Open Orthodox Symposium V

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by Menachem Penner

If there is one thing that Modern Orthodoxy should agree on, it is that open orthodoxy is a good thing. The devil, however, is not only in the details, but in the definition of “open” and the definition of “orthodoxy.” One can embrace open orthodoxy without embracing Open Orthodoxy.

At the core of Modern Orthodox philosophy is openness to secular wisdom and culture, seeing G-d’s hand in (even modern) history, finding greater opportunities for women to contribute publicly and to connect to G-d personally, and being accepting of Jews of all backgrounds. Open Orthodoxy, if understood to be a separate movement or sub-movement, may do a service to its “Modern” cousin by reinforcing that these inclusive values are more than just accessories to Modern Orthodoxy’s particular Jewish worldview. Of course, to any Torah-observant Jew, “orthodoxy” – the commitment to absolute Torah observance, serious and ongoing engagement with sacred texts, and the time-honored fundamental principles of Jewish faith – must come before the ideals implied in any adjective that might precede it. However, the unique characteristics of Modern Orthodoxy can – and most certainly should – be embraced and emphasized by its followers and institutions with passion and pride.

Thus, the question is not if Modern Orthodoxy should be open. The question is: Just how open should it be? Perhaps the better question is: Where are the limits to openness? All parties in this discussion should agree that there are at least some ideas from the modern world that we should not only reject, but that we should go out of our way to avoid altogether. One cannot argue that secular wisdom, popular culture and prevailing attitudes as a whole are to be assimilated into even the most open of orthodoxies. Neither can one suggest that all changes to ritual or to communal structures are advisable or halakhically acceptable. It may be that in 2015 more conversation needs to be dedicated to what can be changed or accepted and not simply what can’t. But it will ultimately be the limits to “openness” that will assure the integrity of that endeavor.

We can embrace secular studies, yet recognize the primacy of Torah wisdom. We can acknowledge the hand of G-d in establishing and maintaining the modern state of Israel and yet maintain respect for those who are more passionate about their Torah studies than their Zionism. We can train women to become community leaders and yet insist that some positions of authority are simply not appropriate for both sexes. We can encourage growth in tefillah and continue to search for ways for synagogues to be inclusive and inspiring for all, without arguing that every new style of synagogue service is permitted. We can embrace Jews who differ from us religiously, being compassionate and inclusive, without suggesting that all interpretations of Jewish law and practice are legitimate. And we can be open to change while recognizing the slow and deliberate process of the development of halakha. We are a people of text, but are not driven by a philosophy of texting; change should not be spurred by sound-bites and not laid out in 140 character messages.

It was, and will continue to be, difficult to be Modern, or “Centrist” Orthodox. It is far easier to be black or white than a nuanced shade of grey. It will also, for the very same reason, continue to be heroic to be Modern Orthodox and to maintain balance in the face of a public that craves extremes. As a philosophy, it will continue to disappoint those who prefer separation from society and, equally so, those who wish that there be no bounds to what Judaism can accept.

Modern Orthodoxy walks a very fine line. It wades into the waters of the secular world, understanding that the tide of modernity might somehow carry it, or some of its adherents, further out to sea than intended. Modern Orthodoxy encourages its followers to swim and they are most excited to dive into the ocean to explore. Its challenge is to keenly maintain awareness of how far one can safely venture from the shore and to constantly remain within earshot of its rabbinic lifeguards.

Torah Judaism is subject to an intricate system of internal rules and regulations. Halakha can and does allow for change, but does so, not by circumventing its own principles, but by finding legitimate avenues for novelty from within classic sources. It does not restrict decision-making to one governing body or individual, rather it recognizes and respects a hierarchy of authorities based on knowledge and experience. Society respects the fact that great scientists and mathematicians have greater insight into the physical world, and it accepts that certain realities are beyond our control. In the sphere of Jewish practice, however, where personal autonomy can be threatened, we find people more willing to assume that contemporary mores and individual perceptions of what is right and wrong should outweigh the integrity of the Halakhic system.

