Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Nothing Orthodox about Open Orthodoxy

In the face of silence by most of the Orthodox world, the Yated has consistently spoken out about the dangers of Open Orthodoxy, the ideology and movement founded and led by Rabbi Avi Weiss and the rabbis of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). The Yated has tracked the development of Open Orthodoxy and has exposed its array of hair-raising proclamations and programming, leaving readership wondering where the "Orthodoxy" in Open Orthodoxy is.

Our last exposé about Open Orthodoxy reviewed its history and documented the further crossing of red lines by this movement. For those who seek a brief recap:


            -The heads of the Reform and Conservative rabbinical schools participated in the first YCT semicha ceremony, where these non-Orthodox rabbinical leaders “danced together with students, faculty and other guests” (YCT Newsletter).


            -YCT highlights the work of one of its graduates, serving as a campus rabbi, in creating a Haggadah modified for the interests of same-gender marriage advocates (YCT Newsletter). This same YCT graduate has done other campus work promoting and celebrating same-gender expression (


            -YCT employs non-Orthodox rabbis, male and female, on its teaching staff, granting them full rabbinic credentials (YCT staff roster).


            -YCT sponsors joint training and theological programs and prayer with Reform and Conservative rabbinical students and clergy (YCT Newsletter and website). Similar programs with seminary students of other religions have also occurred under YCT auspices and are documented in the YCT Newsletter and on its students’ blogs.


            -YCT welcomed Catholic clergy to its bet midrash for a day of chavruta study with YCT rabbinical students, followed by a hand-in-hand circle dance and song with the Catholic clergy and YCT staff and students (


            -YCT pluralistic rosh yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer, in his article about perceived inequities in the Gemara toward non-Jews, shows that although some opinions in Chazal can be read to give non-Jews more equitable standing in the limited area of the article’s discussion, “the halakha follows the interpretation that the Gemara gives to the statements of the Tana’im and Amora’im. Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halakhic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system, and are to some degree disingenuous and lacking in integrity. ‘Should we be bending the halakha to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?’ is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud those voices that articulate those same values that are driving us” (Milin Havivin journal, vol. 1, p. 36).


            -2009 saw the rabbinic ordination of Sara Hurwitz, who serves as “Rabba” Hurwitz at Rabbi Weiss’ shul, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), and as dean of Yeshivat Maharat. “At the Hebrew Institute, she is a full member of the rabbinic staff, where she fulfills all functions of a rabbi, including teaching, speaking from the pulpit, officiating at life-cycle events, including funerals and weddings, and addressing congregants’ halachic questions… ‘I understood the desire and drive of others to serve in this capacity. I knew that with God’s help and the help of the many people who also supported the Orthodox ordination of women…’” (


            -A 2010 Kabbalat Shabbat service at HIR was led by a woman ( HIR also has an official women’s service with “Kriat HaTorah and Haftarah” read by women, along with female “Gabbayot.” (


            -HIR also hosts an annual Martin Luther King Jr. concert, where the male-female choir of Green Pastures Baptist Church, in full church robing, sings religious and gospel songs in the HIR synagogue sanctuary, from the bimah, together with Rabbi Weiss (see,, and


            -A 2010 “Statement of Principles” redefining the Orthodox attitude toward same-gender marriage was signed by YCT and IRF rabbis and their allies (


            -One IRF vice president went so far as to write that he would endorse having a special cake at a Kiddush in his shul to mark the engagement of two male members (


(From “What’s New with YCT, Open Orthodoxy and the RCA?” in Yated Ne’eman, June 24, ’11.)




The latest in this series of deviations from Torah Judaism was boldly announced recently on the “Morethodoxy” website, which features articles from the leaders of Open Orthodoxy about their ideology and movement. In what can be called nothing less than unprecedented, IRF officer and YCT advisory board member Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky (who is a member of the RCA and the rabbi of a shul that is part of a prominent Orthodox synagogue organization) brazenly declared that he no longer recites the daily bracha of “Shelo asani isha” and explained: “Each morning (by reciting the bracha of “Shelo asani isha”), we actually reinforce the inherited prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men.”


Rabbi Kanefsky argued that this blessing should therefore be omitted and then appeared to somehow attack the idea of mechitzah: “Often, she (the Orthodox woman) must content herself with davening in a cage in shul.”


The rabbi concluded his article by explaining that he no longer recites the bracha of “Shelo asani isha” because “I cannot take God’s Name in the context of this blessing anymore. I suspect, at this point in history, that it constitutes a desecration of the Name, God forbid. In time-honored rabbinic tradition, “better to sit and not do.”


In his article, Rabbi Kanefsky also criticized the halachic restrictions against women serving as dayanim and in certain other halachic roles, declaring, “This is no way to run a religion.”


