I'm staying near the Convention Center in Philadelphia for a couple of days, so I walked to Mikveh Israel for shacharis (more appropriate to write shaharit there, I suppose) this morning. Sad to see how hard it is to get a minyan there, but it's understandable; there's no housing for a community anywhere near there.
So while we waited for the minyan to arrive, I thumbed through Conversations, a journal published by R' Marc Angel's new Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. I read through the first half-dozen articles. I hate to say it – and I sincerely mean I hate to say it – but after R' Dov Linzer's opening piece, the rest just didn't do anything for me.
I hate to say it, for two reasons:
1) I am generally uncomfortable labeling any approach, whether close to mine or far from it, as 'wrong.' I know well that I am not the smartest or best-educated person in the world, that I am not a navi, and that others have access to all the information I have seen and yet they have arrived at conclusions which are different from my own, so why should I have a monopoly on truth?
2) I want to believe that the writers in this journal, largely proponents of 'Open Orthodoxy' if the articles I read are any indication, are correct. When they insist that there is great halachic basis for interaction with the secular world, and for interdenominational dialogue, I want to believe they are right; after all, those represent much of what I do on a daily basis!
So I flipped page after page, looking for the sources to support these enlightened claims. But after the first article (in which R' Linzer made a strong claim for a healthier halachic label for, and attitude toward, non-practicing and non-believing Jews, a claim that matches some of what I have written here on the blog regarding a more respectful approach to outreach), the rest simply left me asking, “Where's the beef?”
The articles' arguments came down to two:
1) Argument from history – We can take these more open approaches, because Rav Hai Gaon or Ibn Ezra or Abarbanel seemed to do so, because not everyone accepted Rambam's philosophical principles as normative until the anti-Reform backlash, because Chabad sort of does it, etc.
2) Argument from practicality – We need these more open approaches because we want to lead the Jewish world, because Jews are assimilating, because this makes us true Jews of the world etc.
The former contention relies on a straw man argument, proposing that the promoters of “closed Orthodoxy” are defeated if we can show that Rambam's philosophy is not normative, or that a few sages over the centuries have said things which can be seen as “open.”
But the “closed” approach looks not to cherry-picked quotations from individual authorities, but rather to the weight of Jewish tradition. To cite Rav Hai Gaon or Abarbanel's citation of a Christian philosopher without also citing Rabbi Akiva's statement that those who read 'sefarim hachitzonim' will not have Olam HaBa, or to cite Rambam's own statement that we should treat Karaites with respect (so long as they drop their anti-Talmudic beliefs, by the way, a view mirrored by R' Eliyahu Mizrahi later on regarding teaching Torah to Karaites) without also citing Rambam's fundamentals of belief, is unimpressive and fails to deal with the real question at hand:Can we find a chain of strong Jewish tradition, established in sources, to support an Open Orthodox approach? And if not, why should I accept your stripped-down version of Jewish tradition?
(I am also surprised that a statue of the Rambam graces the Jewish Ideas and Ideals homepage, given the way so many of the Conversations articles are devoted to rejecting his philosophy!)
The argument from practicality is equally fallacious, for it relies on defining a need, as well as a solution, with which reasonable people could - and I believe should - disagree:
Need: I'm not so sure that secular Jewry, or Conservative or Reconstructionist or Reform Jewry, really want or need my leadership. Speaking personally, I sit on a board of Jewish clergy with clergy from all of those groups, but I would never presume to consider myself a 'leader,' nor do I expect they would view me as such.
Solution: Further, the solution of “let us engage them as equals,” while appealing to a post-French Revolution sensibility, is hardly the only logical approach. I stress that I, personally, try to treat everyone with respect regardless of their views – but I hardly believe that this is the key to halting assimilation or leading the Jewish world.
1) I want to believe in Open Orthodoxy;
2) I will not be able to do so until the proponents of this view more convincingly demonstrate that it is solidly in line with Jewish tradition and halachah, or more strongly define the need for this approach and its legitimacy as the solution for that need.
I hope for a stronger argument in Volume Two.