The Genius of Open-Orthodoxy: “Gumby Halacha”

In the aftermath of a recent Chanukah article, some of my more fanatical conservative detractors either denigrated and mocked the progressive “open-orthodox” (OO) movement as a whole, or sought to question my open-orthodox credentials. The debate was on. Did I actually represent the movement or not? Would the leadership reject my statements? I found the whole discussion silly. Anyone who is familiar with the zeitgeist of open-orthodoxy recognizes that my most radical positions have strong support ideologically from prominent voices of that camp.

There is no recognized checklist to see if one is worthy to qualify. On the contrary. Our strength has always been that we have the courage to bang on the door of both Heaven and heresy, and demand that heresy have a voice in the very best traditions of heaven. Here is a truism. The most moderate voices of the camp harbor positions that would have made conservative Judaism in the 50’s-60’s cringe! Personally, I celebrate this fact as proof that progressive Halachah can overcome the rigidity of classical readings.  As has been shown by friend and foe, the voices of open orthodoxy are as diverse and vivid as a rainbow. And many of the voices focus on different challenges. We are not monolithic.

My views on Chanukah and Judaism have been stated by some of the most prolific Rabbah/Rabbis on the OO scene. From celebrating the range of human sexuality to tolerance for other faiths, my positions have strong foundations to stand on. At the core, we have a commitment to enlightened principles, or what we call “woke” thinking. That is, by expressing the voice of moderation rather than a celebration of violence.  By acceptance of the other, and by displaying queer compassion. These are central tenets of open-orthodoxy.

I never fancied myself an open-orthodox spokesperson although I do have close relationships with some of the popular voices on the scene. I KNOW my positions are appreciated and integrated within normative OO expression. I have been told so by some of her most public leaders. Several of them are dear friends.

My full origin story would surprise many readers. With humility, I confess that I am not a stranger to Torah study, to the words of Rashi and the Tosephoth. In my youth, I studied in prominent black hat institutions and was branded a potential illui (genius) by one very distinguished Haredi leader. By age eighteen,  I was considered an expert on a range of Halachic subjects. My confidence in these matters ultimately opened the door to my supposed heresies and was the ultimate catalyst for my exile from the Haredi Yeshiva world. This is a true picture of my earlier years stated without exaggeration. I am not the unlearned irreligious screwball my radical views of today may suggest. I knew several Talmudic tractates by heart before my Bar Mitzvah.

I was eventually thrown out of the yeshiva world for interjecting Spinoza and Leibniz into a discussion of free-will and having the gall to suggest a homoerotic reading of a popular biblical homily. I forgive the bruises both emotional and psycho-social. Yet that is a lifetime ago, and though the nightmare of a beating by a minority of zealous black hatters still lingers, I know that most religious Jews would not agree that it warranted a fractured skull, a hematoma the size of a grapefruit, and a vicious assault on my private’s that left me limping for months. Yet I forgive my brothers and pray for them daily. And in the best tradition, deep inside this rebel is the innocent boy who still misses the lamdus (scholarship) of the classic European beis midrash (house of study).

In some ways, I am very traditional by OO standards. Rabbi Zev Farber is a prominent voice of OO whose biblically critical views have even placed him at odds with much of his colleagues, not because of his biblically critical views per say (which are welcomed and celebrated) but by his general rejection of the underlying historicity of the Torah, which to me is undeniable. I believe that the figures of the Torah were historical. Abraham/Ibrahim was a real person and he was our patriarch of patriarchs. By some standards, I have even deemed an extremist for accepting the historical truths of the Torah narrative. Hee hee!

For those who feel I was disrespectful of the Maccabees in my article, I wanted to give context. To apologize without apologizing, since I did not intend to offend, yet I stand by my positions. The figures of the Maccabees perplex me as I recognize their struggles to preserve proto-Rabbinic Judaism. Today we have our own contemporary struggles  where liberal halachic Jews try to harmonize the stringency of Leviticus with incompatible contemporary liberal mores. Every honest OO person struggles with this.

In the Maccabees, I see merit in harnessing what they believed was necessary religious zeal and applying it to modern moral battles where Jewish sensitivity is so necessary. I truly believe (and know!) that most true adherents of OO value Chanukah even as they struggle with it. The Tikkun for this inner struggle is by shattering the vessel of extremism and releasing the enlightened holy sparks of Maccabee energy within. By fighting for progressive values such as a woman’s right for abortion on demand or queer liberation. This we see as the essence of Chanukah.

One correction. I did not call the Maccabees ISIS! I would do no such thing. I noted that those who seem to celebrate the violence and fanaticism of Jewish resistance reminded me of ISIS because of their idealization of violence. I stand by my position that the real lesson of Chanukah is the hidden unstated one to be gleaned from the encounter. I am a peace warrior for OO and I challenge anyone who says otherwise to prove my ideas deviant to the movement. I am one of many candles trying to illuminate the darkness of prejudice and intolerance. And I shall continue to dance.

Halacha is very important in OO, as is the principle of what I like to call “Gumby Halacha”, or “Stretch Armstrong Halacha”. I briefly discussed this on Chanukah. It is the acceptance of the rubbery superstructure of Halacha and its true form, but an understanding and celebration of its extraordinary stretchability. The Torah is indeed our beloved plaything as was understood by Chazal and yet by the very nature of it, it has a fantastic ability to stretch! I encourage Jews to stretch the Halacha. Stretch it a foot-long, nay five feet! Watch the arms and legs and head stretch the length of your wingspan. And if you do this for the sake of Heaven and the head pops off, you have engaged in the greatest expression of Talmud Torah.

A certain anti-open orthodox forum on Facebook delights in mocking our movement and her scholars. I think that there is no greater OO Rabbi on the scene today than Harav Shmuley Yanklowitz, a vegan peace-warrior steeped in the Halacha of universal love and progressive justice. A person unafraid to celebrate queer expressions, even though the structure of the Torah clearly forbids it. This is the strength of our ideology. The courage to embrace possible heresies and adopt unique and creative ways to use Torah to elevate them. They are the masters of Gumby Halacha, and this is something to celebrate and encourage if orthodoxy is to survive and thrive in an increasingly progressive world. Today, we require a fence of Torah which is short and flimsy, and has an open gate encouraging “the stranger” to enter. Our fences must be fences against fanaticism and oppression.

I encourage my sisters and brothers. Please take my hand and dance my dance of love with me. Jew. Gay Jew. Haredi. Atheist. Christian. Mohammedan. Worshiper of trees and stones. Agnostic. We are all children of this earth. And we must dance together, or we will dance alone.

About the Author
Father of two girls and one son, living in the Jerusalem outskirts. Loves to read, hike the Hill Country, and do yoga with my life partner Shira.
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