Critique: The Open Orthodox approach to the Book of Genesis

This coming Shabbat we begin reading Exodus, the second book of the Torah, but before that, here is an overview of the way to study the first book, Genesis - and how not to.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

When studying the Torah’s narratives – especially those in Sefer Bereshis – there are two key points to keep in mind:

1.      The centrality of Torah She-b’al Peh, and the approaches, thoughts and attitudes of classical Meforshim, in understanding the text

2.      The flow and development of the narratives, and of the personalities involved, including how the Torah views and treats these personalities later; this is a central component of “peshat” – “ein Mikra yotzei miydei peshuto” – Scripture must (normally) have a plain and literal meaning, with a logical flow, independent of homiletical interpretation or anything else.

For any yeshiva student, the primacy of Torah She-b’al Peh when learning Chumash is a given. It is well known that Rav Soloveitchik advised the Rabbinical Council of America to decline involvement with the Jewish Publication Society’s Bible translation project due to the absence of Torah She-b’al Peh interpretation/commentary in the planned works.

Moreover, the concept of Mesorah stands at the forefront of how Torah is to be learned. The values, the assumptions, the way to ask a question (and the ability to determine what is indeed a question), the hierarchy accorded to various Meforshim and references, and so much more, are all bound by a sense of Mesorah. We know that a citation by Rashi, or even an extra word by him, implies something important. With other commentaries, such is often not the case. This, and the entire Mesorah of how to learn Torah, are conveyed from rebbe to talmid, as part of the Oral Tradition.

Yet there is also a far simpler yardstick that must be used for Talmud Torah: the logical flow and development of the Torah’s accounts and the personalities involved – “peshat”. Individuals of corrupt character are punished, unless they repent; such individuals’ sin is not disregarded, and these individuals certainly do not rise to positions of leadership with God’s blessings if they have committed serious misdeeds and did not engage in teshuva. Similarly, when one takes action in the Name of God and appears to be rewarded for that action, or is immediately thereafter blessed or treated with prominence in the Torah, it is clear that the action was correct and just.

The above flow and development concepts are basic logic and are very elementary, and in truth they apply to all literature, as the case may be; only one who fails to read with coherence can err in these matters. When a character who acts heroically and is thereafter presented in a positive light by the author is instead viewed by a reader as having done evil in the eyes of the author, that reader has misunderstood. This is very basic and need not be explained.

It is thus with great dismay that we continue to encounter “divrei Torah”, by self-declared progressive Orthodox clergy, which not only evidence an incognizance of Mesorah, but which do violence to basic reading comprehension and to common sense.

Yesterday, I received one such “d’var Torah”, entitled Why Jacob Cursed Two of His Sons, freshly published by a peace activist/Open Orthodox rabbi and posted by Torat Chayim Rabbis. This “d’var Torah” posits that Yaakov Avinu was punished severely for “cruelly deceiving his father (Yitzchak)” in obtaining the Berachos:

So to at least some degree Jacob shares guilt with Shimon and Levi for their two great evils. And to a certain extent he was tricked by his sons into the inadvertent role that he played in these tragedies.

What did Jacob do to deserve this? Perhaps the cruel fate that befalls him is what our sages called “measure for measure” punishment. For whose example were his sons following when they repeatedly deceived their father if not that of Jacob himself, who impersonated his sibling Esau to wrest control of his father Isaac’s blessing! The son who cruelly deceived his father but once, is he himself deceived by his sons not once but twice.

Deception comes home to haunt. Once perpetrated, it perpetuates itself. A vicious cycle engulfs the family, from which one may extricate himself only with the greatest of difficulty. Will the tragedy be repeated in our own families, or will we learn the lesson that the Torah is endeavoring to teach?

Putting aside the fact that there is no Mesorah for the message of this “d’var Torah”, does it make sense that Yaakov was awarded the Berachos (blessings), which marked the commencement of his development into the next of the Avos (patriarchs), as part of a cruel sin on his part, which the Torah somehow glaringly overlooks, and for which even his mother, who instigated the scheme, is not censured? Only one who cannot read text – or, more accurately, one who has an agenda which he uses the text to advance – could proffer such ideas.

Another such Torah analysis by an Open Orthodox rabbi, published last month in Lehrhaus, suggests that Avrohom Avinu wrongly failed to share with Sarah the news that she would give birth, due to his lack of faith in the prophecy from God about the matter:

Apparently, Avraham didn’t act on the Divine promise. He never shared God’s word with his spouse, let her know anything in their future was about to change, or tried to conceive with her. Apparently, Avraham never believed that which God swore to him.      

