Aaron Kalman
Working for Israel and the Jewish People

Open or closed – what is Orthodoxy?

The recent influx of columns and opinion pieces surrounding the newly coined “Open Orthodoxy” once again got me thinking about the 70 faces Judaism has, and the (very) thin, artificial borders we draw between the various denominations in an attempt to define them. [This piece by Michah Gottlieb demonstrates just how thin those borders can be.]

Such articles prompted Rabbi Yoseif Bloch to ask what exactly the Open Orthodoxy social-religious group is, and how he feels about it. While I’d been thinking about the topic for some time, it was after reading Bloch’s blog that I felt an urge to respond and share some of my thoughts.

Let us be clear — there are many ways to tackle this question. Bloch’s attempt to do so is by looking in a dictionary, instead of glancing at the social-religious world we’re a part of. In my eyes, this is the wrong approach. However, if he chooses to tackle this question through the dictionary I’d expect him to do so properly.

In his piece, Bloch skipped an important part of his own question, seeing as only the first half of the phrase (Open) was examined while the second half (Orthodoxy) was left as a given. This helped him avoid the real question at hand: What is (Jewish) Orthodoxy?

That question is hard to answer. When you compare it to other Jewish denominations it’s easy to say what it isn’t, but it’s very hard to define on its own. Some of its members adhere to a strict dress code inherited from Eastern Europe 200 years ago while others blend in perfectly well in New York 2013. Some members view the need to be active in the material world as god’s will while others believe the ultimate goal is to live (and die!) in the tent of Torah.

You can’t remove someone from a group without defining that group’s limits — in this case, a mission on the verge of impossible. This is why Bloch’s attempt to hint that some people affiliated with Open Orthodoxy have crossed the line is ridiculous.

So what is Orthodoxy?

As we all know, until some 250-300 years ago the answer to “what is Jewish” was pretty simple. Yes, practices varied from Poland to Morocco and Iranian traditions were different then the ones in Italy, but everyone agreed that “keeping kosher,” “observing Shabbat” and adhered to halacha, the codex of Jewish law, were at the heart of it.

With the start of the enlightenment and emancipation, that definition of Judaism as a religion came to and end. Jews in Europe started developing different ways of living a Jewish life. Not everyone kept Shabbat or prayed three times a day. New “free” Jews were born, and with them Orthodoxy — a reactionist movement to those who decided to actively detach themselves from tradition; the famous cry of “Hadash asur m’haTorah” — new is forbidden by/from the Torah — was its slogan.

Much time has elapsed since then, and today the term Orthodoxy is an umbrella for many sub-sects and thoughts. Do Orthodox people (hyphenated with modern, ultra, Zionist or anything else) believe that university studies are welcome or blasphemous? Do they think the State of Israel is the start of Jewish redemption, that it provides that possibility for it or perhaps that it’s very existence is a slap to god’s face?

I’m not sure I know the answers to these questions, which have many practical implications on people religious lifestyle. Do these questions (and subsequent answers) even matter? I think they do, yet I acknowledge that Satmar, YU and Yeshivat Gush Etzion can all be called Orthodox — despite their different answers to these crucial questions.

In contrast, it seems Bloch believes we can have very different views on these questions, but not on the question of how god’s message was delivered or other areas of debate within modern Orthodoxy. However, even if I’d agree with him and say this was the most important question for defining Orthodoxy, it appears modern, liberal or open Orthodox thinkers have a solid foundation on which to build their case.

A quick glance at Jewish history before the emancipation shows us that important rabbis and scholars had different (possibly opposing views) regarding the belief in a divine Torah. The writings of Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Yehuda ha’Chasid and Rabbi Shmuel David Lutzato (to name a few) show they too saw some truth in what biblical critics would point out centuries later.

However the real question facing us isn’t about this so-called red line: People aren’t fighting for one interpretation or another of our scriptures. They are fighting for the legitimacy to represent what they believe is true Jewish tradition.

A known question in the world of halacha is what blessing to say over chocolate, with two of the greatest rabbis from the 20th century reaching different conclusions. In this case, no one thinks one of the two rabbis isn’t Orthodox, probably because they both wore black suits and hats and their rulings on the matter didn’t affect our public Jewish life.

In our case, the liberal/open/modern Orthodox rabbis aren’t being targeted because a specific person affiliated with them believes or doesn’t believe in some form of prophecy. Rather, they’re attacked because other rabbis feel threatened by the notion that “open” positions and ideas could be welcomed by the public.

About the Author
Aaron Kalman is a Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, working to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Formerly an advisor to Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a Jewish Agency emissary to Sydney, Australia, Aaron has an M.A. in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a B.Ed. from Herzog College.