Sunday, November 07, 2010

Open Orthodoxy – a New Denomination?

She is a Tzanua – modest in her mode of dress and her demeanor – she covers her hair, observes Halacha meticulously, and is otherwise an exemplary Jew. Her name is Sara Hurwitz and her title is rabba.

(Although the very idea that a woman put herself in any religious leadership role is interpreted by some as lacking Tznius – I’m not entirely sure that is true – if she does it in a modest way. It is possible to be a leader and modest. Was not Moshe Rabbenu the humblest of human beings and yet the greatest of leaders? Isn’t humility the primary component of modesty in the public square? But I digress.)

Rabba Hurwitz (I believe she still uses the title) heads a rabbinic seminary for women, Yeshivat Maharat. Well… not technically rabbinic, but for all practical purposes that’s what it is – an institution designed to train future spiritual leaders in Orthodox Judaism. That they will not be called Rabbis or Rabbas seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. Rabba Hurwitz is in fact serving in a defacto role as assistant rabbi in Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Shul, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR).

Rabbi Weiss is the impetus behind this new revolution in Orthodoxy. He ordained Rabba Hurwitz after she studied the proper texts, took the exams, and passed them. For this he was ‘taken out to the woodshed’ by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and given an ultimatum of withdrawing the title of rabba and agreeing to never to ordain women in the future – or else be expelled from the RCA.

Rabbi Weiss opted to accede to their demands and stay within the organization. But clearly he has not abandoned his goals. For him it apparently seems to be a game of semantics. He fully recognizes his ‘conferee’ and future ‘conferees’ to be on par with their male counterparts - rabbis. I don’t think there is any question about that no matter what title is attached. He has in effect sidestepped the intent of the RCA admonition.

In my view Rabbi Weiss is perilously close to crossing the lines of Orthodoxy. That said I reiterate my firm belief that since he has not in fact crossed that line, we cannot say he has left Orthodoxy. He has never even remotely suggested that Halacha be violated in any way. But by going so strongly against the grain of tradition and the mainstream in pursuit of some form of egalitarianism (one which he knows is impossible to fully achieve in Orthodoxy) he has been ‘thrown out’ of Orthodoxy by the Charedi Agudath Israel and has been nearly thrown out of the RCA.

The question becomes, what’s next? In my view the RCA must deal with Rabbi Weiss’s end-run. They must know Yeshivat Maharat is in complete violation of the spirit of their agreement. In 3 years his graduates will have ‘conferred’ upon them the title of (to be determined) as female spiritual leaders! It is counterproductive to wait until the trigger is actually pulled in 3 years.

But there is another side to this issue. What will Rabbi Weiss do to further his agenda? Will it even be possible for him and his movement to remain in an Orthodoxy that is so antagonistic to his goals? Or is this the beginning of a new denomination in Orthodoxy? This is the question asked in Moment Magazine.

I do not believe they are going to be expelled from Orthodoxy (albeit possibly from the RCA). Nor do I suggest they he should be. As I said he does not advocate violating Halacha. But they are not having an easy time of it – to say the least. They are so far out on a limb that all but a few on the far left of modern Orthodoxy want to be anywhere near them. If Rabbi Weiss really believes women should be rabbis, should he not consider creating a new denomination? …an observant one that is not inhibited by tradition ant yet firmly grounded in Halacha?

As an observant Jew who embraces non Jewish cultural movements despite the strong opposition from mainstream Orthodoxy, wouldn’t it make sense for him to start a new denomination? He has coined a new term for his movement – ‘Open Orthodoxy’. From Moment:

As Orthodoxy has defied predictions that it would vanish into the American melting pot, many of its more liberal adherents have perceived their leaders as shifting to the right in their religious views. In response, they have formed their own groups, yeshivas and most recently a rabbinical council under the banner “Open Orthodoxy.” Their insistence on placing women in leadership positions, making conversion less onerous and being more inclusive in general, leads to the question: Will the strands of Orthodoxy dedicated to these causes remain part of the Orthodox community or become a separate movement, joining the panoply of denominations making up American Jewry.

Make no mistake about this movement. It is an ideological one and not a haven for Jews who are ‘Lite’ on observance. Yeshivos are not formed by - or for - people who are lax in Halacha. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) does not promote laxity. But they do promote an ideology that is at odds with traditional views on controversial issues like Orthodox feminism and interaction with heterodox movements.

Open Orthodoxy is even at odds with the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University. YCT was in fact formed in part as a reaction to what Rabbi Weiss has perceived as their slide to the right.

This is not to say that YU has become another Charedi institution and that RCA has turned into Agudah. Both institutions support and encourage women’s Torah study and urge recognition of their achievements. They recognize that women do in fact currently have leadership roles, deservedly so. I think if Agudah were pressed they would have to agree to this ‘fact on the ground’. They too have women filling roles as principals in their own religious schools.

What kind of recognition these women should get is a legitimate debate. I for one believe they are being shortchanged by the lack of any formal recognition. Altough there is recognition in some areas. Women who are trained and act as advocates in Battei Din (religious courts) are called Toanot. Women who are trained in the laws of family purity qualify to answer most Shailos in that subject are called Yoatzot. Those are legitimate titles in my view.

But Rabbi Weiss’s goal goes well beyond that. He seeks to overturn the very idea of rabbinate as a male only ‘club’. This is seen as unacceptable not only by the right wing but even by by Centrist organizations like the RCA and YU.

Organizations like the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) are very much on board with the goals of Rabbi Weiss. But is what their name implies even possible at the level they seek it to be? Can someone be fully Orthodox and yet fully feminist (which presumes complete egalitarianism) at the same time?

One of those who sides with Rabbi Weiss is former RCA president, Rabbi Marc Angel. He has joined forces with Rabbi Weiss to form the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). This was done when the RCA refused to recognize YCT ordinations. There are other left wing modern Orthodox rabbis who have in theory joined forces with them and their views can be seen in a blog called Morethodoxy.

So this isn’t just about one renegade rabbi who has gone off the reservation. This is a serious ideological movement which challenges the very foundation of Orthodox Jewish tradition – a tradition fiercely defended by both the right wing and most Centrists.

I don’t see any way out for Rabbi Weiss, if he wants to further his agenda, I think he is going to have to make his ‘Open Orthodoxy’ a new denomination. And that saddens me.