Orthodox Judaism began in the 19th century as a movement on the defensive. Until the 19th century, there was no Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Jewry. There was just Judaism. You may not have scrupulously observed all the commandments and rituals, but the Judaism you failed to practice was the same traditional Judaism that had been in practice for centuries. You did not make an ideology of your non-observance.

When the ghetto walls came tumbling down in 19th-century Europe, Jews emerged from the ghetto determined to seize the opportunities afforded to them by their newfound emancipation and assimilated in droves. In an attempt to stem the tide of assimilation, the Reform Movement sought to make changes in Jewish practice and even belief in order to “update” to the spirit of the times. It was hoped these reforms would break down barriers between Jews and gentiles and would eliminate the need for complete assimilation – or even conversion.

Those Jews who reformed their Judaism, or became assimilated, looked at their traditional brethren as narrow-minded and stuck in the Middle Ages. They referred to them as “Orthodox,” which was a pejorative term meant to deride what was perceived as narrow-mindedness.

Since Orthodoxy was never conceived of as a movement, it never had the luxury of defining itself in a vacuum. It was almost always in response to what the non-Orthodox was doing, to explain if and where it differed. Having been born on the defensive, it has become part of the very DNA of Orthodoxy. I fear sometimes that Orthodoxy can scarcely imagine itself without an ideological/theological enemy from which it needs to defend itself.

The lack of a defined program of beliefs, principles or even observances frequently led Orthodox rabbis to paint themselves into a corner, with their often knee-jerk responses to the questions asked to them.

These knee-jerk responses often made the Orthodox rabbinic leadership look bad in hindsight.

On the macro level, it began with the calls of the rabbinic leadership in Europe not to leave for America, even as the Nazi onslaught approached. It continued with the calls against declaring a sovereign Jewish state, and persisted against marching for Soviet Jewry.

On the micro level, it created silly little bans against certain types of dress, music, Internet and what kind of kosher food one can serve at a wedding, which are blatantly ignored by even the most pious of haredi families.

The controversy about Open Orthodoxy once again threatens to make our rabbinic leadership look silly and out of touch. The debate as to whether or not Rabbi Avi Weiss’s yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, is in fact Orthodox, is a waste of time and resources. It diverts attention from the real issues facing Orthodoxy, like the growing distance of non-Orthodox Jews from their Judaism, the rising rate of assimilation in the Diaspora and problems of Jewish identity in Israel.

The reality is that whether or not you support Open Orthodoxy’s stand on biblical criticism, the ordination of women and other expressions of openness that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah espouses, they are the aspirations of people who see themselves as Orthodox and look to these venues of openness as opportunities to further their commitment to God, the Jewish people and the covenant. They are not looking to lessen the “burden of the commandments,” but rather they are looking for ways to expand the Torah and make it even more relevant to their lives.

Let’s contrast that with the other, more liberal streams of Judaism. It was always amazing to me that after studying the ideals, principles and rabbinic responsa of both the Conservative and Reform movements, I was unable to find one instance in which the psak rendered was more stringent than current practice. If we accept the premise that both the Reform and Conservative movements hold, in which the times we live in demand from us to again look into our tradition and reevaluate Halacha in its light, why is there not one instance in which this reevaluation yields a more stringent stance? While I too fear that Open Orthodoxy may be too open, and I also worry about where its red lines are, what Open Orthodoxy offers is no easing of halachic practice. If anything, they are not offering less ritualization as much as they are opening rituals and practice to more people. In other words, what we are witnessing is an attempt to look inwards to the Torah to answer the very real needs and concerns of an Orthodox laity for whom the growing move to the Right of haredi Orthodoxy – and its subsequent isolation from general culture – is distasteful.

Instead of criticizing Rabbi Weiss and his yeshiva, the mainstream Orthodox leadership, including Agudat Yisrael, the Young Israel Movement and the Rabbinical Council of America, should look over their shoulders and wonder what is happening in the world of Orthodoxy to give rise to such a movement.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes: “Why, indeed, can’t the new Jewish movement just append itself to the already existing one that shares its ideals?” The answer: Satisfying solutions to the needs of this community are not being offered, neither in philosophy, theology nor practice!

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