Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The "Conversations" of Open Orthodoxy - one rabbi's humble review

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.

In sum:
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.

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  1. Hear hear for O.O.

    I'm not an expert on the Halacha in this area, but I can comment on the sociological side.

    After growing up in a smallish town on the West Coast, and spending some time on the East Coast (sorry, midWest, South, etc - not enough data), it's pretty clear to me that geography has a lot to do with attitude. Growing up in California, in a fairly young kehilla consisting primarily of Ba'alei Tshuva, we didn't have the privelege of being picky - there just weren't enough of us. We got together on Shabbatot, pot-luck style, followed our Rabbi, and had a fantastic time. We were too busy growing, learning and having fun together to be "exclusive."

    When I got to the East Coast as a young adult, it was a different story... third-generation religious Jews from large, mostly wealthy and well-established communities with large day schools, who felt confident and had the numbers to include or exclude (even other Orthodox) at their will.

    I made some fantastic friends on the East Coast, but as for overall approach to community, I know which one I prefer.


  2. I think it's important to remember that neither "Open Orthodoxy" as represented by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the rebbeim, teachers, students, and musmakhim associated with it, nor R' Angel's "Conversations" journal, present a unified particular vision of what an 'open' Orthodoxy is or is meant to look like. Everyone has their own definition. (sort of like Modern Orthodoxy in general)

    And "Conversations" is most definitely not supposed to represent a unified vision, because aside from (asumedly) a general agreement that "being open" is good, the details that the writers attribute to what that Openness should look like are *meant* to contradict each other. That's why they called it 'Conversations'. From what i gather, 'Conversations' was started to open (pun intended) discussion, not to close it.

    Considering that you do a lot of "interaction with the secular world" and "interdenominational dialogue", i'm sure the editor(s) of 'Conversations' would be interested if you want to write a better apologia/manifesto than what's already out there. I heard that they've already got enough essays for the next issue or two, so it may end up waiting a bit before making print.

  3. btw, i was at a convention in a hotel in Philadelphia a few years ago, and went to Mikveh Israel on Shabbat morning. it was pretty cool, although i didn't know quite what was going on at certain points. that's how i found out about the Thanksgiving minhag.

    if you're interested in the Thanksgiving minhag, see my post here and Lion of Zion's post here

  4. Well, as a non-O Jew, I and my family are much more interested in Orthodoxy when its representatives are interested in us. Just human nature, I guess.

    The question is whether the goal of Orthodoxy is to keep out "corrupting" influences (exclusion and isolation), or to offer more avenues to traditional Judaism to those who don't come from that background (inclusion and interaction). And yes, obviously, you can do both at the same time in different arenas (shidduchim vs. shabbat dinner invites), but you do run the risk of being seen as hypocritical if those lines get drawn inconsistently.

  5. ALN, Tzipporah-
    I completely agree that achdut is enhanced by openness, and I am a proponent of that kind of approach - but I don't see it supported in the sources they bring in Conversations, and I also don't see why that openness must entail a reaction against those who are less open. Yes, Tzipporah, I believe one can manage both, without any inconsistency. It just takes thought (and contrary to what we observe,human beings are not allergic to thought).
    Oh, and ALN I completely agree that this is a bigger problem in larger communities (east or west).As in any other nationality, we stick to the perceived "our own" when we can.

    I don't actually see the need for a manifesto; I don't see friendliness and respect as in any way opposed to "closed" Orthodoxy. Secular studies are an issue, certainly, but involvement with others? Far from it.
    As far as YCT, Conversations and Open Orthodoxy not being monolithic - I don't know, but Conversations seemed to be pretty monolithic (even monotonous) to me.I certainly did not see contradictory opinions in that volume.

  6. Rav:

    there are many people out there who feel that *any* kind of cooperation or interaction with the Other is forbidden, and worthy of censure.

  7. Steg-
    Agreed, but the fact that they think so does not make it a point of law or hashkafah. They, too, should be expected to present proof that their position is correct.
    Similarly, this morning - on a repeat trip to Mikveh Israel - I read another article from that journal, claiming that the "closed" Orthodox fail to speak out for social justice beyond their own enclaves. I have certainly observed this to be true - but I would not call it a function of hashkafah and halachah. It's much more a cultural artifact than a Jewish one.
    In sum, then: I see a cloistered character as cultural rather than halachic in most realms - but I also see this "Open Orthodoxy" as cultural rather than halachic. If it is to be more than that, serious source material framing it in the context of tradition will have to be provided.

  8. I'm having some trouble getting my head around your cultural model — are you saying that the fact that people express these cultural tendencies as halakhic imperatives doesn't matter, and there's no need to attempt to counter them on halakhic grounds? If someone were to tell you that so-and-so halakhic authority (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe, etc.) said that your involvement with non-orthodox leaders/organizations are forbidden — you would just tell them "oh that's just your culture speaking, there's no halakhic or hashqafic basis to what you're saying"?

