Ben Rothke’s Book review: Why Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodox misses the boat. Although Mr. Rothke correctly captures the essential message of this pivotal book, his frame of reference and critique are inaccurate.
The problem with Rosenthal’s assault on OO is that he overwhelms the reader with data, but doesn’t do that in any sort of structured manner. The fact that there are problems with OO could have been shown with 10% of his evidence, and a greater focus on the particulars of those problems.
The common disclaimer on math exams “you must show your work to receive credit. A correct answer without showing your reasoning will not receive credit” is a good descriptor of this book.
There are two types of polemical writings. One type is nuanced, in which the author elucidates subtle differences and abstracts from them substantive objections. Such is the nature of the polemical writings against Zacharias Frankel, who distinguished himself from the German Reform movement by asserting the validity of tradition, yet whose core beliefs were not Orthodox, as could be detected from a focused analysis of his works. Rav SR Hirsch demonstrated the threat of Frankel’s ideas to the integrity of Orthodoxy, by closely examining the ideas and fleshing out underlying problems that might otherwise not have been readily noted.
The other type of polemical writing is that of an alert, in which the author or presenter amasses an abundance of glaringly objectionable material and shares it with the public, allowing the material to speak for itself. In this case, there is little need for exposition, for the polemical writing is more of a fire call than a conceptualized and nuanced argument. And in fact, any attempt to engage in refined rationalization by the author would only detract from the loud and clear alarm which this type of polemical writing sounds.
Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox is this latter type of polemical writing, in which its author, Rabbi David Rosenthal, presents a well-organized and extremely comprehensive 10-chapter volume illustrating where the Open Orthodox denomination has parted ways with mainstream Orthodoxy. Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox is packed with approximately 500 direct and detailed quotations from the writings and speeches of Open Orthodoxy’s founders and leaders — all of which appear in the book with full citations, background and context — plus 100 or so endnotes that further articulate the issues. The entire work is topically arranged, each chapter commencing with an explanation of the basic traditional/Orthodox understanding of the matter being addressed, including foundational sources and substantive insights, so that readers can easily contrast this with the Open Orthodox take on each issue.
Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox is a fire call. However, rather than be shaken by the call, Rothke focuses on presentation and fails to grasp the fact that an alarm is being sounded. Imagine if a building were aflame, and the fire warden were to come screaming to the residents that they are in an inferno and they need to run for safety – but rather than run for safety, one of the building’s residents instead engages in a critique of the fire warden’s speaking style and tone of voice. Such is the case with Rothke’s review.
Let’s now address a few of Rothke’s particular gripes about the actual information in Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox.
The allegations (in the book) are that these OO rabbis have duped congregations into hiring them into thinking that they are strictly Orthodox. The danger as he sees it is that these congregations will be “misled right into the abyss into which multitudes of Conservative and Reform Jews have disappeared”.
If these OO rabbis are duping synagogues across the country, then they seem to be quite silent about it. Rosenthal provides no evidence of a single synagogue claiming mekach ta’ut as to the hiring process of their rabbi. With countless quotes from social media, there’s not a single one from a disenfranchised congregant.
The fact that congregations have not claimed that they were duped is immaterial. Rabbi Rosenthal’s argument is, rather, something other than normative Orthodoxy has been introduced, and it threatens to take its followers down the path of religious dilution. Case in point is the Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, which documents startling deficiencies in Torah observance and faith on the part of adherents of Open Orthodoxy.
Rosenthal quotes from Rabba Dr. Melanie Landau, who received ordination from Yeshivat Maharat in June 2015. Her views publicly stated after she received ordination were so abhorrent to Yeshivat Maharat, that she was removed from the class of 2015 page.
This is not fully accurate, for according to those much closer to the action, it was Rabba Dr. Landau herself who in 2016 requested that Yeshivat Maharat (the Open Orthodox rabbinical school for women) remove her from its website, subsequent to her embarking on a wild and radical new trajectory involving the feminine physique and sensual exploration. In fact, Landau was accepted into Yeshivat Maharat well after she had already published her inflammatory book, Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage: Beyond the Sanctification of Subordination, which rejects halachic marriage and offers alternatives. Landau’s authorship of this anti-halachic book was even included in her Yeshivat Maharat bio, until, according to the “official” story, she later requested that her affiliation with Yeshivat Maharat be taken down, due to unrelated issues.
But the details of Landau’s disassociation from Yeshivat Maharat are in truth immaterial, for Landau’s terribly problematic statements which appear in Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox were in fact made by her publicly and in writing prior to and during her tenure in Yeshivat Maharat, when there was no talk of disassociation from each other, and Yeshivat Maharat took pride in Landau’s works as it feted her and her book, before other, unrelated issues arose; this is the problem.
I previously penned a number of polemical articles about the Open Orthodox denomination. I pretty much no longer do so, due to lack of time and my feeling that the information is by now basically out there, with public awareness having been achieved. Although detractors threatened me with litigation and engaged in cyberbullying and in attempts to interfere with my livelihood, I was not deterred, as the objective data cited in my articles – and in Rabbi Rosenthal’s book – speaks for itself. (Readers can see a well-assembled sampling of this data on Rabbi Rosenthal’s website.)
Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox is a fire call. Rather than question the fire warden’s grammar or accent, let’s heed the urgency of his call and take a look for ourselves at the billowing flames.