Ripples are currently radiating around the Modern Orthodox community in response to bold moves made by colleagues of Rabbi Avi Weiss and the students from the controversial yeshiva he founded in Riverdale, Chovevei Torah (YCT). The president of the yeshiva is Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who also serves as the spokesman. He is the point man of a new, highly controversial, more “open” approach to Modern Orthodoxy and he spends lots of time debating other rabbis who worry that the approach is really a “movement” that is pushing the envelope too far, putting themselves outside the main camp, or chutz la machene.
Also invited to participate was a spokesman from the Agudath Israel of America, who refused to do so because he indicated that what goes by the name “Open Orthodoxy” is not Orthodox Judaism.
Lopatin opened by explaining that when Avi Weiss thought about these issues 14 or so years ago, he defined it as creating a beit medrash where Yiddishkeit would be open, where people would not be afraid to ask difficult questions and not be afraid to deal with any issues. It would be a non-judgmental beit medrash, where you would not be judged for the questions you ask. He described it as a method of learning and teaching where the beis medrash is a comfortable safe space, unlike those of certain Rosh Yeshivas who say not every question should be asked, that some questions are not appropriate.
He did not feel, he said, that Open Orthodoxy is a movement, but rather a new approach, one that is more open to the world, and one that can make a difference. “Since all of Torah-true Judaism is meant to be open, to ask questions and struggle with issues in an open environment, like Modern Orthodoxy, we are part of the modern world.”
Goldin responded to Lopatin in much the same way as he did when he spoke to JLBC at press time. He noted that the approach is not what sets Open Orthodoxy (OO) apart from Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Goldin, who, at times in the past has been considered left of the mainstream, feels that some of decisions on issues that the OO approach has made are pushing the boundaries, like recent decisions on partnership minyanim and gay individuals. “We do have to be sensitive to these issues,” he said, “but some of the things we are hearing from proponents are already halakhically problematical.”
Lopatin responded by saying that some of the stagnation in past approaches have been caused by fear, and that YCT is training their students to create open communities. Where do they draw the line? The emphasis needs to be inclusive. For example the daughter of a lesbian couple was celebrating her bat mitzvah, and one focuses on celebrating the child who was raised by two mothers as a family—just as they would celebrate a child at any other bat mitzvah.
Goldin responded that he would also celebrate that bat mitzvah, but would Lopatin celebrate the same-sex union itself. Lopatin’s response was non-responsive. Other issues discussed included how to include interfaith families with unconverted spouses in shul. Ahavat Torah’s policy, Goldin said, is very clear. The Jewish spouse can be a member as an individual, but not as a family.
Lopatin believes that mesorah of Torah mi Sinai should be more inclusive and positive instead of pushing people away. While Goldin agreed in inclusivity, he also indicated that there have to be boundaries. He pointed out, for example, that when a prominent alumnus of YCT questioned if Toras Moshe mi Sinai was given by HKBH to Moshe, that is problematic. Lopatin said the person who said that was no longer affiliated with YCT and is not in a position of leadership any longer. “Leaders need to espouse the basics, and we are in agreement.” OO, he said, believes that Toras Moshe mi Sinai is essential to Orthodoxy, embracing Torah true Judaism in an affirmative way.
Additional issues discussed included partnership minyanim, the role of women in shuls, interfaith marriages, studying with and learning from non-Orthodox rabbis or sitting on panels with them, gay marriage, pluralism in Israel and more, although the agunah issue did not come up on the air.
When it comes to the decisions on partnership minyanim, Lopatin pointed to Rabbi Doniel Sperber, head of the beit medrash at Bar Ilan and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who has one partnership minyan in Efrat, and Rabbi Daniel Landes, who agreed with the idea. Those three people are significant MO leaders… “It’s not normative, it’s an experiment. No one is interested in throwing out the tradition.”
Goldin countered that when a view proliferates on the basis of minority opinions, and when the vast majority of halakhic authorities disagree, that creates an expectation that this is legitimate, which puts pressure on rabbis in communities who want to toe the line, who will then push back and precipitate a response that would be much stronger than it would have to be.