  9. Steg-
    Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe et al did give halachic decisions on these issues, backing their positions with sources. (As I understand their positions, I don't see anything conflicting with what I do.)

    But if someone were to go beyond their positions, or apply them in cases with those original authorities did not, the burden of proof would be upon them.

  10. Could you give some examples of what you meant by I see a cloistered character as cultural rather than halachic in most realms - but I also see this "Open Orthodoxy" as cultural rather than halachic ?

  11. Steg - Examples on which side, the cloistered or the open?

  12. Could you do both? I'm assuming that the cultural factors express themselves as differences between the two communities/styles, and so discussing them in contrast to each other might be the clearest way to explain.

  13. Steg-

    Examples of culture rather than source-based hashkafah or halachah:

    On the "closed" side - seeing active interest in secular aid causes (Darfur, for example) as something for "liberals" to engage in.

    On the "open" side - seeing leadership of secular society as an ideal. (No, this is not equivalent to 'kiddush HaShem', for reasons far too lengthy for this comments section.)

  14. Isn't the term, "Open Orthodoxy" an oxymoron? Warm and welcoming are something else. Treating people well and letting G-d do the judging when the time comes, yes, but trying to model Judaism on the pc fad of the month? Judaism existed long before all the popular philosophies and "moralities."

  15. Batya-
    Thanks for commenting.
    I'm not sure, but I think the proponents of Open Orthodoxy intend precisely that oxymoron - but they view it as dynamic tension between competing imperatives.
    Or, to cite Whitman, "I am large, I contain multitudes."

  16. i don't know what Batya means by "pc fads of morality", but as far as i'm concerned, one of the basic "open"nesses of "open Orthodoxy" is being open to caring about other human beings. If caring about people is a "pc fad", thank God for PC.


    i was under the impression that you saw the vast majority of distinctions between "closed" and "open" orthodox communities/orientations as coming down to cultural factors, including the ones that are usually expressed in halakhic and hashqafic terms. did i misread your comments?

  17. The journal's "Submission of Articles" page tells you everything you ned to know:

    "Articles should be written in conversational style, without footnotes, . . ."

    In other words, they boldly claim, article after article, that their vision is more authentic, but see no need to footnote (ie substantiate) their claims.

    Curious policy for journal that prides itself on being "intellectually sound."

    It's quite obvious that what they are trying to do is emulate the conservative movememnt's effecting change in halacha by going straight to the ba'alei batim, bypassing the usual process of scholarship (and intellectaul integrity).

  18. Steg-
    If people use halachic/hashkafic terms without backing them up with sources, then that, to me, is cultural rather than halachic/hashkafic.
    If they provide sources, though, then I consider it halachic/hashkafic.
    Is that more clear?

    Anonymous 12:11 PM-
    I agree with your logical point - but is the analogy to Conservative truly necessary?

  19. I don't know whether it is a question of being based on halacha or not, but rather, what is the historical / sociological context within which the halacha was or is being developed.

    Go back to Steg's Thanksgiving Shaharit as an example (Steg, I really enjoyed that post, thanks for sharing!).

    When learning halacha, learning the cultural/historical context along with the law itself is of great value... for the same reason that letters and philosophical tractates (like those of the Ramba"m) containing psaq halacha, are so much richer and more interesting than reading dry halacha: The rabbanim take the time to elaborate on what came before, how they got to their current thinking, and how both relate to today's context. Since no matter what some people say, historical context is entirely relevant, even -- dare I say, davka-- in the case of halacha.


  20. From anon 12:11:

    Yes the comparison to Conservative Judaism was intentional and well-considered.

    The recent changes to the Conservative stance on gay rabbis and gay marriage was entirely due to pressure from the laity demanding changes from the "clergy."

    That is why Joel Roth resigned from the Law Committee. He felt that the decision making process was not based in halachic reasoning (which is different than saying that he did not agree with the halachic reasoning).

    The "no footnote" arguments in this journal (I have read most of the pieces) use the same strategy.

    (I am not accusing these writers of being crypto conservatives; only that they are using hte same strategy for effecting change).

    BTW, I teach adult education courses in Conservative Synagougues.

  21. Anonymous:

    they started 'Conversations' in order to "open up discussion", not close it. it's pretty clear which essays are meant to summarize (in accessible-to-the-masses form) halakhic positions (R' Linzer's, for instance, or the one on women and Kaddish) and which are thought pieces.

  22. ALN-
    Certainly, context matters a great deal - you can't pasken any issue without knowing the context, and how that context may match, or differ from, the psak given in other cases.
    My problem is that you still need the hard sources with which to address those contexts.

    Anonymous 5:10 PM-
    I see, and I am more comfortable with your wording this time around. I just think that hard-edged comparisons (It's quite obvious that what they are trying to do is emulate the conservative movememnt's effecting change in halacha by going straight to...) push people on to the defensive.