Why the War of Words About Open Orthodoxy Won’t Matter

  • 1

Judging by the number of articles, words per article, comments per article, and pure passion, one could reasonably conclude that the war of words being waged against Open Orthodoxy is of major public interest and concern. I am certain that many people are extremely invested in how this all plays out on the pages of Orthodox publications and blogs. I am no longer one of those people.

Every real argument I have seen against Open Orthodoxy is a version of an appeal to authority. Whether the authority is a particular rabbi, Daas Torah, meta-halacha or mesorah, authority is the issue. Opponents claim that Open Orthodox rabbis and teachers lack authority, so their opinions are invalid. This lack of authority is demonstrated by pointing to incidents, statements, and policies that contradict prevailing Orthodox norms. Proponents of Open Orthodoxy refute these claims by invoking other commonly accepted authorities who do support them. ‘Round and around it goes.

This entire argument is based on the false assumption that denominations of Judaism will continue to be as rigid as they are today. Remove this assumption, and the entire war is rendered academic and of minuscule consequence. I don’t believe that the people waging the war, nor the people who are publicly defending and retaliating, are aware that they are doing battle on a platform which rests upon a mountain of dynamite. It is about to explode.

Here’s the thing. The next generation of Modern Orthodox Jews are Millennials who grew up in a digital world where authority is routinely challenged. Fact-checking teachers was easy even when we had only Microsoft Encarta. Today, Google allows us to fact-check from our phones before the authority finishes their sentence. Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments, not fear or shame. Observance and religious practice are still of utmost importance, but the reasons for observance and practice are different. Appeal to authority with Millennials at your peril. The gods of man-made authority are dead to them.

Authority remains alive and well within the insular Orthodox Jewish communities. Without regular access to the Internet or digital media, the next generation of insular Orthodox Jews are throwbacks to the Baby Boomer generation. In essence, they are living the kind of life the Boomers lived. When it comes to authority, Boomer-aged Modern Orthodox rabbis and scholars are more similar to insular Orthodox Jews than to Modern Orthodox Millennials. The genie is out of the Modern Orthodox bottle, and there is no going back.

All religious denominations are artificial constructs, including Modern Orthodoxy. We self-identify with a denomination because we voluntarily conform to the typical practices of that group. Denominationalism only functions in a world of authority, as it would make no sense for a person to join a denomination without accepting the group’s authority to govern. It would be as pointless as someone playing poker with friends, but using a different set of rules. The existence of the group relies upon its members accepting authority. In order for the denomination of Modern Orthodox Judaism to exist, people need to voluntarily accede to its governing principles and general rules. In other words, Modern Orthodox Judaism still relies on authority. This will become a problem, because Millennials don’t really do authority.

Modern Orthodoxy as a denomination may not exist in twenty years. The next version will shift from a denomination of people who agree on matters of authority, to a self-selecting group that wants to share common religious experiences and values. Autonomy will replace authority. Once self-selection is no longer based on voluntary compliance with authority, the war being waged right now will seem like a non-essential footnote in our collective story. The war only makes sense if we choose to police who may self-identify with our group. It won’t be long before that form of self-identification will be our generation’s dinosaur. We will think of it the way Modern Orthodox Boomers think of “that’s way we did it in the shtetl.” Boomers know about that sort of thinking, but they don’t make any use of it in their internal community policing. They do use “the Rav said” or “Rav Schachter says” or even “Reb Moshe held” for internal community policing. Now, those days are numbered.

The assumption that Modern Orthodox Judaism will function as an artificially constructed division of people with a commonly held reverence for an authority is incorrect. Soon, no one will care what Rabbi Gordimer or Prof. Marc Shapiro said about the kashrus of Open Orthodoxy. What will matter is the way religious experiences are constructed. Groups will be determined by common values and goals, not reverence for common authority. Arguments over who is right or wrong about this text or that halachic nuance will have no bearing on who we allow into our social group. Our groups won’t preselect members based on compliance with a specific authority. Individual practice will not be the determinative factor in group formation. That’s why I don’t think the war is relevant. Modern Orthodox Millennials are not invested in the question of whose authority will reign supreme; it doesn’t matter to us.

This all may sound like insane doublespeak and troubling hooey to people older than 35 or 40 years old. It may sound so disturbing that the establishment will feel pressure to quash autonomy. You may think you must fight this trend and resurrect authority back from the dead. Don’t bother and don’t worry.

