“Shouldn’t we make Judaism easier to keep and chumrah-free?” has been a position taken in heated discussions online and elsewhere regarding the Shabbos App.
To this writer’s mind, there is a connection between the Shabbos App and Open Orthodoxy, the Orthodox-in-name-only movement established by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Let me explain by first sharing some introductory history about Open Orthodoxy.
Open Orthodoxy was recently in the news once again with the announcement that Rabbi Weiss would be retiring from his position as senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. That announcement left me ambivalent. The damage he has wrought will unfortunately remain. In fact, Weiss may present an even greater danger to authentic Judaism when he is not inhibited by the duties and obligations of the formal rabbinate.
Nevertheless, I think that this turning point in his career should be a catalyst for us to take stock of where we are and where we are going.
IGNORING DOES NOT CREATE BLISS
Open Orthodoxy has been around for approximately 17 years.
When Avi Weiss first put forth his radical Open Orthodox agenda, it became clear that his proposal was “Conservative lite.” The Centrist and Modern Orthodox establishment, as represented by the RCA, the OU and Yeshiva University, chose to basically ignore him. Their thought was, “It is a fringe group. They are am ha’aratzim. They don’t have any real scholarship and they will not gain traction. Everyone will realize that they are a fringe group of ignoramuses and activists more than rabbis, so there is nothing to worry about.”
While perhaps understandable at the time, that viewpoint has been proven very shortsighted and wrong.
Weiss took full advantage of the Orthodox non-response to his innovations and went full steam ahead with bolder and bolder breaches of normative halachah and mesorah.
He also used the internet and the secular media in a very savvy way, promoting himself and Open Orthodoxy as a “progressive” Orthodoxy that “does not discriminate against women and [non-traditional marriage],” and indicating the desire to bring Orthodoxy in line with the times and with the societal norms today.
Some of the anti-halachic positions of Open Orthodoxy are the promotion of non-traditional marriage, the ordination of women as rabbis, the undermining of conversion standards, Bible criticism, and feminizing prayer (e.g., “partnership minyanim” led by men and women and attempting to remove or modify “offensive” brochos).
THE FEW FIGHTERS
Although Rabbi Weiss was able to proceed virtually uninhibited by the Orthodox establishment, there were a number of courageous fighters who saw right through what he was doing. They sounded the alarm because they realized that Open Orthodoxy, its yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, its rabbinic school for women, Yeshivat Maharat, and its rabbinic organization, International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), were all front groups to introduce non-halachic Conservative-style Judaism to the wider community and to deceive unwitting Jews into thinking that it was Orthodox.
Some of the more prominent voices were Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, publisher of the Yated, who had the foresight early on to see the danger of Open Orthodoxy and used his editorial page and op-ed pages on a regular basis to raise the alarm.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, a New-York based kashrus administrator for the OU, was one of the most cogent, powerful voices to raise the alarm in a private capacity, writing for Arutz Sheva, Cross Currents, and a number of other publications about the continuous, egregious breaches of halachah that Open Orthodoxy engaged in.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, was also a powerful, eloquent voice that challenged Open Orthodoxy.
These heroic efforts notwithstanding, Open Orthodoxy has basically proceeded uninhibited, tragically making great inroads over the years.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?
Things that were totally unthinkable and anathema to Orthodox Jews, Modern Jews, Centrist Jews and Chareidi Jews have now become very thinkable and “a matter of different opinions” as a result of Open Orthodoxy’s innovations and PR onslaught.
Things like “alternative” marriage, religious collaboration with Reform and Conservative clergy, interfaith religious collaboration, ordination of female rabbis, and impossibly weak standards for geirus have become acceptable in some quarters of so-called “Orthodoxy.”
The bottom line is that Orthodox Jewry and its leadership have been caught sleeping at the wheel. They have been largely indifferent and – dare I say – squeamish about entering the battle, with Open Orthodoxy running roughshod over them in the PR war.
The only time that Open Orthodoxy has been challenged by establishment Orthodoxy was in a super-apologetic statement by the RCA a few years ago, in which the organization said that it could not condone the ordination of women, as well as a very powerful speech against Open Orthodoxy given by the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, at the Agudas Yisroel of America dinner last year.
