The Symptoms are Not the Problem

In the wake of the declaration by the leading rabbis of Agudath Israel of America (a body called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages) regarding Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, many seem to have confused issues of Jewish practice with Jewish doctrine.

The JTA’s article about the Council’s statement concluded by noting that “it comes days after the RCA formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis,” thus connecting and implying a close relationship between the two. The Jerusalem Post discussed the Agudah and RCA statements within one article, further blurring key distinctions. Many comments in social media, as well, focused upon women as rabbis or other particular observances of Open Orthodoxy as issues of concern to the Agudah Council.

The Forward, always anxious to cast Charedim as angry or violent, declared that “Agudah Rabbis Declare War.” Asher Lopatin, Dean of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), wrote a response to the statement in which he argued that Open Orthodoxy stands for “creating an inclusive, welcoming, open community, where passionate Jews can, and should, disagree, but should never seek to impose their own ideas on others…” and will “continue to build an Orthodox community which brings us together rather than divides us.”

The Moetzes, however, made no mention of women rabbis. It did not discuss observance of particular elements of Halacha, Jewish law. And, of course, it said nothing about political control or impinging upon the right of any Jew, passionate or otherwise, to disagree. A medical analogy is apt: if someone has headaches due to a life-threatening illness, Tylenol will not cure him; attention must focus upon the underlying disease.

Lopatin is being less than forthright. For better or worse, “Orthodox” is a moniker with meaning. In the common vernacular, Orthodox Judaism is understood to be that “form” of Judaism committed to the credo maintained by Jews for thousands of years. Just as the Reform movement sought to unilaterally change the definition of Judaism 200 years ago, Open Orthodoxy seeks to impose a new definition upon the word “Orthodox” (and has even attempted to stifle dissent as it does so).

The statement of the Moetzes addresses one issue, and one issue only: that Open Orthodoxy and its institutions “reject the basic tenets of our faith,” and therefore “is not a form of Torah Judaism.” It is not about specific Open Orthodox practices, which Halachic opinions it follows, or who they do or don’t count for a minyan. The issue, said the Council, is what Open Orthodoxy believes.

As the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told the media, this is something the rabbis were “mulling around for months.” Nothing that they said is either surprising or new to those who have followed discussions of this new movement.

Over two years ago, Zev Farber, recipient of the highest form of ordination from Chovevei Torah and the former coordinator of the Vaad HaGiyur, the Conversion Council of Open Orthodoxy’s “International Rabbinic Forum,” wrote that “the Deuteronomic prophet,” whom he pointedly did not identify as Moses, “was still a human being” of “limited scope… [who] could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.”

Needless to say, this is to traditional Jewish belief as a ham sandwich is to kashrus.

Yet rather than condemning this statement outright — much less questioning the validity of conversions conducted under Farber’s supervision — others within the Open Orthodox community called this merely “a non-conventional answer” at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject.”

The above is but one example. What the Moetzes concluded, after examining statements and conduct across the range of Open Orthodox institutions, was that it could not remain silent, hoping that this sort of excess would disappear and more sober opinions, ones consonant with traditional Judaism, would dominate. On the contrary, representatives of Open Orthodoxy continue to state, and educate others to adopt, beliefs not merely at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” but several light years beyond.

There are those, particularly in the Reform movement, who advocate for a “big tent,” in which most anything can claim to represent “Judaism.” Traditional Judaism has always taken a different approach, requiring observance of 613 Commandments and a similarly comprehensive list of beliefs, thirteen of which are so fundamental that Maimonides identified them as mandatory for anyone wishing to self-identify as a “Torah-observant” Jew — that which we have called “Orthodox” in recent centuries.

There are several practical ramifications of the Council’s statement, all of which are straightforward. Graduates of Open Orthodox institutions (regardless of gender) should not be considered Orthodox rabbis, at least as the term Orthodox is commonly understood. Orthodox synagogues should not appoint Open Orthodox rabbis to lead them. Communal organizations should not present lectures by “Orthodox” rabbis who are, in actuality, “Open Orthodox.” And, perhaps most critically, the media should no longer claim that “Orthodox” rabbis are entertaining a new idea or change in Jewish practice that only Open Orthodoxy could possibly condone.