As an idea, Modern Orthodox Judaism can thrive without relying on authority. It already does. Just look at the deinstitutionalized mixed Modern Orthodox communities, the Millennial Shabbos minyanim, the surge of neo-Chassidus, and the incredible online networks of autonomous and committed Modern Orthodox Millennials. That’s your future. You can influence and inspire an inclusive future or waste more time sustaining a divisive Quixotic Crusade disguised as an imperative war. We’ve made our choice. You make yours. Choose wisely.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

I stopped paying attention to the heated debates for and against Open Orthodoxy when i realized that pretty soon…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, February 10, 2016

  • MarkSoFla

    You’re kind of saying that Ashkenazy Judaism is going to eventually (pretty quickly if it will include the millennial generation) become like Sefardim* with regards to denominations within their community. [I was actually looking for such a sentence mentioning the historic Sefardi lack of denominational separation in the concluding paragraphs.]

    * Perhaps with the exception of the recent shift of many dati Sefardim to become Ashkesefard (i.e. adopting Ashkenazy charedi affectations – dress, exclusionary behavior, insularity, lack of participation, disdain of work/focus on learning, etc)

  • jeanettefriedman

    well done. and I agree and I am 68.

  • EliezerS

    “Here’s the thing. The next generation of Modern Orthodox Jews are Millennials who grew up in a digital world where authority is routinely challenged. Fact-checking teachers was easy even when we had only Microsoft Encarta. Today, Google allows us to fact-check from our phones before the authority finishes their sentence. Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments, not fear or shame.”

    I wonder how much the Internet really changes things. There is so much readily accessible information online, yet Modern Orthodoxy still manages to insulate itself pretty well from all this. It might be that I’m 27 and 10 years older than Millennials, but I think the majority of MO Jews would not read an article about the Torah on Wikipedia, because it’s heretical. There are plenty of heretical books out there, but most MO Jews ignore them because they’re forbidden reading.

    I hope the Internet does have the effect you suggest in this article. I think it will definitely have some effect. I wonder how much though.

    Also, I don’t mean to suggest all MO Jews are unread, but it does seem that the majority are pretty insulated.

    • G*3

      > I think the majority of MO Jews would not read an article about the Torah on Wikipedia, because it’s heretical. There are plenty of heretical books out there, but most MO Jews ignore them because they’re forbidden reading.

      An important difference is that one doesn’t usually stumble across books with heretical ideas, but you can easily come across a heretical article clicking links on Wikipedia (or elsewhere), and spending a few minutes reading an article while you’re already reading things online is more likely than sitting down to read an entire book you happened to find.

    • SQ

      “Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments”

      *eyeroll* Did Rabbi Fink fail to notice that Donald Trump is the leading Republican candidate?

      People don’t care what’s true. Yes, things will change–they always have–but people aren’t going to suddenly care about what’s true just because of the Internet. The Internet spreads misinformation just as fast as information; the antivax movement was born on and spread via the Internet. Even pre-existing false things are barely affected. The Mormon Church is doing fine despite the no-fooling viral popularity of this guy’s letter: http://cesletter.com/

      That letter is just a summation of what we know about the origins of the Mormon church. How many Orthodox Jews do you know that have ever used the Internet to examine whether Orthodox Judaism is true? Never mind what they’d conclude, why did they never even think to, say, google it? After all, they’d probably say it’s the most important thing in their life, and if “authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments” surely they’d apply it to the most important thing in their life? But they don’t, as you can tell by the fact that you’d struggle to name a few who did. They don’t even read the books they say they believe are the only ones the only god wrote! (How many Orthodox Jews have read all of Tanach? Can even accurately describe what’s in each book?)

      Authority is how people decide what they will believe, even when they’re right. When someone today says he believes the Earth is round, he’s believing that for the same reason a peasant in 782CE would say she believes the world is flat. How people form beliefs has not changed; it’s just that today’s guy happens to be right. He believes in viruses he’s never seen just as medievals believed in demons they’d never seen, and he would fail horribly to justify how “we” know that viruses are real things, unlike demons.

      I don’t know how the Internet will change how authority is formed and maintained, but Rabbi Fink’s utopian prediction that it will magically cause authority to be vested in truth via evidence and reason is naught but naivete.


        “The Internet spreads misinformation just as fast as information”
        Exactly. Is this what R’ Fink is really banking on?

