Guest Blogger: Rabbi Dov Fischer
Open Orthodoxy is the new Conservative Judaism. Although the “neo-conservative” sobriquet for them is clever, I have resisted that term because Open Orthodoxy is a deviation to the left.Conservative Judaism took its name because it marked a truly conservative, moderate, gentle approach to looking at Old World frumkeit in a New World, in contrast to the radical changes of Reform Judaism. This conservative Judaism approach attracted many whom we now regard as Orthodox. Orthodox rabbonim were among the JTS founders. In many way, Conservative Judaism might have become Modern Orthodoxy. Initially, it sort-of was.As the Old World frum came to America, they helped create a nice neat diagram: reform to the left, Old World frum to the right. And Conservative Judaism in the center. Conservative Judaism said that you could keep Torah and mitzvot while also learning English, speaking English in sermons, going to a university as Solomon Schechter had done. It was the opposite of radical; it was conservative.In time, the emergence of OU and RIETS/YU made things interesting. By the 1950s, the new generation of American Orthodox Jews now had grown up in America – and they all were speaking English, with English sermons. Differences were appearing between Conservative Judaism and this new Modern Orthodoxy, but not very deep rifts. The battles dealt with swordfish. To some degree, mechitzah became the first real tangible issue that one could point to. And yet there continued the Traditinoal Shuls that were Orthodox but without mechitzah. But, soon, those who lived by the swordfish died by the swordfish.The first real poignant clarification probably came when Conservative Judaism responded, Open Orthodoxy-like, with a “kiruv” approach to the dilemma of all those returned WWII veterans buying homes in Levittowns on the G.I. Bill. Traditional Jews now were locating beyond walking distance from shul, and they faced isolation from Shabbat services. So, looking at the challenge of the day, JTS & Co. found a way to permit driving on Shabbat – but only to and from shul. By contrast, the YU/OU crowd did not do that “kiruv,” ostensibly out of touch with the zeitgeist, the reality, the oness that people never would be able to afford a home unless they bought a Levittown home under the G.I. Bill.We know how that all worked out. What it led to. Now, half a century later, any fair-minded look at today’s Conservative Judaism sees that it has degenerated akin to reform Judaism in most every way, with more barriers breaking down each year.And that degeneration opened a slot on the diagram – the slot between Reform/Conservative and Orthodoxy. And Open Orthodoxy has filled that slot.Most of us on this forum or list-serve do not monitor how rapidly Open Orthodoxy declined and disconnected from its initial moorings. What was OO’s “Levittown Shabbat Driving Heter” – the “kiruv leniency” that killed it? Was it the decision to ordain women? Maybe. Or maybe it was the disproprotionate obsession over homosexuality.I do not know a single Orthodox rav in our broadly conemporary hashkafic world who bars shul entry to those who drive to shul on Shabbat. Nor do I know anyone who bars shul particpation to homosexuals or lesbians. Is it a chiddush that I never have? But I never made Shabbat Driving a sacrament as did the tragic 1950s Conservative Judaism ruling, and I never have made LGBTQ+ a centerpiece of my philosophy. All Jews are welcome.It is this Open Orthodox obsession over these two issues – that we must ordain women rabbis; that we must encourage and celebrate homosexual public love –that helped sever it from Orthodoxy. As Conservative Judaism somehow slipped away after the 1950 Shabbat Driving Heter, so has Open Orthodoxy slipped away in the afterglow of women rabbis and LGBTQ+ love. Indeed, the departure from Orthodoxy, the damage to which the name Open Orthodoxy has been self-inflicted, now needs Open Orthodoxy’s leaders to flee from the very name they so proudly boasted and heralded in interview fter interview.Once the impenetrable barriers are broken, the deluge follows. We saw it with Conservative Judaism. And now we see it again with OO. Because they have no real Poskim – no Rav Schachter, no Rav G. D. Schwartz, no Rav Tendler, no real Posek – they have taught their ordainees that each one, like an Eldad and Medad, is a prophet, a Posek fully qualified to make the calls, by virtue of the YCT diploma. As such, it is like the Scarecrow at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” being assured that the only diference between him and Pythagoras or Einstein is a diploma. And now with a diploma