The Inevitable Moment of Truth for Modern Orthodoxy


avrohom gordimerBy Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

The big split in Modern Orthodoxy is coming more quickly than realized. In fact, it has already arrived, and its impact is becoming manifest on multiple levels.

Let’s take a step back and examine the history and background, as well as the facts on the ground and what the future portends.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “Women’s Tefillah Groups” (WTGs) began to organize.  WTGs consist of self-identifying Orthodox women davening and reading from the Torah in a manner similar to a minyan. Women’s megillah readings emerged as well as part of the WTG movement, as did “Orthodox” bas mitzvah services, in which teenage girls serve the function of chazzan and baal kriah in about exactly the same manner as is done by Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist temples. In 1986, Women’s Tefillah Network, which was to serve as the central organization for WTG activities, was founded.

Although WTGs were initially tiny, unofficial and unknown convocations that met at private homes, they began in the mid-1980s to meet at a few liberal Orthodox shuls in New York City. In response to this phenomenon, five roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s affiliated Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (RIETS) issued a one-page public proclamation denouncing WTGs. The elaborate halachic and meta-halachic reasoning for this proclamation, which represented the approach of all five of the roshei yeshiva, was concurrently presented by Rav Hershel Schachter in a lengthy article titled Tze’i Lach B’Ikvei Ha-Tzon. This article is available in Rav Schachter’s sefer of the same name, which was published shortly thereafter.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, senior rosh yeshiva at RIETS, did not sign the declaration, although he fully opposed WTGs. Rav Soloveitchik’s position was that the matter was one of fundamental hashkafic and public policy considerations, and he did not want to present the issue as one of technical halachah. Rav Soloveitchik is on record as well for his consistent opposition to any change or feminization of tefillah and all associated therewith, including “women’s Hakafos” and the like.

At the other end of the stick stood a few liberal Orthodox rabbis, most notably Rabbi Avi Weiss, who promoted WTGs throughout, and whose congregation, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), was one of the first shuls to invite a WTG to join its official programming. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, over a decade prior, had introduced a women’s Simchas Torah service at Lincoln Square Synagogue, yet full-blown WTGs had not come to fruition until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2001, Rabbi Avi Weiss penned his book, Women at Prayer, which offered his halachic justification for WTGs.

Although Rav Soloveitchik sparred in the early 1970s with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman about the latter’s Hafka’as Kiddushin (Annulment of Marriage) initiative, in which married women were declared free to remarry without first receiving a get, by virtue of Rackman’s novel approach to the relevant halachos, and although Rav Aharon Lichtenstein clashed with Rabbi Irving Greenberg in the 1960s regarding the parameters of acceptable hashkafah, with the latter proposing ideas that were beyond the boundaries, these episodes did not represent the beginnings of major changes in Orthodoxy, nor did they consist of actual dissident groups. By contrast, the launching of WTGs betokened the commencement of the currently-broadening schism in Modern Orthodoxy, and they lay at the core of the breach.

Fast forward thirty years. Avi Weiss has founded a rabbinical school (Yeshivat Maharat) to ordain women as rabbis, he (along with Rabbi Marc Angel) has started a breakaway rabbinical organization (International Rabbinic Fellowship, IRF), which includes male and female clergy members, and he has declared the establishment of Open Orthodoxy as a new movement, with an affiliate yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). Leading Open Orthodox rabbis have innovated new approaches in geirus (conversion to Judaism), in tefillah (allowing for both men and women to interchangeably lead parts of davening in what is termed a “Partnership Minyan”), and they have welcomed into their ranks rabbis who do not profess traditional emunah (belief in the cardinal principles of Judaism) and who endorse “non-traditional” marriage and engage in banned interfaith and interdenominational dialogue. In Eretz Yisroel, rabbis aligned with IRF and YCT have sought to dismantle and undermine the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the Rabbanut, by performing geirus that does not meet Rabbanut standards (via the “Alternative Conversion Courts” of Rabbi Riskin), most notably in terms of kabbolas mitzvos (acceptance of the mitzvos), and by picking away at the Rabbanut’s authority in a variety of other areas, such as control over marriages, kashrus certification and mikvah policies. The maverick initiatives of Rabbis Rackman and Greenberg are looked to for precedent by this new movement, and Greenberg has been invited to join and to mentor Open Orthodoxy’s younger ranks.

