Ysoscher Katz

The Gra Redux: On the book ‘Why Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodox’

After reading a glowing review of Rabbi David Rosenthal’s new book, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox, I immediately bought it. It seemed like perfect reading material for an eighteen-hour flight I was about to undertake. I was hoping to review Masechet Horiyot on the plane, in preparation for a shiur on writing psak, but thought it would be nice to have something else to read bein gavra legavra, when I needed a break from the intricacies of that small but complex tractate.

My plan fell apart pretty fast. I was done with the new book five minutes after takeoff.

Rabbi Rosenthal’s book is not a book in the classical sense, where the author introduces a new idea and then proceeds to prove and establish it. His book has no new thesis. It is merely a compilation of other people’s compilations, in support of a claim that has been made many times before. The book chronicles all the expressions, utterances, and writings of members of the YCT community that the author finds religiously offensive. This is not a new project. Most of this book’s content is culled from Chareidi publications such as Dialogue and Cross Currents. Both publications (Dialogue is a print journal and Cross Currents publishes on the web) have for years now been scrutinizing the YCT community, microscopically analyzing every word for signs of heresy or lack of conformity to Ultra Orthodox norms. There is very little original material in this new book. The author essentially repeats in book form that which has been disseminated for the last ten years in journals, blogs, and Chareidi websites.

The book did not live up to the reviewer’s promise, but reading through it was, nevertheless, worthwhile.

While the book does not have an original thesis, seeing the Chareidi critique of progressive Orthodoxy collected in one place helps crystalize the essence of the debates currently raging between Ultra and progressive Orthodoxy.

Reading this book makes it abundantly clear that the intra-denominational battle about Orthodox affiliation is a mere smokescreen, obscuring the real point of contention. The real fight is between preservationists whose exclusive value is the preservation of an unadulterated tradition, no matter how high the cost to the Jewish community, versus creativists who see value in theological creativity in exchange for a broader-tent Orthodoxy. The creativist camp believes that there is virtue in promulgating a Yiddishkeit that, while adhering to halacha, makes space for those who can only tap into it if they can tweak it a bit, and maybe also dress it with a contemporary flair.

The origin of this book is extremely informative. It is written by a Litvish yeshivah student, edited by one of the most popular Lakewood novelists, and enthusiastically endorsed by one of the staunchest defenders of the Litvish belief system.

Litvish theology takes pride in its stasis. It is proudly simplistic. Lithuanian thought leaders see emunah peshutah as the highest virtue. As a matter of fact, Litvaks first show up in history’s arena as a movement dedicated to thwarting theological innovation. In a fight that was no less fierce than our debates today, the Gra (1720-1797) and his adherents advocated insularism and ideological purity, while their opponents, the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, championed theological innovation and intellectual creativity.

The intellectual forbearers of R. Feldman, the rosh yeshivah of Ner Yisroel, Mrs. Lazewnik, the book’s editor, and R. Rosenthal, the author, hurled heresy accusations then, just as their heirs do now – which, from their theological vantage point, is not surprising. It is easy to construe something as deviating from the norm when the parameters of your theology are narrow and constricted.

Their opponents, however, had a broader and more nuanced theology. It consequently provided more room for innovation and exploration. As my Zaidy the Chasid would say in Yiddish, always with a mischievous glint in his eye: Zein an apikores is shver; becoming a heretic takes a lot of work. Not every religious suggestion, theological question, or even aggressive critique of tradition turns you into a deviant or a heretic. The tradition is big enough to suffer criticism, strong enough to entertain challenges, and supple enough to allow a twist here or a tweak there.

Ultimately the debate goes back to the time of the Talmud. There were already then, the Rabbis inform us (Berachot 27B), arguments over the same issues we are debating today: Should our batei midrash be small, purist, and exclusionary or open, inclusive, and creative?

Both approaches carry religious benefits as well as theological risks. The former avoids even the whiff of deviancy but thwarts creativity and engagement. The latter generates nuance and innovation, but runs the risk of sometimes making mistakes. Both sides are ultimately groping in the dark, in danger of misconstruing God’s will or misappropriating God’s Torah. God is no less offended by theological rigidity than by unmoored religious creativity.

My deep love for the Jewish community forces me to cast my lot with the second group. The risks are indeed considerable but the rewards are, nevertheless, immeasurable.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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