Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

From Open to More

Rav Avi Weiss' famous article, "Open Orthodoxy!" long ago set the tone for the YCT approach to Modern Orthodoxy. As the Wikipedia article on him summarizes:
Open Orthodoxy
"Open Orthodoxy" is a new philosophy of Judaism developed by Rabbi Avi Weiss. It represents an effort to combine traditional Jewish faith in Torah mi-Sinai, the Orthodox faith in an inerrant Jewish Law revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, with openness to modern culture and society. Open Orthodoxy is characterized by its distinct philosophy of Halakha (Jewish religious law) and by its open attitude towards modern society and culture. Its approach places it within the left wing of Modern Orthodox Judaism, and therefore somewhat to the right of both the Union for Traditional Judaism and Conservative Judaism.[citation needed]
Although the degree of acceptance of the Open Orthodox philosophy within Orthodox Judaism has yet to be determined and the philosophy has engendered substantial criticism within both
Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism, the approach has gained substantially more practical acceptance than the Union for Traditional Judaism, a previous effort to establish a philosophical position between Conservative Judaism and centrist Modern Orthodox Judaism, which generally failed to gain large number of applicants to its rabbinical school or attract affiliated congregations. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the approach's principal rabbinical training institution, has attracted a comparatively larger group of interested donors, students, faculty, and congregations interested in placements.
Approach to Halakha
The Open Orthodox approach holds that
Jewish Law "is not blind", but has an ethical message, and that legal interpretation must attempt discernment of that message, yet nonetheless contains Divinely-revealed, eternal truths representing strictures to which human intellect, and present-day conceptions of ethics, must yield. Weiss writes that "Halakha is a partnership" between divine, Sinaitic elements and human, non-Sinaitic elements.
The fundamental difference between Sinaitic and non-Sinaitic law, according to Maimonides, is that laws from Sinai, coming as they do directly from God, are free from controversy. There is only one view on every issue. Non-Sinaitic law, on the other hand, which is the result of rabbinic interpretation, is subject to controversy. After all, two rabbis of equal piety, intellectual ability, or stature may disagree - and both may be right.
Thus, Halakha has a degree of flexibility. While bordered by a system that is external to humankind - the God-given law, Torah mi-Sinai, to which Jews are subservient - it also contains laws derived by the rabbis, to which there may be more than one view. It follows, therefore, that Halakha is a living structure that operates within absolute guidelines, yet one which is broad enough to allow significant latitude for the
posek (decisor) to take into account the individual and his or her circumstances. Simply put, within airtight parameters, Halakha is flexible.
The difficulty with Open Orthodoxy is that the emphasis seems more often to be on the "open" than the "orthodoxy". While there is not much that is controversial in the general description, the application has proven to be. Rav Weiss has broken many of the unwritten rules that have characterized Orthodoxy over the last few centuries, like allowed interfaith dialogue and expanding the public leadership roles of women. His justification - that halacha is flexible - does not hold up under close scrutiny. Rather it seems the guiding philosophy of Open Orthodoxy is "Where there's a will, there's a halachic opinion we can rely on to fulfill it."
That's really not so much different from Conservatism's guiding principle: "If there's a will, there's a halachic opinion we can rely on. If there isn't, we'll allow it anyways under the 'God wants me to be happy' principle." Indeed, although he still has obvious red lines, one wonders what will happen when Rav Weiss is finally forced into a corner and has to choose between being seen as reactionary or crossing that line.
In the best tradition of Open Orthodoxy, a new blog, Morethodoxy, has appeared to support its philosophy. (Thank you to Holy Hyrax for bringing it to my attention). It's principle contributors, four YCT-oriented rabbis and one new-fangled Maharat, opine on various issues from the Open Orthodox perspective. It's all calm and polite, the posts are eloquently written and the responses are (with the exception of my contributions) all supportive and "isn't this all so nice and wonderful!" But is it Orthodox?
I'm going to state my thought right now: I don't think it is. I'm not casting aspersions against the characters of the writers on this blog, mind you. One of them happens to be the husband of an old camp friend of mine and I know she wouldn't settle for a spouse who wasn't a first class human being. He's also extremely well eduated both in Jewish and secular areas. I presume the others are equally sincere and educated.
But I'm not doubting their qualifications. Rather I don't believe their thinking is Orthodox. Why? Because for me, Orthodoxy implies that all matters are seen through a Torah perspective. Whether its an approach to so-called secular values, how to relate religiously and politically with the State of Israel, gender relations or the necessity of Modern Orthodoxy at all, the first place to state is within the Torah realm.
Real religion is, after all, about finding spiritual happiness within a set of rules. It takes a certain sense of maturity to appreciate that and the definition of maturity is understanding that sometimes the answer to a request you make is "no". I cannot eat bacon no matter how much I want to. You cannot go to that Beastie Boys concert on Shabbos no matter how important it is to you. Accepting limitations is a sign of maturity. Shouting "this is stupid!" is not.
Too often in the various essays on the blog, I get the nervous feeling that the first reference point for the writers is not Torah but rather secular society and its desire to provide its consumers with the answer "yes" to all their desires. God wants us to be happy, the secular mantra goes, therefore everything should be permitted. So when faced with the obvious - that Judaism does not simply permit eveyrthing simply because someone wants it and thinks it'll make him happy - they now have a problem. Do they take the side of restriction, which is against their secular beliefs, or do they take the side of permissiveness and then try to mangle halacha into accepting that? Too often it seems they are interested in the latter, and that's just not Orthodox.
This is the problem with Modern Orthodoxy today. Too many well-placed and erudite writers in this vein seem to want to step up to the plate and present their secular views as the real Modern Orthodoxy. As anyone who has studies the works of the Rav knows, this is not an honest potrayal of what it is.


Baruch said...

The problem is not interfaith dialogue but interfaith theological dialogue. This is a very subtle point, but it is one that needs to be noted because people want to say that rabbis in America have generally followed Rabbi Soloveitchik's opinion of forbbiding interfaith dialogue...but this is not the Rav's actual opinion! Dr. Hall, Mycroft, and myself had it out with Rabbi Oberstein over this (comments at

In any event, I'm not a big expert on Chovevei, but I have seen some shaky reasoning. In any event, this was a very eloquent post.

E-Man said...

I agree with you Garnel a 100% The most disconcerting thing to me though is modern orthodox communities that completely ignore their Rabbis. For example, there are many modern orthodox communities where eating milchigs out is completely acceptable and not thought of as not keeping kosher. This frightens me and seems to be constructed from this idea of G-D wants me to be happy and not what does Judaism actually tell me.

Garnel Ironheart said...

If I remember the Rav's psak correctly, he had no trouble with issues of "common concern". It was exactly on theological issues he was wary.

As for other leniencies, I wonder if there are any shuls that still have "family seating" - single adults separate but families together in the middle?

Baruch said...

1. Precisely.

2. All I know is that there is one shul left in the OU left with a synagogue that lacks a mechitza:

David said...

Eh. You say it's not a "Torah" perspective; they say it is. Rav Sherman says your perspective is not a Torah perspective. You say it is. I say that you all define "Torah perspective" to mean a modest circle embracing your own particular views and, perhaps, those of a few others who think more or less the same way.