Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Open Orthodoxy, Agudath Israel, Call-Out Culture and Consistency

Let me state my substantive positions from the outset.  I support including women’s faces in publications and oppose those who refer to women who desire this as radical feminists. I also take a rather traditional “YU/OU/RCA” line regarding some of the hot-button issues of the day relating to the roles of women, the LGBTQ community, Biblical criticism, etc.  I respect those who disagree with my positions in these matters.

The purpose of my post is not to debate these issues.  Over the years, I have read a number of posts from those in the broader modern orthodox/YU camp denouncing those in the “open orthodox” camp for statements made regarding some of these hot-button issues.  I have also read a number of posts from those in the modern orthodox community denouncing those in the Agudath Israel camp for justifying the erasure of women’s pictures from publications.  Last week, two Rabbis from the Agudath Israel camp were called out for their dismissal of the issue of women’s pictures at the most recent Agudath Israel convention.  I wonder, at what point does all of this denouncing lead to an overall environment of call-out culture?

“Call-out culture,” which is very prevalent in today’s society, is a form of public shaming wherein people identify offenses committed by members of their community and publicly call out the offenders, usually on social media.  A little more than a month ago, former president Barack Obama pointed out that call-outs can give the illusion that you’re effecting change, even if that is not true.  He said, “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was.  I called you out.’  That’s not activism.”  Perhaps the key to determining whether these denouncements are productive is whether they are effective.  Are we doing things to actually create positive change, or are we merely calling others out to make ourselves feel superior?

Personally, I have my doubts as to whether calling-out the Agudah for their practice will have any effect in changing them.  Similarly, I wonder whether calling-out open orthodoxy for certain practices will have any effect in changing them either.  Those who continue to protest and denounce both on the left and the right may argue that they are protesting and denouncing out of fear that these alien beliefs from without are creeping into mainstream modern orthodoxy, whether it’s more “open orthodox” perspectives on certain hot-button issues or whether it’s an acceptance of eliminating pictures of women from publications.  Some who describe themselves as being in the center are nervous that their longstanding religious worldview is being challenged from without and unless they emphatically state their opposition every time a challenge is issued, then their community is in spiritual danger.

I am more hesitant to constantly protest in either case.  The mitzvah of tochacha requires us to rebuke others for wrongdoing in the hopes of changing their wrongdoing and in order to clarify our position on any given issue. Once we clarify our position, I am not certain that constant denouncement and protest against every statement by the “left” or the “right,” as the case may be, is that productive.  On the contrary, it may likely only contribute to the “call-out culture,” which is very divisive in our society.  If we are dealing with a life-threatening issue, such as making Haredi women in Israel aware of diseases and how to protect themselves from diseases by mentioning female body parts, then we must do all that we can to save lives.  But if we are dealing with other issues that we legitimately believe affect our own personal and our community’s religious identity and lifestyle, then I think our focus should not be on constant attacks against those outside of our community, but it should be on strengthening our community from within.  As an example, it is certainly appropriate to celebrate the posting of women in pictures in OU, YU and Religious Zionist of America publications and to ensure that this practice continues.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe those who constantly protest feel that the spiritual danger to our community is so great that we must constantly denounce and protest.  If that’s the case, then we need to ask ourselves if we are being consistent.  Someone posted a blog a number of months ago criticizing someone for “obsessing” about open orthodoxy and I had mixed feelings about the post.  Does he feel the same way about obsessing over the erasure of women’s pictures?  If we feel that it’s legitimate to constantly protest against “open orthodoxy,” do we feel the same about constantly protesting the dangers of new and increasing stringencies in the name of “tzniut?”  And vice-versa.  It is certainly legitimate to disagree on substance.  It is certainly legitimate to be supportive substantively of a position on the right or left, as the case may be.  But let’s make sure that we are consistent to either allow everyone to obsess about an issue publicly if they feel passionate about it or to allow nobody to obsess about it publicly at all.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.