Obsessing about Open Orthodoxy

Critiquing Open Orthodoxy has become a popular sport on the blogosphere. Rabbi Gil Student’s Hirhurim blog frequently featured this theme and others have also contributed to the endeavor. However, the most prolific among the critics has clearly been Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, a rabbi working for the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union. I think it safe to say that he has written more than 100 blog posts fully or partially dedicated to ousting Open Orthodoxy from the Orthodox world. For a while, R. Gordimer had a weekly post on the Cross Currents blog entitled News In and Out of Orthodoxy, which invariably included something against Open Orthodoxy.

To get a sense of the exclusive focus, let us look at his posts on The Times of Israel. Since the beginning of 2015, R. Gordimer has posted 47 columns on this site. There are no pure divrei Torah among them. At least 40 of them relate to the divide between right and left within Judaism. These include six critiques of R. Ysoscher Katz, four polemics with R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, three diatribes against R. Shmuly Yanklowitz, four posts against R.  Shlomo Riskin (including one justifying the Rabbanut attempting to terminate his position as rav of Efrat) and arguments with Rabbis Seth Farber, Herzl Hefter, Ben Greenberg, Ari Segal, Dr. Aaron Koller, and Ms. Debra Klapper. Could it be that all this was truly necessary for protecting klal yisrael? I think one can safely call this an obsession. Is such an obsessive focus a positive endeavor?

Let me stipulate that criticism of rabbis and leaders on the left wing of Orthodoxy certainly has its place; indeed, I have engaged in this enterprise myself. One may critique them for excessive halakhic flexibility and for theological relativism. One can claim they sometimes identify Judaism with the ideals of the Democratic Party, or that they concede too easily to Western liberalism. The question is not whether criticism is justified, but whether obsessively criticizing one group is helpful.

Those who are pure and righteous do not complain about evil, but increase justice. They do not complain about godlessness, but increase faith. They do not complain about ignorance, but increase wisdom. (Rav Kook, Arpilei Tohar)

As Rav Kook wrote, we prefer positive and constructive work to attacking and complaining about others. R. Yaakov Emden spent a lot of time hunting Sabbatians, but he also wrote teshuvot, a commentary on the Mishnah, notes on the Talmud Bavli, and many other works.  These writings give R. Emden stature that lends weight to his ability to engage in heresy-hunting. Even so, R. Emden likely went too far and started to see followers of Shabbtai Zvi everywhere. While R. Gordimer does have many shiurim on YUTorah, he cannot claim a parallel positive production and should certainly be concerned about excess.

Even when trying to counter opponents, the positive approach has many advantages. Let us say that I would like to defend our kitvei hakodesh from the threat of biblical criticism.  I could show how the arguments of academic scholars are not so convincing and counter their literary reconstruction. Conversely, I could assert that the Humash is a unified whole and show how that assumption leads to profitable interpretive results. Either of those approaches would contribute to our understanding of Humash and advance the Torah conversation. If, instead, I simply consistently call others koferim, I do not help defend the tradition and convey weakness. R. Gordimer just accuses others of heresy, occasionally relying on some one-sided citations of Rav Soloveitchik for help, without explaining or justifying our tradition.

Obsessions mean that a person lacks balance and sees everything through the one lens. Thus, perfectly legitimate positions are conflated with actual heresy. This creates a situation in which finding fault in the behavior of the avot is equated with accepting the Documentary Hypothesis. To cite an example unrelated to R. Gordimer, criticizing Rav Druckman for his refusal to apologize for his support for Motti Elon becomes identified with totally denying rabbinic authority. Such obsession skews analysis and warps judgment.

Furthermore, obsession blinds a person to other flaws in the community that require redress.  Those who exclusively find fault with the left or the right obviously fail to appreciate the complexity of most questions in which each side has problems and weaknesses. One good example is R. Gordimer’s sharing links to several glowing hespedim for Rav Yisrael Belsky. A reader of his post will not discover that R. Belsky publically defended a confessed sexual abuser and accused the parents of the victim, who later had to move out of Lakewood, of mesirah for going to the police. Obsession with the problems on the left blinds a person to deep moral flaws on the right.

Obsessions also work against a generosity of spirit that sees the positive in one’s opponents.  A critic can write forcefully and yet note points where the other side has reasonable arguments or praiseworthy actions. For example, he can write a column about donating kidneys and mention that R. Shmuly Yanklowitz had done so. He can appreciate the seriousness of the problems an adversary attempts to solve even if he finds the solutions untenable. I find this generosity of spirit lacking in R. Gordimer’s writing.

Not only does obsession lead to negative results, it often comes from a problematic place.   Here, we have to tread carefully. It is too easy to attack another’s motivation and we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, R. Gordimer and others genuinely want to defend our precious tradition. Nonetheless, I think we can provide a model for determining when motivation turns questionable.

Let us imagine a woman who aspires to teach Torah to both women and men in various public forums. There is no excuse for accusing her of misappropriating Torah to support a feminist agenda. Perhaps she simply adores Torah and loves sharing its beauty and wisdom with others. On the other hand, what if a woman only gives shiurim on women’s issues and her shiuirm always push the halakhic envelope? We would then be justified in questioning her motivation. A true lover of Torah would likely find other topics equally engaging and would not dedicate all of her teaching to one politically charged topic.

Similarly, someone who occasionally attacked Open Orthodoxy, but also frequently wrote about a variety of other topics would be exhibiting a healthy proportion. In contrast, someone who demonstrates single-minded obsession with attacking Open Orthodoxy and other liberal voices may be revealing problematic motivations.  Perhaps he is concerned about acceptance from the Haredi world and is consistently looking over his right shoulder for approval.  Perhaps he is a frustrated person looking for an outlet for his aggression. Frumkeit can provide an excellent cover for those with angry tendencies. Alternatively, he may enjoy the attention gained by attacking others. Finally, he may be scared of the opposition, he may “protest too much,” worried that the arguments of biblical criticism are not, in fact, absurd or that the advancement of women may mean more domestic responsibility for men.

Now, I cannot say with confidence that any of these motives apply to R. Gordimer, but it is fair to raise such questions when he and his fellow travelers exhibit obsessive behavior. He represents a small but vocal group of RCA rabbis who frequently try to pass resolutions directed against Open Orthodoxy. Quite a few of them do not occupy full time positions in the pulpit or education. People who do not interact with a broad range of students or congregants more easily adopt consistently hard line positions, and often make the work of those who do pastor and teach more difficult. The above catalog of motives likely applies, in whole or in part, to others among this group. If so, we have further reason to discourage the obsession. Obsessions often come from a negative place and lead towards destructive results.

I conclude with a personal call to Rabbi Gordimer: I only have pleasant memories of my interactions with you, in which you were always considerate and friendly. Yet even good people can get caught up in the wrong cycle. Now that flaws existing in Open Orthodoxy have been sufficiently exposed by you and others, you could find more constructive outlets for your energy. As R. Kook taught, dedicate yourself to increasing justice, faith, and wisdom.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Bau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an asociate editor of Tradition magazine and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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