Under criticism, Rabbi Kanefsky retracted and admitted that his tone was too strident and that his article was light in halachic reasoning. He reissued his article under the title, “A Calmer and Fuller Articulation,” and he basically retained his same stance, but used gentler language and provided what he termed the halachic rationale for his refusal to recite the bracha of “Shelo asani isha.” (It is interesting that although the Morethodoxy website, at Rabbi Kanefsky’s request, pulled the first version of his article, the article continued to appear on the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism website, which apparently feels that Rabbi Kanefsky articulated ideas very much in line with the Conservative position.)


In his revised article, Rabbi Kanefsky introduced “the proper halachic execution for the omission of the blessing, ‘You have not made me a woman’”:


“(1) We are familiar from our siddur with the blessing ‘For You have not made me a non-Jew.’ In our printed versions of the Talmud, however (see Menachot 43b), the blessing appears not in the negative formulation, rather in the positive language ‘for You have made me an Israelite’ (She’asani Yisroel). While the majority of Talmudic commentaries and codes nonetheless maintained that the correct version is the one we have in our siddur, two prominent sages demurred. Both Rosh (Brachot 9:24) and the Vilna Gaon prescribe the recitation of “for You have made me an Israelite,” in accordance with our version of the Talmud.


“(2) Bach (O.C. 46), while aligning himself with the majority position, rules that if in error you said ‘for You have made me an Israelite,’ then you should omit the two blessing that follow, including ‘for You have not made me a woman.’ (Mishnah Berurah 46:15 cites this position as well.) This is because the expression of gratitude for being a (male) Jew already includes the sentiments of the subsequent blessings within it.


“(3) The argument now proceeds with the assertion that we ought to deliberately recite “for you have made me an Israelite” (for women, the feminine version ‘She’asani Yisroelis’) in order to create the grounds for omitting “for You have not made me a woman.”


“This is an unusual halachik maneuver to be sure, one which requires justification. And this brings me to my second point. We don’t re-explore our halachik options with an eye toward change, absent a compelling reason to do so. By the same token, though, to resist re-examination when such is needed is to abdicate our responsibility to ensure that we’re always practicing halacha at its very best.


“As I wrote in my original post, I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind. We know and understand, like no generation before us has known, that women are men’s intellectual and spirit equals.


“We find ourselves today in a halachikshat hadechak’…the sort of circumstance that justifies using an ingenious halachik strategem to effectively drop this blessing from our liturgy.”


So we now have a major Open Orthodox rabbinic figure arguing, in version number one of his missive, for the excision of an obligatory Talmudic bracha from daily tefillah, and writing that he suspects that recital of the bracha is now a chillul Hashem. This Open Orthodox rabbi effectively calls for reform and reformulation of the siddur, placing himself above the chachmei haTalmud in deciding which brachos are appropriate, and he attacks the attitudes of the chachmei haTalmud without compunction.


This Open Orthodox rabbi also assaults halacha, treating dinim de’Oraisa (such as women not serving on a bais din) as if they were capriciously invented by some hateful and prejudiced rabbis, scathingly reprimanding the halacha: “This is no way to run a religion.”


It is absolutely unbelievable. It is so shocking. It is unheard of, despite the shoddy halachic loophole that is suggested in order to “effectively drop th(e) blessing from our liturgy.”


A few days later, another Morethodoxy article appeared, this time written by a woman who serves as the ritual director of the congregation of another rabbinic star of Open Orthodoxy (who holds positions on the IRF and YCT advisory boards, and is a member of the RCA). This new article concludes:


“Even if we adults feel comfortable with the matbe’a of ‘Shelo asani isha,’ clearly, our children perceive an undercurrent of male superiority in this bracha. Whether we choose ‘She’asani Yisrael’ or some other solution (I have been saying ‘She’asani isha’ for years, because I am truly grateful for being female and because there is liturgical precedent for it), we must recognize that the negative messaging is getting through. Even if our girls and boys absorb negative gender stereotypes from our surrounding culture, I would not want them to perceive them from within our holy tradition” (Morethodoxy, “A Story from the Front Lines,” August 11).


Adding to the mix was an article just penned by Rabbi Zev Farber, a YCT graduate, IRF board member, and member of the IRF Vaad Giyur. The article, “Shelo Asani Isha – A Critique of Contemporary Bloggic Discourse,” is posted on the Jewish Ideas and Ideals website, headed by Rabbi Marc Angel, co-founder of IRF.


