Rabbi Gordimer and his Critics

That Rabbi Gordimer has become the standard bearer in the face of the Open Orthodox onslaught is truly quite remarkable.

Until he started writing for Cross-Currents, we had not met, and it was only perhaps two years later that we spoke by phone for the first time. I have to say, the contrast between his clear, forceful writing and his soft-spoken persona could hardly be more profound. It is obvious that he is not a fighter by nature, and it is similarly clear that he is seeking no personal gain from his criticism of Open Orthodoxy.

This simply makes personal attacks upon him all the more unseemly, and I feel the need to rise on a question of personal privilege on his behalf.

I am truly impressed at the conclusion of the argument between Rabbi Gordimer and Dr. Shapiro, though, as I said, from what I know of Rabbi Gordimer I am not much surprised by his forgiving response. Dr. Shapiro himself confessed that he merely “knew people didn’t like OO because of women rabbis and partnership minyanim,” yet did not realize that “the opposition is much greater than that” — and that he now regrets his posting.

So I think we would do well to accept what RAG refers to as Dr. Shapiro’s “kind comments and messages clarifying that the issues were not personal.” I would like to critique the content of Dr. Shapiro’s posting with that understanding — to address what I view as unfair criticism after dissociating it from Dr. Shapiro himself.

The post in question spoke of RAG having “assumed the mantle of defender of the faith” and proceeded to excoriate him for failing to refer to Open Orthodox rabbis by name.

To address the latter issue first, Rabbi Gordimer has now been attacked both for making it overly clear whom he is speaking about, and for making it insufficiently clear. He was also similarly criticized for providing too little evidence of OO’s divergence from Torah, and then criticized for “obsessively” publishing the very quotes that were previously demanded. None of this, of course, is true. As Cross-Currents wrote when threatened with a lawsuit for publishing RAG’s essays:

Despite your assertion that you were attacked personally, in none of your chosen examples were you even quoted by name. It is the ideology of Open Orthodoxy and YCT, as expressed in your articles and those of your colleagues, that we, among many others, have criticized.

Omission of names makes it clear that RAG is interested in debating ideas, rather than expressing personal animus towards a writer.

As far as Rabbi Gordimer being cited as a “defender of the faith,” I question — is it not obvious to the well-read that Rabbi Gordimer is saying nothing new or revolutionary, nor relying upon his own judgment? YCT graduates are not accepted for RCA membership or for any position under the Conference of European Rabbis. I understand that Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg shlit”a refuses to test YCT graduates for semichah. The Agudah published a Kol Korei declaring Open Orthodoxy outside the pale, and just two years ago, Avi Weiss involved the New York Times and the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee — Eliot Engel, who represents the district encompassing Riverdale — in his effort to force the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize even his own conversions, much less those of his YCT acolytes. [Reform and Conservative Rabbis, to be sure, immediately leaped onto his bandwagon.] I am unaware of any recognized Orthodox Rabbinic authority that authenticates Open Orthodoxy’s claim to be Orthodox.

The strident attacks on Rabbi Gordimer, offered in lieu of cogent rebuttals of his critiques, seem merely to prove that Open Orthodoxy would prefer that Rabbi Gordimer go away rather than entertain a sincere and open [sic] debate about their ideology.

Now I can’t speak for Rabbi Gordimer. I rarely write about Open Orthodoxy myself, and confess a lack of interest in their latest expression of deviation from traditional Judaism. But there are clearly many others who do not understand, and media organs like the NY Jewish Week, Ha’Aretz and others delighted to misrepresent Open Orthodox figures and institutions as reflecting the world of observant Jewry. For those reasons, I know that Rabbi Gordimer’s writings continue to serve a valuable function.

What I think we might learn from this is the strength and vibrancy of Orthodoxy today. When sociologist Marshall Sklare called Orthodoxy “a case study in institutional decay” in 1955, no one was clamoring to be called “Orthodox.” The Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism broke away from the Conservative movement in 1983 when JTS decided to ordain women, and dropped “Conservative” from its name within several years. It, too, never tried to call itself Orthodox.

Now we have a new movement which objectively lies somewhere to the left of the UTJ in its Hashkafah and practices — yet which insists on describing itself as a flavor of Orthodoxy, rather than accurately as a new heterodox denomination.

I think this goes beyond the news coverage that they gain — a heterodox congregation hiring a woman Rabbi is, after all, hardly newsworthy in 2016. It is because today everyone recognizes that the modern liberal movements are in precipitous decline. The Conservative movement is hiring a PR firm to survey members and determine how to be current, as their members flee to Reform temples. The progeny of those Reform temples are, in turn, fueling the growth of “Jews of no religion.”

