Symposium on Open Orthodoxy I

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OO-word-cloudIntroduction: Religious Polemics and Studies

Gil Student

The long-brewing schism in Modern Orthodox Judaism is daily becoming more evident to even casual observers. [1]For example, see Judy Maltz, “How Views on Homosexuality Are Splitting the Orthodox World,” Ha’aretz, August 5, 2015 http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/.premium-1.669680. (retrieved … Continue reading As the schism reaches its boiling point, the heated moments of controversy bubble up more frequently. To date, most discussions of this phenomenon have been lacking certain important features.

The first is a definition of the new group. In 1997, R. Avi Weiss declared the beginning of Open Orthodoxy. [2]“Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed” in Judaism, Fall 1997, pp. 409-421. Adopting terminology from the Evangelical movement, Prof. Alan Brill coined the term Post-Orthodox, [3]“Is There a Post-Orthodox Judaism That Corresponds to Post Evangelical?”, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, November 19, 2009 … Continue reading recently invoked by R. Shalom Carmy. [4]“Communications” in Tradition 48:1, Spring 2015, p. 120. R. Steven Pruzansky has adopted the political term Neo-Conservative to refer to the group. [5]“The Rise of the Neo-Cons”, Rabbi Pruzanky’s Blog, June 14, 2013 http://rabbipruzansky.com/2013/06/14/the-rise-of-the-neo-cons/. (retrieved August 5, 2015) A name carries implications beyond the convenience of reference; it brings history and sociology into the conversation, implying either continuity with or separation from others. The term Open Orthodoxy insists the group is still part of Orthodox Judaism. The terms Post-Orthodox and Neo-Conservative imply a break.

Yet, can we even speak of a cohesive body? If individual members, who seem to be part of the group, declare unusual beliefs or undertake controversial activities, that does not necessarily reflect on the entire group. Of course, that is true of any movement. No group is completely homogeneous. Therefore, in order to determine the essence of this new movement, we must look for trends, particularly on divisive issues.

This leads us to the second item that has been missing from the conversation–the recognition that despite all the debate, everyone engaged in the discussion agrees on much more than they disagree. Without minimizing the areas of difference, which could include fundamental beliefs that define a religion, we can and should acknowledge that there is much agreement on fundamental beliefs. This is so much the case that outsiders may have to struggle to see the differences.

Third, a recognition of the positive aspects and contributions of the people with whom we are disagreeing. On this, I distinguish between polemics and studies. The latter is a balanced examination of the subject, often favoring one side but only after carefully examining the pros and cons of the different options. The former is an advocacy of a specific point of view. The author does the careful analysis before putting pencil to paper and, in writing, only shows his conclusions. In a polemic, only one side makes sense. In a study, both sides have merit even if the author leans toward one.

Historically, Jewish scholars have favored polemics over studies. The Talmud and Midrash are full of polemics–arguments against Sadducee, Christian, Zoroastrian and other views. [6]See Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: The World and Wisdom of the Rabbis of the Talmud (Jerusalem: 1979), index entry Polemic. Some might argue that the academic world in general is too quick to label a … Continue reading This method continues throughout the post-Talmudic period to this day. Certainly the Disputation literature, as well as the anti-Karaite, anti-Sabbatean and anti-Reform literature, follow the polemic model. [7]One colleague suggested that we can see this literary distinction in responsa literature, as well. Most responsa take the form of polemics, arguing for a specific view. But some writers, such as R. … Continue reading

However, there are precedents for the study in traditional Jewish literature. Perhaps a precedent for the style of a study appears in the biblical book of Iyov (Job). [8]One could argue that Koheles (Ecclesiastes) should also be listed since it offers contradictory views. However, it uses a unique literary style that is different from a study. See Hayim Angel, Vision … Continue reading The majority of the book consists of the views of Iyov’s friends, who are given the opportunity to make their cases before their opinions are supplanted by God’s view. Similarly, we are told that Beis Hillel would first propose the view of Beis Shammai before offering its own view (Eruvin 13b). R. Yehudah HaLevi’s Kuzari might be considered a study, as well. The dialogue format gives voice to difficult questions and opposing views, particularly in the beginning when representatives of other religions are allowed to make their case. [9]I thought about whether Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim should also be considered a study since it gives so much space to other views. However, I decided not to include it because an argument can be … Continue reading

