intend to defend Open Orthodoxy. It has very able and erudite spokesmen to make its case. And I confess that I do not entirely subscribe to its agenda or to its methods. I do point out though that one sad consequence of this schism and the internecine fighting leading up to it, and R. Gordimer is sadly correct, ultimately there will be a split as neither side appears interested in preventing one, is that Orthodox Jews like me, who see merit to both sides and prefer a unified Modern Orthodoxy, will have no Orthodox community in which they feel comfortable. Alas it is the centrists who always suffer the most in these battles.

Rabbi Gordimer is not obliged to endorse or even respect Open Orthodoxy’s agenda or its approach to Orthodox Judaism. But he has never once acknowledged that it is Open Orthodoxy alone, that addresses some of the fundamental challenges to the entire Modern Orthodox enterprise that have arisen in the past twenty or so years. In response to each and every Open Orthodox attempt to deal with those questions, issues like how to create Halachikly permitted ritual opportunities for ever eager and educated women, or how to render a seemingly ultra-conservative Orthodoxy relevant and meaningful to an increasingly liberal youth, or how to address the challenges to faith posed by critical Bible scholarship (which is ever more and more easy to access online), Gordimer’s reply is always to simply denigrate the motivations of those questioners, to brand them religious miscreants and to predict schism as a result of their alleged turn to heterodoxy. What he never does, what no one to the right of Open Orthodoxy ever does, is offer alternate solutions to the questions posed. Impliedly he refuses to consider the issues from any perspective other than his own parochial understanding of Modern Orthodoxy; one that relies heavily on carefully selected precedent and eschews any sort of creativity. In other words, Gordimer fails to even acknowledge those issues. He offers nothing to those who ask the questions addressed by Open Orthodoxy.

Gordimer’s tactics do achieve one purpose; they squelch free and open debate. It’s always been true, that throughout history, as information became and becomes more and more available to the masses, Judaism in any of its forms, is only as successful and meaningful to people as its ability to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. That’s especially true of any Orthodoxy as it draws its legitimacy from defending tradition and cleaving to practices that appear anachronistic or worse to the casual observer or neophyte seeker. Modern Orthodoxy has the added challenge of articulating how to go about incorporating practices and values that are not specifically Jewish into the Halachik orbit, whilst not altering Judaism’s basic form. But Gordimer, via his denigration of Open Orthodoxy and its leadership, refuses to engage in free and open debate, to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. And that refusal is tantamount to an admission on his part that in fact Modern Orthodoxy has nothing to contribute to the discussion, has nothing to offer those who are troubled by the status quo. For Gordimer, one is either “in or out,” a true believer or a heretic. But it is Gordimer’s worldview that is rendered out. Why should an outsider take him seriously, when he takes no one, other than himself and those who think as he does, seriously?

For those of us on the fence about these issues, Gordimer’s dialectic is untenable, a failure of Modern Orthodoxy. Gordimer’s approach would ultimately consign Modern Orthodoxy to the ash heaps of Jewish history for its irrelevance. It’s also anti-historic. Whether it was Hirschian Neo-Orthodoxy, Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy, American Modern Orthodoxy or the American Kollel phenomenon, Jews serious about preserving Halacha and maintaining its central role in Jewish life and destiny always developed new and innovative ways to render Halacha and Jewish belief resonant, meaningful and satisfying  to the Halachikly observant. And each of those developments was accompanied by articulated statements of principles, philosophies of Jewish life, that both explained the new structure and packed it with religious meaning. Sometimes, as was the case with Modern and Neo-Orthodoxy, some level of compromise with western values and culture was needed. In other times and places and for other Jews, a more uncompromising self- segregating approach was the solution. Both models have their basis in classic Jewish sources. But it was the successful innovations in Judaism of those various schools of thought that enabled Halachik praxis to weather the storms of Enlightenment, Emancipation and the pull to assimilate. Ignoring the questions of the day never worked. And each of those Orthodox responses to the challenges of their times came about as the result of intense soul searching, research, and most crucially, debate. To cite but one illustrative example, the historical record about the 1868 Hungarian Jewish Congress and the ultra Orthodox congress at Mihalovce(Nagymihaly) convened in response to it, is replete with debates, often raucous, dialogue and correspondence between the warring factions of traditionalist Hungarian Jewry. As strident and reactionary as the Ultra Orthodox camp was, under the leadership of Hillel Lichetnstein and Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, they didn’t stifle debate about how to respond to the new challenges confronting late nineteenth century Jewry. They never ignored the crucial questions of the day. All the participants in those debates knew that the old models of communal structure and practice could not abide. The fight was about which new constructs were called for. And they all recognized that building new models of Jewish life required the type of interactions that took place. These people may not have liked each other much. But they dealt with one another, even working together (as was the case with R. Jeremiah Low and the Liszker Rebbe who despite despising one another, agreed to jointly chair the Orthodox Jewish Congress in Budapest) in the greater interest of developing Jewish tradition rooted in the past, able to withstand the present and prepared to look to the future.

The twenty first century is no different. Orthodox Jewry of our days needs new constructs. Tradition, once again needs to be reshaped. As opposed to the reformers of the nineteenth century, Open Orthodoxy is not looking to abandon Jewish praxis or belief and assimilate. It recognizes the problems encountered by Conservstive Judaism in the twentieth century and wants to avoid those as well. Be it ultra or modern styles, Orthodoxy needs to be re-formed into a Judaism that resonates and gives meaning, lest it be deemed an irrelevant anachronism by the present generation of Modern Orthodox Jews. Gordimer’s refusal/failure to propose a new model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that presents his quasi Chareidi values in a meaningful fashion, bespeaks a failure in his thinking and that of Modern Orthodoxy’s right flank. It demonstrates that a heretofore significant faction of Modern Orthodoxy has nothing to offer the future beyond the doctrinal pronouncements of the leaders of a bygone generation. Their’s is a path to the demise of Modern Orthodoxy. For without a vibrant creative right flank to ameliorate against the excesses of the left, Modern Orthodoxy will fall down the slippery slope and morph into a sui generis heterodox movement. While Open Orthodoxy needs to better articulate why it isn’t “Conservative Judaism sans the driving teshuva”, and how it will avoid becoming just that, Modern Orthodoxy’s right wing must step up and join the real conversation. The questions now are, is Modern Orthodoxy’s right up to the task, and who will emerge as the right’s real leader? The safe bet is that it isn’t Avrohom Gordimer.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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