The Open Orthodox Race to the Edge and Beyond

When will it stop? There are serious flaws in Open Orthodoxy that are incompatible with basics of Torah-true Judaism.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism הכניסו ספר תורה
הכניסו ספר תורה
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The Open Orthodox rush to reshape traditional Judaism has become incrementally manifest in terms of both practice and belief, with Open Orthodox leadership actively promoting substantial modification of Torah observance and the creation of rituals that are foreign to normative Orthodoxy, while concomitantly asserting that one no longer needs to believe in the faith tenets of Orthodoxy in order for his or her Judaism to be Orthodox.

While various articles have addressed many of these concerns, Open Orthodoxy has pushed full steam ahead with a new progression of breaches over the past few months, widening the base of those involved and deepening the degree of the changes being made to Orthodoxy. It is critical for the Orthodox public to be aware of this and to understand the underpinnings of these new seismic and startling Open Orthodox efforts to reshape and Reform.

I. Open Orthodox Changes to Practice

“Making it up as you go along” is usually not a recommended approach when doing anything serious. When it comes to Torah, such an approach is fatal.

This is exactly what came to mind when viewing the new Ohev Sholom/The National Synagogue 2013 Gala Celebration video regaling the feminizing of services in that congregation, including women reading the Torah and the Megillah, women serving as chazzan and reciting the “Mi She-Beirach” prayer (a feminized nusach thereof) at the bimah, and a woman serving as the Makri for Teki’as Shofar – all for general male/female services in the main sanctuary.

The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who is an Honorary Alumnus of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and a protégé of Rabbi Avi Weiss (Rabbi Herzfeld served under Rabbi Weiss for five years as assistant rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and considers Rabbi Weiss his mentor), gives his blessings to the innovations, as elated, near teary-eyed congregants express their feelings of arrival in the Promised Land of Orthodox feminism.

Rabbi Herzfeld, toward the end of this revealing video, declares his quest to continue to make further progressive modifications to his shul’s ritual practices. The most recent such action taken by Rabbi Herzfeld to make Ohev Sholom more progressive was the hiring of a female “Maharat” to fulfill some rabbinic duties at the synagogue.

Aside from the innovations to feminize and alter parts of the tefillah, prayers, and synagogue functions with changes that exceed even those of “partnership minyanim”, I and others who watched the Ohev Sholom video were struck by a common theme that runs throughout it as a description of the mindset and approach of the Ohev Sholom innovators and Reformers: the desire to institute changes to ritual and minhag simply because these changes make some of the congregants feel good and spiritual.

Any sense of deference to Mesorah and surrender to halakhic principles is glaringly absent from the presentation. Rather, all that we are told in this video is that some people are very uncomfortable with the traditional Orthodox service, and that the Ohev Sholom innovations, with a realization that they are indeed unprecedented, make some people feel good and spiritual, and that the innovations therefore were adopted in order to feminize the tefillah.

Although Congregation Ohev Sholom and its rabbi maintain mainstream Orthodox affiliations, the blatant disregard for the halakhic leadership of those affiliate organizations and the agenda-driven form of Orthodoxy that Ohev Sholom promotes are quite shocking.

Rather than seeking to learn and adhere to the guidance of the greatest Torah scholars on the issues at hand, Ohev Sholom and the larger Open Orthodox movement have already determined their liberal-progressive social goal and egalitarian plan of action in the name of Orthodoxy, with the hope that Halakha does not get in the way or that it can be creatively fit into the predetermined liberal agenda being advanced.

In the same vein, has Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber (who, despite his denial of Torah Mi-Sinai and a Singular Divine Author of the Torah, still serves in his leadership roles at the Open Orthodox organizations) just created and issued some “alternative berakhot” for women to recite when they are called to the Torah.

The desire to create a new set of rituals that are not found in any classic halakhic source and that have been squarely condemned by the greatest of halakhic authorities (see e.g. Sefer Tz’i Lach B’Ikvei Ha-Tzon s. 5), and to claim that these rituals are Orthodox (or “Open Orthodox”), flies in the face of millenia of Orthodox/Torah Judaism and contravenes Rav Soloveitchik’s principle of “surrender” to Halakha, such that one must submit to the ultimate and often non-politically correct authority of Halakha even when Halakha contradicts one’s own apparent needs and aspirations.