At one time, it was insulting to be called orthodox. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch commented that “it was not the ‘Orthodox’ Jews who introduced the word ‘orthodoxy’ into Jewish discussion. It was the modern ‘progressive’ Jews who first applied this name to ‘old,’ ‘backward’ Jews as a derogatory term [1]Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Judaism: History, Belief, and Practice (Routledge: 2004), p. 264. .” It was those frustrated with the lack of change who referred to conservative Jews as “orthodox,” meaning “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” [2]“Orthodox.” Oxford University Press, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015

Today, affiliation with Orthodoxy is a source of pride. Perhaps this is due to the success of Torah Judaism despite the many predictions of its demise. Serious Jews whose lives are guided by halakha and limmud ha-Torah insist on being labeled as Orthodox, despite whatever qualifying word might proceed that term. However, any movement or sub-movement that wishes to call itself Orthodox needs to clearly define its limits. It is in defining these limits that Open Orthodoxy will or will not place itself within the larger world of Orthodox Judaism and the world of Modern Orthodoxy in particular.

We might embrace the post-modernist dream of a religion without denominations. For now, though, the label “Orthodox” serves a function. It defines adherence to a specific set of beliefs and practices. Any individual may practice as they wish and label themselves as they see fit. But as different roadmaps are suggested for the future of the community at large, each alternative route should be accompanied by very clear directions. Robert Frost’s proverbial “road less travelled” may be exciting for some to traverse, but deserves to be labeled for drivers as untried and, very possibly, untrue.

It is not fashionable to define oneself by what one is not. It is much nicer to speak of what and whom one is open to. But definitions imply boundaries – limits. This is especially true if one defines oneself as orthodox. One can be open and be orthodox – but this, by definition, requires a certain resistance to change even as one engages in serious self-introspection, and wariness of blanket inclusion and acceptance even as one welcomes debate and remains respectful of those with whom one disagrees.

Finally, it needs to be stated that there is a most human dimension to the developments that have bred this symposium. If Open Orthodoxy does, in fact, position itself as a separate movement – or if it is placed there by those who are wary of it – it will result in a significant rift in our small Modern Orthodox world. Ultimately, we are not dealing with “movements” but with people, fellow Jews. Two individuals who sat next to each other in synagogue may now find themselves in two separate shuls. It may not be fair to argue that communal unity alone is a reason for proponents of Open Orthodoxy to change their strongly held opinions. However, the possibility of a tragic schism in our tiny community must give us all pause.

After penning much of this short essay, my wife and I were blessed this week with the birth of our first granddaughter. This life-changing event has only deepened the convictions expressed in this piece.

An author advocating for openness and change recently proposed orthodox experimentation as the next step for the Jewish community. “Implicit in this type of experiment,” he wrote, “is the readiness to fail, the ability to try something and say this does not work [sic].” As I hold my first granddaughter in my arms and look her in the eyes, I feel the need to prepare for her something more than uncertainty. And why should I settle? She is blessed to have been born into a world of Torah tradition which has assured the survival of our people until this day. Orthodoxy has never left, and please G-d will never leave, the passing of our precious mesorah down to chance.

About the Author: Menachem Penner is the Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Holliswood.



1Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Judaism: History, Belief, and Practice (Routledge: 2004), p. 264.
2“Orthodox.” Oxford University Press, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015

About Menachem Penner

Marc Penner is the Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Holliswood.

One comment

  1. Rabbi Penner’s comments are important, but his closing thought deserves further comment: “If Open Orthodoxy does, in fact, position itself as a separate movement – or if it is placed there by those who are wary of it – it will result in a significant rift in our small Modern Orthodox world.”
    The passive voice of “if it is placed there” conceals the fact that those who disdain the label “Open Orthodox” (myself among them) have an active part to play in determining how tolerant the Orthodox community will be of a range of a wider range of views and practices. It is possible to be rigorously observant and doctrinally Orthodox without the need to define one’s religious identity by those who one excludes.

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