Friday, July 17, 2015

A Breath of Fresh Air? …or the Winds of Change?

Yeshivat Maharat RY,  R' Jeffery Fox
I had the pleasure over the last few days of interacting with 2 of Open Orthodoxy’s leading lights. One was by telephone with Rabbi Jeffery Fox, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. The other was by way of Facebook with Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, Chairman of the Talumdic Department at YCT. The conversations were both respectful and enlightening.

I was impressed at the way each conducted himself and represented their points of view. These are the kinds of teachers that I would love for my children to have experienced. They are caring and kind. And most of all they truly believe they are serving God and serving Klal Yisroel. There is not a doubt in my mind about that. And yet, I could not disagree with them more. They have chosen a path that has departed from many centuries of Jewish tradition.  

One of the things I have been guilty of not doing sufficiently is defining exactly what I mean by Orthodox Judaism. Let me briefly do that now. There are three basic components, all of which are required:

1. Mandatory observance of Halacha.
2. Belief in God… and that His Torah is true. Which includes the belief that biblical figures were real and the events described therein actually happened.
3. Tradition is not to be deliberately tampered with except for existential reasons.

YCT Talmud department chair, R' Ysoscher Katz
Admittedly, this last one is somewhat ambiguous.  I am sure for example that our traditions have changed over the 2 millennia since the destruction of the 2nd Temple. Some of it by conditions forced upon us - like the actual destruction of the 2nd temple. Some by rabbinic legislation via additional decrees and restrictions to protect us from biblical level sin. Some things in Judaism have changed because of technological advances. Other things have changed unintentionally as non Jewish culture and values have over time been absorbed by us. It should therefore be no surprise that the lifestyle of a Jew today has little resemblance to the life of a Jew during the 2nd Temple era.

But the one thing that did not change was rabbinic resistance to change in tradition challenged by the prevailing social winds… unless those winds made us look less religious than the culture in which we lived. That is where Open Orthodox rabbis have gone wrong. They are changing traditions because of the prevailing winds. They are thus - not leading. They are following.

There is definitely a need for a Left Wing in Orthodoxy. And there are no finer leaders capable of doing that than Rabbis like Asher Lopatin, Jeffery Fox and Yisoscher Katz. I had high hopes that Rabbi Lopatin would pull back the reins on the extremes YCT was chasing - bringing it closer to where it once was. But it seems he's done the opposite and gone even further in that direction - to the point where the Left Wing has… left.  

David Bogomolny
This brings me to the reason for this post. I am not anxious to get into yet another contentious debate over this issue. I take no pleasure in publicly debating good and decent people with whom I disagree. Nor am I particularly happy to be demonized for my views. I realize that my strong views are probably hurtful to them. So I had hoped that my last post on this subject would indeed be my last. But, alas, I felt the need to respond to a Times of Israel article by David Bogomolny who said the following: 
I find myself very troubled by Rabbi Maryles’ and Rabbi Gordimer’s public, haughty declarations of Open Orthodoxy’s demise.  
I do not want to cause David any grief. At the same time there needs to be clarity about what is and isn’t acceptable in Orthodoxy. That is where this debate lies. 

First I take strong exception to being called haughty. Or mean spirited as others have referred to me. My views do not come from any sense of superiority or arrogance. They come from a sense of what I perceive to be right and wrong. Which are based on the teachings of my primary mentor, R’ Ahron Soloveichik.

And I am certainly not alone in such thinking. The RCA – which is the rabbinic body that represents Modern Orthodox rabbis (… and of which Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is an executive member) feels pretty much the same way. They have refused to recognize YCT Semicha and the ordination of women. The RCA rejects the direction that Rabbi Weiss and company are going. Which is why they resigned from the RCA.
Having attended a Conservative Hebrew high school, and wanting more than they offered, David is exactly the kind of individual that is losing out by the exit of the Left into this new movement. The kind of Left Rabbi Avi Weiss used to be a leader of. Rabbi Weiss has chosen to move on. And now by his own admission has departed from his mentor, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s path. He now follows the path of social change to the hearty approval of his laity.

David made a point about religious practice in Judaism being its essence.  “Judaism is a religion of ‘deed’ not ‘creed’”- something he learned from an Orthodox teacher at his high school. By deed I assume that teacher meant performing the Mitzvos of the Torah.  It is true that more than any other religion Judaism is a religion of deed. God judges what we do. Not what we think.

But God not judging what we think has an obvious exception. There is one commandment that is entirely based on what we think. It is believing in God and that the events recorded in the Torah actually happened. When God says in the very first of the Ten Commandments, ‘I am the Lord, your God who took you out of Egypt’, He wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t telling us to believe in something that never took place. That would be absurd. This is a fundamental belief without which Judaism is a non starter. Even if you observe every other commandment in the Torah as meticulously as possible.  

But even without the heresy - the radical changes Open Orthodoxy has adopted, that - may - technically be within the parameters of Halacha will never be accepted by the mainstream. The more departures from normative Judaism Open Orthodoxy makes, the greater the chance of its ultimate demise in my view. This isn’t haughtiness. It is an analysis based on what is happening to the Conservative Movement 100 years after its founding. A movement that had similar noble intentions.

If I understand him correctly the thrust of David’s argument is that I do not have the right to determine what is or isn’t a Orthodox Judaism. I actually agree with him.  But I never made that claim - nor would I. It is decided primarily by the parameters I mentioned earlier. It is most certainly NOT decided by me or the will of a laity based on the spirit of the times. A spirit that their rabbinic leaders decide to follow. Even if there are 850 families that desire it. Judaism is not dependent upon how well time tested tradition is received by the synagogue laity. If it were, Mechitzos would have been abandoned a long time ago. Nor does it depend on how desirous that same laity is of incorporating new traditions into it.

David also points out that Judaism is not a centralized Jewish movement.  Although it was centralized at the start under the leadership of Moshe, it is indeed not centralized now. There are many legitimate but differing Hashkafos. But what is equally true is that it is a movement whose rabbinic leadership has historically resisted the winds of societal change. No matter how many people clamored for it.

The distinctions he makes about the genesis of Conservative Judaism versus Open Orthodoxy are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why those movements were formed. It only matters what form those movements take.

Near the conclusion of his article, David says the following: 
In my experience, Open Orthodox rabbis are empathetic, intellectual and interesting. Their faith in Jewish tradition’s relevance to the modern mind and heart are inspiring. They are able to speak the language of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews (and Orthodox Jews), while remaining true to their halakhic commitments. They are invested in confronting the growing pains of Jewish tradition out of love for the Jewish people. 
I’m sure that’s true. Which is why I am so upset that they have taken this turn. He concludes that he is not alone in his thinking. And he is happy that his rabbis follow him in this regard. I wish I could be happy that his rabbis follow him. But I am quite sad that they are not leading him instead.