Are we witnessing a new sect in Judaism arising in our midst now? With the ongoing efforts of the Open Orthodox to pump out women rabbis and erase as much of the gender separation intrinsic to Judaism as they can without crossing certain red lines it's worth wondering if, ultimately they will become yet another "stream" in modern Jewish life, like the Reform, Conservatives, etc.
Some might wonder why I might describe them as a group separate from Orthodoxy? It's important to note, for example, that they do not advocate changes in Shabbos, kashrus, or taharas mishpachah, the three pillars of Jewish religious life. From their publicity photos we seen men and women dressed in appropriate head coverings and clothing. This isn't about women in tank tops and bare headed men shouting "We're traditional!" These are folks who keep the vast majority of the rules to the best of their ability except for one or two areas where they have decided that the lack of a definite prohibition in chumash has allowed them to innovate.
It's important to remember as well that during its heydey in the mid-20th century, the Conservative movement wasn't that far from modern Orthodoxy. In many Conservative synagogues the only non-Orthodox feature was the mixed seating, and we would do well to remember that at that time many Orthodox synagogues were experimenting with partial mixed seating (family seating I believe it was called), further blurring the differentiation.
The Conservative example is instructive in another way though. Yes, in 1950 the only difference between a Conservative synagogue and the Orthodox shul down the street might have been the seating arrangement but fast forward 50 years and suddenly those two buildings were now irreconcilably different. The Orthodox shul was still plugging along with the same old rituals and arrangements while the Conservative synagogue was fully egalitarian, pushing homosexual rights and emphasizing an ecofascist tikun olam over archaic rules such as not driving on Shabbos. It seems odd to think that the trigger for the ongoing deviation from Jewish norms towards secular liberalism with token ritual acts was the mixed seating but it's hard to derive another conclusion. Mixed seating, after all, represents the demand of the Jewish congregant to get something out of his service as a price of participation instead into of contributing to it altruistically and that has made all the difference.
The current effort by the Open Orthodox to make Judaism more egalitarianism, while certainly more limited that the open breaches advocated by Conservativism back in the day are no less significant and indicative of the same attitude. This generation may only be interested in ensuring women have equal learning and teaching opportunities with men but their daughters will surely wonder why the buck stops there and demand further change.
But where is the breaking point? How do we differentiate this group from normative Orthodoxy and know that it's not part of the acceptable routine? There are a couple of clues.
There is, for example, this quote from Rav Daniel Sperber:
“One of the major things halacha needs is compassion,” said Sperber, illuminating the question through the prooftexts brought by foremost halachic scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He used a section that stated that it is not halacha, rather a traditional practice that menstruating women (in medieval times) did not attend the synagogue — unless, the text continues, it causes them undue personal suffering, in which case they should attend.
“Smicha is an important event, but it’s sort of like a halfway house,” said Sperber. “You need to know the Shulhan Aruch [a codex of Jewish law] well, and then how to get over the Shulhan Aruch.”
Sperber charged the new rabbis with making sure people are not suffering, and to “push aside the next gatekeeper” and go into the next room filled with a halacha of compassionate love and peace.
Now Rav Sperber needs neither my complements nor my criticism. He is a fine talmid chacham with a well-earner authoritative reputation. Having said that, a legal expert who is advocating a significant change in the law and resorts not to precedent, wording or textual analysis but rather to love and peace is one that doesn't have much of a case. The phrase "get over the Shulchan Aruch" is also a red flag. Yes, the greatest poskim in the world might have that kind of flexibility in their decision making, graduates of a basic smichah program, male or female simply do not.
But perhaps the real money quote comes from this article in Haaretz:
“We must not be afraid of the title ‘rabbi.’ I’m impatient. I’m too old. If the Torah doesn’t move forward with the people, it will remain in the desert, and that will be a disaster."
That one line solidifies why what these programs and participants are doing, despite their sincerity and protests to the contrary, is not Orthodox. Note that the first two statements start with the first person singular: I. I want this. Not 'this is important' or 'this is necessary' but rather it's all about me. And what's the follow up sentence? The Torah, if it does not accommodate her, becomes irrelevant. This position isn't Orthodoxy, it's anti-Orthodoxy. Someone who feels the Torah has to change to remain relevant and guiding is Orthoprax and needs to be called on it.
Given its obsession with egalitarianism the movement needs a new name: Feminine Orthopraxy, FO, sounds right to me. What do ya'll think?