Philip Lefkowitz
Philip Lefkowitz

Open, Yes — Othodoxy, No  

Recently I received, as did others, the following Facebook post by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School of the Open Orthodox movement. Rabbi Lopatin was a colleague of mine when he lived in Chicago, a fellow member of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, and a neighbor — his synagogue Anshe Shalom Bnei Israel and my synagogue, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation being but walking distance from one another. We always had a cordial and respectful relationship.

Yet candidly, I always had great difficulty understanding his brand of Orthodoxy. There was no denying that he was an active, influential and frankly, successful spiritual leader. However, his founding of a multidenominational day school and his attitude toward conversion were always perplexing. In this post he again leaves me confused.

Asher Lopatin

June 26 at 9:44am · 

We must all stand for a united Jewish People — in Israel and all over the world. United to worship at the Kotel according to our diverse practices and supporting the bedrock of the Jewish State that all Jews, no matter their backgrounds, their way of converting to Judaism, or their level of observance, have the ability to become citizens of the Jewish state.

“We must all stand for a United Jewish people in Israel and all over the world…“  No one can argue with this sentiment. However, Jewish history demonstrates that although a united Jewish people is always a lofty and desirable goal, our “stiff necked” people is perpetually splintered and divided on an ever-growing number of fundamental and significant issues – two Jews, three opinions.

His statement, “United to worship at the Kotel according to our diverse practices and supporting the bedrock of the Jewish state that all Jews, no matter their backgrounds, their way of converting to Judaism, or their level of observance have the ability to become citizens of the Jewish State,” presents more questions.

“United to worship at the Kotel according to our diverse practices…” What does that mean?  United is defined as “joined together politically, for a common purpose, or by common feelings.” Diverse is defined as “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” When it comes to Jewish worship, various denominations have definitive and fundamental rules regarding how this worship is to be expressed and practiced. Moreover, that which one denomination considers as central to Jewish worship another views as an anathema to the fundamentals of Jewish worship. The best that can be achieved, and this is fraught with difficulty if one considers the Kotel a sacred Jewish religious location necessitating a defined theological approach in prayer obviously different from one denomination to another, is separate locales for different Jewish religious expressions.  This is already a fact of life at the Kotel.

As for his statement “that all Jews, no matter their backgrounds, their way of converting to Judaism…, have the ability to become citizens of the Jewish State, I am again confused. “…all Jews” what does that mean? Are Messianic Jews included in “all Jews” as understood by Rabbi Lopatin?  After all, they claim, that unlike Reform Jews, they do adhere to many Halachic norms and are as a movement, devoted to the support of the State of Israel.  And what of the Black Israelites, a good portion of whom, under the spiritual leadership of their Chief Rabbi and my friend, Capers Funnye, see themselves as legitimate Jews, a part of world Jewry no different than Jews associated with other denominations – Orthodox, Conservative etc.? Is claiming to be a Jew, the only criteria used by Rabbi Lopatin as the definition of a Jew or does he adhere to the specific criteria of Orthodox Halacha, the approach to Judaism his Rabbinical Seminary claims for its own as THE definition of the meaning of the word Jew?

His understanding of Jewish claim becomes even more confusing when considering his statement, “their way of converting to Judaism… have the ability to become citizens of the Jewish state.” Conversion to Judaism in an Orthodox context means, the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, the responsibility a Jew has as a result of the revelation of G-d at Mt. Sinai contained in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Orthodoxy sees these texts, and the 613 commandments therein as the irrefutable and eternal morals, ethics and religious life of the Jew. In clear contradistinction, Reform Judaism sees the very same texts as representing the noble attempt by our Jewish ancients to encapsulate the Jew’s understanding of G-d and His will. As expressed in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. “3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” In recent years this has been modified further by their rejection of the binding power of the moral laws of the Torah, demonstrated by their positions taken on such issues as abortion and homosexuality.  In stating the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism a simple way of expressing it is – Orthodoxy understands G-d as the creator of the Jew while Reform understands the Jew as the creator of G-d. Conversion in each of these movements is radically different in its ritual and worlds apart in its understanding of Judaism. Frankly, I have stated on occasion, that in many ways I have more in common with a Baptist preacher who, as I, believes in the divinity of the Torah, then I do with a Reform Rabbi who believes the Torah is a now largely dated product of the Jewish ancients. How can then one, as it appears. Rabbi Lopatin does, see conversions of Reform and Orthodox as equivalent as equal one to another, both accomplishing the same goal – the acceptance of Judaism as ones religious belief? Which Judaism? They bear little similarity. Which again begs the same question as above, what does the rabbi mean when he uses the term Jew?

We cannot claim Judaism can be all things to all people and at the same time claim to adhere to a specific form of Judaism as correct. I agree Open Orthodoxy is indeed open but it is surely not Orthodox.

Finally, as for the level of Jewish observance of another he has my vote.  I doubt there is a rabbi capable of providing a “Jewish report card” for another Jew’s religiosity. That mercifully is the sole province of the Alm-ghty.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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