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Sticking To Our Guns

I find it so interesting to see how Dr. Jonathan Sarna has weighed in on the current Open Orthodoxy controversy. It isn’t surprising that he took to defending Rabbi Asher Lopatin from criticism from the rest of the Orthodox movement or that he attempted to write the criticism off as the opinion of fanatics.

It is surprising that he has attempted rewrite history about the problems Agudath Israel had with the RCA in the early half of the 20th century just so that he could frame the current dispute between the RCA and Open Orthodoxy as the old narrative of the persecuted becoming the persecutors, rather than the actions of a group mainstream Orthodox rabbis trying to put the brakes on a runaway radical movement that is misrepresenting themselves to the wider public.

 

The two aspects of the article that were striking were Dr. Sarna’s willingness to distort the facts on the ground and the underlying vitriol with which the article was written.

 

The 42 (now 63) signatories of the “Statement on Open Orthodoxy” published in Ha’aretz are not just a fringe group, as he claims, but represent three generations of Modern Orthodox rabbis, a number of whom currently hold or have held office in the RCA, a fact he should have checked before he declared otherwise.

 

He is also equally aware that it was Lopatin, Weiss & Co. who took the discussion to the secular Jewish and non-Jewish media and that they were clearly trying to take the discussion outside of the bubble, where they have a distinct advantage with elements hostile toward Orthodox Judaism.

 

Given the tone of the article, I don’t believe this was simply written for the low-information reader to influence opinion. Such a piece is a radical departure in tone from the general academic nature of the bulk of his writings. Dr. Sarna must have realized that someone on the Orthodox side would call him out on these distortions.

 

As a former Near Eastern/Judaic Studies major at Brandeis University, I think I know exactly what’s bothering Dr. Sarna. There is an attitude I have perceived among some academic Judaic Studies scholars, either by direct contact or by reading their writings, that they both understand Judaism better than its practitioners and know what’s better for the Jewish community than the community itself. This particularly applies to the Orthodox community, which seems to cause academics great aggravation for bucking the trend of most of the Jewish community in assimilating into Western society. Academics seem to see the concepts of Jewish exceptionalism and Jewish exclusivity as being detrimental to the Jewish community’s wellbeing in the modern world.

 

The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Sarna’s erroneous assessment of the Open Orthodoxy controversy clearly derives from the fact that he is approaching the issue as an academic and an outsider. His interpretation of the RCA turning from the victims to the aggressors is based on the fallacy that Orthodoxy somehow changed to allow Modern Orthodoxy into the rubric. That isn’t what happened. Orthodox Judaism, by definition, hasn’t changed. Orthodoxy was a label that non-traditional movements hoisted on those Jews who remained loyal to the tradition. Before that, it was just understood what it meant to be Jewish: an orthoheterodoxy that can tolerate a wide variety of ideas and practices as long as certain fundamentals are maintained, such as belief in the historicity of the Revelation at Har Sinai and the binding nature of the Torah, written and oral.

 

At the beginning of the century, Modern Orthodoxy was synonymous with severe lapses in areas of basic religious observance, such as Shabbos and kashrus. The rabbinic establishment came out harshly, and the RCA moved Modern Orthodoxy back toward the beaten path. The same holds true for other splinter groups that have emerged from normative Judaism. Either they moderated and came back to the middle or they fell to the wayside.

 

The same holds true for Open Orthodoxy. They have breached the barrier of what can be considered Orthodox, in belief and in practice. They still have a chance to come back, but this is highly unlikely given the breakneck speed with which they are running away from the path of their forefathers. It is not the responsibility of Orthodoxy to reinvent itself to become something it’s not. It’s like the Kotzker Rebbe said: If I am me because of you and you are you because of me, then I am not me and you are not you.

 

Orthodoxy will continue to thrive by doing what it has always done: sticking to its guns and dealing with challenges as they come.