In his article, Rabbi Farber, considered one of Open Orthodoxy’s greatest young scholars, comments that he too is working on an article “advocating an adjustment to our nussah.” As if this were not radical enough, Rabbi Farber’s treatment of the words of Chazal and even of Tanach are something quite unexpected:


The earliest reference to these blessings is in Tosefta Berakhot 6:18. Here is the entire passage:


R. Yehudah says: A person must say three blessings every day:


a. Blessed [is God] for not making me a gentile.


b. Blessed [is God] for not making me an ignoramus.


c. Blessed [is God] for not making me a woman.


Gentile – for it says: “All the nations are like nothing before Him, like naught and void they are considered by Him” (Isaiah 40:17). Ignoramus – for an ignoramus does not fear sin. Woman – for women are not obligated to perform mitzvot…


“Here each blessing comes with a short explanation. It is better to be a Jew than a gentile, since gentiles are entirely discounted by God – an offensive enough statement which inspired the alternative text of “who has made me an Israelite.”


The “offensive enough statement,” as Rabbi Farber terms it, is that of Yeshayahu Hanovi, just quoted by Rabbi Farber in the Tosefta. Rabbi Farber knowingly refers to the words of Yeshayahu Hanovi, as utilized by Chazal in a Tosefta, as “an offensive enough statement”!


So we now have a young Open Orthodox rabbinic leader and scholar attacking the words and values of Yeshayahu Hanovi as used by Chazal for the basis of a bracha. Is this not unbelievable?


We come away from the above articles being told that Chazal were out of touch and did not realize that the nuscha’os they halachically mandated were faulty and promote wrong values, as the bold leadership of Open Orthodoxy proceeds to reform Judaism by changing halacha and doing away with ancient texts and ideas from the Gemara that don’t fit into the liberal, cosmopolitan vision of Open Orthodoxy.




Although it is not well-known, the early leadership of Reform Judaism initially operated within what it felt was a halachic framework. The Reform deviation of mixed seating during prayer was justified by Reform leadership on halachic grounds, for the Shulchan Aruch does not state that a shul must have separate seating and a mechitzah. The notions of separate seating and a mechitzah were “mere tradition” (what we Torah Jews call “mesorah”), and according to technical halacha, argued the first Reform rabbis, the traditional layout of the shul could and needed to be dispensed with, in consonance with the egalitarian spirit that was sweeping Western Europe in the early and mid-1800s.


Reform leaders introduced the organ into congregational worship, even on Shabbos, with the argument that it was halachically permissible as shevus bemakom mitzvah. Again, tradition was tossed aside, and the worship service was brought into line with German non-Jewish prayer services.


Likewise, in order to switch prayer from Lashon Kodesh to German, Reform rabbis wrote teshuvos invoking the well-known heter for individuals to daven in the vernacular. Notwithstanding fierce condemnation from Torah leaders that these moves wore tearing tradition to shreds, Reform steadfastly defended its changes on technical grounds.


Reform ritual had become so different from traditional Yahadus that Reform leadership had little problem dropping the brachos of “VeliYerushalayim” and “Es tzemach Dovid” from Shemoneh Esrei and from deleting Korbanos and all references to Shivas Tzion and binyan Bais Hamikdosh from the siddur. Soon, total denial of halacha and the Divine authority of Torah ensued, and Reform had abrogated all claims to normative Yahadus.


Open Orthodoxy began its path by crossing socio-religious red lines, such as fostering greater cooperation with and recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy, and engaging in celebratory religious interaction with Christian clergy. Then came adopting new standards for geirus, which was one of the goals of IRF; minority and non-normative halachic opinions justifying the new geirus leniencies were cited. New attitudes toward non-traditional marriage were proffered by YCT’s rabbis, radically changing accepted Orthodox norms so as to bring Open Orthodoxy in line with the times, yet not violating halacha. Soon thereafter, Open Orthodoxy introduced the ordination of women, again accompanied by teshuvos to justify this breach of tradition on technical halachic grounds. Then came changing tefillah: tefillah could be led by women, and brachos could be cancelled and replaced, updating davening and nusach to reflect the values of the day. Sometimes, bogus halachic loopholes were created, while at other times, no halachic justification was offered. Open Orthodox leaders were mevatel brachos and introduced new brachos seemingly because these leaders just felt like it, denouncing Talmudic dictums and values without hesitation.


Going back to the development of Reform Judaism 200 years ago and looking at the recent development of Open Orthodoxy, do we detect a common pattern?


Despite the glaring similarities between the development of Reform and other non-Orthodox movements and the presently developing path of Open Orthodoxy, there are some very notable differences in the surrounding religious landscape. Let’s jump ahead 150 or so years later, when Orthodoxy was being established on a large scale in America, faced with challenges from movements that sought to dilute Yahadus and pull masses of Torah Jews out of Orthodox life.