How did this all come about? We need not engage here in a blow-by-blow history of Open Orthodoxy, but it is undeniable that Open Orthodoxy is, by and large, a breakaway from Modern Orthodoxy. The heart of the rift thus merits some serious analysis.

One of the leading scholars at YCT, in describing what he feels are the distinguishing features of Open Orthodoxy (“progressive Modern Orthodoxy,” in his words) and its approach to halachah, wrote:

“Modern Orthodoxy is a two-pronged philosophy that strives for full integration. The Modern Orthodox Jew’s Yiddishkeit is enhanced by a robust encounter with modernity, while his experience of modernity is enriched by an intense engagement with his Yiddishkeit. The Modern Orthodox Jew’s Orthodoxy would consequently look different than the Orthodoxy of the non-Modern Orthodox observer, and their adjudication of the important issues of the day would hence differ significantly.

“…Once the posek has identified the relevant sources, they have to be made compatible with many of the external variables the posek needs to evaluate in order to make the ruling relevant.

“Modern halachic adjudication is about making the eternal contemporary…

In stark contrast, the traditional Modern Orthodox notion of Synthesis or Integration, as espoused by Yeshiva University Presidents Rabbis Bernard Revel and Samuel Belkin, reflects a synthesis of knowledge within the individual – such that the Orthodox Jew should be learned both in Torah and in worldly studies – and does not in any way represent synthesized halachic or hashkafic axioms, as embraced by Open Orthodoxy/“progressive Modern Orthodoxy.” (See Belkin, Essays in Traditional Jewish Thought, p. 17.)

This disagreement, as it were, is at the crux of the matter. For those within Modern Orthodoxy who oppose the innovations of Open Orthodoxy, secular education and worldly pursuits and endeavors are considered acceptable and are deemed to be of potential worth so long as they do not contradict halachah or Torah values. On the other hand, Open Orthodoxy has melded secular values with Torah and created a new alloyed halachic and theological system.

Thus, in our age of incremental liberalism and the encroachment of anti-Torah mores into general society, the reaction of the traditionalist camp within Modern Orthodoxy has been to withdraw somewhat from secular society and to gravitate toward elements within Orthodoxy that are less exposed to the values of the street, whereas Open Orthodoxy has, in turn, taken the opposite path by incorporating the radical values of modern-day media and liberal politics into its brand of “Judaism.” Hence did we witness Open Orthodox rabbis on Chanukah writing things such as:

“Chanukah celebrates the ability to engage the world and find aspects of modernity that are meant to be incorporated into our lives…

“Why not remake Chanukah as an eight-day celebration of Diaspora Jewish culture? We could celebrate a different aspect of Jewish culture each day – food, literature, art, music, dance, philosophy…

“…Chanukah espouses openness to the world around us and tolerance of difference.

“It is wrong to deny equal rights to ‘non-traditional’ marriages. This Hanukkah, as I light my menorah, I think of our modern battle that was won in Maine for equal (‘non-traditional’ marriage) rights. We have witnessed a miracle, as a small group of people of faith won victory over strongly entrenched, wrong beliefs.

“It is a miracle of love. Soon, some people consecrating their love in religious ceremonies of (‘non-traditional’) marriage will ask for God’s blessing…

The more secular and debased that general society becomes, the more its radical ideas will become part and parcel of the “Judaism” that Open Orthodoxy represents. And by the same token, the more that general society continues on its present trajectory, the more the traditional elements within Modern Orthodoxy will find common ground with those in Orthodoxy who do not seek extensive involvement with secular society and its educational and cultural offerings.

For the past half-century, Modern Orthodoxy had basically remained intact, as it stood in awe of Rav Soloveitchik and his legacy, and its mainstream would dare not deviate into the realm of tampering with halachah and abandoning the ikkarei ha’emunah (cardinal principles of faith). Now that this sense of awe and authority are gone, Modern Orthodoxy has been put to the test by a head-on challenge of acutely secular ideologies and approaches versus Torah, in particular in our age of electronic social media and the outside world’s unabashed abrogation of traditional beliefs and standards of moral decency. Most within the Modern Orthodox establishment have stayed the course and rejected that which cannot be viewed as consistent with Torah values and halachah, whereas others have embraced the outside influences and incorporated them into their Judaism.

