Saying Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy

I say this with a heavy heart. But I think the time has come to say Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy. Kaddish is the prayer traditionally recited upon the loss of a loved one — like a parent or child. This is how I feel about this loss.

I have always been a big tent type of Orthodox Jew. Orthodox Judaism has room for many Hashkafos, from Satmar to organizations like JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). While I personally disagree with the philosophy of both extremes, I have always thought that there is room in Orthodoxy for differences. And yet in order for Orthodoxy to have any meaning, it has to have defined borders. There are limits to what can be called Orthodox. With respect to Satmar, as much as I abhor their views with respect to the State of Israel, those views are well within the parameters of Orthodox belief.

However, with respect to the left, it is an entirely different story. The left has morphed in to something called Open Orthodoxy (OO). To the best of my knowledge, no one has expressed the problems with them better than Rabbi David Berger. In fact, his views to a large degree parallel those of my own.

I have in the past always felt that even though some of their leading lights have strayed from their mentor’s Hashkafos — they should nevertheless be considered Orthodox. I argued that no matter how much they have strayed from the norm, they should still be considered members in good standing as long as they strictly adhere to Halacha, which has always been the case.

So, for example, when something like Women’s Tefilah Groups  (WTGs) were started, I did not consider it to be a violation Halacha, if done properly.

Rabbi Weiss (who was arguably the leading proponent of the left) kept pushing the envelope of Halacha away from tradition and adopting more innovations based on criteria outside of the Torah. This was done despite his mentor, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s clearly stated opposition to many of them. Innovations like ordaining women, interfaith and interdenominational services are all the kinds of things that Rav Soloveitchik strongly opposed. Something Rabbi Weiss actually conceded. Thus was Open Orthodoxy (a term he coined) born. He had also founded YCT — a Yeshiva that reflected those values.

But even with all of that, speaking for myself only, I did not think they warranted being expelled from Orthodoxy. Until, one fine day, Zev Farber, one of YCT’s prime products, revealed that after studying biblical criticism, he concluded that the Torah was probably written by different people at different times in history. That is a heretical view.

YCT president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin reacted to that by reaffirming his belief in the traditional view that the Torah is the word of God as recorded by Moshe Rabbenu; and this is what his Yeshiva YCT taught.

But he nevertheless defended Zev Farber’s right to question those foundational beliefs — calling him a major Talmud Chacham, and continued to embrace him as one of YCT’s own. That (as I have indicated in the past) is a deal breaker for me. I challenge my good friend Asher: Do explain how you can assert traditional views to be the truth and at the same time say that one of their brightest graduates have a right as an Orthodox Jew to question it?

I don’t see how any movement that does exactly what the Conservative Movement does vis a vis belief can be called Orthodox. The Conservative Movement too allows for such beliefs, just as they do the traditional ones. How is Open Orthodoxy much different with respect to their belief system? As I said in a recent essay, they have essentially started a new movement that is not Orthodox, despite use of the word in their name.

In its early stages, the Conservative Movement was not that different than Open Orthodoxy is today. They had similar motives of inclusivity — the mantra of OO. Their founding fathers sincerely believed that by creating a more liberal form of observant Judaism it would better appeal to the American ‘melting pot’ masses. They did not consider themselves a new movement at first. They just thought of themselves to be a more liberal, American style version of Orthodoxy. Some of their founding fathers, like Louis Ginsburg, were actually major league European trained Talmidei Chachamim.

And yet they were firmly rejected by Orthodox rabbinic leaders of their day. History has proven those rabbinic leaders to be right. The Conservative Movement of today cannot in any way be considered Orthodox. Many of its current leaders have even advocated that their movement stop calling themselves Halachic. Open Orthodoxy of today is not much different that Conservative Judaism was when it was founded.

But I don’t have to expel Open Orthodoxy and its affiliate organizations (e.g. YCT, Yeshivat Maharat) from Orthodoxy, Rabbis Weiss has resigned from the RCA, explaining why in a Tablet Magazine article — and has effectively declared Open Orthodoxy to be a new movement.

They use the word Orthodoxy. But they are not Orthodox. If you are a camel and claim to be a horse, that doesn’t make you a horse. They may see themselves that way. But they cannot have their cake and eat it too. You cannot resign from an organization that represents Orthodox rabbis because they don’t accept your innovations as Orthodox — and then say that you are still Orthodox despite that. Even more to the point, there is no legitimate Orthodox body that accepts them. Not the Agudah, and not the RCA. Not the OU and not the Israeli Rabbinate.

I do not celebrate this break. I am ‘saying Kaddish’ over them with sadness and a feeling of loss. This new split away from Orthodoxy is not a good thing. There is a need for an Orthodox left wing. There are a lot of sincere modern Jews that are strongly influenced by the spirit of the times, and yet are committed to observance of Halacha. The left provided a home for them. Those people otherwise might have  gravitated to Conservative Judaism — where that spirit is more fully honored.

I believe that Rav Solovetchik felt the same way. Because even though he opposed WTG’s he advised Rabbi Shlomo Riskin how to implement it halachically in his shul at the time, Lincoln Square Synagogue.

I don’t want to lose sincere Jews whose convictions lead them to embrace social values and ideals that are not sourced in Orthodoxy. Values that were honored by the left. The left has always been able to accommodate them while balancing those values with tradition. There were lines, however, that simply were not breached. Now they have now been breached with vigor.

In the past, the left was at least tolerated, if criticized by the right and, to a lesser extent, by Centrists like me. But now that those lines have been crossed there can be no tolerance. There is no longer a left wing of Orthodoxy. Open Orthodoxy has hijacked it. There is now only the right  and Centrists. Centrists are the new left by default.

I don’t know what’s next for Open Orthodoxy. But it doesn’t matter any more than it matters what’s next for Conservative Judaism. And I tear as I say Kaddish.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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