Debating open Orthodoxy

Debating open Orthodoxy

Rabbis Shmuel Goldin and Asher Lopatin talk about boundaries and red lines

Two Jews, three opinions, right? Possibly even one Jew, three opinions.

We are a people of strong and deeply held ideas, and we are not loathe to express them.

Case in point ““ the smoldering debate between modern Orthodoxy and open Orthodoxy, which now is beginning to ignite.

There were sparks in early October, when Rabbi Asher Lopatin was installed as the second president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, open Orthodoxy’s Riverdale-based flagship institution. Rabbi Lopatin invited rabbis from outside the Orthodox world to be his guests – and as a result, luminaries from inside that world chose not to attend the celebration.

Last week, the flames flared as Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavat Torah in Englewood, the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, crossed metaphoric swords with Rabbi Lopatin on a radio show hosted by Zev Brenner.

He has been hesitant about engaging in such a debate until now, Rabbi Goldin said, but it’s time. “There is a growing sense among the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate that there is a concerted effort on the part of some to push the agenda of this open Orthodox movement,” he said, defining mainstream Orthodox as “members of the RCA, which has over 1,000 members, and is the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world.

“While many of us have remained silent about it for a long time, basically assuming that everybody has a right to make his own decision, it is clear by now that the Orthodox community is looking for leadership and guidelines,” he continued.

“Many of the Orthodox rabbis out in the field are looking for the RCA to support them by determining those guidelines and establishing boundaries.” Nonetheless, he made clear that he was speaking “as a private citizen. I was not representing the views of the organization, but my own personal views, which I believe reflect the views of many in the RCA.”

Rabbi Goldin said that he was concerned with some of open Orthodoxy’s stances because “there is an overarching issue, and that is when decisions concerning halacha are agenda-driven.” That means, he explained, that halachic arguments are chosen to lead inevitably toward a desired outcome, rather than “looking at each situation, each particular issue, and honestly weighing the pros and the cons, and determining the halacha that way.

“There is a growing sense that open Orthodoxy is an agenda-driven movement, wanting to change the parameters, to become more lenient or venturesome in a variety of areas, and being willing to do whatever they can to come to that conclusion. To push the envelope.

“They know where they want to go, and they want to find leniencies to get there,” Rabbi Goldin said.

There are two problems with that, he said. First, “you are not showing real respect for the law itself; second is the unintended consequences. You are not taking into consideration the real consequences down the road.” He cited as an example of unintended consequences the Conservative movement’s decision, some 60 years ago, to allow people to drive to the nearest shul on Shabbat. That led, he said, to the destruction of the tight-knit Jewish communities that characterize the Orthodox world.

It is halacha that has kept Jews together, Rabbi Goldin said. “The only reason you and I are able to talk to each other as Jews in 2013 is because over the span of centuries, there was a halachic process that held us together. There were people who dropped off, yes, but this is what holds us together and keeps us identifiable as Jews.

“When I walk into the Sephardic minyan at my shul and someone says to me, ‘Wow, this is so different,’ I think the miracle really is that it’s so much the same. After centuries with no communication, the Shema is the same, the Amidah is similar. This brilliant halachic process has to be respected.

“There has to be a balance between preservation and change.”

The partnership minyan – a service in which men and women are separated by a mechitzah; only men are counted as making up the minyan; and only men can lead the parts of the service that demand a shaliach tzibur, but women can lead the parts that do not demand such a communal representative – is a particularly contentious issue.

“The mainstream Orthodox world does not consider it halachic,” Rabbi Goldin said. If the open Orthodox “are going to adopt practices that the mainstream do not consider halachic, they will create a division.”

In fact, he said, Zev Brenner invited Agudas Israel, an Orthodox group to the right of the RCA, to send a representative to the debate, but Agudas turned him down because it does not acknowledge non-Orthodox rabbis and does not consider open Orthodoxy as truly Orthodox.

In general, Rabbi Goldin said, the RCA’s disagreements with open Orthodoxy come from differences of opinion over the status of women, “how to deal with the gay community, and the issue of boundaries in terms of acceptance in dealing with the non-Orthodox community as a whole.

“Their primary drive – which I think is commendable – is to be as inclusive as possible – so the halachot they are dealing with are the ones about inclusion and exclusion,” Rabbi Goldin said. “How you deal with intermarriage and conversion, and the problem of agunot” – of women chained to a dead marriage.

Charedi Jews accept RCA rabbis as Orthodox, Rabbi Goldin said; charedim will daven in modern Orthodox shuls. “There always has been a push and pull between us and the charedi community, but in spite of that push and pull they consider us Orthodox. They do not daven in a partnership minyan.” Therefore, he said, a partnership minyan is something that “will divide the Orthodox community.”

Responding to Rabbi Goldin, Rabbi Lopatin said that open Orthodoxy is not really a movement. Instead, “It’s a way of learning; it’s a methodology within Orthodoxy.

“Just like modern or centrist or ultra-Orthodoxy, it’s a part of the vision of the mesoret” – the tradition – “that we are trying to enact in the world.

“I think that’s why I’m sort of perplexed,” he continued.

“I’m not exactly sure why there is this obsession with boundaries and red lines.

“If people were slipping out of Orthodoxy – if they were gushing out of Orthodoxy, bleeding out of Orthodoxy – then we should put up those walls.

“There was that sense, in the 1950s, that they were bleeding to the Conservative movement. But not now. Now people are excited about Orthodoxy. They are coming in to Orthodoxy. So why would we set up red lines now?

“I welcome people into this world of tradition and the mesoret. I don’t understand this sudden obsession with boundaries. I don’t feel that Orthodoxy is in danger.

“The real danger for Orthodoxy is that we are not passionate enough. Are we really addressing the issues of our times? I worry about that. I don’t worry about people spilling out.

“I think there is a danger to the centrist Orthodox, who really don’t want to address the issues of our times, particularly women’s issues. They do address them but there is an inflexibility – they do not see new things within halacha that address it.

“They don’t really want to come up with halachic solutions to hot-button issues, even to the agunah issue.

“I think that we should work on connecting more, rather than on setting up red lines, in the hope that they will make people to our right like us more, respect us more.

“Let’s just teach Torah, preach Torah. Let’s talk about how to revitalize Jewish life on campus. The charedi world is doing that very well; Chovevei Torah is sending people to college campuses, too. We have to work harder.

“Maybe the easy path is just to set up red lines, as if that will earn us bona fides. The hard work is genuine debate, is teaching Torah. We want our students to do that work; to go to hospitals and schools and shuls and teach Torah. That is our business.

“There will be consequences of teaching Torah, consequences of taking the strong stands that we think are Torah stands, but we cannot be afraid.

“That’s my bottom line. There is fear of unintended consequences, yes, but we cannot act from fear.

“I want to teach my students to be respectful of all Jews, to connect to all Jews, and I want to teach them not to be afraid.

“We must not take from the Torah a sense of rejectionism and xenophobia. We have to welcome people in. That’s the direction we have to move in. We do not need red lines.”

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