The problem with a polemic is that it fails to recognize that there are many thoughtful people on both sides of the discussion who raise important points and offer useful insights. If you fail to acknowledge the cogency of a point of view, you risk the criticism that you do not fully understand it. The study avoids this problem because it demands that we be sober and thoughtful in our analyses. You are only capable of examining an idea or practice if you can see its multiple sides. You must be charitable in your reading of the proposed idea in order to understand its origins and motivations. Only then can you truly critique it (or accept it). [10]See Maharal, Be’er Ha-Golah 7:7 (ed. Yehoshua Hartman, Jerusalem: 2003, vol. 2 p. 424ff.), cited in Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: 2015), pp. … Continue reading

The study is also problematic because sober and sympathetic analyses often confuse readers. A study effectively validates the opposing view; discussing it elevates it to a view worthy of consideration. Balance does not partner well with advocacy. [11]The Kuzari faced this problem, as well. Daniel Lasker points out that Karaites “detected in Judah Halevi a certain sympathy for Karaism” (Daniel Lasker, From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi: … Continue reading Polemics can be more effective precisely because they advocate without balance. The advocate thinks through the issue in a (hopefully) balanced and charitable fashion but communicates only his conclusion. This leaves no doubt to his opinion and no question about the seriousness of his final determination.

No one can be truly objective, nor should they. We all carry with us the teachings of our mentors, the traditions of past generations, that serve as a lens through which we see the world. We should be disinclined to break from our traditions. Polemic writing can be positive and even essential to community governance. However, polemic thinking is dangerous. If we examine things with a polemic mindset, if we lack the internal balance to first examine carefully and thoughtfully and only then render judgment, we will make tragic mistakes.

The question is whether there is a reason to choose a style of polemic or study other than personal preference. One could argue that only internal discussions among the community of believers should be treated as a study since all of the views emerge from accepted texts and methodologies. However, the Kuzari addresses external views but was formatted as a study. Perhaps the issue is both the audience and the views. If your audience is internal but you quote external views, if you are preaching to the choir, then you can use a polemic. The risk of legitimation in a study is a high price that might not always be worth paying. But if you are trying to convince non-believers, like the Kuzari which was directed at least partially at Karaites, [12]See Diana Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari (NY: 2000), p. 2. A letter by R. Yehudah Ha-Levi found in the Cairo Genizah … Continue reading you have to address the different options respectfully in a balanced study. A polemic can be more passionate but, to the wrong audience, alienating.

Dr. Judith Bleich points out that the resonance of a study is the main reason that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters [13]Originally published in German in 1836. The first English translation, by Dr. Bernard Drachman, was published in 1899, available online at https://archive.org/details/nineteenletters00dracgoog. It … Continue reading was so successful. She writes:

The medium was the message; the format was as significant as the content. The letters were presented in the form of a dialogue via correspondence… The salient feature is that there is a dialogue between two different individuals with two differing perspectives. The one doubts, hesitates, queries, questions. The other discusses, explains, argues, rhapsodizes, and interprets. At no time, however, does the respondent castigate or berate. The message of the format is clear and unequivocal: The author recognizes that there are different perspectives and, more significantly, that these differing perspectives are cogent and sincere. [14]“Rabbinic Responses to Nonobservance in the Modern Era” in Jacob Schacter ed., Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew (Northvale, NJ: 1992), p. 103. See also Rav Aharon … Continue reading

The communal discussion of Open Orthodoxy has been largely in the form of polemic, preaching to the choir. Yet, it is not clear whether this issue (or group of issues) is directed at an internal or external audience. Because of this ambiguity, I believe there is room for both polemic and study.

In addition to polemics that strongly advocate a position, we need studies that exhibit balance and care. We need studies that show the work of thinking through an issue, seeing both sides, arguing in favor or against, and reaching a careful conclusion.

This symposium is an attempt to study what some call Open Orthodoxy, Post-Orthodoxy and Neo-Conservatism. Rather than define the movement and examine its underlying principles, a daunting task, this symposium will be intentionally non-comprehensive. We have selected three specific issues–from three different intellectual subjects–to explore: history, philosophy and theology. Three young, academically trained Orthodox thinkers, working independently without knowledge of the work of the others, will examine the following issues:

Zev Eleff will compare the developments of Conservative Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy, the former a distinct movement and the latter not, with an eye for determining whether Open Orthodoxy is in fact a new movement.

