Open Orthodoxy: The Rise of the Neo-Cons June 17, 2013 9:35 am
By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
No one wants machloket (strife).
That admirable sentiment, a defining characteristic of Jewish personal and national life, to a large extent underlies the silence with which the major Orthodox Jewish organizations (outside the more Yeshivish world) has greeted the unremitting slide from normative Torah views of the groups, loosely affiliated but interrelated, and collectively known as YCT/IRF/Maharat. Collectively, they refer to themselves as “Open Orthodoxy,” but at what point does the “openness” so predominate that it ceases to be Orthodox?
Consider: Whatever semantic games are played, the ordination of women as Jewish clergy shatters one of the demarcations between the Torah world and non-Orthodoxy. Even Rabbi Saul Lieberman, the great scholar who taught for decades at JTS, publicly opposed (in writing) the ordination of women, such that JTS waited for him to pass from this world before it ordained its first women. Of course, the charade – Rabba, Maharat, whatever – is conducted in order to avoid an open break, even as it smacks of dishonesty. But it is what it is, and we are foolish to play the games and ignore the reality. The titles, job descriptions and current subterfuge presage the day when these groups will boast (and I mean boast) synagogues whose spiritual leader is a woman, something considered anathema – for a variety of reasons grounded in Jewish law and thought – by the aforementioned Rabbi Lieberman, Rav Soloveitchick and every recognized posek faithful to the Mesorah. Even Nechama Leibowitz would cringe in revulsion and horror at this obvious deviation from Jewish law and tradition. (I was her student, and she was scrupulously traditional, and humble to a fault. And she did not live with grievances against the Torah.)
Consider as well the variety of statements and positions emanating – without obvious dissent – from members of those groups:
– the constant repetition of the familiar canard (that animated the non-Orthodox movements) that Judaism treats women as “second-class citizens;”
– the denigration in some places, and reluctant acceptance by others, of the institution of mechitza (kept, it seems, because it is part of the Orthodox “brand,” but in some places minimized, removed at various times during the davening, and bound to be on the chopping block in the future, especially since it is not mentioned explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch);
– the embrace of the same-gender marriage agenda, and its essential elimination as a “sin,” as one of the 613 commandments and 365 prohibitions pursuant to Jewish law, including the celebration, in one form or another, of same gender marriage;
– the attempted relaxation of conversion standards, so as to decrease the number of intermarriages while foisting on the Jewish people converts who have not the slightest intention of observing the mitzvot – in the process doing them a great disservice;
– the embrace of non-Orthodox clergy and their integration into religious services in unprecedented ways that completely eviscerate the ideological distinctions between the movements;
– the search for the lenient halachic opinion that will rationalize any desire, regardless of precedent or tradition; i.e., predetermining the conclusion and then seeking justification for it;
– the study of Tanach in a way that degrades the ancients and plays down the commentaries of the Talmudic Sages and medieval commentators, as if all opinions carry equal weight, and as if there is a mitzva in discovering new sins or exaggerating old ones in the deeds of our ancestors. It is a “scientific” approach much more prevalent in the non-Orthodox world than in the Torah world.
(Generally, the New York Times’ editorial page is a reliable indicator -if not the source – of the social perspectives and views of this camp, but that is a different discussion.)
Taken on its merits, almost all the views above are closely identified with the non-Orthodox movements, which either began with those deviations or embraced them along the way.
Why, then, the reluctance to call a spade a spade? Several objections can be made.
First, they call themselves “Orthodox,” thereby identifying with the Orthodox world. That is important, because it evinces their intention to remain Orthodox even as they, for lack of a better word, try to reform it from within. Second, many of the leaders are musmachim of RIETS or YU grads, see themselves as Orthodox, and practice the norms of Orthodox life even if some of their ideas are off the reservation. Third, almost all of the individuals that I personally know involved in these groups are fine, decent people, for whom I have always had tremendous respect, and whose contributions to the Jewish people – in some cases – were legendary and worthy of eternal recognition. And who wants machloket?
Here’s the problem with that: the same could be said of the founders of Conservative Judaism and their successors who broadened its popularity across the United States up to 30-40 years ago. Most of the founders of CJ were also Orthodox in practice, and more. One of the founders of JTS, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, also served as one of the presidents of the Orthodox Union (such is unimaginable today). JTS was founded by traditional Jews, like Rabbi Sabato Morais, horrified by the gross retreat from Jewish norms of the Reform Rabbinate. The aforementioned Rabbi Shaul Lieberman was allegedly offered a teaching position at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin (!) in Brooklyn, before deciding to take the position at JTS (such is unimaginable today). Whatever the results, the founders of Conservative Judaism meant to conserve Judaism; hence, the name. (Given their current politics, some probably wince when using the term, and wish they could be called “Liberal Judaism” instead.) The point is that they perceived themselves as the vanguard of what would be traditional, Torah-true Judaism on American soil.