In the middle half of the 20th century, Modern Orthodoxy in America was faced with pressures to take down mechitzos in shuls, with rabbis affiliating with Conservative congregations and the Conservative movement, and with attempts to breach halachic norms. For a large segment of Jews who identified themselves as Orthodox, the lines were getting blurred, fidelity to halacha was being jeopardized, and their future within clear Orthodox boundaries was quite seriously threatened.


Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, was the halachic authority whose rulings carried the greatest influence in the Modern Orthodox community during his era. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the dangers and did not hesitate to create red lines and forbid their crossing by Modern Orthodoxy. These actions saved Modern Orthodoxy from the threats of merger into the Conservative movement and irreversible loss of Orthodox identity.


Here are a few important examples:




“I do hereby reiterate the statement that I have made on numerous occasions, both in writing and orally, that a synagogue with a mixed seating arrangement forfeits its sanctity and its halachic status of mikdash me’at, and is unfit for prayer and avodah shebalev. With full cognizance of the implications of such a halachic decision, I would still advise every Orthodox Jew to forego tefillah betzibbur even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than enter a synagogue with mixed pews… No rabbi, however great in scholarship and moral integrity, has the authority to endorse or legalize, or even apologetically explain, this basic deviation…” (from a message by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the 1955 RCA convention).


Orthodox rabbis uniting with non-Orthodox Jewish clergy


“It is my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung. It is impossible for me to comprehend, for example, how Orthodox rabbis, who spent their best years in yeshivos and absorbed the spirit of Torah Shebaal Peh and its tradition, for whom Rabi Akiva, the Rambam, the Rema, the Gra, Rav Chaim Brisker and other Jewish sages are the pillars upon which their spiritual world rests, can join with spiritual leaders for whom all this is worthless… From the point of view of the Torah, we find the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism much greater than that which separated the Perushim and the Tzedukim in the days of Bayis Sheini, and between the Kara’im and traditionalists in the Gaonic era. Has Jewish history ever recorded an instance of a joint community council that consisted of Kara’im and Torah-true Jews?” (from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s 1954 Yiddish article in Der Tog Morgen Journal).


Interfaith relationships


“We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyze or rationalize our faith in dialogues centered about these ‘private’ topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel” (from an open letter by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the RCA, 1964).


Criticizing Chazal and statements that any of their words no longer apply


“The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:8) writes: There are three categories of those who are kofrim baTorah: he who says that the Torah is not from Hashem, and he who denies the interpretation of Torah, which is Torah Shebaal Peh, and he who is mak’chish magideha. This means that one who disparages any of the baalei hamesorah, stating that their hashkafos or opinions were lacking, or that they had personal faults, is the equivalent of a kofer in Torah Shebaal Peh… One dare not declare that the chazakos in the Gemara, which reflect eternal truths, no longer apply. To declare such is heresy


(sentiments expressed by Rabbi Soloveitchik in the early 1970s when a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi sought to modify halachos of ishus based on his claim that a certain chazakah of Chazal no longer applied).




Fast forward half a century. Modern Orthodoxy again faces challenges to its identity and fealty to mesorah and halacha, as Open Orthodoxy is sweeping through halachic innovations and total disregard of mesorah, heading toward outright reform of Orthodox observance – yet there is no one speaking out. There is not a word of condemnation or concern.


Open Orthodoxy’s reforms and attempted integration into Modern Orthodoxy are met with deafening silence at best and sometimes even with cooperation and support. To wit, YCT’s graduates are landing pulpit and campus rabbinical positions at synagogues and universities affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogue organizations. IRF and YCT leadership maintains joint and apparently influential membership in the RCA. The new RCA president, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his inaugural address, hinted at a possible relationship between IRF/YCT and the RCA. Popular Modern Orthodox lecturers and authors, affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox organizations, participate in YCT symposiums and contribute to YCT publications. Meanwhile, Open Orthodoxy continues its leftward trek over the edge, toward reforming Orthodoxy and breaking away from the chachmei hamesorah, and even censuring the ideas of Chazal when they do not fit in with the times. Yet no one says a word.


Why the deafening silence? Why the passivity and acquiescence?


Where is the Modern Orthodox condemnation of the path that Open Orthodoxy is taking, as Open Orthodoxy tries to infiltrate Modern Orthodoxy’s rabbinate and institutions? Do people think that Open Orthodoxy will disappear or give up its course of radical innovation and rejection of basic tenets of Judaism? Why does no one speak up and alert the community of the fire that burns and threatens to consume much of the Orthodox world?


Open Orthodoxy has very ambitious plans to change Yahadus, and Modern Orthodoxy and its organs had better wake up.



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