II. Open Orthodox Abrogation of Tenets of Belief

Further denial of the Ikarei Ha-Emunah/Principles of Faith has been occurring within the Open Orthodox rabbinate. It is really alarming.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who is a YCT graduate (probably its most famous one), International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) member, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, and is listed among “America’s Top Rabbis”, has argued elaborately against the notion of a future Binyan Beis Ha-Mikdash, , explaining that a new Temple would be impractical and would thwart the progress made by Judaism in Golus.

Rabbi Yanklowitz further writes:

The fantasy of returning to one centralized monolithic form of Judaism is not only wishful thinking. It’s also dismissive of two of the most important aspects of modern Jewish life: diversity and adaptability.

Rabbi Yanklowitz’ denial of eschatological prophecies extends to the realm of belief in Moshiach. Rabbi Yanklowitz negates the concept of a real messiah and instead adopts the Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist approach:

"We have made too many mistakes throughout history, thinking that the Messiah is a person or event. They are called Bar Kochva, Abulafia, Shabbatai Zvi, Jacob Frank, and certain hassidic rebbes…At the end of the day, I would like to suggest that we are Messiah—we are the ones we have been waiting for…Moshiach (the Messiah) is the name of the value that we can do something that is truly magnificent."

Belief in the existence of a human messiah, whether the Messianic period arrives naturally and gradually or supernaturally, is a core fundamental belief of Torah Judaism. It is the concluding and decisive stance of the Talmudic discussion on the topic and is accepted and required by every authoritative rabbinic work. Rabbi Yanklowitz’ denial of this most basic belief in Judaism is an unbelievable breach.

Whereas the traditional belief in Messiah as a righteous and heroic person from the House of David who will lead our people out of exile, Golus, complete destroying Amalek and oversee the rebuilding of the Beis Ha-Mikdash has been codified and expounded by the greatest of Talmudic authorities and has sustained countless generations of Jews throughout millenia of dispersion and persecution, with denial of the existence of a human Moshiach unanimously classified in Halakha as heretical belief,

Rabbi Yanklowitz’ vision of Moshiach is that of the secular humanists, who not only deny the literal existence of a future messiah but also deny the specific messianic mission and K’lal Yisroel’s unique role and status in the eschatological era.

Denial of the existence of Moshiach brings with it denial of the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, the Beis Ha-Mikdash (as we saw above) and all that the Nevi’im and Chazal stated will occur in the eschatological era. Such denial is extremely dangerous.

In fact, Rabbi Yanklowitz has also denied God’s Hashgacha P’ratis/Divine Providence in a classical sense, discarding the concept of God’s hands-on control of the universe in favor of a non-controlling, permeating spiritual force, writing that,

"it is not necessarily the will of G-d that permeates all beings but holy energy and purpose."

Rabbi Yanklowitz, invoking the words of his teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, has also posited that Judaism is not the ultimate truth about God, as Rabbi Yanklowitz grossly misunderstands the rhetorical phraseology of the prophet Micha, thinking that Micha was advocating the practice of gentiles serving idols as part of a grand pluralistic religious vision:

“All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our G-d for ever and ever.” (Micah 4: 2-5). Micah not only imagined but advocated for a messianic era, when everyone will “walk in the name of their gods.” This does not reduce the prophet’s commitment to the one G-d but he boldly continues to provide space for different relationships to that one G-d.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, notwithstanding his extreme version of Tikkun Olam that leads to some very novel and entertaining applications to Jewish ritual veganism (such as here and here ) and his unfortunate call on American Jewry to not help free Jonathan Pollard, normally strikes one as truly sincere and enthusiastic about Orthodoxy in a traditional sense.