The latter camp, which is swayed by and champions the social mores of the day, will continue to veer away from Torah, as the social mores become increasingly radical and downright anathema to Judaism. The former camp will, in turn, be compelled to seek unity with the rest of the Orthodox community, which never embraced outside knowledge and exposure more than was absolutely necessary.

In the end, there will, in all likelihood, be one somewhat more worldly component of the traditional Orthodox spectrum, and one group of formerly Orthodox Jews who have assimilated their Orthodoxy into a religion of secular values. The Torah landscape will again be more united, while the Open Orthodox population will identify with the more outwardly Jewish elements of non-Orthodoxy. (The same will likely occur with Religious Zionism, for those whose Zionism ultimately comes before religion will gradually become less religious – as we see with some of the contemporary political leadership of the Religious Zionist Knesset faction – while those whose religion comes first will come to identify more with those who are not Zionistic in an official political sense.) When the matter is brought to a peak and the moment of truth is at hand, the ultimate choice must be made, and one cannot stand al shtei hase’ifim.

History repeats itself, as Hashem’s promise for Torah to endure in those who truly value it is manifest once again.

We end here with the very relevant words of Rav Soloveitchik, delivered at the 1975 convention of the Rabbinical Council of America. These must be the defining axioms and boundaries of any valid form of Orthodoxy, be it Modern or otherwise:

“First, we must pursue the truth and nothing else but the truth. However, the truth in talmud Torah can be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is obtained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed down from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah. It’s ridiculous to say, ‘I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I’ve discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.’ It’s ridiculous! One has to join the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah, Chazal, Rishonim, gedolei Acharonim, and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei haTorah, and judge. We must not judge chukim umishpatim in terms of a secular system of values.

“Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psycholigism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of Torah and mesorah, and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism, no matter how good the intentions are of the person who is suggesting them.

“Second, we must not yield — I mean emotionally, it is very important — we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm — usually it is a transient and passing charm — of modern political and ideological sevaros (logic). I say not only not to compromise — certainly not to compromise — but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex. The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend or with the secular, modern philosophy. In my opinion, Yahadus (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism. There is no need for apology — we should have pride in our mesorah, in our heritage. And of course, certainly it goes without saying, one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends, and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient ways of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.

“A thought. Kabbolas ohl malchus Shomayim — which is an identical act with talmud Torah — requires of us to revere and to love and to admire the words of the chachmei hamesorah…


Rabbi Gordimer is a kashrus professional, a member of the Executive Committee of the RCA, and a member of the New York Bar.  

 This article was first published in Yated Ne’eman.

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  1. It is not only Open Orthodox rabbis that you write “engage in banned interfaith and interdenominational dialogue.” Normative mainstream modern orthodox rabbis do so as well. As an example, the rabbi of the BAYIT, the largest orthodox shul in Canada, has a regular column in The Canadian Jewish News with the Reform woman”rabbi” of Temple Emanuel in Montreal! Why is no one protesting these rabbis?

  2. Instead of blasting them at every juncture – why doesnt the Good Rabbi set up a Chavrusa with them ? Torah is the strongest force in the world. Castigation only makes you feel better and does not solve anything.

  3. #1 wrote – “the BAYIT, the largest orthodox shul in Canada”

    That should be BAYT.

    BAYIT is the Temple in Riverdale NY,USA of ‘Open Orthodox’ Reverend Avi Weiss.

  4. Sad but true. I hope the author is correct, that most of modern orthodoxy, seeing the extreme to which it is being taken, will be moving right and rejoining orthodoxy.

  5. A lot of rhetoric about ideas and philosophies. Little about the personalities offending or defending. The “defenders” might be regarded as brilliant theorists, but their political prowess has obviously not been effective. The assault will continue until the agitators are appropriately dealt with. It’s nice that Rav Gordiner is faithful to his mentor’s philosophizing, but the “political” (the action) clearly needs to be tweeked. Otherwise, it’s just ineffective pouting. Elyanova didn’t give us s’forim. He gave us an effective sword./scalpel.

  6. Eh……..#3,#9,The author is a very busy man,and could easily have convinced himself, as your ilk does, to avoid taking up the cudgels. He is one of the righteous heros of our epoch.He is a made of the same stuff as the Chasmonayim ,fighters against Tzeddukim,fighters against early Reform,etc.,were . When the books about our era will be one day written ,his name will appear often ..