Book Review: "Why Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodox"

The book, by Torah scholar in the US, is a point by point scathing criticism of the controversial movement begun by Rabbi Avi Weiss.

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Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky

I must start this review by confessing that after reading "Why Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodox" by David Rosenthal (with a foreword by Rabbi  Aharon Feldman, dean of Baltimore's renowned Ner Yisrael Yeshiva), and much other related material, it took me a long time to decide to review it and an even longer time to decide how to do so.

The reason is that some of the rabbis who  stand behind the phenomenon it describes are activist rabbinic figures whose record and accomplishments gained them much respect in the Modern Orthodox  world. In fact, partly as a result of their support, added to the ordination of community and other rabbis in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Open Orthodoxy training institute that competes with Yeshiva University, Open Orthodoxy (OO)has been espoused slowly but surely by a not insignificant percentage of the young, observant generation in the US and Israel (where it is not called by that name) who by now do not realize that OO has deviated in significant ways from the road paved by Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Since congregants guided by OO rabbis into effecting changes in prayers, practice and attitudes find that  they are now "politically correct" and not at odds with  today's Western value system, it is attractive to them - and they might be lost to observant Judaism if their lifestyle and spiritual leaders are seen as outside the pale. This decision is not for a reviewer to make, of course.

Just how far this movement has gone can be seen in a recent interview with an OO rabbi (I have decided not to name names, one can easily use google to learn more) living in Israel who admits that he knows that his views would not be accepted by the two great leaders of MO, Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik ("The Rav") and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l.  This does not bother him, but he "thinks about it a lot". Since Rabbi Lichtenstein passed away in 2015 and wrote against egalitarian prayer services which OO promotes, the oft-repeated excuse that things have changed drastically and that new things need new responses does not hold water - and this reviewer is far from the only person shocked by the intimation that the teachings of "The Rav," on ecumenism for example, are time dependent and therefore outdated.

This is what I found so troubling, as did the writer of the book. Time dependent? What is to be the fate of the Shulchan Aruch that writes that a woman cannot serve as a dayan? The Written and Oral Torah? Chazal? Where does it end and how? And who is authorized to be the decisor on crucial and momentous halakhic issues that affect the entire Jewish people? OO's answers include, among others of the same ilk, a remark that the Sages had "an understanding of women that is less morally developed than today's understanding." What kind of hubris can lead an OO ordained rabbi to ignore the saying about the Talmudic luminaries through the generations that  asserts that "if they were like angels, we are like humans..."?

The Modern Orthodox umbrella organization, Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) will not accept OO's Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) rabbinic institute's graduates as members anymore. That is a huge step, making this is an important book for any Jew who considers himself Modern Orthodox to read carefully so as to understand the background that led to that decision.

In Israel, where people tend to categorize and put up walls, the so-called "dati light" (loosely equivalent to OO) have turned the term "chardal"  - hareidi leumi - which means  Zionist and strictly Torah observant (a category Hesder Rosh Yeshivas certainly belong to), into a pejorative that even threatens to split the Jewish Home party. 

What is going on? This book contains a hard hitting and clear point by point, subject by subject review and analysis of OO beliefs and practice, contrasting them with traditional Orthodoxy. Even more enlightening is the lack of contrast in the list of citations comparing OO rabbis' statements on key subjects, from mosaic law to divorce, with strikingly similar statements made by conservative and reform clergymen.  The author is scathing in his criticism.

The MO reader, such as myself, will soon realize that the book is written from a hareidi viewpoint rather than an MO one, so that some of the views which the author considers deviations from Orthodox positions are actually a deviation from the hareidi point of view. The topic where this is most obvious is "religion and science," (MO has put that "conflict" behind it  seeing the two as unconnected - more on that is beyond the scope of this review) but no halakha is involved there and the book's commonalities with MO far outweigh the differences as they are basic to Orthodox Judaism as defined by founding MO rabbis. Many MO rabbis are as scathingly critical, in the US and Israel.

The book is very thought provoking  and led me to ask a question to which I have no adequate answer. Let me explain.

Years ago, a sociology professor at Yeshiva University divided American Jews into subdivisions. One of them was "non-observant Orthodox," an on-the-mark category for Jews who did not keep all the commandments for non-ideological reasons (work, lack of Torah education, wanting to be all-American, etc.) but knew that they should, respected those who did and  identified completely with the unquestioning Orthodox beliefs and mitzva observance practiced by their forebears. I knew a good number of people who answered to that description in mid and late 20th century America, and many of their children became observant Jews - from modern Orthodox to hareidi - thanks to the Torah- true schools that arose in the USA and in which their parents took care to enroll them. Rabbi Moshe Neriya zt"l did this for Israel by founding the Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school and Ulpana network.