In the end, it’s not about women, exclusion, or politics; it’s about truth in advertising. It’s about ensuring that when people are told that a particular opinion is “Orthodox” or grounded in traditional thought, it actually is. And in that regard, the Agudah’s Council has done the Jewish public a great service.

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    R Menken excellently explains why the secular Jewish media just don’t get it, and why one should never confuse the statement issued by the Moetzes with the RCA’s statement.

  2. Josh says:

    Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his response said he is honored to be lumped together with Reform and Conservative . He has more in common with them anyways.

    The first honest statement from them in a while.

  3. lacosta says:

    maybe someone can explain why the aguda joined this fight. the only relevant bodies are MO ones [ just as haredim discount others gdolim, so too non-haredim do not look to haredi ‘daas tora’ as something binding]. if anything , this can only embolden OO and LWMO— ‘if aguda is against us, we must be right!’ ….

    there was never going to be a YCT branch of agudas yisroel; the only relevant bodies are the RCA, YI , and mostly, the OU…..

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Please reread the last two paragraphs. Given that Rabbi Gordimer is an RCA member in good standing, yet published most of his material about OO here … is the divide between Agudah and RCA as large as you suggest? Do you think no one in Modern Orthodoxy will pay any attention to this? Do you think the media will continue to call OO “Orthodox” with no qualifiers? [That last one is anyone’s guess, but at least there’s now clear grounds for refuting them.]

      • Mycroft says:

        Rabbi Menken is correct that there is probably not that large a difference between the Agudah and the RCA. For many reasons a few decades ago the new membership of the RCA stopped being comprised of basically YU andHTC mustachim. The other major change which can,t be ignored is the change in the RCA after the RAv stopped being the undisputed head of the Halachik Commission. The different hashkafa that a Rav HS has from the Rav can’t be ignored. This rightward change in Halachik haskafa left an opening for a leftward approach of what Rabbi Grodimer refers to as OO.
        Not that my opinion matters but for people to understand me there is no doubt n my mind that RHS is much closer to the Ravs haskafa than a R A Weiss is. I currently ask my personal shailas to a tal mid of RHS-knowing full well that I expect the answers to in general to be similar to RHS. That does not mean that I accept all of RHS haskafa but so what RHS who in my mind may probably be at least the American gadol hador certainly does not accept all of the Ravs haskafa.
        The change in haskafa of RIETS musmachim in the past 30 years or so has left many MO schuls with Rabbonim who do not represent a belief in their General haskafa. Without such a choice it leaves some parishioners to choose an OO approach when they might have felt more at home with approach of many YU musmachim from 70-35 years ago.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    The problem is in wanting to do one’s own will regardless, which leads to misconstruing HaShem’s will, to avoid inner conflict.

  5. dr.bill says:

    I believe your basic premise is correct; both Rabbi Farber’s views on the Bible and those of Rabbi Yanklowitz on Talmud and Halakha are a great deal more seminal than a woman’s title or position. Rabbi Farber’s views on the Bible oppose (or at least redefine) 2000 years of traditional Jewish beliefs. Unlike some of Rabbi Yanklowitz’s unnecessarily confrontational language, Chazal used very different language and employed various strategies to deal with biblical laws that had become less relevant in their times, effectively nullifying the brunt of what was found inapplicable. If my last sentence’s characterization of Chazal is even (close to) accurate, and precisely how it should be formulated has been a source of conflict.

    In any case, a small number of OO rabbis have purposely reopened strong debate employing language remarkably similar, if not more radical, to that used by conservative leaders a century ago. I suspect they feel that two things have happened. First, conservative leaders went well off the track and their initial commitment to normative halakha became laughable; currently all conservative leaders with a very few notable exceptions, particularly outside of Israel, lack any credibility among observant Jews. Second, the concepts promulgated by those conservative leaders are now almost indisputable in academic circles; also, they are now widely available to Jews (and others) who wish to read an increasing number of books addressing these topics. Perhaps most troubling to some, many of these books are written by observant Jews, so-called orthoprax by all but the MO left. (I am actually surprised that even books published by orthodox institutions on occasion contain equally disturbing views.) As a result the OO, the right wing of the Israeli Masorati movement, a growing number of those involved in the academic study of Bible, Talmud and the history of halakha, etc. are all attempting to retain halakhic practice while accepting positions in clear conflict with traditional beliefs. I find this issue of the need for/advisability/permissibility/ability to fashion an updated theology, replacing the 13 Ikkarim of Rambam for example, at the core of what is occurring. The Conservative movement’s effort to do something similar failed miserably. The current effort is drawing strong condemnation and limited praise. Some see themselves as the saviors of traditional Jewish practice in the new world; some see them as the latest incarnation of Haskalah theology. Those of us around in 50 years will see what emerges.

