The New Book about Open Orthodoxy, and Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’ Critique
This article originally appeared in Times of Israel.
The art of deflection and of evading reply to the substance of the argument is not limited to the discourse in the current US Presidential campaign. Sadly, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’ article, The Gra Redux: On the book ‘Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox’, which purports to defend the Open Orthodox movement against the elaborately developed critique leveled in Rabbi David Rosenthal’s new book, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox, is sorely off-topic and in fact even affirms the thesis of this very important book.
Rather than reply to the book’s overwhelming documentation of Open Orthodoxy’s many deviations from Halacha and the Cardinal Principles of Faith, as presented by Rabbi Rosenthal in a span of 277 pages, with hundreds of lengthy, detailed quotes and copious citations, Rabbi Katz informs us that the dispute about Open Orthodoxy is instead rooted in an old internal debate among great Orthodox luminaries:
Reading this book makes it abundantly clear that the intra-denominational battle about Orthodox affiliation is a mere smokescreen, obscuring the real point of contention. The real fight is between preservationists whose exclusive value is the preservation of an unadulterated tradition, no matter how high the cost to the Jewish community, versus creativists who see value in theological creativity in exchange for a broader-tent Orthodoxy. The creativist camp believes that there is virtue in promulgating a Yiddishkeit that, while adhering to halacha, makes space for those who can only tap into it if they can tweak it a bit, and maybe also dress it with a contemporary flair.
The origin of this book is extremely informative. It is written by a Litvish yeshivah student… and enthusiastically endorsed by one of the staunchest defenders of the Litvish belief system.
Litvish theology takes pride in its stasis. It is proudly simplistic. Lithuanian thought leaders see emunah peshutah as the highest virtue. As a matter of fact, Litvaks first show up in history’s arena as a movement dedicated to thwarting theological innovation. In a fight that was no less fierce than our debates today, the Gra (1720-1797) and his adherents advocated insularism and ideological purity, while their opponents, the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, championed theological innovation and intellectual creativity.
In other words, those who reject Open Orthodoxy are followers of the Lithuanian/non-Chassidic tradition and are hence simplistic and exclusionary, while those who promote and support Open Orthodoxy are going in the way of Chassidism and are hence creative and intellectual.
The last time I checked, it was the Lithuanian yeshiva system, founded by Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin, the top disciple of the Vilna Gaon, that was known best for its piercing intellectualism, refreshing creativity and stupefying depth in Torah understanding, including theology. (Think of Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin’s seminal work, Nefesh Ha-Chayim.) So too, the last time I checked, it was the Chassidic movement that most staunchly served the role of “preservationists”, adopting a no-compromise position on Jewish traditions in countless ways (notwithstanding its inceptive and underlying emphasis on serving God in many modes of expression and emotion, and not only through Torah scholarship — a position which lay at the center of the historical dispute between the early Chassidim and the Vilna Gaon’s school).
Having been raised and educated in the Chassidic community, it is quite surprising that Rabbi Katz seems to overlook this all and portray Open Orthodoxy as following the Chassidic path. Rabbi Katz knows very well that the Chassidic sages and their adherents, both now and two centuries ago, would have no part in Open Orthodoxy’s many reforms, and that alas identifying Open Orthodoxy with the Chassidic movement is extremely wrong.
Rabbi Katz does not address any of the arguments against Open Orthodoxy that are featured in the new book. Open Orthodox innovations and attitudes such as feminizing the synagogue service, ordaining women as rabbis, promoting homosexual marriage, portraying the Talmudic Sages (Chazal) as chauvinists, and so much more, all documented by Rabbi Rosenthal with painstaking precision, are the result of a Judaism described by Rabbi Katz as “tweak it a bit, and maybe also dress it with a contemporary flair.” Ribbono shel Olam, these Open Orthodox innovations are not minor tweaks or a bit of modern flair; they are seismic breaches that render the resultant Judaism non-Orthodox!
Rather than address the above glaring issues, Rabbi Katz blames Rabbi Rosenthal and his rosh yeshiva for being too narrow and therefore rejecting Open Orthodoxy’s theological innovations:
The intellectual forbearers of R. Feldman, the rosh yeshivah of Ner Yisroel, Mrs. Lazewnik, the book’s editor, and R. Rosenthal, the author, hurled heresy accusations then, just as their heirs do now – which, from their theological vantage point, is not surprising. It is easy to construe something as deviating from the norm when the parameters of your theology are narrow and constricted.
This all leads to the inevitable conclusion that the startling reforms of Open Orthodoxy are substantively indefensible as falling within Orthodox parameters. Failure to address the real issues on their merits evidences lack of an actual defense.
Torah is wide enough to accommodate a broad array of expressions, traditions and emphases. Our brethren who identify with Open Orthodoxy are welcome to taste traditional Orthodoxy, be it in the halls of Torah and prayer as led by the students and ideological descendants of Rabbi Aharon Kotler or Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik, or the great Chassidic masters or Religious Zionist luminaries. While there are significant differences between these schools, and serious dispute and critique do at times occur, they share a vision of immutable and eternal Halacha and religious belief, and an uncompromised sense of reverence for binding Torah authority. All are welcome to enter and to take a seat at this large and holy table.