Critiquing Open Orthodoxy

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

Those who follow Jewish debates on the internet have probably heard of Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, who has assumed the mantle of defender of the faith. He sees his goal as exposing the non-Orthodox nature of Open Orthodoxy, and has spent many hundreds of hours reading everything written by Open Orthodox figures (and their spouses), looking for a problematic sentence in order to pounce on them. He not only attacks the Open Orthodox rabbis but also shows his contempt for them by generally refusing to even mention their names. Instead, he refers to an unnamed Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva or rabbi and you don’t know who he is speaking about until you click on the link. I realize he doesn’t respect these figures, but to even deny them the simple courtesy of mentioning their names, as if to do so is muktzeh mehamat mius, is in my opinion simply disgraceful (albeit a common writing style in the haredi world).

This obsession with the Open Orthodox reminds me of how in earlier centuries Christian zealots “could declare themselves ‘crusaders’, join a company of St. Peter Martyr, and assume a special responsibility for denouncing suspicious behaviour to the Holy Office.”[1] It also reminds me of how in previous years the right wing would constantly attack YU and Modern Orthodoxy. Now that the Open Orthodox are under attack, YU and Modern Orthodoxy re getting a pass. But make no mistake about it, if there wasn’t an Open Orthodoxy to kick around, YU and Modern Orthodoxy would once again be the focus. It appears to me, and many others, that all of Rabbi Gordimer’s attacks are pretty meaningless by now, as we get it, he doesn’t like Open Orthodoxy and he thinks that they are not “Orthodox” (a Christian term which perhaps it is time to jettison). Simply drumming this point continuously is not going to make it any clearer.[2]
R. Kook famously said that the righteous do not complain about heresy but add faith.[3] In other words, they always focus on the positive. Now the truth is that this quote, taken by itself, is problematic, as we have examples where R. Kook himself complained about heresy. I think that the passage therefore must be speaking in generalities. In other words, he doesn’t mean that the righteous never complain, but that their essential nature does not focus on the negative and finding the flaws in others. Rather, they are focused on adding faith in order to show the truth of their own position.
Rabbi Gordimer gives us a continuing list of controversial statements from people identified with Open Orthodoxy. As mentioned, he will spend hours and hours reading their material until he finally hits pay dirt. We are never told about any of the good things he sees in the writers he so often attacks, and how 99% of what he reads in their writings is not objectionable. I also find it most curious (but not unexpected) that it is only the left who are subjected to this type of detailed examination, all in order to find material with which to attack them. What about people on the right who also say objectionable things? Why are they not subjected to the same criticisms? How come he criticizes Open Orthodox figures for their liberal Zionism, but never says a word of criticism about the anti-Zionism found in Satmar and other haredi groups? The question is rhetorical.
Another problem is that while Rabbi Gordimer himself tries to stick to the issues, the comments to his posts, which have to be approved before being posted, sometimes do contain derogatory and insulting remarks about individuals. How can anyone view this as appropriate?
I have no difficulty if someone wants to criticize, even sharply, Open Orthodox writers, as long as there are no personal attacks. In fact, if the criticisms of Rabbi Gordimer and others were offered on a basis of friendship and common purpose, I can tell you without hesitation that the Open Orthodox writers would be grateful for the criticism and dialogue, as they want nothing more than to engage with all segments of the Jewish world, including the more right wing elements.
As mentioned above, I find it most objectionable that all of Rabbi Gordimer’s (and others’) criticism is of the left, never the right. I have made this point in a number of lectures. Occasionally, individuals have replied to me that it is unfair to compare Open Orthodox ideas with actions of people identified with the haredi world, as these actions are simply the result of people making mistakes and say nothing about haredi Judaism itself. Thus, they claim, if a criminal is haredi, this has nothing to do with the ideals or teachings of haredi society.
While there is some truth to this argument, it is not entirely true. For example, the widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse in haredi society, and the reluctance to go to the authorities, are directly related to haredi ideology. Yet Rabbi Gordimer has never commented on this. I also have no doubt that some financial crimes in the haredi world, including by institutions such as yeshivot, are often related to both the structure of haredi society, which leads many into poverty, and also haredi teachings that may downplay or even deny the halakhic prohibition of certain white collar criminal activity. And you don’t need me to say this. Haredim say the same thing all the time. I mention this only to stress that just as I would be the first to say that there is plenty to criticize in Open Orthodox thought, there is also plenty to criticize in haredi thought (and also in Centrist thought). In fact, as we shall soon see, one can find things written by those on the right that I think many readers, including haredim, would find even more objectionable than what Rabbi Gordimer has written about.
Before going further, let me note that there is much that Rabbi Gordimer criticizes that I don’t find at all objectionable, and I will give an example of this below. By the same token, there are aspects of the Open Orthodox critique of haredism and Centrism that I do not share, and I don’t expect either the haredim or the Open Orthodox to agree with everything I write either. But that is OK, as no one can expect everyone to agree on everything. Well-founded criticism is a vital part of any society and must be appreciated. Just as there is what to criticize in all camps, there is also a great deal to praise in all camps (and in some areas, in particular Torah study and respect for Torah scholarship, the haredi world is far superior to what is found among non-haredim in the United States).
As noted already, Rabbi Gordimer is an avid reader of Open Orthodox writings. In fact, I think he has read more such writings than anyone else (even more than the Open Orthodox!), and yet he is not able to come up with anything positive that they say or do. This shows me that he is not being fair, as I can give a long list of great things that Open Orthodox rabbis have done across the country, things that even the most right wing would applaud. I can do the same with haredi rabbis and I guarantee you that Open Orthodox rabbis would applaud. Contrary to the mean caricatures one finds online, the Open Orthodox are some of the most genuine and giving people I have ever met, and I say this as one who has never been an adherent of Open Orthodoxy. The Open Orthodox leadership and its rabbis show respect not only for those on their left (which leads Rabbi Gordimer and others to criticize them) but also for those on their right, as I can attest from many years of personal interaction. (When I speak of respect for those on their right, I am not referring to people like myself, but of Torah scholars firmly ensconced in the haredi world who do not reciprocate this respect.) In short, we must recognize there is a lot of good in all camps and we should support positive developments no matter where they originate.
Furthermore, it is important for the halakhic community to understand that there needs to be different paths for different people as not everyone has the same spiritual make-up. It is therefore important to have responsible halakhic authorities who can speak to the different communities. Rather than engaging in constant criticism, Rabbi Gordimer should be happy that the communities on the left are able to turn to an outstanding talmid chacham such as R. Dov Linzer, as he understands their situation and can provide proper guidance. I encourage people to examine some of R. Linzer’s recent halakhic writings here.
Returning to an earlier comment I made, if the point of all the criticism of Open Orthodoxy is the protection of authentic Judaism by countering the distortions on the left, then shouldn’t the distortions on the right also be countered? Aren’t these also dangerous, even more dangerous as they reach a wider range of people and are regarded as authentic Torah teachings by many? Since Rabbi Gordimer and others only look to criticize those to their left, never those to their right, they must ask themselves if the protection of Judaism is really their only goal, or if, unconsciously perhaps, their crusade against Open Orthodoxy also has other motivations.
When I have mentioned these points to various people, they always ask me to provide examples of what I am talking about, i.e., of writings from the haredi world that should be criticized by Rabbi Gordimer in the same way he criticizes what Open Orthodox writers are saying. There are lots of examples I could give (and readers can find some of them in previous posts), but let me choose a book that was actually removed from a synagogue library because of the views expressed in it.[4]
In 2007 Rabbi Dovid Kaplan published Major Impact.[5]


