The Most Open Orthodoxy of Them All

My colleagues and friends in the Orthodox rabbinate and beyond have been debating the limits of Orthodox Judaism, based on the recent RCA resolution to ban female rabbis, and based on Agudath Israel’s recent statement defining the movement “Open Orthodoxy” as not Orthodox.

Then, I attended the recent banquet of the Kinnus Shluchim, a gathering of over 5,000 Chabad shluchim and their guests, to offer chizuk and to celebrate the incredible work that these shluchim are doing around the world. The evening was filled with inspiring recollections of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his unwavering mission of sending his shluchim throughout the world as a way of stemming the tide of assimilation and bringing our Jewish brothers and sisters back into the fold. The shluchim’s courage, their effectiveness in the field, and their untiring perseverance were all extolled over the evening. The speakers and the music were inspiring and emotionally uplifting.

Curiously, not one word was uttered about the granting of semikhah to women. No one talked about whether “Open Orthodoxy” was Orthodox or not. Surprisingly, the only focus of the evening was the holy work that is being done by Chabad-Lubavitch throughout the world in bringing Jews closer to their heritage, whether it be through youth organizations, providing meals to weary travelers at remote locations across the globe, or chance meetings at a gas station to help someone put on tefillin for the first time.

Now, I’m not a Lubavitcher. But sometimes, I wish I was. Sometimes, when I read the seemingly endless debates circulating among my colleagues and friends about the parameters of Orthodox Judaism, I wish that I could snap my fingers and whisk us all to a farbrengen.

I don’t mean to trivialize the endeavors of my colleagues. I know that there’s something important about defining ourselves. It’s about preserving halakhah, our mesorah, and about defining which faith dogma are necessary to count one as part of the Torah community. Ultimately, it’s about making sure that we preserve Orthodoxy faithfully for the next generation.

But maybe there’s a better way to do this. Maybe we could learn from our Lubavitcher brethren, who have never had to struggle about whether or not women can be rabbis, because the Chabad rebbetzins are too busy doing vital work in Mumbai, Nepal, and Nebraska. Maybe they haven’t found a need to compose resolutions that recapitulate the religious principles of Lubavitch chassidus, because those principles are as clear as day to those shluchim who live and breathe those dictates.

Maybe the key to Chabad’s success is that they live their faith every day by touching the lives of their fellow Jews. Maybe if we “mainstream Orthodox” leaders focused more on how we can stem the tide of assimilation, how we can redouble our efforts at making Orthodoxy attractive to secular Jews, and about how we can fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael, maybe then all these discussions and resolutions would seem a bit moot.

I’m just a regular pulpit rabbi out in the field, and so perhaps I’m not as ideologically driven as some of my other colleagues. But this much I do know: I’ve been banging my head for years to try and make Orthodox Judaism more open, accepting and non-judgmental, so that non-Orthodox Jews who walk into my shul or meet me for the first time would not feel intimidated or fearful that they might not be accepted. So forgive me if I find that all these definitions of who’s “in” and who’s “out” somewhat counter-productive to that mission.

To be sure, the Chabad community is not perfect. It suffers from many of the same social ills that can be found in other Orthodox communities, be they modern, yeshivish or chassidish. But because the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message was always about the greatness within each and every Jew, and the need for each of us to reach out to his or her brother and sister and remind them of their greatness, it seems to this outsider that this is a more effective way of repairing the breaches within Orthodoxy today.

That’s why I’ll be steering clear of the discussions and debates. I’d rather dance like a chassid, even if I can’t be one.

About the Author
Senior rabbi, Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation ("The BAYT").
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