After reading this book and articles by a gamut of OO rabbis so as to gain a firsthand picture, I wonder how, if he were alive today, that astute academic would categorize the rabbis and laymen who call themselves Open Orthodox, who do want to keep the commandments but define them and Orthodoxy in a way that differs greatly from their forebears and are proud of it. I have the feeling he would be hard pressed to put his finger on what, besides using the word Orthodox, and retaining a mechitza (gender separation) in shul, makes the  group theologically different from those Jews who once found their place in the observant right wing of the Conservative Movement (there was even a separate men's minyan during Rabbi Saul Lieberman's lifetime). I knew them well while growing up in America 

The reasons: Basically, Conservative Jews see the Torah as written over time, its framework stretchable and changing to include things that are au courant as it continues to develop. The author brings quotes that show the same kind of thinking on the part of OO. Here is a quote from a known OO rabbi: "Our new model should be belief in a G-d you doubt or believe no longer exists; and along those lines, belief in a Maamad Har Sinai (Revelation, ed.) moment that you no longer accept as factual."

There are basics of Jewish faith, one of them belief in the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Heavenly source of the Written and Oral law, and their eternal and absolute nature, as elucidated by the Rambam. This is why, in the MO world, there is an ongoing examination of modern day mantras and belief systems (in every generation, each considering itself modern) by recognized Torah luminaries, resulting in decisions that leave some ideas unacceptable in normative Judaism no matter how politically correct, just, kind and freedom loving  they are.

Orthodox Jews, to quote Rabbi Lichtenstein, see the world through the telescope of Torah.They also have a hierarchy of rabbis and a chain of mesorah. Modern Orthodoxy is a part of the modern world without adapting Judaism to it – it accepts what it can and rejects what it cannot. OO accepts first, then finds "justification.".

"Open" Orthodoxy is an inspired choice of name, with "open" intimating that the rest of Orthodoxy is close minded and "Orthodox" allowing applications to MO synagogues - the founder of OO has written that theirs is the true MO today. While the Conservative Movement is disappearing, OO rabbis are the spiritual leaders of a not insignificant number of MO synagogues today - and most Israelis have no knowledge of what the Conservative Movement is all about. What troubles me is the question of whether  OO is fast approaching a right wing form of neo-Conservatism. It has already been called that by MO rabbis. Perhaps readers of this book can give that question some thought. 

Looking at halakhic/hashkafic issues. it is clear that we are talking about a commitment to halakhic Judaism, but an argument about what that means,so that most of the problems arise in areas where halakha is in conflict with today's western value system.  OO synagogues have mechitzas (a dividing line between Orthodox and Conservative services), despite that being unegalitarian and despite some complaints.  On the other hand, OO partnership minyan practices bring women to the men's side of the mechitza or at least to their attention, so although the women can now take an active part in leading the parts of the service that do not mandate being commanded to do so (women are freed from davening with a minyan, details are beyond the scope of this review), the whole idea behind having the mechitza, keeping the synagogue attendees free of inappropriate thoughts, is lost. It is the Western value system again - feminists feel it's the men's problem to control their thoughts by themselves - that is true, but not good enough, although feminists wish it to be. The partnership minyan is just one example of egalitarian thinking trumping the halakha/tradition based on non pc rabbinic teaching - that also "happens" to be in sync with human nature. Maybe they did know something about human morality back then...

The LGBT issue is an even clearer example. Empathizing with a homosexual and accepting him with love does not abrogate the Torah's clear prohibition of relations. Rabbi Medan of Har Etzion Hester yeshiva recently said that since the Torah's prohibition is eternal, he feels only respect and love for truly religious men he knows who are homosexual but abstain from forbidden relations because the Torah commands them to - and he terms them tzaddikim,  Hareidi Rabbi Feldman also mandates abstention in this book. OO says that since this sexual proclivity is not by choice, the act is a form of coerced behavior (ones) – an inapplicable use of the concept, according to the author - and has held events for LGBT, even suggesting having"weddings" in synagogues. That is a yawning gulf  with MO on one side and OO on the other.

The writer brings evidence that YCT rabbis and certainly the women among them often have much less years of Torah study, much lower standards of prerequisites, than YU or other rabbinic school ordinations require. That is troubling and reminds me of a guest we had who began to observe mitzvas after college while in Israel, decided to be a rabbi, and not seeing Rabbi Akiva as a role model, went to the conservative rabbinical institute as Orthodox ordination would take too long - he said.  What does this mean about halakhic decision making, even for the community?

There is obviously a spectrum of OO observance. In a development called a schism by some, this past week 11 rabbis ordained at OO's YCT penned a letter objecting to partnership minyans and OO rabbis' articles questioning the Divine Source of the Torah. Perhaps this book will help achieve a conscious realization of where Orthodox Judaism should stand in relation to the modern world and just how open the door to that world is allowed to be.