Open Orthodoxy - A Different Approach

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Open Orthodoxy has taken the Jewish world by storm. The recent call by its progenitor for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to take a “pluralistic” view of conversion, acceptance of the conversions to Judaism performed by all denominations of Judaism, has evoked a great deal of criticism among the ranks of Orthodoxy. May I suggest that there is an overriding issue for all Jewry to consider when evaluating the merits of this burgeoning movement in American Judaism or any Jewish religious movement for that matter. I believe this issue has been lost in the many critiques of Open Orthodoxy grounded in Halachah, Jewish law. This issue is, for me, the foundational issue when considering any approach toward Torah observance.

This, however, does not mean that we are not permitted to try to elicit the moral and philosophical teachings inherent in the Halachah; indeed, we may even be obliged to do so… The opposition to such speculation, to which the author refers, was of course due to the fact that some people, in the name of the Rambam and after, let philosophical interpretations affect halachic decisions, or even used them to play down halachic considerations altogether. This attitude is wrong even if the philosophical interpretations in themselves represent sound Torah doctrine; and it is even more disastrous if the philosophical ideas are at variance with it. Yet this approach is fundamental to Conservativism (Reform altogether rejects Halachah); and has unfortunately affected some prominent modern Orthodox writers, (see Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, “Sabbath and Festivals in the Modern Age,” and studies in Torah Judaism, editor, L. Stitskin [New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1969], whose thrust is summarized by the editor: “observances and mitzvot… must be related to some metaphysical construct and a set of values in order to be meaningful” and must be developed in the light of these insights. Rabbi Rackman himself states that “the modern Orthodox would like to see more halachic decisions that include consideration of the teleology of the Commandments and not just the formal rule” [“modern orthodoxy”].

The above quote by Rabbi Joseph Elias in his comprehensive commentary on the “Nineteen letters” by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch is an attempt by the author to bring further clarity to Rabbi Hirsch’s critique found in his eighteenth letter regarding the Rambam’s utilization of Greek and Arab philosophy in explaining Judaism. Writing in 1979, Rabbi Elias encapsulates a problem that has grown ever more acute during the last nearly half a century. To understand this more fully consider this statement of Rabbi Hirsch found in the forward to his magnum opus, Horeb.

There will be two schools of study engaged in the exposition of the Divine law…One school will concern itself with the comprehension of the utterances regulating our practical conduct… and its knowledge will be derived almost exclusively from the tradition which transmits the oral and written Divine utterances and the regulations of the Sages. The other school will concern itself with reflecting on and pondering these laws, and its sources of knowledge will be the more or less illuminating power of insight which dwells in each individual religious thinker... All that springs from the second school has no power to bind and can claim recognition only in so far as it conforms with what is contained in the work of the first school… The first school serves as a standard regulating the second.

Rabbi Hirsh, the standard bearer of German Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, had to contend with a Reform movement that, even many years later, presenting its view of Judaism in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 still viewed the moral and ethical laws of Torah as eternal and binding. “…We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral law, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Today we are confronted with a Jewish American community that has largely accepted the ever evolving philosophies of society regarding morals and ethics. For example:

  1. equality = sameness – This rejects the concept of role playing as evidenced in Judaism by its assigning different tasks to the  individual by virtue of his/her age, sex and lineage,
  2. sexual liberation – Understood as expressing and living out one’s inner perceived feelings or lusts no matter how vulgar or bizarre, and expecting acceptance and endorsement by society as a whole,
  3. honesty and integrity – Understood as having value and merit only in terms of avoiding being caught. Once caught the individual is only required at best to utter a prefunctory mea culpa, to clean his\her ethical and moral life’s slate anew,
  4. Interpersonal relationships – evaluated by what one receives rather than by what one gives to another,
  5. my body=my right – Juxtapose this classical pagan view with the Jewish concept which sees the physical body as a keli, a vessel loaned to us by G‑d to “house” the G‑dly element He “breathes” into us – the soul – and you have a clear understanding of the current conflicts in American society regarding, euthanasia, abortion, modesty in general and sexual modesty in particular, and a host of other issues.

I could go on and on. Rabbi Hirsch would shed an ocean of tears for today’s Orthodox Rabbi who must contend with this contemporary reality.

It is to me an imperative for the rabbinate in terms of the pulpit, ministry and education in general to accentuate at every turn the Divine nature of Torah. We must imbue within our community a sense of reverence and awe for the Torah as the instrument by which we, through its fulfillment, connect with the metaphysical, with the eternal, with the Divine; literally joining with G‑d in the ongoing process of creation. “for in His goodness he renews each and every day the act of Creation” (liturgy – morning service). Too often even our coreligionists, as in Rabbi Hirsch’s day, judge the Torah by its theological underpinnings as understood by human intellect.

Torah Lishma – Torah observed because it is the ultimate and absolute truth in life – the Divine Will, as our Chazal (Sages) teach us, is essential for today’s Jewish community’s spiritual devotion. We must answer the Why-why bother, before we can even begin to answer the how – the particulars of Torah observance. And the why is answered by understanding that Torah observance is the only method available to the finite human being to be part of and even influence the infinite.

The main “calling” of the Orthodox Rabbinate in our day should be to affirm in every way possible the Divine, eternal nature of Torah for the Jewish and general communities. Once understood, the true work of Tikun Olam, the establishment of a peaceful and functioning world, can become the dominant and positive collective effort of humanity as a whole.