Open Orthodoxy: Confusing Form with Substance

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Winds of secession are in the air. Rabbi Avi Weiss and his disciple, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, yesterday announced their immediate resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Weiss subsequently issued a broad explanation for his new trajectory, presenting his view of the recent history of Orthodoxy and his launching of the Open Orthodox denomination and its rabbinical and educational institutions. (Truth be told, Rabbi Weiss resigned from the RCA many months ago. His announcement of immediate resignation is quite puzzling and appears to be part of a wider plan of action.)

Rabbi Weiss presents Open Orthodoxy as the new manifestation of Modern Orthodoxy, arguing that

"Since the early ’90s, Orthodoxy has undergone a number of great shifts. Responding to a precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy, a plethora of institutions and organizations have emerged. These include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Edah, YCT and YM, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). In Israel, too, Beit Morasha, Beit Hillel, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah and others were founded and today women are being ordained (receiving semikha) from Yeshivat Maharat.

"Modern Orthodoxy, which 25 years ago faced a significant decline, has been reclaimed by tens, even hundreds of thousands of adherents."

In other words, according to Rabbi Weiss, Open Orthodoxy is merely a continuation of Modern Orthodoxy, after Modern Orthodoxy abandoned its mandate.

Rabbi Weiss further elaborates:

"Others, like myself, prefer a new term: “Open Orthodoxy.” In the ’60s and ’70s, Modern Orthodoxy dealt primarily with two issues: secularism and Zionism—more broadly, the modern secular world, and the modern State of Israel. Modern Orthodoxy insisted that one could be Orthodox while embracing the humanities and science, even as one could be Orthodox while committed to the rebirth of the State of Israel.

“Modern” issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.

"The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity. Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women—encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools? Do we respect, embrace, and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological, and ethical questions? Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halakhic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding? Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions? Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

"Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick—obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in—or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century? To quote the late Rabbi David Hartman’s description of having been raised Orthodox: “I grew up in a home where I didn’t feel piety needed an object to hate. I felt close to God without saying, ‘I don’t like him, I don’t go into his shul.’ I never felt piety through anger and negation, but piety was the result of internal conviction and joy.”

"This is Open Orthodoxy. While insisting on the foundational divinity of Torah and observance of halakha, this Orthodoxy is not rigid. It is open to a wider spectrum."

Unfortunately, Rabbi Weiss’ account of recent Orthodox history leaves much to be desired, and his association of Open Orthodoxy with Modern Orthodoxy is likewise quite wanting.

Modern Orthodoxy has not made “a precipitous move to the right”, as Rabbi Weiss asserts. While Torah study and mitzvah observance have dramatically increased over the years in most Modern Orthodox communities, thank God, these communities are still Zionistic, committed to secular education, and heavily involved with the “outside world”.

Geirus (giyur, conversion) standards in Modern Orthodox communities, as emphatically insisted upon by Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik zt”l of RIETS, included and continue to include an unqualified Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos (Acceptance of the Mitzvos) requirement. Due to a concern of some Modern Orthodox rabbis failing to maintain consistent standards, and in order to assure a uniform, lechatchilah (best practices) caliber of geirus, the RCA entered into a unified conversion protocol with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. For Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues in the Open Orthodox rabbinate to portray this as the disenfranchisement of local rabbis in favor of unnecessarily tight standards and unfair oversight, is very inaccurate, to put it kindly.

Taking a step back, the issue here is one of form versus substance. For Modern Orthodoxy, the rule of Halakha and Mesorah (traditional Torah practices and attitudes) is a must. Deviation from Halakha and Mesorah, be it in the mold of mitzvah observance, beliefs, synagogue practices, and so forth, is not in the equation.

In stark contrast, Open Orthodoxy has materially departed from this model and commitment. Its ordination of female clergysignificant modification to geirus proceduresinclusion and embrace of heresydismissal of the prohibition of homosexual relationsdeletion of berachos from the daily service, and much more (please see, e.g., here and here), distinguish the Open Orthodox denomination from Orthodoxy of any type. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which has retained the substance of Orthodoxy and has adopted some differing forms, Open Orthodoxy has abandoned much of the substance of Orthodoxy and has instead adopted new and foreign substance – substance that is actually quite similar to that of the Conservative movement of several decades prior. (Please see here.)

The immense boundaries and fences of which Rabbi Weiss speaks are an exaggeration and a straw man, but rest assured that whatever boundaries and fences needed to be erected were so done in order to protect Orthodoxy from the assimilationist practices of the heterodox movements, which plunged headlong into halachic dilution, compromise, and abandonment, and have all but disavowed any commitment to Jewish tradition or continuity.

Rabbi Weiss: It is Open Orthodoxy, not the rest of Orthodoxy, which has veered. Unfortunately, your new denomination, which has already created a seismic schism, will be responsible for any new boundaries and fences that mainstream Orthodoxy may in the future be forced to erect.

Appeared also on, sent to Arutz Sheva by the author.