As with the earlier “d’var Torah” about Yaakov, not only is irreverence displayed – for we have no record in our Mesorah or Meforshim of such lack of faith in a Divine oath or prophecy – but the sheer dearth of logic must be noted as well, for even if one does not go with the Masoretic interpretation of Avrohom’s laughter upon being told by God that Sarah would bear Yitzchak (Bereshis 17:17, with Onkelos, Rashi, Ramban, et al), and one understands that Avrohom laughed out of temporary incredulity, the text tells us that immediately after this prophecy (which commenced with the mitzvah of Bris Milah), Avrohom set forth to circumcise himself and his household, in acceptance and fulfillment of the prophecy. Furthermore, we do not find that Avrohom was shocked to see that Sarah actually conceived, having rejected the Divine promise thereof, according to the writer of the above article. Nor do we find that Avrohom was punished for denying God’s Word. Again, an agenda of fault-finding has tarnished the ability to read the Torah coherently.

In a pretty upsetting “d’var Torah” on Parshas Vayishlach, posted earlier this month by Yeshivat Maharat, the author addresses the relationship of Yaakov and Eisav, writing:

Yaakov’s mistrust extended to an almost grotesque overprotection of his family… Yaakov’s mistrust and servility towards the powerful earned a measure-for-measure punishment, and his turning away from an other he knew and with whom he ought to have reconciled caused him to be delivered into the hand of an unknown other – The land of Egypt – where he and his descendants truly felt the heavy hand of mistrust and slavery.

While the parasha’s account of the meeting of Yaakov and Esau is cautiously optimistic and we can certainly find inspiration in Yaakov’s ability to overcome his fear in wrestling the angel, we can also appreciate that this courage had limits and when it came to a real personal encounter where he had to struggle with the known and not the unknown, he could not fully rise to the occasion, failing both to trust nor apologize.

I wish us all the courage to be able to wrestle with the unknown, as Yaakov did, and the blessing to be able to fully reconcile even with the known, as he failed to do.

Aside from the author’s disparagement of Yaakov Avinu, which is a real problem, nowhere in the Torah or in commentaries do we find that Yaakov should have reunited with Eisav and apologize to him. In fact, Yaakov’s strategy for dealing with Eisav, as presented in Parshas Vayishlach, is recommended by Chazal and Meforshim as the eternal prototype for handling confrontations with foes of our people. Yaakov is not faulted in Parshas Vayishlach or elsewhere else in the Torah for his mannerism while encountering Eisav, and in fact, the Torah refers to Yaakov as being “shalem” (whole), implying blessing upon him, after completing his rendezvous with Eisav.

To read the flow of the text as one of gross wrongdoing on Yaakov’s part simply makes no sense. (The author of this “d’var Torah” invokes a Gemara [AZ 8b] about Roman persecution of the Jewish People, related to a passage in Parshas Vayishlach, as purported proof for Yaakov’s flawed interaction with Eisav in the parshah; however, that Gemara says nothing of the sort.)

Another Yeshivat Maharat “d’var Torah”, entitled Listening to Abuse, which was published last month as part of the MeToo# campaign, presents Yitzchak as traumatized by Avrohom as a result of the Akeidah:

Last week’s parasha ended in trauma. We don’t know what happened to Yitzhak after the akeda. We saw him tied up, on a mizbeach. And then we hear about how Avraham sacrificed the ram instead, and God blessed Avraham…

This is a picture of Yitzchak out in the field, talking to himself. He was hurting, and he himself was his only resource up to that moment. Avraham, a participant in the traumatic incident, couldn’t be of help…

In this week’s parasha, we see two characters who break Yitzhak’s isolation: Rivka and Yishmael. 

We live in a world full of hurting, traumatized people. Bereishit itself is a book full of people who are hurting, and who hurt each other…

So despite the fact that Avrohom Avinu is granted immense blessing for perpetuity upon passing the test of the Akeidah, and despite the fact that the Torah records nothing whatsoever about Yitzchak’s “trauma” and “isolation”, the author of this “d’var Torah” has a very interesting story to tell. Sadly, it can be best described as creative writing, serving an agenda that is anything but fidelity to the words of the Torah.

These “divrei Torah” did not emerge in a vacuum.

One of the primary teachers of the above authors has written that Moshe Rabbeinu totally mishandled the Korach rebellion – despite God’s miraculous punishment of Korach and his followers at the words of Moshe, and not even a hint of criticism in the Torah toward Moshe for how he dealt with Korach. On the contrary, we read that Moshe merited to receive blessing and prophecy from God after Korach was vanquished. Where is the logic in this “d’var Torah”?