It has a chapter entitled “Jews and Goyim”. The chapter begins as follows:
Every Shabbos in Kiddush we declare that HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose us from all the nations. At every Havdalah we declare that we’re as different from them as day is from night. It’s always interesting to see examples of just how different we are. So read this chapter and then enjoy your next Kiddush and Havdalah.
Here are some examples from the chapter:

We once took our kids on a trip to the United States. A goy on the plane asked me how many children we have. I told him five. “How old are they,” he asked. “The oldest is eight, and the youngest is three months.” “Wow,” he said with a look of disbelief, “you have twins?”

COMMENT: The idea of bringing children into the world on a regular basis was utterly foreign to his way of thinking. 

The Polish maid brought her fiancé to meet her employer, Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain. “You have to treat your wife with respect,” she said. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll only beat her if she disobeys me,” responded the big shaigetz.

COMMENT: And he’ll only steal if he doesn’t have enough money. And he’ll only kill if he’s upset. And he’ll only . . . 

Shechitah houses often employ goyim, big strong ones, to help with the animals. A friend related the following incident to me. A cow had just been shechted. One of the goyim walked over with an empty cup, filled it with blood that was oozing from the neck, and then drank it down.

COMMENT: For him there’s no issue. For us it’s unimaginable. 

I once saw a young boy sitting on a fence at the zoo. A little old goyish lady wearing a zoo maintenance outfit approached him. “Come on down off that fence honey,” she said, “cuz I don’t want you to fall.” Wow, I thought to myself. It’s nice of her to be so concerned. I was really impressed, but only briefly. “cuz if you fall there’ll be brains all over the place, and I don’t wanna hafta clean up no brains.”

COMMENT: Can you imagine a Jewish bubby ever talking like that? 

Dr. Jacobs was making his rounds through the ward accompanied by Dr. Obama [!], an African-American. “What’s happening with Mr. O’Neill?” he asked Dr. Obama. 

“Her blood pressure is up and she has a little edema. Other than that she’s fairly stable.”

“I asked about Mr. O’Neill.”

“And I answered. ”

“But why did you refer to him as ‘she’?”

“Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know. Mr. O’Neill is eighty-eight years old. Back in Africa our native tribe has a custom. Once a man passes eighty-five and can’t do much, he’s referred to as ‘she.’”

