I’m not a rabbi, and I don’t consider myself a member of the Open Orthodox movement. I’m not affiliated with any of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ institutions. Still, I find myself very troubled by Rabbi Maryles’ and Rabbi Gordimer’s public, haughty declarations of Open Orthodoxy’s demise. ‘So why do I care?’ I ask myself.
While these debates are primarily waged back-and-forth by rabbis over their respective institutions’ principles, it’s clear that these rabbis and institutions are only some of the better known faces of their schools of thought. Movements are made up of human beings — like me and you. So when Rabbis Maryles and Gordimer make their declarations about Open Orthodox rabbis, institutions and religious approaches, their words are also judgments against many, many laypeople.
Rabbi Avi Weiss has been the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), a large Orthodox synagogue, since 1973. It is a community of 850 families. Rabbi Weiss coined the term ‘Open Orthodox’ in 1997 and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to train Open Orthodox rabbis in 1999. Then, in 2009, he founded Yeshivat Maharat to train female religious leaders. In 2010, he announced that a woman would serve as ‘Rabba’ of HIR.
Notably, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ congregation stood behind him throughout these decisions. Imagine how differently this story would have turned out if the 850 families of HIR had abandoned Rabbi Weiss, proclaiming, “Open Orthodoxy is illegitimate — we oppose this.”
HIR has served as the training grounds for young rabbis who have gone on to lead their own congregations. Further, the graduates of Weiss’ yeshivas serve various Jewish communal institutions — synagogues, Hillels, day schools, etc. It’s safe to say that these institutions and their members also stand behind Rabbi Weiss and Open Orthodoxy.
In truth, the ideas and values that Rabbi Weiss and his institutions espouse were percolating in the Modern Orthodox community long before Open Orthodoxy was officially established. The older generation(s) of Open Orthodox religious leaders are mostly graduates of Yeshiva University’s theological seminary. Progressive Orthodox rabbis were the minority there, but Weiss was hardly alone. The rabbinical association established by Weiss called the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) includes generations of graduates of various yeshivas. It is not simply a group of Rabbi Weiss’ ordainees.
Are they Orthodox?
I must emphasize, once again (!), that Orthodoxy is not a centralized Jewish movement. There is no one individual or institutional body that speaks for all Orthodox Jews. Neither Rabbi Maryles nor Rabbi Gordimer, as much as they may claim to, represent all of Orthodox Jewry. Neither of these individuals can decide which Jews are ‘in’ and which Jews are ‘out’ of the Orthodox community.
The Conservative Hebrew high school of my youth employed some Orthodox Jewish educators, and I was particularly fond of one such rabbi. At the time, I did not understand anything of Halakha (Jewish law) and did not understand the mitzvot as Divine commandments, but I still remember him smiling wisely at me, “remember, David, Judaism is a religion of ‘deed’ not ‘creed.'” Today, I understand what he meant. While ideological purity may be more comfortable and comforting for Rabbis Maryles and Gordimer, the reality is this: traditional Judaism only requires the Jew to follow halakha — his ideology is his own.
Taking myself as an example, it’s simply incorrect to describe me as ‘not Orthodox’ according to the common understanding of this term because I have no alternative. It’s a technical, halakhic matter; for example, I daven (pray) in synagogues with mechitzot (dividers between men and women). The non-Orthodox denominations oppose such barriers, with the exception of a few Conservative synagogues, which are gradually changing their policies to allow mixed seating during prayer services. In other words, regardless of the degree to which my ideology conforms to that of particular Orthodox communities or the majority of Orthodox Jewry, my synagogue of choice is Orthodox.
This is also true of those who affiliate with Open Orthodoxy or any of Rabbi Weiss’ institutions. Their Jewish practices are in line with the Orthodox community. Their synagogues are Orthodox. They live Orthodox Jewish lives.
Aren’t they really Conservative?
I won’t pretend to know what the future holds. Perhaps some Open Orthodox rabbis will eventually cease to uphold Halakha in a way that is accepted throughout the Orthodox community. Perhaps some Open Orthodox rabbis will eventually adopt more mainstream Orthodox ideological views. Who knows?
Open Orthodoxy is not the same as Conservative Judaism. The founding thinkers behind Conservative Judaism broke away from the Reform movement to ‘conserve’ Jewish tradition, whereas the founding thinkers of Open Orthodoxy are all Orthodox, aiming to establish a more welcoming, inclusive Orthodoxy. In fact, Rabbi Weiss’ movement likely increases the number of people who might consider affiliating with Orthodoxy because its emphasis on inclusivity speaks to many who are disinclined toward religious dogmatism. In a time when only 48% of U.S. Orthodox Jews chose to remain Orthodox, this should be lauded by the Orthodox establishment.
In my experience, Open Orthodox rabbis are empathetic, intellectual and interesting. Their faith in Jewish tradition’s relevance to the modern mind and heart are inspiring. They are able to speak the language of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews (and Orthodox Jews), while remaining true to their halakhic commitments. They are invested in confronting the growing pains of Jewish tradition out of love for the Jewish people.
And here’s the thing.
Rabbi Maryles and Rabbi Gordimer don’t have to agree with anything that I’ve written, but the significant point is that I am not alone in my views. Jews like me exist, and thankfully there are rabbis like Avi Weiss who champion our brand of traditional, yet progressive Judaism. We don’t find inspiration in the words of rabbis like Maryles and Gordimer. To us, their recent writings come across as fearful and suffocating.
In truth, I don’t care if Avi Weiss’ brand of Judaism is considered Orthodox or not, but I’m astounded that those Jewish leaders who proclaim to care so much about Orthodoxy and Halakha aren’t hesitating to cleave off their noses to spite their faces. And finally, I’d like to know how they’d describe halakhically observant laypeople like myself who are active at their ‘Orthodox’ synagogues, and continue to deeply appreciate Rabbi Weiss’ leadership and Open Orthodoxy more generally.
 See: The 2013 Pew Research Center Report: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-denominational-switching/