Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A New Name For The Movement

Years ago Rabbi Avi Weiss published a long article on his new religious philosophy (in a Conservative journal of all places, I guess the Yated turned him down?) called "Open Orthodoxy".  Since that time the term has been applied to the form of Judaism taught at and practised by YCT graduates and their colleagues.  However, despite the word "Orthodox" it has become quite clear over the last few years that the emphasis is more on Open than on a faithful adherence to Jewish tradition.
Now, there are different levels of evidence for various Jewish practices.  Some have "hard" evidence.  For example, not eating pork or two males engaging in anal intercourse.  It's pretty hard to argue with what is written in black and white in the Torah and to justify contrary behaviours is basically an admission that the Torah is not authoritative in one's life but just a book of stories and potential suggestions on behaviour.  The Reformers, witht their nearly free-for-all approach to Judaism exemplify those who reject all normative Jewish practices including those with hard evidence.
The next level is "pretty hard evidence".  This is the Oral Law which is not part of the Written Torah but brought to us in its present form by the Sages of the Talmud.  For Orthodox Jews this is as much an authority as the Written Torah but for those outside that community the Talmud holds somewhat less authority.  This is typical of the Conservatives who, until recently, were loathe to contradict the Written Torah but were quite happy to dismiss any rules the Gemara might have propounded as being out of date or too inconvenient to observe.
Then there's the "medium evidence" level which consists of the Shulchan Aruch along with the other Rishonim and Acharonim.  Again, for the Orthodox community this level is completely authoritative and comes with complex rules as to how to understand what the psak is in any given case.  Outside the Orthodox community there is no authority given to this level at all.  Tell a non-Orthodox Jew that something is forbidden because the Chasam Sofer said it is and his opinion is accepted as normative and he's likely to stare blankly at you.
Finally there's what I call the level of "soft evidence".  This is the trickiest to deal with because, as opposed to the other three levels for which written materials can be found, there is little to back up practices in this category.  A quick example: the very first paragraph in Yorah Deah states that women can shecht animals for kosher consumption.  However, you'd be hard pressed to find a woman shochet today and, in fact, most reuptable kashrus organizations would never hire a woman to do the job.  Various reasons are brought by the poskim but the bottom line is that women simply don't shecht.
Another example would be women wearing tzitzis or t'fillin.  Again, the legal codes have no problem with a woman putting on either but it is simply not done today and a woman who insists on doing either is crossing a line.
The problem with the "soft" evidence is that anyone can stand up and say "Well it doesn't say anywhere that it's not allowed" or "Well I can show you where it says it is allowed!"  The person saying that would be perfectly correctly from a strictly legal point of view but from a more holistic halachic viewpoint they would be wrong.  If something is not done according to the standards of a group or community then it is not done.
One of the failings of Open Orthodoxy is that it seems not to understand the level of soft evidence.  Indeed, in its zeal to mutate Orthodox practice into something more acceptable to secular liberal standards it seems determined to assault all those practices with soft evidence it finds objectionable on the grounds that "it doesn't say anywhere that this isn't allowed".
Thus a few years ago Rabbi Asher Lopatin announced on his blog that he was changing the morning blessings said in his synagogue to the Conservative versions.  (He recently recycled many of his arguments here and then decided to go with a hashkafic basis to his position instead) Instead of negative "that thou hast not made me" he was promoting the "that thou hast made me".  In that way he saw a more positive expression of gratitude to God and also eliminated the blessing about not making me a woman which has always been a tricky one for those who call themselves Orthodox but wish to be seen by society as enlightened and modern.
At that time I reviewed his arguments and showed how they were all, to the last, based on a selective reading of some poskim or simply based on ignorance as to why the blessings were formulated as they were.  Instead of reflecting deep spiritual concepts as described in the Gemara, they were adjusted to satisfy a liberal guilt at not fitting in well with the amoral egalitarian society around us.
A few days ago Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky went down the same track and then went even further, declaring that the blessing about not being a woman was actually a chilul HaShem in this day and age.  In a piece called "Adieu To 'For Thou Hast Not Made Me a Woman" Rabbi Kanefsky approached the subject, declared his unending distaste for the blessing and then triumphantly announced that he would no longer say it.
Over at Cross Currents Rav Dov Fischer deals decisively and eloquently with the degree to which Rabbi Kanefsky is, far from taking a bold new "Orthodox" position is actually attacking it wholeheartedly and showing great contempt for it.
Such was the storm over the piece that his blog actually pulled the post and replaced it with this to clarify his position.  In the new post he clearly demonstrates Open Orthodoxy's method of decision making, one I call "Pick a Posek".  For example:
We are familiar from our siddur with the blessing “For You have not made me a non-Jew”. In our printed versions of the Talmud however, (see Menachot 43b) the blessing appears not in the negative formulation, rather in the positive language “for You have made me an Israelite” (שעשאני ישראל). While the majority of Talmudic commentaries and Codes nonetheless maintained that the correct version is the one we have in our siddur, two prominent Sages demurred. Both Rosh (Brachot 9:24) and the Vilna Gaon prescribe the recitation of “for You have made me an Israelite” , in accordance with our version of the Talmud.
As I noted when commenting on Rabbi Lopatin's piece, the attribution to the Vilna Gaon is incorrect.  He simply states that he'd seen prayer books with the blessing in that forumaltion, not that he was endorsing it.  No matter, what if he was?  The accepted halacha as demonstrated in pretty much every proper siddur today is "that thou hast not made me a woman".  Is Rabbi Kanefsky suggesting we are allowed to customize our prayer books to fit our personal sensitivities as long as some posek, somewhere, has said it's okay?
 Bach (O.C 46) , while aligning himself with the majority position, rules that if in error you said “for You have made me an Israelite”, then you should OMIT THE TWO BLESSING THAT FOLLOW, including “for You have not made me a woman”.
Again, how is this any proof?  Is Rabbi Kanefsky trying to pasken a l'hatchilahi from a b'dieved?
And his justification for misusing the halachic system in such a blatant fashion?
As I wrote in my original post, I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind.
He "believes".  He "feels".  He "thinks".  He "opines".  All various ways these types of thinkers justify the inner voice saturated by non-Torah viewpoints that feel more instinctively morally comfortable to demand that Judaism change.  Is there a problem with how Orthodoxy treated womenkind (as if they're a separate species from mankind?)?
The answer requires a subtletly that rabbi Kanefsky perhaps lacks.  Orthodoxy does a great many things to accomodate the dignity of women.  Many Orthodox Jews might not, having perverted Orthodoxy in the exact opposite direction from Rabbi Kanefsky and shamefully too many examples of frummer-than-thou types behaving badly towards women grace the news services on a regular basis but there is the messenger and then there is the message.  Rabbi Kanefsky seems not to recognize the difference.  Again, in some of his final statements:
 Our society has accordingly decided to treat both genders with equal dignity, and has opened all professional, political and communal endeavors to both genders equally. I believe that our community however, falls short of this goal in many ways. We are, of course, committed to operating within the framework and rules of halacha. But it is not hard to construct a halachik universe in which women’s physical space in shul and intellectual space in day schools and Study Halls are not lesser, but equal.
This betrays a complete lack of understanding of what Judaism is.  Judaism does not encourage equality between the sexes while noting that inequality does not imply a "superior vs inferior" relationship.  To try and create a model in which equality is emphasized is therefore not Judaism but an unreasonable facsimile of it.  It is, in short, what Conservativism sometimes pretends to be but more openly and blatantly.
It is time for Rabbis Kanefsky, Lopatin et al to realize they have become non-Orthodox in their thinking and beliefs even if they remain nominally Orthodox in their daily practice.  Perhaps it is also time to rename their philosophy.  I would suggest: Open Orthopraxy.


