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.
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) February 10, 2016