Ira Bedzow will examine R. Irving Yitz Greenberg’s philosophy of covenant, a unique response to the Holocaust that I believe continues to be influential among R. Greenberg’s students, many of whom affiliate with Open Orthodoxy.

David Bashevkin will explore the contemporary applications of Izbicza theology, particularly that of Reb Tzadok of Lublin, which has recently seen a revival among proponents of Open Orthodoxy.

Menachem Penner will close the symposium with a discussion of the need for openness in Orthodoxy.

Each essay will appear over the next four days. This website’s normal rules for commenting will be observed, meaning that only substantive and respectful comments will be approved (possibly with editing), as is common in any print newspaper or magazine. At the end of the series, we will publish a printable PDF of the entire symposium (excluding online comments). I thank R. Moshe Schapiro for editing this symposium and R. Mark Gottlieb and Eric Cohen of the Tikvah Fund for supporting the research, writing and publication of this communally important discussion.

About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1For example, see Judy Maltz, “How Views on Homosexuality Are Splitting the Orthodox World,” Ha’aretz, August 5, 2015 http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/.premium-1.669680. (retrieved August 5, 2015)
2“Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed” in Judaism, Fall 1997, pp. 409-421.
3“Is There a Post-Orthodox Judaism That Corresponds to Post Evangelical?”, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, November 19, 2009 https://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/is-there-a-post-orthodox-judaism-that-corresponds-to-post-evangelical/. For a list of all relevant posts, see https://kavvanah.wordpress.com/tag/post-orthodoxy/. (retrieved August 5, 2015)
4“Communications” in Tradition 48:1, Spring 2015, p. 120.
5“The Rise of the Neo-Cons”, Rabbi Pruzanky’s Blog, June 14, 2013 http://rabbipruzansky.com/2013/06/14/the-rise-of-the-neo-cons/. (retrieved August 5, 2015)
6See Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: The World and Wisdom of the Rabbis of the Talmud (Jerusalem: 1979), index entry Polemic. Some might argue that the academic world in general is too quick to label a discussion a polemic but all agree that the genre is common in rabbinic literature.
7One colleague suggested that we can see this literary distinction in responsa literature, as well. Most responsa take the form of polemics, arguing for a specific view. But some writers, such as R. Ovadiah Yosef, methodically explore a variety of views before reaching a conclusion.
8One could argue that Koheles (Ecclesiastes) should also be listed since it offers contradictory views. However, it uses a unique literary style that is different from a study. See Hayim Angel, Vision from the Prophets and Counsel from the Elders (NY: 2013), p. 288ff.
9I thought about whether Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim should also be considered a study since it gives so much space to other views. However, I decided not to include it because an argument can be made that Rambam only discusses other opinions that serve as the basis of his own views.
10See Maharal, Be’er Ha-Golah 7:7 (ed. Yehoshua Hartman, Jerusalem: 2003, vol. 2 p. 424ff.), cited in Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: 2015), pp. 234-235.
11The Kuzari faced this problem, as well. Daniel Lasker points out that Karaites “detected in Judah Halevi a certain sympathy for Karaism” (Daniel Lasker, From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi: Studies in Late Medieval Karaite Philosophy (Leiden: 2008), p. 144). Whether historically Karaites took the Kuzari as sympathetic to their cause or merely contemporary scholars see it now, the Kuzari’s study format has left this ambiguity.
12See Diana Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari (NY: 2000), p. 2. A letter by R. Yehudah Ha-Levi found in the Cairo Genizah confirms that the impetus to writing the work was a question from a Karaite.
13Originally published in German in 1836. The first English translation, by Dr. Bernard Drachman, was published in 1899, available online at https://archive.org/details/nineteenletters00dracgoog. It was retranslated and annotated by R. Joseph Elias and published by Feldheim in 1995.
14“Rabbinic Responses to Nonobservance in the Modern Era” in Jacob Schacter ed., Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew (Northvale, NJ: 1992), p. 103. See also Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “Hands Across the Ocean: A Review of Rabbi Aharon Feldman’s The Eye of the Storm” in Jewish Action, Spring 2010, available online at https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/03/2010/hands_across_the_ocean_a_review_of_rabbi_aharon_feldmans_the_eye_of_th/. Rav Lichtenstein writes that he “would have preferred a more balanced and judicious critique to the rancor that, at times, fills pages with total denigration of Zionism.” Rav Lichtenstein, a Religious Zionist, would have preferred that Rav Feldman’s critique had been a study rather than a polemic.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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