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The Discordant Notes of Open Orthodoxy

What Makes a Community a Community?
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

In an article last fall in The Forward, Rabbi Gil Student asked a simple question: “Why does such a small nation continue to split into smaller pieces of a shrinking pie?” Why do we Jews seem intent on taking our already small number and finding ways to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groupings?

Rabbi Student suggests these schisms and fractures are responses to modernity. As he notes, in many ways it is simple human nature. The world changes, people change. But more insightfully, he speaks to the nature of groups:

“Aside from basic human nature, there is an important political aspect to the splits. A movement remains viable only when its members care what each other think, when they are willing to listen and respond to one another’s concerns. Compromise is the masking tape of unity, clumsily but effectively keeping loose pieces from falling off. When we stop caring about how our colleagues and neighbors react, when we act unilaterally on the most contentious issues, we implicitly create new movements that are only formalized over time.”

I would suggest that nothing defines a community so much as its recognition of common leadership and willingness to respect the authority of that leadership.

We just read Parshat Tetzaveh, which begins with the charge to Moshe to command the community of Israel to bring all that is needed to maintain the menorah. He is also told to instruct the “wise hearted” to prepare the vestments for Aaron the kohen. However, as the parshah unfolds there is an abrupt change in how God instructed Moshe: “And you shall make a menorah.” “And you shall make a shulchan.” “And the mishkan shall you make.”

Moshe is no longer told to command others. The instructions are directed at him personally; it seems incumbent upon him to build various components of the sanctuary.

Which is it? Is Moshe to instruct and command others, or is he to do the tasks himself? Speaking to this point, the Midrash Hagadol directs us back to the parshah’s opening pasuk where we read v’ata tetzaveh, “and you shall command the children of Israel,” veyikchu, “that they shall bring.”

From this it is clear that Moshe’s role was to instruct, guide and command. It was Israel’s task to fulfill, create and do. To emphasize this point, we see that Moshe’s name is never mentioned in the parshah. This was so the Torah would not create the erroneous impression that the burden of responsibility to create and maintain a sanctuary is solely placed on the shoulders of Moshe, the leader.

The focus is not on Moshe. It is on Israel to establish a House of God, a task shared by the entire community of Israel. It is on the leader to inspire, teach and motivate. It is on the people to respond.

The balance and relationship between leader and community speak to the heart of what it means to be a community, and what it means to thrive. Cynics would suggest that the burden of the mikdash is to be borne by the communal religious leaders. The truth is that the burden is to be borne by the people. “Ah,” reply the cynics, “so the real burden is on the community. If that is true, what is the need for leaders? To claim the glory?”

The Torah is clear on the balance between leader and community. Veata tetzaveh – the leader’s job, Moshe’s job, is to teach, inspire, and prompt the community. The community’s job is to respond – veyikchu – to generously cooperate, participate and share. Only when everyone carries out his responsibility fully and honestly can a sanctuary be built.

A leader without a community is a stray voice in the wind. A community without a leader is little more than a mob.

The relationship between leader and community brings to mind two stories.

The first is of a poor simpleton who was befriended by a millionaire lover of music who happened to have a private orchestra. One day, the simpleton asked to be assigned a position in the orchestra. Astonished, the rich man exclaimed, “I had no idea you could play an instrument.”

“I can’t,” the simpleton replied. “But I see you have a man there who does nothing but wave a stick around while the others are really working hard, playing. His job I can do.”

How many of us are like that simpleton, believing that leaders do nothing more than “wave a stick around”? How many of us believe it is only the orchestra, the community, that does the work?

The second story also concerns an orchestra. During rehearsal, everything seemed to be going perfectly. Gorgeous music filled the hall as 150 skilled musicians responded to the maestro’s guiding hands. Suddenly, in the midst of a fortissimo passage, the conductor rapped the music stand. Music fell to silence. “Where is the piccolo?” he demanded.

The piccolo player had missed his entry, and even in the exalted fullness of the orchestra’s playing, the maestro heard what was missing.

Trained, seasoned and sensitive leaders keep their eyes and ears attuned to the role and mission of every community member. Only when everyone plays together, closely watching and following the leader’s direction, is there perfect harmony.

And such a performance deserves thunderous applause.

Open Orthodoxy, a much-discussed phenomenon in the Jewish community, is an orchestra that disregards its conductor. What is left is disharmony and discord. I cannot help but believe that anyone preaching Open Orthodoxy would ever consider himself part of an Orthodox orchestra if he knew his discordant and thunderous noise would be immediately halted by a fine-eared maestro rapping on his shtender and demanding, “Where is the piccolo?”

Such a maestro would demand to know, “Is this what you learned from my decades of preaching and teaching? Is this what I left you with? So soon after leaving you, you destroy what I built, and you still parade as my talmidim, with no shame?”

That maestro, of course, could be none other than Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, ztl, the Rav. I have no doubt that were the Rav alive today, Open Orthodoxy would not be so much as a bad dream. Not one of its leaders and spokesmen, senior or junior, would risk being escorted into the Rav’s apartment – where every guest arrived with chil u’reada, with fear and trembling – in the Yeshiva University dorm to explain the catalog of trespasses, from ordaining women and then having them serve as rabbinic staff at Orthodox synagogues to changing gender roles in synagogue services (women leading Kabbalat Shabbat, reading in shul from the Torah, serving as makriah for shofar blowing) to even promoting gay marriage and changing conversion standards.

Owning up to that list of trespasses against the community’s norms would be challenging enough, but would Open Orthodoxy mentors have the audacity to explain to the Rav the reasoning behind their denial of ikarei haemunah, including the historicity of the Torah, the existence of the Avot, the Exodus, the existence of prophecy, the Messiah? Would they have the chutzpah to rationalize to the Rav their policies regarding interfaith and interdenominational issues, including conducting interfaith programs in their synagogues?

They would not have dared. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in the Open Orthodoxy movement would have dared challenge the conductor who brilliantly led the Modern Orthodox orchestra until his passing two decades ago.

There was a leader. There was a community defined by its norms and its willingness – desire, even – to follow the authority of the leader.

As Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer bemoaned in a recent essay on Cross-Currents.com, “The horse is out of the barn. There are no rules anymore. Everything goes. Making it up as you go along.”

This is not music. This is not harmony. This is not the power of a beautiful orchestra, filling a concert hall with a sound worthy of the music of the spheres, holy, ethereal, sanctified. Instead, it opens the door to a future none of us can imagine. “No one knows where this all will lead or what the next innovation may be, but we are witnessing the emergence of a new denomination before our very eyes. It is truly frightening.”

Tetzaveh! Where is our leader? Where is the community who will take heed? How will our sanctuary be built?

They have introduced dissonance to our beautiful symphony.

How dare they?

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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