For the first half-century after the founding of the Conservative movement, it was quite common for YU graduates to attend JTS for ordination. It was not uncommon for RIETS musmachim to become spiritual leaders in Conservative temples, like it was not uncommon for those same musmachim to be members of the RCA, like it was not uncommon for some OU shuls not to have mechitzot. (This is meant to be factual, not judgmental; the battles then were different than they are today.)
And undoubtedly, many of the founders of the non-Orthodox movements were upstanding and decent people as well. Their sincerity and dedication – and in many cases their scholarship – should be acknowledged. Reform and Conservative rabbis also wrote responsa, marshaling sources here and there to permit what they wanted to permit: the elimination of the mechitza, the permission to “ride” (but not “drive”) on Shabbat, and the series of feminist responsa on which the current group of Neo-Conservatives relies so heavily, permitting consecutively, and in short order, women counting in the minyan, leading the minyan, and serving as rabbis of the minyan. Those responsa were clever, often misleading or disingenuous, and other times relied on that old shibboleth that “times have changed.” But no Halachist took them seriously. And a more traditional wing often filed dissenting reports.
It must also be acknowledged that, like then, some in today’s fringe groups don’t really belong there, wince at some of the halachic and hashkafic departures from Orthodoxy, and are basically stuck, not really in a position to renounce their semicha but very well aware that their past choices might have been misguided.
This is written in pain and with a heavy heart. No one wants machloket. But emet (truth) is also a value – a profound value, especially in relation to Torah. A well known talk-show host often says that he prefers “clarity to agreement.” Clarity is especially critical when it comes to articulating Torah positions, and certain positions taken by these groups – as outlined above – are clearly beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Not to admit that is to acquiesce through silence in the ongoing distortion and disfigurement of the Torah. And to acquiesce in silence while the Torah is being reformed and transformed – essentially to conform to a modern, liberal agenda – is to betray our calling as Rabbis and teachers of Torah. To acquiesce in silence, which for the most part has been the default position of the leading modern Orthodox organizations (aside from the occasional mild rebuke), is to make a political decision, but one that has adverse consequences for the Torah world.
Jews have to know what is right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable; Jews have to know when we say “these and these are the words of the Living God,” and when we say that something else is not drawn from that holy wellspring; Jews have to know that there are “seventy facets to the Torah,” but there is also a 71st or 72nd facet that is not part of the Torah. The Torah is not an intellectual free-for-all, or a document that can be twisted in every generation to satisfy the emotional vagaries or psychological moods of the faithful. It is God’s word, and, indeed, it is not given over to every individual or group to interpret. And to acquiesce in silence is to leave every Orthodox Rabbi susceptible to the pressure from the lobbyists for these causes to replicate these innovations in our shuls because, if there was anything improper about them, someone would have opposed it publicly. Let the censure begin.
For all intents and purposes, the Conservative and Reform movements have merged, certainly in practice if not in theory. A new movement has taken the place of the Conservative movement of a century ago, founded and popularized by some fine people, worthy of respect in many regards, but whose spiritual world-view and halachic conclusions are at variance with the Torah world that we know and cherish. It is eerily similar to the world view (and practices) of the original CJ movement. The ramifications of this conclusion- in terms of conversions, kashrut, edut, etc. – are enormous, which makes the heartbreak that much greater. And certainly, one complication is that there are some -I’ve met them – who nominally belong to these groups but subscribe to none or almost none of the agenda and the deviations. This, too, will need clarification.
Ultimately, I wish to include, not exclude, but also to clarify, not obfuscate. Some will want to re-trace their steps and are welcome, and others won’t because they sincerely believe they are on the right track. Some will bask in the adulation of the secular Jewish media, as if that means anything, and others in the number of the committed who rejoice in all their revelries – as if Jews have never before rejoiced in inappropriate revelries.
But even before deciding on the next steps, clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed, with due apologies to the late Irving Kristol, Neo-Conservatism. “Open Orthodoxy” is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality.
The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives. Let us all – on all sides – at least admit it.
Source: Rabbi Pruzansky