Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox, By David Rosenthal, forward by Rav Aharon Feldman, Paperback, $12.49: 278 pages, Yad Yosef Publications (June 19, 2016).
Rabbi David Rosenthal recently published a book on an emotionally charged communal issue. The book’s title—Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox—leads with his conclusion. To the author’s credit, he places his agenda front and center. Are we, as a community, willing to entertain this hurtful and painful accusation? We must give the issue due consideration, regardless of whether we ultimately accept or reject Rabbi Rosenthal’s conclusion.
To a secular Jew, the boundaries of Judaism remain vague. After rejecting the traditional matrilineal definition, even Jewishness rests in ambiguity. Yet, secular Jews overwhelmingly reject Messianic Judaism from the tent of Judaism. Ironically, many of these Messianic Jews (somewhat inaccurately called Jews for Jesus, which refers to members of a specific organization) observe more Jewish ritual than the average Jew, keeping some version of kosher and the Sabbath. Yet, broad consensus exists that Jews who accept Jesus as their messiah have crossed a communal boundary that remains undefined. However, even if they cannot precisely define the red line of communal acceptance, these judgmental secular Jews accept that it can be crossed.
Orthodox Judaism has stronger beliefs and practices than secular Judaism. Unlike the broader Jewish community, we reject atheism as theologically unacceptable and would reprimand an atheist rabbi who continues teaching in the name of Orthodox Judaism. If he doesn’t believe in God, he isn’t Orthodox and his teachings do not represent Torah or traditional Judaism. What purpose do we serve by declaring an atheist rabbi non-Orthodox? We prevent him from teaching his heresy to unsuspecting children and adults, who often lack the sophistication to differentiate between traditional and non-traditional beliefs.
Yet, do we want a community in which every rabbi is continually challenged whether he truly believes in God? We dare not allow a theological inquisition nor the suspicion and fear it evokes. We rightly assume that Orthodox rabbis and teachers believe in God unless otherwise indicated. And if they seem to reject God’s existence, a senior community official needs to have a delicate, private conversation to determine whether they should be advised to find other career options. We cannot have atheist rabbis teaching in our shuls and yeshivas. But we also cannot spend our limited energy and resources on weeding out atheists from the rabbinate. We need to find a middle ground between blanket acceptance and relentless inquisition.
On the one hand, communal harmony must take its rightful place as a high priority. We are a small nation, and Orthodoxy is a minority within that minority. If we start rejecting atheist rabbis or the like, we will upset their supporters and split our community even further. Is it worth it? Does theological purity take precedence over communal harmony?
The answer must be that it depends. How serious is the deviation from tradition? How much communal disharmony will it cause? These must be carefully balanced by our communal leaders, those who are keenly sensitive to both the theological issues and the communal implications. But before they reach that decision, they need facts. Rather than deciding that Messianic Jews are Orthodox just because they look and act that way, leaders need to know what beliefs this group professes and how its members act outside the communal spotlight.
Rabbi Rosenthal’s book does not address Jewish atheists or believers in Jesus. He discusses rabbis who proclaim their Orthodoxy while pursuing changes to religious beliefs and practices, which cannot be compared to the extreme cases of atheists and Messianic Jews. How radical are these changes? Rabbi Rosenthal’s task is to provide that information. To some degree, this is an almost impossible job. How do you describe a movement that consists of individuals? Who is Open Orthodox? And since every person in a group has his own personal beliefs and practices, how can that group ever be described accurately?
There are two ways to do that. One is to conduct an extensive survey of Open Orthodox Jews and/or leaders to determine trends. This would be an expensive and difficult undertaking but would yield very important communal information. Rabbi Rosenthal takes a different approach. He presents and analyzes statements and actions by a broad cross-section of Open Orthodox leaders. He spends time on the movement’s top leaders, some rabbis in its core and some on its periphery. In this way, he avoids defining the movement by its outliers while not ignoring them, focusing mainly but not exclusively on the core and top leadership. This is a dangerous path to take because many readers will take this as a string of personal attacks, generating sympathy for his “victims.” In reality, Rabbi Rosenthal is analyzing their teachings, taking their words seriously as they surely intended.
One chapter that spoke to me is titled “Values.” Rabbi Rosenthal attempts to demonstrate that Open Orthodox thinkers evaluate the Torah based on their own moral sense and, when they detect a conflict, choose their morality over the Torah. On the one hand, there is much to commend in this enhanced sense of morality. We live surrounded by great moral failures, in a way that is often shocking and depressing. But we must also recognize that moral sensibilities change with time. The lack of commitment to a Torah anchored in divine command is not only theologically wrong but a situation that quickly devolves into a religious free-for-all. As Rabbi Rosenthal documents, we can already witness this happening on the periphery of Open Orthodoxy. For example, one of the great moral challenges of our day is homosexuality. We already see steps within Open Orthodoxy to completely permit what an explicit Biblical verse prohibits. Right now we see the path already selected and the first steps taken by some. I predict that soon some Open Orthodox rabbis will be conducting gay weddings.
I do not agree with every step of Rabbi Rosenthal’s interpretation and analysis. Rabbi Rosenthal, a Ner Israel graduate, is part of what I call the left wing of the Charedi world. His book includes a foreword by Rav Aharon Feldman, the rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel, an occasional critic of movements within and outside of Orthodoxy, such as messianic Chabad and Religious Zionism. Therefore, I read Rabbi Rosenthal’s analysis critically, recognizing that he and I do not always share the same views. However, I find much of Rabbi Rosenthal’s evidence compelling. Nothing speaks louder than facts but even facts can be distorted when context is omitted. Rabbi Rosenthal attempts to provide that context through his narrative, and he includes additional documentation and internet links so readers can decide for themselves.
Sometimes we interpret the facts differently. For example, Rabbi Rosenthal quotes one senior Open Orthodox figure as doubting the divine origin of the Torah. That rabbi wrote that he believes that God wrote the Torah and therefore does not care whether, as a matter of historical fact, He actually did. While I agree that this rabbi’s entire statement is incoherent, I believe it reflects confusion and/or poor writing, not necessarily heresy.
If we accept Rabbi Rosenthal’s premise that Open Orthodoxy lies outside of Orthodoxy, are we opening ourselves to similar accusations? As a Yeshiva University graduate and a Modern Orthodox Jew, I have personally been subject to similar accusations. However, I do not see how that matters. Even if I believe that someone else’s judgment is wrong, I still must exercise my own best judgment. If someone considers my Religious Zionism theologically confused, does that mean that I should no longer care if my rabbi believes in Jesus? That conclusion is absurd. The proper response is to exhibit care and measure in our judgments. In that sense, this book raises important questions that must be considered by our own thought leaders. Many of these issues are highly nuanced, requiring expertise to evaluate. Thankfully, we have experts in our community and need to use their services properly.
Ultimately, this book will not serve to excommunicate a movement from Orthodoxy. It will alert the community to educate itself, to open its eyes and conduct its own investigation. This book is a call for awareness, pleading with the community to take notice of recent developments. Now that this book is widely available, ignorance is no longer an option. Community leaders will have to decide for themselves whether Open Orthodoxy is Orthodox.
By Rabbi Gil Student