The fact that someone of such youth and as of yet quite limited rabbinic scholarship is so naively comfortable with tossing out the Ikarei Ha-Emunah (basic principles of the Jewish faith), in violation of thousands of years of precedent by the greatest of our sages, leads one to question his rabbinic training. The need for such questioning is exacerbated and evidenced by the words and actions of so many of Rabbi Yanklowitz’ fellow YCT musmachim (ordained rabbis)

It is very clear from the YCT website that YCT follows Rabbi Yanklowitz’ writings carefully – yet YCT has said nothing about this celebrity musmach’s denial of the most fundamental of Torah beliefs.

The Open Orthodox website Morethodoxy recently published a very troubling article by Rabbi Herzl Hefter , defending and apparently even promoting the denial of the historicity of the Torah and its communication to Moshe at Sinai. Invoking Hassidic and mystical concepts of “Torat Ha-Sod”, Rabbi Hefter extrapolates that one need not believe that the Torah reflects accurate facts and that it was dictated to Moshe via oral prophecy:

"The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.

"The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths, but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality. It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation."

(Readers are advised to consult the Comments section below Rabbi Hefter’s article, where the sentiments attributed to Rav Kook in support of Rabbi Hefter’s theory are disproved by Rav Kook’s own words. Furthermore, the statements from the Hassidic masters referenced in Rabbi Hefter’s article of course indicate that there are both a literal/historically true and a symbolic, esoteric level of Torah – and do not discard the truth and import of the literal/historical level.)

Rabbi Hefter contends that God did not necessarily speak to Moshe in a literal sense, but that the entirety of Torah was a non-historical development in which God communicated by placing His existence and Truth in man’s heart:

"God stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation."

This concept, which is extremely close if not identical with the Conservative movement’s notion of a divinely-inspired Torah (which is hence not literally binding and is subject to evolving revelation/modification) that was not in reality orally communicated to Moshe at Sinai, was boldly rejected and refuted by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in his first comment on Sefer Vayikra:

"Scripture thus refutes those who would misrepresent and distort God’s revelation to Moshe, as though it were a revelation arising from within Moshe’s own heart; as though it were comparable to artificially induced ecstatic states; as though it were merely the inspiration of man’s spirit, which takes place within man; as though “the Jewish religion” were like all other religious phenomena in the world – it, too, being merely a phase in the development of the human spirit.

"…For the word that is heard is not produced inside the listener; he contributes nothing to its creation – so God’s Word to Moshe was His Word alone. It did not derive from within Moshe but came to him from without, calling him, interrupting and rousing him from his own thoughts, so that he would concentrate on listening to what God wished to say to him.

"This call, which came before God spoke to Moshe, precludes the idea that His Word was preceded by some process taking place within Moshe….The Word came to him from without as a purely historical event – something that simply happened to him."

Rav Hirsch quite clearly affirmed that the notion that the Torah emerged from a divine inspiration of sorts from within Moshe’s heart is unacceptable. Such a notion, which allows for the denial of the Torah’s historicity and literalness, was part of some of the the non-Orthodox theologies which Rav Hirsch battled.

III. The Rabba’s Perspective

Putting together practice and belief in a skewed fashion, “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz recently compared Orthodox Judaism to apartheid and herself to Nelson Mandela:

Studying at Barnard and in Israel, cherishing Orthodoxy and yet pushing against the literal and figurative barrier between the sexes called the mechitza (partition), she took her inspiration from a black man of the Xhosa tribe.

“I never had that ‘aha’ moment of wanting to be a rabbi,” Rabba Hurwitz said. “I had no role model. But I wanted to be part of a community, and the Mandela model in my mind was of marching toward equality and justice and integrity. I was behind the mechitza, but I wasn’t angry. I just knew what I wanted to change and how I could make it happen.”

Rav Soloveitchik’s sentiments about such an attitude ring clear. The Rav explained that the Rambam’s classification of one who is “Mak’chish Maggideha” (Hil. Teshuva 3:8) as a Kofer refers to a person who attributes bias, subjective motive or personal fault to the Sages, or Chachmei Ha-Mesorah. It is heretical to claim that a rule or interpretation of the Sages is flawed or is the product of prejudice.