This same teacher wrote about Yitzchak Avinu:

What stands out in this story is that there is one person who has learned from the past, and it is not Yitzchak… Yitzchak has not only failed to learn that the Plishtim – as opposed to those in Mitzrayim – would not take a woman who was his wife, but he also seems to be acting almost as a reflex, without conscious thought. 

This rabbi continues in his criticism of Yitzchak, portraying Yitzchak for several paragraphs as a thoughtless and foolish person. The fact that Yitzchak is blessed by God after these incidents and is granted promises of immense success, reflecting God’s happiness with him and his path, somehow eluded the mind of the author of this “d’var Torah”. Again, the logical flow of the text is disregarded when one is instead focused on the condemnable agenda of finding fault with the Torah’s greatest personalities.

Another prominent Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva, writing in Lehrhaus, first cites Rav Soloveitchik’s explanation of the Akeidah as the paramount example of surrender to God, but then rejects this approach:

As appealing as this interpretation is as a corrective to to the excesses of romantic individualism, it divorces religion from the most refined human sentiments and forces a choice between them. It undermines self-confidence and autonomy and represses the moral voice. This leaves sensible people vulnerable to the authority wielded by those less worthy than the Rav. We are enjoined to sacrifice our instincts and intuitions on the altar of divine revelation. By invoking the absolute authority of divine revelation and its derivative—the text—over our own moral sentiments, the actual outcome is to establish the authority of interpreters of the text over our autonomous sense of right and wrong. This is because what is divinely revealed by the text is a product of human interpretation; it is only as “good” as the interpreter.Sadly, we are all too familiar with instances in which Torah interpreters attempt to serve us the fatal poison, invoking the Torah in support of morally repugnant positions.  Is it really safe to jettison our own sense of right and wrong in the face of these interpretations?…

This approach also begets manifestations of moral insensitivity that are less overtly injurious but, for that reason, more pervasive. The authoritarian reading of the Akeidah has subtly led to intolerance, self-righteousness, and arrogance. According to this reading, the Akeida settled, once and for all, the question of whether to follow anthropocentric, subjective morality or the divine command. We can now sleep soundly at night in the secure knowledge that when we are faced with similar challenges and choose obedience to the law , we are following the will of God as we are supposed to do. This orientation has resulted in a dulling and distrust of moral sensitivities in favor of what is deemed to be God’s revealed will and identified with “The Halakhah,” “The Torah,” or “The Gedolim.” Often, when moral considerations are raised in halakhic discussions, they are labelled and dismissed as Christian, secular humanist, western, or just plain “goyish” influence. “Authentic Judaism,” the argument goes, “has the Torah, and we know what to do. The Akeidah teaches us that eternal lesson.”

A revised, convoluted reinterpretation of the Akeidah is thereupon presented by this rabbi, in which the Torah’s narrative of the event is twisted into a pretzel. (This same Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has previously defended and even promoted the denial of the historicity of the Torah and its communication to Moshe at Sinai; please see here for elaboration. Another Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has likewise written that the Torah was not dictated by God to Moshe. Based on Biblical Criticism and this Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva’s own reading of the Chumash, he professes that “there is no other option but to let go of the narrative of the dictation… ‘The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.’ We can understand this statement as merely a comment on the literary style of our Torah, but it can also be understood in a broader and more fundamental way.” This Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has also posited that one need not accept the Torah’s narrative of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim as historical fact. )

Another Open Orthodox rabbi, with a similar orientation, writes that Avrohom Avinu actually failed the Akeidah. This notion, repeated many times by Open Orthodox leadership, is wholly inconsistent with the Torah’s text and our tradition, for why would God reward Avrohom with abundant praise and blessing at the conclusion of Akeidah, and why is the Akeidah invoked as the central theme for merit in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, if it was a wrongdoing and a failure? It makes no sense, and it manifests gross distortion of the Torah to serve an agenda.

It pains me to see people explain Torah in such ways, devoid of Mesorah and reverence and detached from the logical development of the narratives and their meaning.

Let us learn Torah with Mesorah, awe and an objective goal and trajectory. As we conclude Sefer Bereshis, let us come away with a sense of the viruosity of the Avos and Imahos and their progeny, and an appreciation for the profundity and sanctity of the narratives. Let us realize that the true Toras Chaim is one that ignites our yiras shamayim and ahavas Hashem, and that we are but dwarfs who are divinely gifted with accounts of monumental greatness which we can barely aspire to emulate. Let us be infused with a spirit of reverence, love of Torah, and last but not least, common sense.