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Daniel Retter

In 1997, Rabbi Avi Weiss coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy.” Two years later he announced the establishment of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), an Open Orthodox rabbinical school. And in 2009 he opened Yeshivat Maharat to ordain women with an Open Orthodox semicha and organized the International Rabbinic Fellowship (RAF), an Open Orthodox rabbinic organization.

Open Orthodoxy, which has succeeded in placing its rabbis in synagogues located mainly outside the New York City area, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, appealing to unknowing Jewish communities that seek a meaningful and genuine Orthodox religious experience.

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Unlike the Reform and Conservative movements, which blatantly reject all things Orthodox, the Open Orthodoxy movement retains the “brand name” Orthodox – the most dynamic branch of Judaism today – yet discards many of traditional Orthodoxy’s core practices and beliefs.

Open Orthodoxy challenges the interpretation of the Torah by our holy sages. Its leaders criticize biblical personalities, question adherence to the Shulchan Aruch and the Oral Torah, advocate ecumenicalism, and argue for extreme positions on women’s issues and homosexuality.

Open Orthodoxy unequivocally rejects the teachings of the Rambam, Chasam Sofer, and even Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, probably the most revered Modern Orthodox rabbi in American history. Advocates of Open Orthodoxy basically argue that their interpretations deserve the same consideration and respect as the teachings of the Torah giants who have led the way throughout Jewish history.

A prime example of Open Orthodoxy’s approach can be seen in its characterization of Moshe Rabbeinu. In his book Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox, David Rosenthal writes:

 

Open Orthodox leaders manage to find fault with Moses’ character and leadership. With regard to his sin of hitting the rock, Open Orthodox’s YCT Rosh Hayeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer claims:

“For each one of these things shows, that Moshe is still the leader of old and is not able to adapt to the changes ahead…. If after all this time, Moshe still sees the people as incorrigible rebels, who can only be beaten into submission, then it is time that Moshe step back, and allow a new leader to take over.”

According to Linzer, Moses was morally deficient, a visionary whose vision had failed. (For examples of accurate explanations of this episode see the commentaries of the Rambam and Rambam ad loc.)”

 

Similarly, Rosenthal notes how Linzer criticizes Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership in handling Korach’s rebellion:

 

Moses “did not handle the conflict with Korach in the best way possible – a way to which God Himself acceded” – but rather in a way that Linzer deems “counterproductive.” Linzer even validates the position of Korach – “It is hard not to hear the echo of Korach’s claim that ‘All of the people are holy and the Lord is in their midst’ (16:3).”

Linzer continues, “Over 3,000 years later, and we still haven’t solved the debate between Moshe and Korach. Moshe advocated a centralized model of leadership, while Korach advocated an egalitarian, lay-led model: Ki kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim, u’be’tocham Hashem…” (For all the Congregation is holy and God is amongst them).

 

The words of an Open Orthodox rabbi named Ysoscher Katz are telling. Replying to Rabbi Katz’s criticism of Moshe Rabbeinu’s conduct during the Korach rebellion, a Facebook critic objected, “Well, Korach got swallowed up into the bowels of the earth, so not sure how anyone can say his approach was better…”

Katz responded, “…one gets punished for espousing the right idea prematurely.”

That response perfectly encapsulates Open Orthodoxy’s philosophy.

It has been my experience that there is a minimal danger of members of yeshivish and chassidish communities being attracted to Open Orthodoxy. Rather, I have found that haredim who reject their frum heritage will become, Hashem Yerachem, totally irreligious and even agnostic or atheistic.

Modern Orthodoxy, however, is defined by its intellectualism and daily exposure to Western culture, combined with strict Orthodox religious discipline. As a result, Open Orthodoxy can pose a real temptation to Modern Orthodox Jews, particularly young and religiously immature ones.

I would urge Modern Orthodox Jews to familiarize themselves with Open Orthodoxy’s doctrines in order to be sufficiently prepared to respond to Open Orthodox rabbis, to graduates of Open Orthodox schools, and perhaps to our own youngsters – in the spirit of the rabbinical teaching “And know what to answer the heretic” (Avot 2:14).

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Daniel Retter, Esq., is the author of the sefer “HaMafteach” (Koren Publishers), an indexed reference guide to Talmud Bavli and the Mishnayos in Hebrew and English. A frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, he practices immigration, real estate, and business law in New York City. He can be contacted at dretter@retterlaw.com.
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