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Orthodoxy And Its Discontents

I’ve just read a book whose sole purpose is to denigrate Open Orthodoxy, its institutions and its principles.

Nevertheless, Why Open Orthodoxy is NOT Orthodox by David Rosenthal is a must read for every progressive, forward-thinking, self-identifying Orthodox Jew.

Why?

In style the book offers more of the same tired, resentful, defensive, and reactionary venom that is spewed at all threats to traditional rabbinic hegemony. But the book is much more than just a political or personal attack. Perversely, it is nothing less than a call to action for the progressive constituents of modern orthodoxy who reject the narrow application of the contrived mesorah (tradition) of the right wing. It is a wake-up call for the Modern Orthodox institutions that have rushed to answer a yearning for innovation and inclusion. It is an opportunity for inclusive Orthodox institutions to ensure that the messages disseminated by their faculty, students, and associates are consistent with the underlying philosophies that they represent.

Rabbi Rosenthal uses the words of the leading lights of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat to depict Open Orthodoxy as an often contradictory and fragmented movement that seems to wantonly pursue change for its own sake. The Open Orthodox objectives and ideologies that he cites are as varied as the individuals who present them. Many reflect little more than the personal ideologies or social backgrounds of the individuals who are quoted. In an exchange after my reading of his book, Rabbi Rosenthal acknowledged that he made no effort to contact any of the subjects of his critique. Instead, he selected published comments (most from social media) that in many cases, lacking context, do not reflect the substance of the topics from which they were drawn.

The book begins with an introduction by Rabbi Aharon Feldman. His disapproval of Open Orthodoxy is summed up thusly: “It is difficult to avoid a conclusion that the motivation [for the creation of Open Orthodoxy] was a craving for recognition by the outside culture, a craving which made them ready to alter the Torah in order to gain that recognition.” Similarly, Rabbi Rosenthal offers that the theme that runs through the writings of the creators of Open Orthodoxy is “How do we adjust Halacha to fit society’s morals?” 

In pulling the substance of his critique from social media without referencing its larger context, Rabbi Rosenthal quotes liberally from the writings of the leaders and alumni of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat in order to make his case that the theology of Open Orthodoxy is closer to that of the Reform movement than that of Orthodox tradition. He quotes Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of YCT declaring that the rabbis reject the judicial views of Moses as “conservative and archaic.” Rabbi Zev Farber (YCT alum) asserts that the Torah has multiple authors, has ethically problematic laws, and contains stories that he identifies as “folklore,” “allegory,” or “intentionally fantastic (in) character.”  He quotes Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz saying, “Whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt is not our concern, nor is it our dream. It is of little importance.”

He points to Open Orthodox motives for change that belie the movement’s stated objectives. Rabba Dr. Melanie Landau (Yeshivat Maharat) stated, “I was viscerally feeling pain in my body because of the repression, exclusion and marginalization of the feminine in Jewish texts.” And about the Torah itself, she remarked, “In truth, this book (the Torah) also reflects my ambivalence about the binding nature of the tradition and the extent to which I would follow traditional norms where they conflict with other values that I hold.”

The author goes on to question the educational backgrounds of the students and the quality of the program offered by Open Orthodox institutions and as such, questions the qualification of graduates as community leaders and poskim (decisors on legal matters) – giving examples of judgements or conclusions reached by alumni that he believes conflict with tradition.

Tradition is not monolithic, and its orthodox rabbinic leadership has never been more suspect, both in Israel and the United States. We don’t have to listen too closely to hear the loud grumbling in Orthodox circles. Change is afoot. But those addressing change – those in the progressive Orthodox camp – must take every opportunity to anticipate criticism and provide the critics as little controversial material to work with as possible. Are we who identify with the more progressive goals and practices within Orthodoxy portraying in our institutions a message that is both consistent and authentic? Based on the examples that Rabbi Rosenthal presents, one would have to answer with an emphatic “no.”

Progressive Orthodox institutions and their graduates must be exceptional – not simply as good as, but better than those of the more traditional yeshivas and seminaries against whom they compete for jobs and leadership roles. The proponents of the movement for change must be on message. They cannot afford to be undermined by even the occasional loose cannon in their midst.

There is clearly a desire on the street to “grow” Orthodoxy and invite into it those who have been heretofore excluded. But the way to satisfy this demand is to inspire the respect of both admirers and skeptics — to present credible role models who are even better prepared than are the traditional alternatives. In doing so, we will be introduced to progressive institutions and personalities who can lead and inspire us with both their mastery of and respect for tradition as well as their innovative legal and social views. 

Good intentions are not enough to carry the day. Progressive Orthodox institutions have made it too easy for Rabbi Rosenthal and others like him to credibly critique both the goals and means utilized by innovators in Orthodoxy. His presentation demonstrates the damage that can result from casting an ambitious but indiscriminate net in lieu of first focusing on the kind of program content and message that will guarantee authenticity and consistency.

Rabbi Rosenthal has aimed some harsh words at not just Open Orthodoxy, but Modern Orthodoxy as a whole. In doing so he has given progressive readers a strong incentive for introspection. What are the goals of the progressive Orthodox movement and are the strategies currently in place fostering the achievement of those goals? How does the movement want to be perceived in the “marketplace of ideas” by both the progressive and traditional among us? How can the programs being promulgated by its flagship institutions guarantee that the ideology being advanced is authentic, vibrant, and relevant to this and future generations of observant Jews? This is the challenge that the author of this book presents. Will it be accepted?

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