Today, the heads of Open Orthodoxy know that if they want to have a future, they have to be “Orthodox.” That being the case, the ones being most egregiously harmed and deceived by their use of the term are they themselves — because Jewish continuity is not maintained by using a name assigned to us by the Reformers of the 1840’s, but by fealty to an ideology Commanded to us over 3,150 years prior.

And that brings me to one final element of the criticism, expressed in a comment to Rabbi Gordimer’s reply. Dr. Shapiro writes:

There are lots of good fellow Jews who identify with OO and we shouldn’t be looking to throw them out and say they are not legitimate even if we have different views than them. The OO Jews I know affirm the divinity of Torah etc.

I have not read anything from Rabbi Gordimer suggesting that anyone be “thrown out.” On the contrary, it is the false ideas which should be discarded, and the precious Jews retained.

This situation is comparable to sincere graduates of Conservative conversion programs (and their Jewish fiances/spouses), those who may be sincerely dedicated to Judaism to the best of their understanding, and dismayed to learn for the first time that the Orthodox world (and Israel’s rabbinate) considers them not to be Jews. If we respond honestly, appreciating their sincerity yet explaining that they were guided through an invalid procedure and taught serious and unacceptable deviations from the Torah’s ideology, is this somehow tantamount to “throwing them out?” With vanishingly few exceptions, every Jew today must be greeted as a “good fellow Jew” — but does that mean we accept the teachings of the Conservative movement as “good fellow Judaism?”

Rabbi Adlerstein recently posted two examples of innovative Kiruv — using current events and familiar concepts to make a point, but above all being honest about what Judaism stands for. I have never seen or heard Rabbi Gordimer express hostility or disdain for an individual — only antipathy to patently foreign ideas, from whatever source, being misrepresented as Torah Judaism.

I notice that RAG’s survey of essays for Parshas Terumah had no mention of Open Orthodoxy. Perhaps his critiques are having a positive impact, and a course correction is underway at YCT.

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14 Responses

  1. Ben P. says:

    Rabbi Menken – very well written piece and I agree with pretty much everything you have written.  My issue with RAG’s pieces are not really about the pieces but his, and your, whitewashing by the hierchay of Modern Orthodox RCA institutions of OO.  Specifically, the Agudah and Moetzes, the top of the food chain in Yeshivish America, have both come out with statements and positions stating that OO is beyond the pale and not Torah Judaism.  The RCA/YU/OU/NCYI, the top of the MO food chains have not done so.  It is disingenuous to compare the RCA’s refusal to hire YCT graduates to what the Moetzes did.  The RCA is not hiring the graduates because it does not recognize the s’micha – not because it doesn’t recognize them as Torah Jews, unlike the Moetzes/Agudah.

    It did not go unnoticed that just days after the Moetzes statement, the RCA also put out a statement.  The wording of the RCA statement did not condemn OO at all, it just condemned certain practices – but refused to say that OO was not Torah Judaism (and this is even if the rumors about how hard it was to pass that watered down resolution are not true).  It has not gone unnoticed that the RCA did not kick Avi Weiss out and it was he who resigned from the RCA and the same for some other OO people.  It has not gone unnoticed that the YU roshei yehsiva are silent about OO.

    The silence of the RCA/YU/OU is deafening.  If they were to come out and issue a statement like the Moetzes, it would solve the OO issue.  The chasidish, yeshivish and MO world, those who make up Torah Judaism, will have spoken.  Until then the MO chevra, including RAG’s RCA, is complicit in OO and the damage it is causing.

    • Shmuel Landesman says:

      The YU Roshei Yeshiva have clearly come out against OO. Just look at Rav Schachter’s recent Teshuva.

      As for the YU administration, it is not so easy for them because there are YU board members who like OO.

      I found out last Sunday that RIETS does not accept transfers from Chovevei.

      just two years ago, Avi Weiss involved the New York Times and the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee — Eliot Engel, who represents the district encompassing Riverdale — in his effort to force the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize even his own conversions, much less those of his YCT acolytes. [Reform and Conservative Rabbis, to be sure, immediately leaped onto his bandwagon.]

      The connection is due to the Engels and Weiss’ living in the same Riverdale apartment building.

      • Nachum says:

        Also, YU never really “takes positions” on anything. It’s an academic institution and so that’s not its job. It can, of course, make certain policies- e.g., not accepting transfers from YCT or the like- and can have its faculty make statements.

      • Larry says:

        I think that sums it up perfectly. YU has never taken a position.