Meanwhile, Open Orthodoxy has slowly been advancing the goal posts. Things that everyone knew until now were unequivocally unacceptable to Orthodoxy are now being challenged. Bible criticism, disparaging the avos, challenging the concept of Torah Min Hashomayim, and not believing in Hashgachah Protis no longer seem taboo.
That brings us once again to the Shabbos App, whose creators somehow claim enables a person to text on Shabbos. To this writer’s mind, such an idea, such a hashkafah and the way it is being marketed would not have been possible without the weakening of the foundations of Orthodoxy as has transpired over the recent years on the part of Open Orthodoxy.
The very reality that fundamental areas of halachic observance kept throughout the millennia are now subject to review and a more “open” or “progressive” interpretation has resulted in a brazen disregard for the halachic process.
How the Totally Impossible Has Infiltrated the Heart of the Camp
Open Orthodoxy’s innovations have succeeded in moving even Centrist and Chareidi Orthodoxy’s positions further to the left.
Years ago, I heard a thought from Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah of Lakewood. He cited the well-known words of Chazal, “Why was the passage of the nazir put adjacent to the passage of the sotah? To tell you that he who sees a sotah in her state of disgrace should accept upon himself to abstain from wine.”
Rav Wachtfogel asked a fundamental question: “If a person sees how Hashem punishes a sotah, he should not need to abstain from wine. The sight of Hashem’s strict judgment in action should be the greatest lesson. One should not need additional abstention from physical pleasure. He has just seen unvarnished Divine retribution!”
Rav Wachtfogel answered this question with a profound thought, offering insight into human nature: The fact that this person saw that this act of unfaithfulness was committed connects him to it. Until now, a person perhaps knew conceptually that there was such a thing, but he was not personally connected to it. Once one is personally connected, it has relevance to him that it did not have until now, and he must engage in an act of abstention to distance himself from it. Similarly, when one hears of a grisly murder on the radio, he may be disgusted by it, but he is also closer to it. He now knows that this can be done.
In a similar fashion, Open Orthodoxy has moved the goal posts. Even if others won’t follow and emulate them, the very fact that these halachic deviations are being done in the name of Orthodoxy weakens the entire halachic process. We have seen so many examples of this since Open Orthodoxy came on the scene. For a person to have the audacity to market the Shabbos App as a way to text on Shabbos, thus keeping “halachah” that is “chumrah-free,” could only come about once the sanctity of the halachic process has been violated by Open Orthodoxy.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The question that we must ask is: Where is Orthodoxy? Why is everyone so quiet?
This question is really a J’Accuse being leveled at the entire Orthodox establishment, including rabbinic organizations and print media (aside from the Yated), but it is primarily directed at Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy, whose opinions on these matters would carry the most influence.
Why have you been so silent as Open Orthodoxy tramples on the Torah without respite and mercy? Perhaps you are afraid of being called “close-minded” or, heaven forbid, “under the influence of the Chareidim.”
Perhaps you are afraid of being called “divisive.”
But there are greater insults than that. Letting G-d’s Torah be falsified is one of them.
When history will be written, I am afraid that caring Jews and scholars will look at the inroads made by Open Orthodoxy during these past few years, and they will look at the confusion and the many unwitting Jews who were led astray by clergymen and women educated at YCT and Yeshivat Maharat, and they will exclaim, “How could they have sold out Orthodoxy without even putting up a fight? Was it so unimportant to them? How could they have been so squeamish about battling for what is right? Did halachic observance mean so little to them?”
Indeed, how could people let Rabbi Avi Weiss and his minions trample on the legacy of the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose written positions prohibiting virtually all of Open Orthodoxy’s innovations are eminently clear?
History will ask, “Where was Centrist and Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership? Did it feel that it could abdicate all protests on behalf of halachah to the Chareidim?”
Unless real leadership is shown soon, I am afraid that these questions will remain unanswered.
If past behavior is indicative of future results, I am not optimistic that there will be any satisfactory answer to these glaring questions.
With just a bit of leadership, just a bit of guts and bit less fear of what others will say, a clear line can be drawn in the sand to prevent further erosion of the halachic process by Open Orthodoxy.