Goldin sees halakha as an issue driven system, whereby a particular issue comes to you—there’s a situation, and you have to look at the constellation of what is being presented, the human dimensions, and then you have to analyze the halakhic context and then make a decision. But if you are agenda-driven, and say whatever the issue is, I am going to push the boundaries to see how we can make halakha fit our goals, you prejudice the system.
He explained to JLBC, “While the issues are not all equivalent, whether it’s gay issues, women’s tefillah, partnership minyanim, agunot, interfaith, whatever it is, I may even agree with some of the ways they are handling these things, but each issue is unique, and one has to see what the ramifications would be to the halakha—would it split the community? What will it do to the halakhic process? And what will be the unintended consequences of such applications?”
Unintended consequences? Doesn’t that usually apply to war? “Unintended consequences are a result of every decision one makes. Let me give a perfect example. When I first moved to Englewood, Steven Listfield, the rabbi at Temple Emanuel who replaced Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, told me he was jealous of me because I had a community, and people lived around my shul, and that on Shabbos they walked around the community. He didn’t have it, because people didn’t live near the shul. That’s when I realized that when the Conservative movement made a decision to let people drive to shul, it had the unintended consequence of destroying the community, because then they didn’t have to live near the shul. I am convinced that had the leadership realized that this would have been a consequence of that decision, perhaps it would have given them pause.”
And as far as calling this approach, which Goldin feels is more of a movement than an approach, Open Orthodoxy, he said, “I consider myself an open person, so calling it ‘Open Orthodoxy ‘as if Modern Orthodox people are not open is, in its own way, insulting. But if they are going to define OO by being as meikel (lenient) as possible in every case, to make everyone happy, that is not going to work.”
For the moment, he said, Modern Orthodox leadership has been restraining its criticism, because they are not anxious to read anyone out of the camp. “But at some point, the more public they become about these boundaries without defining them… it becomes harder for us to remain silent, and we will reach a point where we will say, ‘Fine. Do what you want, but don’t call it Orthodox.’ If they keep pushing, by definition, they will end up chutz la machaneh.”
This doesn’t mean these issues cannot be explored. “For example,” he said, “I, and not all rabbis in my sphere, hold from Yoatzot Halakha. I am in favor of it. These women teach taharat hamishpocha properly, and it doesn’t embarrass the women, it increases the number observing it, and I have no question about that. But it becomes difficult to support them when other issues, like the maharats, are lumped together and it becomes difficult to separate them in people’s minds. I am in conversation with JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) but they are also pushing OO, so I want to be clear—they are free to push that agenda, but they shouldn’t expect the mainstream to accept them.”
Goldin said that respect for halakha requires respect for the halakhists. In every other field you go to the experts, but when it comes to halakha, everyone things they are an instant expert.
“Admittedly, the halakhic process raises frustration, but the single reason we are having this conversation about a process that goes back millennia is because of the halakhic glue that holds us together. It is a process that unites the Jewish people. People will say to me that our Sephardic minyan is so different. But the miracle is that it is so similar. We say the same liturgy, the amida is the same, and it’s all the same because we struggled with the process and we kept it. The balance between change and preservation is a delicate one, and you have to healthy respect for the process itself. You cannot twist it to meet your goals, there has to be a respect for the system as a whole.
“Each generation gets this gift from the prior generation to apply it sensibly and touch the hearts of our people and hand it down to the next generation. It will be transformed on some level because of our times and our issues and our application of the law. But the foundations have to be eternal. And what I hand down has to be authentic and recognizable as coming from the halakhic system.
At a recent Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference in New York, Mrs. Blu Greenberg, a JOFA founder, announced the establishment of a beit din dealing with agunah issues. When asked if this beit din would be given a chance to succeed, Goldin said, “I cannot predict what a community will do. Rabbi Krauss’ name lends credence to the effort. He is a person I have a lot of respect for, as do many. It will be judged on its merits and on whether or not the solutions it puts forward are serious. There has not been an outright rejection, and time will tell.”
By Jeanette Friedman