        Academic institutions do take positions all the time. It would be entirely appropriate for YU faculty and administration to be at the forefront of defending Torah Judaism

        Perhaps, YU cannot afford monetarily to alienate any potential donor. Unlike OO which is well funded and expanding, YU is under funded and contracting.

      • Nachum says:

        I imagine institutions do. They shouldn’t. “Institutions” don’t, in fact, exist and thus can’t “speak.” They can have *policies* which reflect certain things- and YU does- but that’s not the same thing.

      • mycroft says:

        An institution is an inanimate object. Inanimate objects don’t have opinions-people do. Who in the institution took that position. Thus, if someone tells me the “White House wants” something-who wants it-the President stated it himself, or the White House Chef.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    Excellent article-IMO, the following is the critical issue:

    “The strident attacks on Rabbi Gordimer, offered in lieu of cogent rebuttals of his critiques, seem merely to prove that Open Orthodoxy would prefer that Rabbi Gordimer go away rather than entertain a sincere and open [sic] debate about their ideology.”

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    Cross-Currents has decided to make this previously unknwn individual its poster boy. I wonder if the fight against some of the hashkafic writings of some of the fellow travelers of Chovevai Torah is really as big an issue as Cross-Currents makes it to be. Has it increased your readership? How many people feel that the Yeshiva world is under siege from Rabbi Avi Weiss’ acolytes? What they are doing is filling pulpits that the Agudah rabbonim wouldn’t dream of filling. If indeed, there are observant Conservative Jews who are joining such shuls as HIR, that is because there is a community of observant people there, a sense of belonging to a tzibur. It is lonely being a shomer shabbos Conservative layman.  If Rav Elyashiv can rule halachicly that “they could say it but we can’t’ against Avraham Ben Harambam and Rabbiner Hirsh, tghen what is the discussion about. I believe that the earth revolves around the sun, so I am an apikorus and why am I still allowed to be counted for a minyan? Is there psak on hashkafah? Once I am a sheigetz because I don’t fully accept that all of scientific evidence to the contrary, the earth is less than 6,000 years old, why quibb;le over definitions of fine points of belief.Just dclare that you are the real Jews and the rest of us are outside of the camp.

    Avi Weiss is not the main problem of Klal Yisroel, Look at the venom spewed against Rechnitz and the culture that says that only people just like me are good enough. I much prefer an inclusive Judaism that allows skeptics to enter than one that excludes everyone but a small kernel and dares to declare itself the true torchbearers of Hashem. Why are they better than Avi Weiss? Who cares for his fellow human beings and goes out of his way to show chesed and ahavas chinam? How can they compare themselves to him in bein adam l’chaveiro?  Does finding good in your nemesis exclude me from the camp?:OK.  Who made Gordimer the gate keeper for G-d?

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      With all due respect, Rabbi Oberstein, I think you have vastly underestimated the importance of the issue. No one decided to make Rabbi Gordimer a “poster boy.” On the contrary, his articles are so powerful, popular, and respected that he has become the de facto standard bearer, as I wrote. You’ve been reading too many of the foolish comments about him being some sort of RWMO trying to find charedi “acceptance.” These are provided by individuals who (quite obviously) know neither Rabbi Gordimer nor much about the charedi community, yet are desperate to find some way to minimize the impact of his essays.

      This is a bigger issue than we make it out to be. Do you imagine that the leading lights of Open Orthodoxy would have resorted to cheap threats if his essays were having little impact? Google Analytics tells me that five of the six most popular articles on Cross-Currents over the last three years have been about Open Orthodoxy — the sixth being Rabbi Gordimer’s related article on the RCA and ordination of women. I had not checked this until you asked.

      Please do not bring in irrelevant topics; you should read Rabbi Meiselman’s excellent book on Torah and science, but none of this is relevant to “Open Orthodoxy’s” open kefirah. Read the interview with Rav Aharon Feldman, or ask him personally if you wish. First you say that Open Orthodoxy is wonderful because it brings in observant Conservative Jews, and then you say that it is wonderful because it gives a home to people who haven’t read Rav Meiselman. Neither of these makes sense. YCT alumni are filling pulpits of OU shuls that YU alumni could certainly fill, with the added benefit that they actually subscribe to the ikkarim of our emunah, and could guide observant Conservative Jews to observe the real deal, instead.

      I’m not aware of any expressions of animosity towards Avi Weiss. There are wonderful, giving, caring Reform and Conservative Jews, and I hope you would not reject them as Jews, either. But a false ideology cannot be endorsed simply because there are wonderful, giving and caring Jews who subscribe to it (or created it).

