Open Orthodoxy: The Rise of the Neo-Cons

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avi-weissBy 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

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  1. in the 60’s and 70’s there were groups demanding peace. they didn’t want piece – they wanted surrender. too many husbands give in to their wives (on important issues) for the sake of shalom bais – if the issue is important – giving in isn’t shalom its surrender… here to – to avoid machlokes we keep quiet – that’s not shalom – that’s surrender … beautiful article – tells it like it is

  2. That is why I always refused when asked, What are you: Ultra Orthodox-Orthodox-Conservative etc…….I would respond, “I am a Jew”. We all stood as “ONE” 3325 years ago to receive the Torah. We all strive to learn & observe the Torah as our way of Life all those years. So anything short of ” I am a Jew” is an attempt to distort who we are and what Hashem expects from us. We are experiencing a terrible breakdown in our “One” Achdus. Man has chosen, due to his failure in keeping Torah, to divide and make up what is already known/brainwashed as “Branches/Streams of Judaism. This LIE/DISTORTION has done tremendous damage to Judaism. CHAZA”L have put up fences to protect Torah Law. These people have torn down those Fences a long time ago, and are slowly eroding the Torah itself. Let’s put an END to this Charade and strive to be “ONE” again

  3. I think this obsession you have with Rabbi Weiss is unhealthy and you should speak to someone to seek help for it.

  4. I appreciate the author’s approach and his desire to recognize the open-orthodox movement as part of our family. However, the author is intent on defining “Orthodox” and makes a somewhat veiled attempt to call open-orthodox the new conservative. The issue should be torah values, not what is “Orthodox.” My desire is to live as a “Torah” Jew, not necessarily an “Orthodox” Jew.

  5. Excellent analysis!

    There is an old vort brought in the name of the Kotzker z”l:
    The Midrash (?) brings down that when Hashem wanted to create the Man, he called together the Middoth of Emes (truth), Shalom (peace),
    Chesed )lovingkindness), and Tzedakah (charity)
    and asked them whether or not Man should be created.
    Emes said no! because he will create a world of Sheker (falsehood, lies etc.)
    Shalom said no! because he will create strife, hatred, wars, bloodshed etc.
    Chesed said yes! because he (with all of his faults) will do act of lovingkindness.
    Tzedakah said yes! because he will contribute a lot of charity to worthwhile causes.
    So, what was to be done, it was two against two?
    So Hashem threw Emes down to the ground as it says “??? ???? ????”, (Maharal explains that Hashem sent the Torah down to the Earth in order to help Man cope with Sheker and ??)
    and it was now two against one, so Hashem decided to create Man.
    Asks the Kotzker, but Shalom still remained opposed! (we know that in a din Torah once the majority of judges decide on a verdict the dissenting ones also have to be maskim (agree)
    to the verdict and sign it!
    Says the Kotzker ” Venn ess is nit da Emest, es is gring tzu machen Shalom” when Truth is not present, it is easy to make Peace!
    I think that this is the author’s main point.

  6. If conservative Judaism is called conservative… maybe I am a liberal Jew. Since conservative Jews are conservative with mitzvos and I do mitzvos liberally.

  7. Brilliant article, Rabbi Pruzansky. It is tragic and painful to face the simple truth that the movement started by Avi Weiss is now clearly outside of Orthodox Judaism. Let’s hope that clearly drawing the line will eliminate much of the confusion and those who are loyal to Torah but find themselves on the wrong side of the line can return where they truly belong.

  8. Thank you so much for your insightful,honest and ” so neccesary ” comments. They are courageous ” emperor has no clothes comments”.
    I only wish that more of our people would understand and accept your fundamental principles. We are living in a ” slippery slope ” world. We sorely need to doven to the Ribono Shel Olam that our fellow brothers’ (and sisters’ )eyes should see more clearly.

  9. I tried pointing this very thing out over 6 years ago:

    That was following my experience hearing Sara Hurwitz (the first “Maharat/Rabbah”) about her view that the only difference between Orthodox and Conservative is a social one:

    This is where it leads to:

    I’d like to thank Rabbi Pruzansky for making this clear.

  10. I tried pointing this very thing out over 6 years ago:

    That was following my experience hearing Sara Hurwitz (the first “Maharat/Rabbah”) about her view that the only difference between Orthodox and Conservative is a social one:

    This is where it leads to:

    I’d like to thank Rabbi Pruzansky for making this clear.

  11. Would Rabbi Pruzansky recommend that OU shuls who hire Maharat graduates be thrown out of the OU because they are not Orthodox. the National Synagogue in Washington, DC, and Shaar Shamayim in Montreal are both hiring graduates…there will be many more in years to come. So if a shul hires a Maharat, does that make it a non-Orthodox shul, in Rabbi Pruzansky’s opinion, even if they have a mechitza and follow a strictly Orthodox service?