Bob Miller said...

They made have an eclectic approach, etc., but the idea that they are open is open to question. The whole business looks like a Trojan horse, with an artfully hidden agenda.

Bob Miller said...

should read "may have" above1

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

I think that's an important point.
I recall reading an article a few years ago abou the annual Cosnervative meeting and how two minyanim were offered, egalitarian and traditional. The egalitarians got the large room while the traditionals got a small room at the back of the hotel and only after a fight from the egalitarians who were very opposed to being tolerant of another point of view!

SJ said...

Next step is for them to accept the modern psychology which says there's no such thing as gender.

Anonymous said...

SJ, what then, "shelo asani anything"?

Devorah said...

The curious thing is that when these "soft evidence" points in the more right-wing, stringent direction, people bend over backwards to accommodate it. Masses of people stop learning and force their children not to earn a living? Okay. It's still orthodoxy. Increasingly rigorous rules regarding women's dress, now applicable to girls under age 4? It's still orthodoxy.

And yet when the reverse is true, for some reason whenever the change is in any way promoting women, suddenly it's heresy.

Do I love the idea of giving up a bracha? No. But the brachos itself varies wildly, as do most of the tefilos, between ashkenazim and sefardim, and even different types of ashkenasim and sefardim. We don't condemn any of those of heresy.

We don't perform slavery nowadays. Why is that? Nor do we have multiple wives. Nor do we do metzizah b'peh (most of the time). Nor do we implement any punishment like whippings, floggings, strangulations, etc, because we've willingly disbanded any attempt at social justice because of how we're perceived in the world.

I fail to understand how Rabbi Weiss giving power to some women to be Rabbis somehow threatens the existence of Orthodoxy as a whole. These are women learning from the very disciples you hold sacrosanct, are interested in upholding their principles, and somehow, because they don't have the same genitals as you do, their behavior is suspect of undermining orthodoxy. I just don't understand the big threat here.

Rosten said...

