There has been a flurry of activity recently within some ultra-Orthodox circles to try to declare that elements of the Orthodox community are no longer part of the Orthodox world. This exclusion has focused particularly on those who identify with the term Open Orthodox. However, the values and traditions of our Masoret declare starkly that no one has the authority or the religious standing to write someone out of Orthodoxy.
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Attempts to write people off as heretics and disbelievers are not new. Going back to 19th century, the great Netziv, Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozyn Yeshiva, traced this exclusionary approach to the righteous and Torah-filled leaders of the Second Temple period; they too looked at anyone who feared God in a different way than they did as a Saducee and a heretic.
The Netziv wrote that God was not happy with this approach then, and I doubt God is happy with this approach now. To those who say, citing an evolutionary understanding of the idea of ostracism: “Well, in the time of the Second Temple they misunderstood people, but we, on the other hand, are much greater, and we know with certainty who is a heretic,” I would say in response: It is chutzpah to think that any of the religious leaders of today are greater than the great sages in the days of the Second Temple. Indeed by writing people out of Orthodoxy we would be falling, in an even more repugnant way, into the disastrous mistakes of our forefathers, having learnt nothing from their mistakes which brought about the destruction of the Second Temple.
The endless focus on who is in and who is out only serves to sow discord and a notion that there is indeed an objective judging authority who can open windows in men's souls. True, there have been heretics and disbelievers throughout Jewish history. But we should not be the ones to determine who is in and who is out.
The first-century Jewish sage and leader Rabban Gamliel set the model for finding out who is in and who is out: Let people self-select; let people who identify – or don’t identify - as Orthodox, or Conservative or observant say so; it is not for us to make these declarations.
Rabban Gamliel instituted this blessing in the daily Amidah payer: "May destruction and deprivation come to the heretics ["Velamalshinim"], the traitors, the evil ones…" (the blessing has many different versions, but they are all pretty nasty). This is a blessing that everyone in the community says. If you think you are a believer, and you identify yourself as such in your prayers, you say the blessing that differentiates you from the heretic, and no one can kick you out of shul. Only people who think that the word 'heretic' truly applies to themselves will avoid saying it: In the day of Raban Gamliel, if you determined for yourself that you couldn’t say this blessing, that was a signal that you really had removed yourself from the community.
The great Rabban Gamliel, who according to the Talmud was a brilliant and powerful personality, never thought himself authorized to declare who was a heretic and who was not.
Other examples of the poverty of exclusionary thinking suggest themselves from Jewish history. Shall we model ourselves after those who, at the end of the 18th century, caused the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liade, to be thrown in jail because they felt that the growing Hasidic movement was heresy? Shall we model ourselves after those who condemn today’s Lubavitch Hasidim who venerate their deceased rebbe, zt”l? Who shall be condemned and chased out of the Torah camp next? Should Open Orthodoxy be expelled because it believes in learning Torah from all Jews, with all Jews and from the broader world?
Rather than dividing up and tossing others outside of the tent, the Orthodox world – Open, Modern, Centrist, Chasidish and Haredi – has the opportunity to unite to solve the challenges that face the entire Orthodox world. These are weighty issues that will shape our shared religious space for generations to come: The plight of agunot, the need to report sexual crimes to the police, finding a way to maintain our tradition, while earning a living, supporting the Jewish State while supporting the growth of Torah learning at the same time.
Together, the Orthodox world can share different perspectives and come up with solutions for these challenges. Open Orthodoxy, in particular, can bring creativity and a necessary connection with non-Orthodox Jews to these contemporary issues. But we can only do it if we respect each other’s understanding of what Orthodoxy is, if we respect each other’s diverse ways of showing yirat shamayim, fear and awe of the Divine.
I am confident that the lessons of the past, the challenges of the present, and the opportunities for a united and cooperative future will guide the Orthodox community in all its hues in the right direction of achdus – Jewish unity.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the leading modern and open Orthodox rabbinical school in America. For 18 years he served as the spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago.