There is much uncertainty as to what exactly Open Orthodoxy is, where it can be found, and what its rabbinical graduates are about. Some of that confusion is deliberate on their part. Therefore, to understand this new heterodox movement, it is worthwhile investigating the two Open Orthodoxy rabbinical schools.
Unbeknownst to most frum Jews, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the Open Orthodoxy founder, has in the past decade and a half opened two Open Orthodoxy rabbinical schools, one for men and one for women. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is the Open Orthodox rabbinical school for men, while Yeshivat Maharat is the Open Orthodoxy rabbinical school for women.
Both rabbinical schools are located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. They are both housed at 3700 Henry Hudson Parkway in Rabbi Weiss’ synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
The Open Orthodox rabbinical schools appear to be incredibly well-financed. Neither school charges tuition and both offer stipends to each student. They have a combined total of 75 students for which they have 28 administration, faculty and staff members. And that’s not counting the 13 rabbis and staff employed by the Hebrew Institute. The rabbinical schools have separate full-time roshei yeshiva, deans, spiritual advisers, fundraisers and instructors. Chovevei also pays for a full-time professional president.
Open Orthodoxy maintains gender equity in its hiring practices for its rabbinical schools and synagogue. The three Open Orthodox institutions, located at Open Orthodoxy headquarters, employ 24 women and 17 men. Actually, that’s not equal. Open Orthodoxy apparently discriminates against men.
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the men’s rabbinical school, is not a yeshiva in the way Orthodox Jews think of an advanced yeshiva or yeshiva gedolah. Chovevei students study Gemara four mornings a week till 12:30 p.m. The Chovevei day of learning ends at 5:30 p.m., with an hour off for lunch. There is a mandatory night seder on one Wednesday a month. Chovevei gives off on Sundays, gives off for Christian holidays, and gives off for the summer starting June 10. Chovevei is a four-year program.
The Chovevei Curriculum Overview states: “Talmud is studied intensively throughout all four years of the semikha program. The Talmud curriculum produces Torah scholars who are fluent in Talmud and Rishonim, the medieval commentaries.”
In other words, Chovevei claims to have an intensive Talmud curriculum producing Torah scholars, with a Talmud study schedule of just 16 hours a week.
Chovevei’s bechinah (admission interview) consists of:
Discussion based on a choice of one of three assigned articles from Meorot: A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.
Delivery of a 3-5 minute devar Torah on a topic of the interviewee’s choice.
Learning assessment by one of Chovevei’s faculty around the time of the interview.
Interviewees whose Judaic knowledge is subpar must join a one-year remedial program before entering the regular Chovevei rabbinical school program. About 15% of the students are in this remedial program.
It is fascinating to read the information Chovevei puts out about its current students. Its students are primarily graduates of secular universities; only a small minority attended Yeshiva College/YU. Most Chovevei students graduated from state schools (University of Connecticut, Brooklyn College, Queens College), while a few are Ivy League grads (Columbia, University of Pennsylvania). Most were liberal arts majors – i.e., sociology, religion, psychology, education; though a few majored in the hard sciences – i.e. chemistry, biology. Today’s Chovevei students formally list an amazing array of interests: reading comic books, playing banjo, harmonica, rapping, beat-boxing, films, movies, comedy, raw foodism, craft-beer tasting, social justice, art history, art museums, antique home restoration, knitting, badminton, squash, tai chi and qi gong, yoga and German idealism.
It is a bit surprising how many Chovevei rabbinical students prefer to be called by their English names – i.e., Garth, Justin, Jordan, Douglass, Scott.
The Chovevei faculty bios further help clarify what the school is about. The bio of Rabbi Avi Weiss, Chovevei’s founder, makes no mention of Yeshiva University, even though he graduated from MTA, Yeshiva College and RIETS – all YU schools- and was on the YU payroll for over 30 years. Additionally, Rabbi Weiss is the son, spouse, sibling, cousin and father of Yeshiva University graduates. (No one in his family has graduated from an Open Orthodox institution, only YU institutions.)
An adjunct faculty member is Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. The octogenarian is persona non grata in Orthodox circles. His Chovevei bio links to his being brought up on heresy charges by the RCA in 1991. The Chovevei bio links to excerpts of genuine kefirah he has published: “…morally speaking, G-d must repent of the covenant, i.e., do teshuvah for having given his chosen people a task that was unbearably cruel and dangerous without having provided for their protection. Morally speaking, then, G-d can have no claims on the Jews by dint of the covenant” – Modern Judaism [Magazine]. 26.3 (2006): 213-239.”
The Open Orthodoxy rabbinical school for women, Yeshivat Maharat, is even more troubling than Chovevei. It says on the Maharat application page as follows:
To gain admittance, applicants must
Identify as Orthodox
Demonstrate a proficiency in Jewish text
Aspire to serve as spiritual leaders
Apparently, it is not a given that Maharat applicants identify as Orthodox. They do not feel the need to make this demand of the boys at Chovevei. Also, what “Jewish text” is proficiency required in? Chumash? Tanach? Gemara? Zohar?
Lastly, Maharat doesn’t seem to believe in studying Torah lishmah, since applicants must “aspire to serve as spiritual leaders.”
The Maharat application asks compelling questions such as:
Have you ever been arrested? If so, please list the charges and if it resulted in a conviction.
Have you ever had a drug or substance abuse problem?
Have you ever been the subject of disciplinary inquiry or action in your place of employment or academic institution?
Maharat literature states, “Through a rigorous curriculum of Talmud and halakhic decision-making (psak), our graduates are authorized to be poskot (legal arbiters) within the boundaries of halakha.”
Maharat students study Gemara from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The “rigorous curriculum of Talmud” consists of 10.5 hours a week of learning. Maharat students study halachah from approximately 9:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays thru Thursdays. The “rigorous curriculum of halakhic decision-making (psak)” consists of 13 hours a week of learning. Maharat also gives off on Sundays, gives off for Christian holidays, and gives long summer vacations. Maharat is a four-year program.
Maharat has clearly invested a lot more money into its website than Chovevei has. The Maharat student backgrounds are more academically impressive than that of the boys, with lots of Ivy League grads, PhDs and MDs. It broke my heart reading their bios, because the Maharat women appear to be talented and sincere, but are being misled. The Maharat curriculum doesn’t produce “poskot.” It doesn’t even produce learned Jews (“lomdim”). It doesn’t produce frum Jews. While Maharat’s web site has lots of talk of groundbreaking women’s roles and leadership and Jewish community and poskot, I couldn’t find mention of Hashem and what He wants. I also couldn’t find mention of Torah tradition or mesorah.
Less than a mile and a half from Maharat and Chovevei is the renowned Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni of Riverdale. This is a yeshiva producing remarkable lomdim who learn Gemara for 70-80 hours a week, including Sundays, holidays and most of the summer. Such hasmadah and lomdus eventually produce genuine talmidei chachomim.
Exactly 3/10 of a mile from Open Orthodoxy headquarters is the Young Israel of Riverdale. The rov is a noted talmid chochom, a YU rosh yeshiva, head dayan of the RCA Bais Din, and a senior posek in the Modern Orthodox world. He is also a first cousin of Avi Weiss. Rav Mordechai Willig is vehemently opposed to the radical changes made by Open Orthodoxy and is opposed to its institutions. So, Maharat and Chovevei ignore the local morah hora’ah, whose p’sak they rely on for the kashrus of the local mikvah, eiruv and restaurants, and get a Judaic studies professor from Bar Ilan University to ordain its graduates and condone its approach to halachah.
Where’s the intellectual honesty? Where’s the derech eretz? Where’s the yashrus?