Is Open Orthodoxy really heretical? As painful as it is for me to say so, I’m afraid that Rabbi Yaakov Perlow’s remarks at yesterday’s Agudah convention along those lines may be correct. It is painful because a friend now heads Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) that espouses Open Orthodoxy. And there is much to admire about their practical approach to educating people for the rabbinate.
Let me first make clear that in no way do I consider YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin to be a heretic. But his movement allows heresy into its midst. One of its premiere graduates, Rabbi Zev Farber seems to buy into biblical criticism and has thereby bought into the idea that it is very likely that none of what is recorded in the Bible prior to the Book of Samuel – actually happened.
This is Apikurus (heresy). No different than that of the Conservative Movement. To say that our forefathers never existed, that the Exodus as recorded never happened nor was there any direct revelation at Sinai is a violation the Maimonidean 13 Principles of Faith.
Not that I am all that thrilled with the heavy influence feminism has on Open Orthodoxy. Nor am I a fan of interdenominational cooperation that they promote – which violates even Rav Soloveitchk’s lenient rulings.
But as bad as those things are, I never considered that they were anything but Orthodox since they do not in any way promote violation of Halacha. But that is not enough in light of what Rabbi Farber has said. When a movement tolerates Apikurus, it can no longer call itself Orthodox – even if that is part of their name.
If not for the heresy I don’t think that Orthodoxy would have had such a problem with the Conservative movement, especially those on the Conservative religious right. Many Conservative rabbis are observant… and they promote Halacha as binding. They even regret some of the lenient rulings made in the past – like allowing driving on Shabbos. So I’m not sure there would have been such a break with them. Much like there wasn’t with the Traditional Movement who also crossed some serious lines. We might have accepted the Conservative Movement as being no worse than the Traditional Movement – as long as they didn’t allow Apikursus to invade their theology. But they did. And that was a major break that Traditional Judaism did not make.
Open Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has done what the Conservative Movement has done, by their inclusion of a rabbi who espouses it. So that even though they do not violate the sins of the Traditional Movement (No Mechitza and microphones on Shabbos) they have done much worse by tolerating heresy within their midst no different than the Conservative Movement.
So yes, it pains me to say it, but unless they completely reject Rabbi Farber, they must be placed outside the camp. I know this will make many of my friends on my left angry with me. But this is Emes the way I see it.
Judaism is not only about doing the Mitzvos… although that is obviously a big part of it. It is also a belief system. Doing all of the Mitzvos while being an Atheist for example does not make you Orthodox no matter how careful you are about doing them. Ritual actions like keeping Kosher would be meaningless without the belief that there is a God that required them of you.
By the same token if there was no Sinai, the Mitzvos recorded in the Torah are just someone’s fantasy – right along with the story of how they were given. Saying that the Torah narrative may not be literal but divinely inspired is similar nonsense in my view. Why make up stories? Just list the rituals. Why tell fantastic stories about crossing the Red Sea and other miracles that defy nature? What purpose does it serve other than to make skeptics out of us?!
As I said, I’m sure that many of my friends on the left will be disappointed in me. But perhaps not all of them. Jewish philosopher, Dr. Yarom Hazony is by any definition a ‘lefty’. He is a founder of the Shalem Center and a champion of Dr. Eliezer Berkovits having re-published many of his works in addition to works of his own. He has recently written an article in Torah Musings about an experience he had at an Open Orthodox event that reinforces my views here. He too questions whether the theological direction in which they are going is indeed Orthodox.
Dr. Hazony attended that event one Friday evening. It took place at an Orthodox Shul that featured among other things a discussion of biblical scholarship. What was alarming to him was the overall unchallenged acceptance by all the presenters that evening of biblical scholarship – denying that anything in it is factual up to the book of Samuel. And the audience seemed to buying it. No one challenged anything they said save for one elderly individual who asked, “Don’t any of you believe that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai?”. He was immediately dispatched with the following comment by the moderator who said:
There are some people who think that they can tell God what he can and cannot do. There are some people who think they are so clever that they can know, on God’s behalf, whether he had to give the Torah to one person at one time, or whether he could have given the Torah gradually, in an unfolding fashion, over the course of many generations. And that’s the answer to that question. Next question.”
Dr. Hazony continues:
Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to recreate the extraordinary degree of condescension, the sheer meanness, with which this answer was used to dismiss the old gentleman’s line of thought as illegitimate and not worthy of consideration.
That there was no Sinai moment and instead we have an unfolding revelation may be a subject worthy of discussion in Academic circles, says Dr. Hazony. Nonetheless I think he sums up the problem with it in the following statement:
But the fact that something has become a constant refrain in certain intellectual circles does not yet make it a good idea, much less a significant theological position. Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I have not yet seen a carefully constructed and systematically worked out version of an Orthodox Jewish theory of “unfolding revelation,” and I doubt that one exists.
I suppose this might actually make Dr. Hazony and Rabbi Perlow strange bedfellows. When both the right and the left have the same problems with a movement, I think it is time for that movement to have some serious re-thinking of just how far they want to push their theological envelope.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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