Efforts to Push Open Orthodoxy Out of Orthodoxy Have Been a Long Time Coming

By banning female spiritual leaders and casting Orthodox rabbis who associate with them as heretics, the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel assumed a level of religious authoritarianism that they do not deserve.

Yeshivat Maharat graduates, June 16, 2013.
Joe Winkler / JTA Photo Service

I am a heretic. At least that’s what Agudath Israel of America's Council of Torah Sages has branded me and my colleagues at the International Rabbinic Fellowship. In a proclamation on Monday, it accused us of “reject[ing] the basic tenets of our faith, particularly the Torah and its Sages.” In other words, even though I was not ordained by an Open Orthodox institution, as a member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship – an association co-founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss that admits both male and female clergy – I am guilty by association, a heretic, and am therefore no longer deemed Orthodox.

This proclamation comes on the heels of a resolution passed Friday by the Rabbinical Council of America, banning women with rabbinic or rabbinic-sounding titles from employment in Orthodox institutions.

Together, the two announcements – issued with hardly coincidental timing – mark the formalization of a schism that many have feared was coming for some time: pushing Open Orthodoxy out of the realm of Orthodoxy and into that of the "non-halakhic" (non-observant of Jewish law) denominations: Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative. 

Back in June 2013, when the first three women graduated from Yeshivat Maharat, an institution founded by Weiss – who coined the term "Open Orthodoxy" – to train and certify women spiritual leaders, the Rabbinical Council of America protested: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community," it said.

The RCA is a professional organization of more than 1,000 rabbis, according to its website, most of whom are Modern Orthodox, yet none were ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Open Orthodox rabbinical seminary that was also founded by Weiss, for the RCA does not recognize its ordinations.

The June 2013 protest foreshadowed the more sweeping resolution issued by the RCA last week:

“RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) in an Orthodox institution.”

One might reasonably ask: by what right does the RCA claim blanket authority over Jewish tradition? The same question can be demanded of Agudath Israel.

This question points to another – much larger – issue: What constitutes Judaism and who has the authority to decide?

The answer depends through which model one views Judaism: authoritarian or democratic. The authoritarian model views Judaism as theology and dogma. The democratic model is more nuanced; it views Judaism as process oriented, as a journey, the goal of which is to discover one’s authentic voice within the tradition.

At different times in our history, this ideological battle was fought. A most notable occurrence was between the authoritarian mitnagdim (those opposed) and the original Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov and those that followed him. The Baal Shem Tov saw the holiness in all human beings, as a spark waiting to be ignited.

My friend, Rabbi Herzl Hefter ordained two women this year in his first graduating class from Har El Yeshiva. Paraphrasing German social psychologist Erich Fromm, he writes,

“The authoritarian personality is blind to the unique circumstances of the present, seeing them only in terms of the past, and is incapable of appreciating the challenge of what is new and fresh. To the extent that something new is sensed, it is met with fear and suspicion. When this attitude meets the Torah, our relationship with God is in danger of becoming stagnant and ossified.

"Superficially, the approach may seem more religiously devoted because of its conservative predisposition. In fact, it is characterized by fear and lack of faith in the Torah’s ability to meet the challenges of the present authentically.

"The authoritarian approach contributes to the dilution of the level of public discourse, to paucity of understanding and spiritual mediocrity.”

We must hope now that, somehow, the damage of this schism can be limited. We must also hope that the authoritarian pull can be resisted, and that individual communities are left to decide who should lead them, without regard for gender. Even in these negative times, we still must hope.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.