the Scarecrow can recite the Pythagorean Theorem, and a YCT grad can pasken that intermarriage is OK.With that diploma, they have taken to the mass social media with rabbinic rulings that, as the milkman sings, would cross a rabbi’s eyes. The shu”tim of Twitter, Facebook, and – for the deepest rulings – the op-ed page of Forward. Nor is it just one outlier or two or three. Rather, the rulings and rabbinic proclamations breach all walls. Women rabbis – a notion prohibited by Psak of every single Orthodox body down to our own RCA and the OU. The idea that a Jew may marry a Chrsitian because love is to be honored. A call on Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Centers not to be intimidated by Orthodox activists into serving kosher food at their banquets if they otherwise prefer not to do so. The ubiquitous denials that Avraham Avinu lived or that we stood at Mount Sinai at Gilui Shekhinah, even leading RCA to issue one of its most incredible statements of recent memory (incredible that such a statement had to be made, though it had to at the time): that we as Orthodox rabbis believe that G-d gave us the Torah.Many of us do not relize that several of the wives of these OO rabbis publicly have written articles or given interviews stating one of the following: (i) that they do not believe in G-d; (ii) that they affiliate or identify Conservative or Reform. I cannot remember the last time an RCA member’s wife gave such an interview or made such a statement.We saw with Conservative Judaism where a few small changes for “kiruv” have led. Today, their mainstream ideology in the new generation of JTS grads teaches that, honestly, there were not Ten Plagues, maybe never were Jews in Engypt, there was no gathering of three million at Sinai, that archaeology demands that the Torah narrative be seen as High Fiction. It all began with formalizing an institutional OK for driving on Shabbat – something that we never have OK’d institutionally, though we all recognize the realities that lead some to drive to our shuls on Shabbat, and we welcome all comers.I wish for Avi Weiss 120 years, as I am sure I would have wished for Solomon Schechter and Mordecai Kaplan, another fellow who began as Orthodox and just wanted to do the “kiruv” that would keep Judaism open for the masses. Avi was one of my earliest rebbes and life-changing influences. His home phone number remains ingrained in my mind forty years later. Yet, when he published that it is time for Israel to recognize Reform conversions and Conservative conversions, I just looked and tried to figure out l’khaf z’khut “What does he really mean?” And then I realized, as others among his prized YCT OO students published the same, that he meant exactly what he said. That is, it no longer simply was about whether the Chief Rabbinate should have all that giyur authority, whether GPS unduly interferes with decentralized rabbinic authority. It was not about the old discussion of a liberal Orthodox rabbi setting up a conversion court in his Midwest city with a Conservative rabbi and Reform rabbi comprising the other two conversion judges, following a common standard (itself huge problem). Rather, that Open Orthodoxy wants Israel to accept Reform conversions – something that even many Conservative rabbis off-the-record will not do (e.g., if there was no immersion or circumcision).This departure of Open Orthodoxy from Orthodoxy is a tragedy. For me it is a particular personal tragedy. I am a kippah srugah guy. I do not wear a fedora. I am a child of secular education. I cannot get into the Maccabeats, and I cannot get Shlomo Carlebach on the radio, so I listen to George Jones and Garth, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. I so much wanted YCT to succeed and flourish. No one, other than its founders, wanted YCT to succeed as much as I did. I looked forward to meeting its grads, to hiring them, to aligning with them. For young Jews on the campuses, this was the yeshiva that would fill such a needed gap that I felt RIETS was neglecting. And this seminary was teaching real-life, real-world rabbinic skills – pastoral care and more. I was so thrilled.Today, their failure and their separation from Orthodoxy, their cadre of non-Orthodox ordainees and their women rabbis and their disproportionate focus on reinterpreting the Yom Kippur Mincha Torah reading, their changing the rules and advocating to change the siddur and the matbe’a tefila and endorsing intermarriage and providing cover for JCCs to serve treif if so desired, have led me to stake out a position that I never imagined as a kippah srugah grad from Columbia U.: Defender of Mesorah within Orthodoxy.