  • AC

    Best Article I’ve read yet … I agree entirely.

  • E benAbuya

    You are certainly familiar with the principle of 2Jews=3Opinions. You are probably also aware the this is not a simple arithmetic progression. Depending on the Jews selected for the sample, and the number of opinions that they start with; it can be either a geometric progression, a factorial expression, an exponential explosion or a Fibonacci Sequence. This effervescence is one of our sources of strength.

    Less well recognized is its corollary. He (or she) whose practice is more stringent than mine is a fanatic. While he (or she) whose practice is less stringent than mine is an apostate. Because our own practice is always the reference it an be difficult to even imagine that, in fact, this holds true from one end of the Jewish continuum to the other.

    I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. For some you will always be a fanatic and for others forever an apostate. You’ll be just fine as long as you’re secure in who you are, and make engagement with the texts your grounding. You will also need to be part of a community, to which you provide support. One that returns that support to you.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    I don’t know what Millennials are. Where does that put me?

  • Micha Lindenberg

    Not sure what this all means. Authentic Judaism does (should?) consider Tanach and Hazal as authoritative (how this manifests in actual practice can be a matter of debate and discussion), so authority per se won’t disappear. And to the degree to which is does within Modern Open Orthodoxy, we may witness a slide into neo-Conservatism. Also, group identification will not disappear, and this does entail adherence to certain norms which bespeak authority of a sort. That said, Judaism has actually been much more more dynamic, less monolithic, less static, than many are aware of today, especially those in the haredi world. For example, we find in the Book of Maccabees that men and women prayed together in synagogues. And yet R’ Moshe Feinstein said separation for davening is “de’oraitha”. Another different sort of example: once the common practice was to eat cheese right after beef, doing qinuah hapeh in between, and now most Orthodox Jews are unaware that about 50% of the Rishonim held this way… the list showing that indeed many things have changed over the centuries goes on and on. This will keep on happening. Most are stuck in a very temporal perspective.

  • Mr_Cohen

    *** QUOTE 1 OF 3: ***

    Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8:
    If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely-revealed, then he or she is a heretic apikuris].

    In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].

    In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.

    Rambam was born in 1134 CE in Córdoba, Spain and died in 1204 CE in Egypt.

    *** QUOTE 2 OF 3: ***

    Pele Yoetz, Perek Apikuris [Heretic]:
    “And it is not even necessary to teach that a person who doubts the words of the Torah or the words of the Great Ancient Sages [divrei Sofrim], or mocks even one word of the Torah or one word of the Great Ancient Sages [divrei Sofrim], he is a complete heretic [apikuris gamur]; and behold, he has abandoned the faith, and denied a foundation [of the Jewish faith]…”

    Pele Yoetz was completed by Rabbi Eliezer Papo (Sephardi Tahor) in Bulgaria on April 28, 1824 CE.

    *** QUOTE 3 OF 3: ***

    Mishnah Berurah, siman 126, sif katan 3:
    “Understand that according to all opinions [literally, according to the entire world], that if we know that he [a Jew] denies the Resurrection Of The Dead [Techiyat HaMetim], or that he does not believe in the future redemption [Geulah HaAtidah], and how much more so if he does not believe that the Torah is divinely revealed [Min HaShamayim], or [if he does not believe in] reward and punishment; [then] according to all opinions, he is a complete heretic [Apikuris Gamur], and it is forbidden to allow him to act as prayer leader [Shaliach Tzibur]…”

    Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan, was an Orthodox Rabbi who lived from 1838 CE to 1933 CE in Poland. He wrote the Mishnah Berurah from 1894 CE to 1907 CE.
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  • NYCMedic

    Interesting but I’m not sold.
    While I’m not in the “all Mesorah all the time” camp of certain Rabbis, to say that we will effectively get rid a of all authority is an overreach.
    In this context, my hope is that this pushes Rabbis to be more learned, educated, and able to answer the tough questions. Leaders that can lead rather than responding with “Da’as Torah!” or “we don’t ask such things.”

  • Dave Matkowsky

    Are you suggesting that Millenials don’t play poker? Because unless they are somehow immune to the challenges of voluntary communal enterprise, why wouldn’t they be subject to the very same calculus of the Hobbes/Locke Social Compact in terms of establishing group norms and pursuing collective goods? I.e., even if the appeal to authority is based on voluntary participation, it still has utility, as do the institutions that shape communal life.

