A Review of "Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox"

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  October 2, 2016
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schwartzAs its title would suggest, the book takes decisive aim at the Open Orthodox movement, a term first used by the founder Rabbi Avi Weiss in 1997 to describe a new approach to Orthodox Judaism that seeks to commit to both halachic observance as well as openness and innovation. Rabbi Weiss founded the movement’s rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevi Torah in 1999 after resigning from Yeshiva University, where he had served as a teacher at Stern College. In 2009 he announced the creation of Yeshivat Maharat, a school that trains women as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities, which produced its first graduating class in 2013. The movement has disassociated from the Rabbinical Council of America, America’s Orthodox rabbinical association, and has over the years been embroiled in a number of controversies over its innovative approach to halacha.

In his book Rosenthal seeks to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Rabbi Weiss’s movement is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. In this attempt, he focuses primarily on the movement’s aforementioned yeshivot, noting the views of the leaders and graduates of these institutions. Although Rosenthal brings an exhaustive list of public statements, divrei torah, and Facebook posts in an attempt to prove the heresy of the movement’s teachers and talmidim, the book is likely to fail in bringing any constructive debate to the Modern Orthodox community concerning the claims he levels.

This failure is largely due to Rosenthal’s own severe miscalculation of his audience. Rosenthal is a student of Ner Yisrael, a yeshivish institution in Maryland, but his book is squarely directed towards the Modern Orthodox community, one that the author seemingly fears has been blinded to the threat of Open Orthodoxy.

Truthfully, the Modern Orthodox community may be the only logical audience for such a book. To be blunt, many in Rosenthal’s own Yeshivish community already have lukewarm views of the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy; one can imagine that it wouldn’t take much, and certainly not a 246 page book, to convince them that Open Orthodoxy has pushed things over the edge. So Rosenthal instead pivots to the left, which explains how the Observer, a newspaper of a proudly Modern Orthodox institution, ended up with a copy of his book and request that it be reviewed.

But as an exercise in persuasive writing, the book is an abject failure. Rosenthal simply does not understand the Modern Orthodox brain and thus most of his arguments come across as archaic, cheap, or overly simplistic. Even if some of Rosenthal’s claims have merit, which itself is debatable, his complete misfire in tone and presentation preclude the possibility of appreciating them.

A striking example of this gross miscalculation of his audience can be seen in the chapter on “Women’s Issues.” Here Rosenthal seems entirely baffled by the notion that a woman could feel pain or discomfort with her role in Judaism. If a woman feels the pangs of desire for a larger role within the synagogue for example, he claims that her feelings are in truth based on her internalizing “men’s perverted view of Judaism…as an opportunity for self aggrandizement.” Her feelings, he claims, are not real, they are simply a perversion. If this woman truly understood Judaism as it was meant to be understood she would never have had such a desire. No, she is just confused; learning from men she has merely become an egotist seeking to be like a chazan whose sole goal is not to worship God in prayer but rather “to impress the audience” with his “amazing oratorical skills.”    

True, Modern Orthodoxy, in accordance with normative Halacha, does not allow such a woman to count in the minyan, get an aliyah, or lead the prayer service. But at least amongst the mainstream in the community, we are certainly not wholly flummoxed by a woman who, even as she observes the halacha, still feels a pang of desire such things in her synagogue experience. We know what these women look like and, unlike Rosenthal, we don’t normally approach them with the horrified bewilderment with which one might approach a hot pink flying elephant.

 

But it is in his discussion of Yeshivat Mahrat that Rosenthal really misses his mark. First the author decides that the Maharat learning program is not rigorous enough to bestow the role of halachic authority upon any one of its graduates. He then invokes the prohibition of serarah (women’s leadership) to explain why Maharat graduates could never fulfill such a role even if they sat in yeshiva 24 hours a day for the next 10 years. It should be noted that the application of serarah to prohibit women from serving in religious leadership roles is not uncommon amongst Modern Orthodox poskim; in fact it is invoked by Rav Soloveitchik himself, as the author makes sure to note.

 

Yet even after discussing serarah the author goes further, pointing to modesty as an additional explanation for why women cannot serve as religious leaders. It is here where he really pushes his readers to jump ship. Rosenthal claims that it is a basic fact of nature and due to a “realistic understanding of the male sex drive” that women should not constantly put themselves in front of men, as one must in a position of leadership. To substantiate this claim he presents an anecdote shared with him by another rabbi: a man was eager to attend Friday night davening at a shul in Nachlaot only to find that before Maariv a beautiful married young woman, modestly dressed with her hair fully covered, got up before the congregation to say a perek of tehillim. The man relaying the story complained that his tefillah was ruined since he could not stop thinking of the beautiful woman throughout the whole service, and many of the other men in the shul that he spoke to expressed a similar sentiment. This reaction, the author notes is “perfectly natural and normal. What would have been shocking is if he did not react this way.”  

 

Perhaps this reaction would be normal in the yeshivish paradigm in which interactions between men and women are minimized for the sake of modesty.

 

But Modern Orthodoxy, at least in the mainstream, simply does not take a view of the male sexual urge as a sort of demonic, insatiable force that cannot be curbed without the constant vigilance and shrinking of self on the part of women. It is not strange or shocking to see women give shiurim at a Yom Iyun in Yeshiva University or have a women give a d’var torah at a shul function. True, women do not serve as rabbis in Modern Orthodoxy, but as a community we are certainly comfortable with women serving as spiritual and religious leaders and teachers to both men and women.

 

Rosenthal’s understanding of modesty is a microcosm of his book’s fatal flaw—even if he is right it is impossible to convince people of something when he fundamentally do not understand who they are.

 

Despite this, it is not only Rosenthal who stands to blame for the lack of nuanced discussion on the topic of Open Orthodoxy. Many of the issues that Rosenthal highlights—biblical criticism, the authority of Chazal, homosexuality—are on the minds of many in the Modern Orthodox community, especially among the younger generation who walk through the doors of Yeshiva University institutions each and every morning.


Yet there seems to be an unspoken rule between much of the leaders and lay leaders of our community that forthright discussion of these issues is off the table. As a community we must engage these issues, and this includes looking at the approaches of other movements with an honest and humble eye. Perhaps the conclusion reached will satisfy those in Rosenthal’s camp, perhaps they won’t, and perhaps they won’t look much like conclusions at all. But at least we will have truly engaged in the paramount issues of our time instead of putting on earplugs and ignoring the deafening noise of our own community’s silence.

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