  6. PL says:

    Is your major issue that the organization did not condemn one of its members?
    If the issue is condemnation of members, one would naturally apply the same logic back to other organizations.
    How well does Agudath Israel or any other organization hold up at condemning its rabbonim that do things or say things against halacha or mesorah?
    I don’t know the answer nor does it matter. The point is how does your example prove a real halachic problem with the organization?
    I doubt it is a strong argument to say an organization should be banned based on how well it performs at condemning its members. I believe looking back on history most organizations would not hold up to that inspection.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      The single example I provided is one in which the “rabbinic” organization of OO kept one who embraced kefirah in an influential position affecting geyrus. Is “PL” sincerely characterizing this as merely an issue of “condemning one of its members?” As someone commented to me this morning regarding “Open” Orthodoxy, there is a problem with being so “open” that your brain falls out. It should be clear to anyone that this is a vastly greater issue than “PL” describes, and it is, again, merely one example.

      • PL says:

        The question I proposed is should the whole organization be banned due to Rabbi Farber. Even if you think Rabbi Farber broke a major tenent of faith, still is that the proof the organization should be banned? Take for example the issue of mesirah in the face of controversial issues such as theft, abuse, etc… and you will have many examples where orthodox organizations may not have condemned members that broke major laws of our faith. Does that mean we should now attack those organizations because of single acts of its members that did or said things outside the context of the organization?

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        I do not “think” Farber “broke a major tenet.” He said in black & white that he denies the Torah is accurate.

        Again, we’re not talking about a member of a membership organization, but an officer, and one whose kefirah affects the very Jewishness of others. And there is indeed a comparable case: not long ago, the OU dismissed more than one person and instituted structural changes because some did not respond when someone else within the organization had done something wrong — much less firing the person guilty of wrongdoing. If the IRC accepts denial of Torah from the people arranging conversion, what does that say about those converted?

        And as I made clear, this was not a one time, one issue problem. It is not at all about Farber alone. The Gedolim said it is pervasive throughout the organization, and they would not have said so without clear evidence that this was the case.

      • dr. bill says:

        As I noted below, I believe that Rabbi Farber challenges traditional beliefs; nonetheless, I don’t understand what you mean by “he denies the Torah is accurate.” Accuracy is a rather nebulous word. I would argue that concepts like dibra torah beleshon bnai adam or the assumption that various Biblical stories are only allegorical, can be cited as saying the text is in some sense inaccurate. I might object to that language, but that is not the point. Inaccuracy is the least of his issues on which he can be challenged.

  7. R Luzer says:

    We all believe that certain things in Yiddishkeit, changed within the past few hundred years. We no longer force divorces to a childless couple after 10 yrs. We no longer force divorces to a women who is Roeh Dom Macmas Tashmush. We no longer are Makpid to say the Amidoh in the morning before Sof Zman Tefillah. Most of us are no longer Makpid on Mayim Achronim.
    Even in earlier times they circumvented the Ribbus problem or the Shmitah problem, with a Heter Iska and a Pruzbol which are both not for real. The reason was because they saw that these Halochos were hurting needy people instead of helping them; desperate people could not get loans. Even the Chazal stopped Korbonos after the Churban although we could have built a Bomoh.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      With regards to building a Bamah after the Beis HaMikdash was built, I’m afraid you are flatly mistaken. This is true of many other of your statements, as well. Some Chassidim are not makpid to say the Amidah before Zman Tefillah, but the same cannot be said of the Yeshiva world. Prozbul, according to the Rambam, only works because Shmittah b’zman hazeh is D’Rabbonon, and of course the Rabbonon can override a D’Rabbonon in order to preserve a Mitzvah D’Oraysoh.

      And all of this is completely tangential, once again, to the core issue, which is the belief system of Open Orthodoxy.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This