My feeling is that there is one specific path of Torah with Talmud that leads to attachment with God.
I think if a woman or man teaches that path then they are teaching Torah. If they are not teaching that then they are not.
I.e. My idea is that Torah and Talmud define a specific path of service towards God.
I don't see any branch of Judaism teaching that path. The frum add restrictions to their constant delight. The fry take away what they want.
To none of these groups is what the Torah actually says determinate.
The modern orthodox do not add halacha but change the philosophy of the rambam to existentialism and the mizrachi changed the philosophy of Torah to make a Hegelian type of statist (state centered) philosophy

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Devorah, you raise an interesting point that I've mentioned before as well.
The problem with Orthodoxy and defining it is that there really is no right sided border to it. The odious Neturei Karta are "Orthodox" despite being a bunch of Jew-hating nutjobs with ugly glasses. Yes, it seems odd that basically decent and well-intentioned men like Weiss and Kanefsky get condemned as being un-Orthodox when the denizens of Meah Shearim don't despite acting like primitive savages.
However this doesn't change that there is a left border to Orthodoxy. You can only go so far and call yourself Orthodox and this is the reason for the strident criticism of the YCT crowd. Rabbis Weiss et al are free to do what they want. I'm not questioning their basic decency and virtue, chas v'shalom. But to do what they're doing and still call themselves Orthodox is false advertising. It's no different than when the Conservatives had as their motto "The authentic movement of traditional Judaism" back in the 80's and 90's. They can do what they want but that kind of representation is a lie.

Rosten, you've hit on another important point: true halachic inquiry means asking a question and being will to accept that even an answer you don't want might be the right answer. Almost no one does this nowadays which is probably why we're in the mess we're in.

Anonymous said...

A hypothetical extreme example:

If an ostensibly Orthodox group forced all its women to walk around in opaque Ziploc bags with slits to see through, and put all objectors into cherem, this would be both
1. strict as regards concealment, and
2. in violation of Torah law in multiple ways

A group so obsessed with strictness as to ignore 2., the totality of Torah law as conveyed through our Mesorah, could not be considered Orthodox in the sense of Torah-true.

Thus, the Tzedukim of old did not earn any respect from the Rabbonim for adopting stringencies based on falsification or negation of our Mesorah. Quite the opposite.

JRKmommy said...

Last point first - "orthopraxy" is a fairly new term generally used to describe someone who goes along with typical Orthodox practices, often to appease others, but lacks genuine belief.

I don't see the comparison to Open Orthodoxy - if anything, it's the opposite. They aren't going trying to blend in with the rest of the Orthodox world by going along with typical Orthodox practices. As you point out, they active challenge those that have "soft evidence". Calling it "Orthopraxy" suggests a lack of belief, and that sounds like an unjustified slur. Obviously, there is belief there - belief in the Torah, Written and Oral, and to the idea that clear-cut halachic guidelines exist. If there was no belief, it would be far easier to simply give up the effort to look at halacha and simply adopt the total egalitarianism of Reform or even Conservative Judaism. The issue is not a LACK of belief - it's a DIFFERENT approach within halacha.

Bob Miller said...

Sort of depends what "within" is. One could say that this movement is to heterodox movements what Fabian socialism is to Marxian socialism---a gradualist, deceptively moderate approach to achieve the same ends, operating within but not truly one with the host community.

Bob Miller said...

In case my description of Fabian socialism looks too much like a blast from the hoary past, see this book for an excellent dissection of a similar approach being used now in the US:

JRKmommy said...

Bob: What is "hidden" about their agenda?

I do think that left-wing Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy are "radical" in the sense that they challenge more right-wing Orthodox practices in a way that non-Orthodox groups do not. Non-Orthodox groups can simply be dismissed by saying "Hey, they don't follow halacha and don't recognize Torah mi'Sinai", or a condescending "what can you expect from people who never learned, they obviously need some kiruv".

It's more challenging to accept that someone may have studied Judaism seriously and yet come to a different conclusion - not out of disregard for halacha, but out of deep respect for it.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

JKRMommy, the problem is that their approach is patently wrong.
Decisions on important halachic issues, especially those that involve changing something established as a universal minhag within the Torah community for centuries requires the input of the most important decisors in the world. YCT has no such members, nor have their sought out any poskim to support their position.
And I'm not talking about asking Rav Eliashiv about what he thinks of women leading kabbalas Shabbos. If they claim to be Modern Orthodox have they approached the leading poskim in that community? No. Do Rabbis Weiss, Kanefsky or any of the others have the depth of Torah learning and experience to carry the responsibility for issuing such an important psak? No.
Again, their problem is that their methodology is not Orthodox, their conclusions are not Orthodox but they continue to insist they are. That's the real problem.

noam said...

You are missing a very important point which is: how does Judaism deal with an innate sense or ethics and morality and what to do when halacha appears to conflict with that. Please read Eliezer Berkovitz regarding Torah true and torah tolerated and r. Eugene Korn(tradition 1997) entitled 'tzelem Elokim and the dialectic
of Jewish morality'. It isn't as cut and dry as you put it. And by the way, perhaps you would like to vent your spleen on r Falk(oz v'hadar levusha) who, as rav Henkin pointed out, simply makes up Halacha regarding tzniut.