  12. #3

    The Torah MUST BE OBEYED.

    For that we joined and were given it.

    AS The Mishnah states:Achdus for reshai’m is bad for them and bad for the world

  13. Any shul that hires either a maharat or a yct graduate should be assur for frum yidden to daven or hold simchas in. They should be treated no differently from a conservative synagogue. We need a clear-cut announcement from the organizations. Emes and kavod HaTorah mean no compromises, not even in the name of shalom.

  14. Time, and only time, will tell. It’s easy to say, “If they’re doing, X, can Y be be far behind?” But an honest person will admit that R Pruzansky’s own brand of Judaism (which permits/encourages secular studies and celebrates Yom Haatzmaut) could, at some point in history, have been subjected to the same criticism. Everyone draws the line somewhere different. Which brings the whole point of this article into question: after all, to the claim that OO should call a spade a spade, they could respond that in their view, what they are doing is within the bounds of Orthodoxy even though it has never been done before.

    What kind of fruit will Open Orthodoxy bear? Committed, engaged Jews, or Ortholax Jews? Too soon to tell, in my humble opinion.

  15. Abichai #15, if losing the vast majority of American Jewish souls to ignorance, intermarriage, shmad, toeva and worse is having won the war, I hope your “WE” is very small.

  16. #4: Most Torah Jews have already spoken to the appropriate “someone” and received their help. Hence the total ostracism of Mr. Weiss, his organizations, and all he stands for.

    #14. Short answer to your question: YES.

    Get over it. Weiss and his group are no longer Torah Jews (I hate the term Orthodox – it was coined by the Reform, so why should we use it?).

  17. c onservative= C afirah R eform = R emove Hashem
    The whole Jewish world sees who owns the seforim busness the Kashrus bussnes the shule bussnes the Yeshivah bussnes.The Hatzalah bussnes , the Chesed bussnes The gemach Bussness,the Torah world bussness The influential Bussness. The C and R own the Cemetary bussness.Zeit gezunt. MEL AND WE RING THE BELL

  18. Why don’t these people leave us alone and join the reform, constructionist, Conservatives, progressives- u name it?!

    Let us leave in peace!!

  19. Liked what #2, Yaakov wrote and #5, Anonymous wrote. Truth is that Rabbi Weiss has always been off-center and his whole movement is as off the wall as the women off the wall. They are all part of the Erev Rav within our midst that create all the tzarot throughout the generations. Our sages tell us that at the end of days, the Erev Rav will have much power and will have infiltrated the rabbinic world and all places of power. We see it happening at this very moment all over. This is part of the agenda of watering down Yiddishkeit and it’s their last hurrah before the coming of Moshiach. All true Rabbis must unite and protest what is happening whether in the States with this off-the-wall Maharat monkey business and what is happening in Eretz Yisrael, with its deJudaization process.

  20. Regarding preventing machlokes and keeping shalom versus pursuing emes, check out this from the Maharam Shick on Avos:

    ????”? ??? ??????? ????? ???? (??? ??? ?’):

    “??? ????? ?? ?????? ???? ?? ???? ????? ????? ???? ?? ???? ??? ???? ??? ?????, ????? ??? ????? ???? ???? ???????.- ??? ??? ????? ?? ?????? ??? ?????? ?? ???? ??????, ???? ??? ????? ????? ?? ?????(???? ????? ?”?), ???? ?????? ?? ??? ????? ????? ?? ???? (??????? ???? ???? ?”?) ?????? ??? ?? ????… ?????? ???? ??? ?????? ?”? ??? ???? ?? ????? ????, ?? ???? ??? ???? ????? ????? ??? ??????, ??? ???? ?? ??? ???? ?? ????? ????? ???? ?????? ???? ???? ?????, ?????? ????? ??? ?? ????? ???? ?????, ??? ??? ???? ???? ????. ??? ????? ?????? (?’ ?”?) ????? ?????? ????, ??? ?? ???? ?”? ???? ??????? ?? ????? ??? ?? ????? ???????? ??? ????? ?? ?????. ??? ?? ?? ???? ??”? ????? ???? ???? ?????? ????? ?????? ??? ?????? ?? ????? ???? ??? ????? ?? ?????, ?? ???? ?????? ?????? ?????? ??????? ????? ???? ??? ????? ?????. ??? ?? ?”? ?????? ??? ????: “?? ???? ????? ????? ????, ?????? ?? ?????? ??????? ???? ????-[??? ??] ?? ?????? ????? ???? ????? ??? ?????. ???? ??? ????? ???????”. ?”?

  21. “For all intents and purposes, the Conservative and Reform movements have merged, certainly in practice if not in theory.”

    I’ve been calling them “Conform Judaism” for twenty years. They conform to priorities and desires of liberal America, they conform to current liberal fashions, and they have little interest or belief in Judaism.


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