The "Rabba"’s attitude that there is a bias of Orthodox Judaism that she has struggled to overcome is very objectionable, in particular in light of the Rav’s words, and further in light of the fact that she assigns fault to ancient and binding halakhic principles.

IV. What the Future Portends

The installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as YCT president and successor of Rabbi Avi Weiss has been announced.

The installation ceremony will commence with a roundtable rabbinic discussion entitled “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation”. Whereas one would assume that those committed to the promulgation of Torah would be the participants in this rabbinic discussion, the rabbinic guest participants are in fact all decidedly non-Orthodox.

Thus, Rabbi Lopatin will engage in this discussion about rabbinic training with two Reform rabbis, one Conservative rabbi, and a Reconstructionist rabbi. The only thought that comes to mind here is the famous quote by Rav Soloveitchik:

"It is impossible for me to comprehend, for example, how Orthodox rabbis, who spent their best years in yeshivos and absorbed the spirit of Oral Law, Torah Shebaal Peh and its tradition, for whom Rabbi Akiva, the Rambam, the Rema, the Gra, Rav Chaim Brisker and other Jewish sages are the pillars upon which their spiritual world rests, can join with spiritual leaders for whom all this is worthless… From the point of view of the Torah, we find the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism much greater than that which separated the Perushim and the Tzedukim in the days of Bayis Sheini (Pharisees and Sadducees in 2nd Temple times), and between the Kara’ites and traditionalists in the Gaonic era. Has Jewish history ever recorded an instance of a joint community council that consisted of Kara’ites and Torah-true Jews? (from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s 1954 Yiddish article in Der Tog Morgen Journal).

YCT’s notion that an Orthodox rabbi should sit and collegially discuss rabbinic training with rabbis who deny the authority of the Torah and who preach and practice violation of the Torah is a denial of the very meaning of the rabbinate and of the significance of Torah leadership.

Open Orthodoxy is sliding away from normative Orthodoxy more quickly than we realize it. Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah and the concepts of Moshiach, Hashgacha P’ratis and the future Geulah have been openly denied, further large-scale erosion of commitment to Orthodox practice and attitudes is underway, and there is marked increase of identification with the non-Orthodox rabbinate, with no end in sight to these Open Orthodox breaches, which are occurring and expanding within the highest echelons of Open Orthodox leadership.

In fact, it appears these days that the best illustrative term for Open Orthodoxy is Pretzel Orthodoxy, as Orthodox Judaism is being bent by Open Orthodox leadership into a pretzel to the extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize what is Orthodox about the Open Orthodox version of Judaism.

Thes articles I write on this subject are painful to pen and win me no friends or revenue. The only two agendas here are to alert the Orthodox public of the danger that is being posed and to stop the hemorrhaging, with the hope that those in both leadership and non-leadership positions will put a stop to these breaches so that Orthodoxy can retain those who seem to be quickly slipping away from it.

In truth, it would seem that the mainstream Orthodox community should engage in introspection and determine whether its failure to properly formulate and articulate the role of Mesorah, tradition, to its laity and youth has been a major factor in Open Orthodoxy’s ability to challenge and discard Mesorah on so many fronts.

Perhaps if the average Orthodox Jew were better educated about how Mesorah plays such a pivotal and indispensable role in gender issues, tefillah, the p’sak (halakhic decision) process, and so forth, the Open Orthodox breaches we now face, that are causing an unprecedented rift in the American Orthodox community, would not have occurred.

Many rabbis who serve as leaders in Open Orthodoxy share an incredible sense of creativity, dynamism and enthusiasm; these men have the talents to inspire Jews from all backgrounds and bring them closer to Torah. Rabbis Lopatin and Weiss are indeed proven masters at outreach.

It is a shame that rather than putting all of its energies toward promoting authentic Orthodoxy and exposing its brethren to the beauty of Torah, Open Orthodox leadership has decided to divert its creative talents and tamper with Torah practice and belief toward the creation of an Orthodoxy that is foreign to our tradition and that threatens to further erode commitment to core Torah values and Orthodox life.