      Rabbi Gordimer is nobody’s “gatekeeper.” What is stunning is that even you resort to ad hominem scorn rather than actually addressing his points. It could hardly be more obvious that this is because there exists no rebuttal. He is simply the one revealing that Open Orthodoxy is in essence no different than an observant Conservative movement, as you implied yourself.

      Let’s stop shooting the messenger and start addressing the issues. As I said, the problem there seems to be that there is no way to rebut his points.

      • Reb Yid says:

        To add to Rabbi Oberstein’s excellent critique:

        It’s not really clear who Rabbi Gordimer is trying to impact.  Individuals who know Orthodox congregations on the more progressive side, or those who have actually spent time with Maharats, or learned and spent Shabbatot with YCT folks, etc are not going to be swayed one iota by what Rabbi Gordimer writes.  On the contrary–it just gives them more ammunition to support the much needed work that they do.

        This goes not just for folks within the OO fold, but for their friends who may be outside of it.  For Rabbi Gordimer and his crew, the ultimate value is about passing some sort of theological/textual litmus test.  For the YCT folks, while the above items are part of the mix, they are by no means the only worthy values to consider.

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        Needless to say, if what Reb Yid wrote were actually true, OO would never have threatened Cross-Currents in order to get Rabbi Gordimer to stop. They themselves testify that Rabbi Gordimer has hampered their efforts to change the definition of Orthodoxy. There are obviously a great many people who were willing to overlook OO, or were even attracted by OO, dissuaded. This is the same reason that the Agudah Moetzes issued its Kol Korei.

        What is Reb Yid’s motivation for attempting to obfuscate something quite so obvious?

  4. Yisrael Asper says:

    Saying that all movements have members who should be criticized and so “why is Rabbi Gordimer concentrating on Open Orthodoxy?” is ignoring the plain truth that the Centrist and Chareidi communities and Rabbis consider the views of Open Orthodoxy as out of bounds — for the plain reason that it is a movement willing to tolerate sacrificing principles of Judaism so as to make room for popular outside views. There is a difference between reproving members of a movement and accepting and loving their members as fellow Jews on one hand, and on the other hand, ignoring the fact that a movement may have little or nothing to tell the rest of us that could offset its threats to Judaism. Rabbi Gordimer presented facts as evidence and he was presented with red herrings as replies.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Menken, I do not take issue with the facts and I agree that there are people who are connected to YCT who  write articles that are unacceptable in the world we both inhabit.My concern is more sociological. Open Orthodoxy is here because Modern Orthodoxy has moved to the right and as Rabbi Farkas points out there isn’t much difference any longer. Open Orthodoxy is a smaller movement catering to those who cannot accept the ideological and halachic strictures of today’s orthodoxy. It is here to stay because it fills a need. Women who are sincerely religious but feel invisible and muzzled, men who value secular knowledge, not just for parnassah reasons, young people who cannot make it in the highly regimented and segregated way we raise our children . There has to be a place for people who don’t want what the right wing is selling. There is a market for Open Orthodoxy but it is not a threat in the slightest to the majority’s rush to the right.So, my point is, that even if you and others are right, don’t get overwrought about the more open part of the observant world. Let the One Above decide if they burn in purgatory.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Rabbi Oberstein, I know we agree on a great deal, and yet you have possibly identified the target audience for Rabbi Gordimer’s essays and the Agudah Kol Korei. Clearly the average Lakewood couple isn’t going Open Orthodox, so who were the Moetzes hoping to reach? There are obviously plenty of shuls for people in the niche you describe which are served by YU alumni. It is those shuls, in fact, that are willing to contemplate both YU and YCT graduates for open positions — but who still respect voices like the Moetzes, and cogent explanations of the truth from people like Rabbi Gordimer. So he’s having an impact, in Olam Hazeh.

      I submit to you that were this not the case, OO would neither have threatened Cross-Currents in order to muzzle dissent, nor would they stoop to nasty personal attacks against Rabbi Gordimer (the very thing which they falsely attribute to him). And it was the latter tactic that prompted this essay; whatever your opinion of Open Orthodoxy, ad hominems are the last recourse of a debater with nothing cogent to say on the actual topic.

      Steve Brizel was probably correct to identify the following as the most important part of my piece: “The strident attacks on Rabbi Gordimer, offered in lieu of cogent rebuttals of his critiques, seem merely to prove that Open Orthodoxy would prefer that Rabbi Gordimer go away rather than entertain a sincere and open [sic] debate about their ideology.”

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