Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pushing the Envelope of Orthodoxy

There are some people who have accused Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy or more precisely – Open Orthodoxy - as embracing the slippery slope of change that will lead to a break akin to that of Conservative Judaism. It should therefore be written out of Orthodoxy. I disagree. The change is a Hashkafic one, not a Halachic one. In no way does Open Orthodoxy advocate violating Halacha. Nor do they advocate any heretical views. As such I think they are to be included under the ‘big tent’ of Orthodox Judaism.

While it is true that just like Open Orthodoxy - Conservative Judaism did not start out as heretical, the comparison is nevertheless invalid.

Conservative Judaism was in fact the ‘Open Orthodoxy’ of it’s day. Had it remained with its original goals of providing a culturally American Rabbinate for the struggling Jewish masses of the early 20th century they would by today be a version of Yeshiva University. Their Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) would then be nothing more than a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school.

Those who say that it is not truly an Orthodox movement - point to the slippery slope argument. Just like Conservative Judaism started out as Halachic and ultimately slipped away, so too will Open Orthodoxy.

The point of departure from Orthodoxy by the Conservative movement in the early 20th century was the Mechitza. Their Poskim - many of which were big Talmidei Chachamim pointed out that Mechitzos are not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch at all. As such making an accommodation to the American cultural milieu of family seating in houses of worship would not technically violate Halacha - while at the same time appeal to the melting pot spirit of the times.

That was considered to be a major break from tradition that led the Conservative Movement down the slippery slope to become the heretical movement it is today. Comparisons are being made to Open Orthodoxy’s innovations in their attempt at accommodating the current spirit of the times, feminism.

But it wasn’t Mechitzos that made the Conservative Movement a heretical one.

What changed is the acceptance of higher criticsm. That opened the door to rejecting divine authorship of the Torah. Innovations like permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos (if one is going to be driving anyway) came well after that. Ironically that is a ‘Heter’ they now regret.

Open Orthodoxy is currently Halachic. They have not changed a single Halacha including retaining Mechitzos in their Shuls.

Back in the mid fifties to early sixties - there was another Orthodox movement that faced ‘spirit of the times’ issues. The ‘melting pot’ philosophy was still very strong and many Orthodox Shuls wanted to drop the Mechitza. But they still wanted to remain Orthodox in every other sense. Traditional Judaism was born. This was a movement within Orthodoxy that was in every respect Orthodox except that there were no Mechitzos in the Shuls.

It was created with the backing of HaGoan HaRav Chaim David Regensberg, a Rosh Yeshiva at the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) in Skokie. He was a huge Talmid Chacham of the old Lithuanian guard. Interestingly Rav Regensberg’s views were embraced by another giant at HTC, Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. He completely agreed with Rav Regensberg’s reasoning. It should also be noted that Dr. Berkovits never himself davened in a Traditional Shul. In fact he is credited with forming the first Mechitza Minyan in Skokie. That Minyan eventually became the largest Orthodox Shul in Skokie, Or Torah.

The argument in favor of the Traditional Movement was pretty much the same as that of the Conservative movement. In order to keep the masses in the fold Rav Regensberg felt that his Musmachim should make this concession and take Traditional pulpits. He saw it as an imperative – a sort of Eis Laasos.

The membership of those Shuls was mostly ignorant of Halacha. On the one hand - having grown up in traditionally Orthodox homes they did not want their Shuls to become Conservative. On the other hand - they did want to adopt the more modern style of family seating in houses of worship. It is fairly certain that had young Orthodox rabbis refused to take these Shuls, they would have become Conservative and taken JTS graduates. The Shul’s members and their children would mostly be lost forever from Orthodoxy.

Rav Regensberg reasoned – and with some legitimacy – that by taking pulpits at these Shuls, committed and idealistic young newly ordained rabbis would be able to influence the membership to send their children to good Modern Orthodox religious schools - like the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy (then called the Chicago Jewish Academy). While they could not convince all the membership to send their children there, many did.

There are some who would argue that a coed high school is worse than a public school. My answer to that is: HaGaon HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalyim. He attended and graduated from the Academy. Had he gone to public school, I doubt that he would be who he is today.

Traditional Judaism was nonetheless ostracized and shunned by the Orthodox establishment. They fought it, with Rav Ahron Soloveichik leading the way. They succeeded at accelerating its demise.

Despite his ardent opposition to the Traditional Movement, Rav Ahron never considered it or its Rabbis to be heretical. I once drove Rav Ahron home after Shiur. Upon passing a large Traditional Shul, I mistakenly called it Conservative. Rav Ahron quickly told me that I was making a huge mistake and should not call it Conservative. Traditional Shuls – although wrong -were not the same as the heretical Conservative movement.

In fact one much respected Rav of an Orthodox Shul who received Semicha from Rav Ahron had a father who – a generation earlier - utilized Rav Regensberg’s Heter to take a Traditional Shul in part of the country were there were not too many Orthodox Jews. His father, who had great respect for Rav Ahron was embarrassed around him. He knew his position on the Traditional Movement. But Rav Ahron told him that he shouldn’t feel bad – and advised him how to proceed under his circumstances as he completed his tenure there.

Traditional Rabbis were Orthodox and completely observant. They were accepted (and even dominated) the CRC for many years. They were members in good standing of the RCA until quite recently. Those rabbis – with rare exception - never became Conservative.

I see Open Orthodoxy in the same way.

What Open Orthodoxy has done is push the envelope to the very edge of Halachic permissibility in service to the new ‘spirit of the times’ - that of feminist egalitarianism. But it is certainly no worse than the Traditional Movement. I can’t predict the future. And I know many people will disagree with me on both sides of the aisle. But that is how I see much of what is going on in Open Orthodoxy and for now - despite my Hashkafic disagreement with them - it is an Orthodox Movement.

Updated: 3:06 pm CST