  • Holy Hyrax

    You can influence and inspire an inclusive future or waste more time sustaining a divisive Quixotic Crusade disguised as an imperative war. We’ve made our choice. You make yours. Choose wisely.

    Interesting that you would ask someone to choose wisely. Wisdom is something accumulated with age and experience. Have millenniums accumulated enough wisdom that something like open orthodoxy is a viable alternative? Is it just another fad of the time? Does it have a solid anchor that will allow to be passed down from generation to generation? Neo-chassidus? Online communities? How far can that really go before the next generation gets bored again and it needs to be changed? Is there any viability for the long haul? Im very skeptical about any of these new fads.

    I agree with you, there is a problem. I don’t know how much of it is that authority is stifling vs. millenniums just don’t care for the concept of authority. I think depending on the community, it’s a combination of both. If it’s an issue of authority being stifling to personal expression and experience than that needs to be addressed. If it’s simply millenniums continuing the 60’s proverb of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” with a 21st century twist, than eventually, I believe they will grow up. If they want Judaism to continue as a religion, and not just a flavor of the month experience, than rules, boundaries and authority will automatically be a value they will accept eventually (to varying degrees obviously). But to present everything that is going on, as some Quixotic crusades makes it seem like you have been asleep for the last 150 years and that we have no patterns of evidence of what happens to a movement as it gets more “liberalized,” for a lack of a better term.

  • robert barnesi

    I disagree in part. Things will be more decentralized, yet people will still seek out authority figures and leadership because there is the issue of specialization; most people don’t have the time, talent or inclination to deeply understand halachic issues, but want to feel they are good people doing God’s will. The difference will be in how they choose and judge the leaders they turn to. Those leaders authority will not come so much from rising through the established power structures as it will come from a demonstrated high level of scholarship which is clearly based on a modern Western understanding of the concept of Truth. People want truth, not blind commitment to 1000 years of exilic stringencies. People will go back to the Toarh roots, and reject harmful customs that came about during the long exile. Why should a woman who ovulates prior to the 12th day not have children just because Babylonian Jews where trying to out frum their Zorastrian neighbors 1500 years ago? Why would people wait 6 hours after eating chicken when the Talmud didn’t even require kinuach ha-peh? That’s were things are going. There will still be authority, but of a different kind which is based on modern concepts of truth.

  • Holy Hyrax

    One probably should ask, what authority are these Jews against exactly. These are Modern Orthodox Jews we are talking about right? MO are not big fans of Daat Torah anyways. So what authority are they riling against? Women as rabbis? Is that it?

  • David Zinberg

    Great essay, but this line requires clarification: “Soon, no one will care what Rabbi Gordimer or Prof. Marc Shapiro said about the kashrus of Open Orthodoxy.”

    This may suggest some kind of symmetry between the positions of R. Gordimer and Prof. Shapiro. In fact, Prof. Shapiro has not taken a stance on the “kashrus” of OO. R. Gordimer’s agenda, in contrast, is clear.

    Also, Prof. Shapiro is an independent scholar, whereas R. Gordimer has just admitted that he writes with “the continuing encouragement and authorization of roshei yeshiva and poskim, mostly not from the yeshivish world.”

  • Bud Abbott

    “Authority remains alive and well within the insular Orthodox Jewish
    communities. Without regular access to the Internet or digital media,
    the next generation of insular Orthodox Jews are throwbacks to the Baby
    Boomer generation.”

    I like the article quite a lot — it’s liberating — but I would like to point out to the author that he is responding only to the current disfiguration of Modern Orthodoxy: the world of black-hatters, the crazed running to the religious right, the “my chumra is bigger than your chumra” nonsense that has dominated MO for only the last 15 or 20 years. In the era he associates with the Boomers, MO was far more liberal and inclusive than it is today… Nowadays the typical Young Israel-type shul is full of fine young bal-tshuve people who, overcompensating for an understandable insecurity, lean to the right, to be safe.

    In the Boomer heyday, nobody avoided gebrokts on Pesakh, nobody put on tefilin on Chol Hamoed, et cetera, et cetera. (Not literally nobody, but almost.)

    Again, I really liked the piece, I would just like to clarify that the MO world was not always the way it appears now. And there are still a few institutions — yeshivas, some shuls — that still reflect that.