COMMENT: We place older people on a pedestal and make every effort to make them feel important. Anything that may even remotely reduce their dignity is by definition pasul. And them? Yuch![6]

I realize that most of these stories are made up in order to make non-Jews look bad, but this last one is really stupid, even as a racist story, since when was the last time you heard an African-American referring to the customs of his native tribe? Also, in case anyone missed it, the name “Obama” is probably not an accident.
I don’t think there is any need for me to elaborate on how offensive this material is. Everyone understands how we would react if the focus was Jews and if one were to extrapolate from a (phony) story with one Jew to the entire Jewish people. The ideology expressed in this book (and others like it) is in direct opposition to everything I was taught about how Torah is supposed to make one a more refined individual. I also wonder, how many potential baalei teshuvah who picked up this book were turned off to Judaism after reading what I have quoted?[7]
I have no doubt that Rabbi Gordimer agrees with me that the views expressed in this book are not in line with what we should stand for as a people. So will we see a condemnation of this book and of ones that express similar views, or do they get a pass because they emanate from the haredi world?
Despite my great opposition to this book, I am willing to acknowledge that other things the author has written can be valuable. Why can’t Rabbi Gordimer, despite his criticism of Open Orthodox writers, admit that even if he disagrees with them about certain things, they can still make valuable contributions in areas where he would agree with them? In sum, when Rabbi Gordimer begins criticizing the problems in the haredi and centrist worlds with the same enthusiasm (or even half the enthusiasm) as he takes on writers in the Open Orthodox world, then I and many others might begin to take him seriously as someone who can offer a valuable perspective.
I should note that R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has made some comments relevant to the matter I have just discussed:

Mean-spirited and racist remarks made on comboxes on websites catering to the Chassidic community turn up quoted on anti-Semitic and anti-Israel websites. . . . Enough material exists to make it easy for intelligent outsiders to get beyond the posturing of spokespeople and learn about attitudes often expressed by the masses. For decades, observant Jews of all persuasions could go about their business flying under the radar of their neighbors. If they stayed out of trouble with the law (or did a good enough job at keeping malefactors out of the headlines), they were more than tolerated by other Americans. There are no longer any secrets. Every small group is the subject of inquiry, and the free sharing of information means that outside investigators quickly learn what people speak about behind closed doors. 

Agudath Israel undertook an impressive program of community education to parts of its membership regarding dina demalchuta[8] and chillul Hashem[9] in the aftermath of too many high-profile scandals. It will not be enough. The next exposés (they have already begun) will not deal so much with criminal behavior as with rejection and contempt. Many Americans who are not anti-Semitic will still not take kindly to the thought that large numbers of people, albeit minorities even within their own communities, have little or no regard for them as human beings, and no concern for their welfare. Those who take the policy of hen am levadad yishkon to the limit will soon learn that there are minimum expectations placed upon citizens not by law but by popular sentiment. If they wish to live as equals in the United States, they will have to come to some sort of modus vivendi with other Jewish values like darkhei shalom and genuine regard for the tzelem Elokim in all people.[10]

Let me now turn to the reason I have been discussing Rabbi Gordimer in the first place, and that is his attack on R. Ysoscher Katz found here. Rabbi Gordimer claims that there is no such thing as Modern Orthodox pesak, and that decisions by Modern Orthodox poskim “should look no different than if [they] were adjudicated by a chareidi posek; process (research) and product (conclusion) should be indistinguishable.” This is simply false, as anyone who knows the writings of Modern Orthodox poskim can attest. A posek is not a computer. All sorts of meta-halakhic considerations go into his rulings and this explains why a Modern Orthodox posek will come to different conclusions than haredi poskim on many issues. I am not referring to whether a tea bag can be used on Shabbat, as in this sort of case there shouldn’t be any differences between haredi and Modern Orthodox poskim, but in matters concerning which the two camps differ (e.g., the role of women) there will obviously be differences among the poskim.
For Rabbi Gordimer, all poskim share the same “process”. Not only is this historically incorrect, it isn’t even “doctrine”. Does he really think that there are any haredim who believe that Modern Orthodox poskim operate the same way as haredi poskim? Of course they don’t, which is precisely the reason why they reject Modern Orthodox halakhists, because they know that their meta-halakhic values influence their halakhic decisions. The haredim don’t oppose meta-halakhic values per se. Meta-halakhah has a very prominent place in haredi halakhah. It is the particular Modern Orthodox meta-halakhic values that they see as problematic.
I realize that for people reading this post what I have just said is neither new or even controversial. Many of you are probably wondering why I am even wasting my time in making an obvious point. So let me mention some important sources that you might have been unaware of that illustrate what I have been saying.
In 1951 R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was asked if it was permitted to volunteer to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. armed forces, as this might lead to various halakhic problems, in particular with regard to Shabbat. Before analyzing the halakhic sources, R. Soloveitchik gives us an insight into the meta-halakhic factors that are operating within him. He confesses his lack of objectivity in a way that directly contradicts his portrayal of how Halakhic Man operates.

About Luke Ford

I’ve written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).

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