Open “Orthodoxy”?

A rejoinder to my recent essay on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and “Open Orthodoxy” was published here . Below is my response to that posting, written in my capacity as Agudath Israel of America’s spokesperson.

I am grateful to Dr. Ben Elton, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, for his rejoinder to my recent posting about that institution and “Open Orthodoxy,” in which I asserted that neither can lay claim to the adjective “Orthodox,” at least not if words are to have meanings.

My gratitude derives from the fact that Dr. Elton’s words help clarify the issue. Although he writes that he is “bemused” by my critique of his invocation of the Wurzburger Rav as an example of Chovevei Torah’s approach, his explanation of his bemusement can allow us to better understand whether that revered Torah personality would indeed approve of the inclusion of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in training rabbis, which YTC proudly embraced at its recent presidential installation.

Dr. Elton is correct that there was indeed a difference of opinion between the Wurzburger Rav (Rav Yitzchok Dov Halevi Bamberger) and Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch regarding whether the rabbis of the Orthodox community of Frankfurt could remain part of that city’s official “Jewish community” council along with non-Orthodox clergy.

And he is correct, too, to note that Rav Hirsch’s objection to such membership was based on his conviction that it would “thereby give[s] formal recognition to the legitimacy of Reform.”

But he is mistaken to interpret Rav Bamberger’s dissent as permitting membership despite that contention. The Wurzberger Rav simply felt that membership in a communal body did not, in fact, confer legitimacy of any sort to Reform. As I noted in my response to Dr. Elton’s original posting, Rav Bamberger expressly forbade membership in other cities’ communal councils, where he apparently felt the terms of membership did in fact confer such legitimacy to Reform.

That a communal Orthodox rabbi, Marcus Horowitz, sat on the body overseeing the construction of a Reform Temple “and used his influence to prevent building taking place on Shabbat” – Dr. Elton’s evidence for his thesis – does not negate Rav Bamberger’s forbiddance to confer Jewish legitimacy on non-Orthodox systems of thought.

Nor does Rav Bamberger’s letter to Rav Hirsch in which he wrote that their common “reject[ion” and “detest[ation] of Reform with all our hearts” should nevertheless “not break the ties of personal friendship which bind us.”

Personal friendships, of course, are not the issue here. Orthodox rabbis, even among those who affiliate with Agudath Israel, maintain friendships with non-Orthodox representatives. The issue, though, is not personal friendship but something entirely different: whether non-Orthodox rabbis should be given a public platform to share their views on the quintessentially religious question of how to train rabbis.

As Dr. Elton himself concedes, Rabbi Bamberger would not likely “have advocated theological dialogue” with Reform representatives. Does he imagine that the Wurzberger Rav would have invited them, as YCT did, to a public forum to train rabbis? How, then, can Dr. Elton claim that “YCT is simply enduring the same critique today” as Rav Bamberger did in his day, and that YCT “can take pride in [Rav Bamberger’s] company?

Most glaring is Dr. Elton’s response (or lack of one) to the main point of my earlier posting: that neither YCT nor “Open Orthodoxy” can legitimately lay claim to the title “Orthodox.”

He blithely dismisses my summoning of quotations from YCT leaders and honored graduates that negate the very essence of what history has come to call Orthodoxy, with the observation that the quotes “do not contain much new material” and that they have been well explained “in the past.” He does not, however, offer even a synopsis of any such explanations. He cannot, for none can exist. One either accepts that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob existed or one does not; one either subscribes to the belief that the Torah, Written and Oral, was given to our ancestors at Sinai, or one does not. Esteemed leaders in the “Open Orthodoxy” movement do not. Orthodoxy does.

History is the best guide here. The Conservative movement began precisely as “Open Orthodoxy” has begun – the former was so named because it wished to “conserve” what it judged it could of halacha in a new environment that it felt deserved a more liberal approach to traditional Jewish thought and social norms. It shunned the word “Orthodox” only because it saw that adjective, at the time, as an albatross around its neck, since Orthodoxy was expected to expire quickly in America. YCT, by contrast, embraces the word as a badge of honor. Not because it fits but because embracing the word “Orthodox” – the institution hopes – might distinguish it from the Conservative movement despite its essential duplication of its essence.

The problem is that, to imagine an example in another realm, a person who is anti-immigration, anti-abortion, against higher corporate taxes and pro-gun and cannot legitimately claim the label “liberal.” As much as he may call himself that, he is like a leopard claiming to be an eagle.

And leopards cannot even change their spots, much less fly.

Whatever it may call itself, a neo- Conservative movement is simply not part of what history has come to call Orthodoxy.

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