As if world Jewry didn't have enough to worry about, apparently amidst the general turmoil in the Middle East, the ongoing low scale intifada, concerns about economic disparity and the worries about ties with the United States there is actually a real crisis occuring - the advent of Open Orthodoxy and the need to determine whether or not it's actually Orthodox.
For those late to the party, here is my biased summary. Rabbi Avi Weiss, a YU grad and student of the Rav, zt"l, has started his own religious movement. Calling it Open Orthodoxy he and his colleagues advocates for women clergy, more egalitarian rituals and consideration of acceptance of homosexual marriage in Jewish law. His insistence on making these the identifying features of his movement while calling it Orthodox have raised the ire of the more traditional leaders of the Orthodox community, both the Agudah and the Rabbinical Council of America. In recent weeks both groups have issues statements condemning Open Orthodoxy and labelling it as non-Orthodox.
Me? I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.
Does Open Orthodoxy defy the traditional definitions of Torah observance and obedience? Despite repeated claims by its leadership council to the contrary, the answer is clearly affirmative. Their number one posek openly writes about his view that the Torah is not a Divine document and that the historical events and people detailed within it are all fictional. That, in itself, takes Open Orthodoxy out of Orthodoxy in general.
But here's where it gets murkier. Does Open Orthodoxy pose a threat to the Torah observant community? I would venture that it doesn't since the population it's reaching out to is not one that fits into the more right wing Orthodox population. The OO leadership isn't concealing its aims and beliefs. Rabbi Asher Lopatin is open about his opinion that Jewish Israel should be replaced by a binational Jewish-Arab state. Others write about changing the siddur and litury to bring it into line with secular liberal values. Unless one is not paying attention when the chazzanit starts chanting the Kabbalas Shabbos service one is not likely to miss that there is something very different about this form of "Orthodoxy".
The concern is often raised that small town shuls looking for an Orthodox Rav might instead hire an OO rabbi. I can, in response, point out that most small shuls might have an Orthodox set up but don't have an Orthodox laity. Yes, giving women aliyos is beyond the pale of acceptable ritual behaviour in the Torah observance community but if most of the congregation drives home after Mussaf on Shabbos morning, is that really such a big deal? And if the incoming Rabbi asks if her husband can also use the local mikveh that should be obvious enough what kind of clergy the place is getting.
Missing in all this is the underlying concern. Social movements, as I've written before, always arise in response to a need. OO is one such movement and given its slow growth in size one must ask: what are its adherents looking for that they're not getting from the traditionally Torah observant?
On the negative side it's probably a big of selfishness. We live in a society where rights and entitlements define a person's needs. "I want" and "I need" become equivalent and JFK's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" becomes "I ask what my country can do for me and my country better not ask for anything in return". The moves of OO to become more egalitarian serve the segment of the community that says "Unless you adjust Orthodoxy to my wants/needs, I'll leave and go fulfill them elsewhere".
On the positive side, that same desire can be seen in a positive light. A few generations ago Jewish life was much simpler. It's not so longer ago, relatively speaking, that women weren't even given a primary education or taught to read on more than a basic level if at all. Now women are educated as much as men and have shown what anyone paying attention could have expected: they are just as accomplished and capable as men. This leads to women wanting greater participation in the ritual life of Torah observance. It also begs the question: if a woman studies the same semicha curriculum as a man and passes the same exam as a man, how is it conceivably fair that he is granted a degree and title while she gets nothing? This is, in my opinion, a valid question.
So where did Orthodoxy go wrong fo this to occur?
I would suggest the following: the four basic foundational areas of Torah observant Judaism are kashrus, Shabbos, taharas mishpacha and chesed. One can live in a small town and be an observant Jew just fine without a shul but not without Shabbos, kosher food or a mikveh. Chesed is a defining principle of Orthodoxy as well since imitatio Dei is an important value for us and we achieve this by acting kindly to others and spreading that kindness around. Most importantly, all of these are home-based mitzvos where the family is the centre and responsible together for maintaining their proper observance.
But if you look at the Torah observant community today, where does the emphasis lie? On ritual, ritual and more ritual. As I noted in my acclaimed (at least by me) series, Ritual Ubber Alles, Orthodoxy today is completely defined by the superficial. We have created a community system whose centre is the beis medrash/beis knesses, not the home. The family is pushed to the side and the centre of authority, the parents in the traditional model, is replaced by the Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva or "Gadol".
Observers have long understood the rush towards egalitarianism taken first by the Reformers and then the Conservatives. Having dumped most personal observances from their list of "Thou shalts" all that's really left to them is what goes on in their synagogues and temples. If that is pretty much their entirety of their religion then it's not shocking that women would want to play an equal part in what goes on there. Orthodoxy, in contrast, used to emphasize that Jewish life is rich and multifaceted with shul and ritual only a small part of the whole which mean that women were valued and important contributors. By drifting towards the Reformative position and empahsizing ritual over everything else we fell into the same trap.
There is also the matter of authority. Here's something that should not be a shock to anyone with knowledge of the subject: Rabbis today don't have any real authority.
No, really. The position of Rav holding authority in a binding fashion ended when genuine semicha died 1600 years ago. Yes we still grant the title to those who pass their exams and yes, since we respect and honour Torah knowledge, we defer to those who have demonstrated a superior mastery of it but at the root of it the system is voluntary. All the titles are just that, titles without a direct connection to Sinai which is where real authority is derived from.
As a result we do submit to the authority of our rabbinic leaders but there is an element of consensus and agreement to be led amongst the masses that underlies this. A person with the title Rav simply cannot show up in town and issue orders simply because he has the title.
And yet that's exactly what's happening. Whether it's the Moetzes of the Agudah styling itself as the central legal authority of the Jewish people in North America or the ranks of the "Gedolim" in Israel issuing psaks even without be asked the shailos first, we are incresingly being ruled and without our ongoing consent. How else to explain that I need to know what Rav Eliashiv's, zt"l, last psak was on an issue? He wasn't my Rav and I never asked him a shailoh. Yet his askanim insisted he paskened for the entire Jewish people. Did I miss the election for Jewish Pope?
Perhaps understanding this also helps us understanding where Open Orthodoxy came from. In a shul-dominated culture women are excluded and shoved to the periphery. In an autocratic leadership system people who are educated and used to having a say in how their lives are run will feel resentment. Both these factors have led to Open Orthodoxy and until the traditionally Torah observant leadership understands this and addresses these needs in a proper halachic fashion, OO's appeal will continue to grow.