Symposium on Open Orthodoxy II

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The Parting of the Ways? Open Orthodox Judaism in Historical Perspective

by Zev Eleff

In May 2015, the Yated Ne’eman published an article on the burgeoning “Open Orthodox Movement.”1 This was not the rightwing Orthodox newspaper’s first investigation into the subject. To the contrary, the weekly publication had, for a number of years, run columns decrying Open Orthodox Judaism and its founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. The most recent attack was different from the others, however. For the most part, previous assaults on Open Orthodoxy had accused Weiss and his disciples of espousing heresy and advocating positions counter to normative Jewish law. New developments proved far more frightening. The newspaper’s latest crusade included some of this, but focused mainly on the institutions “coming under the influence and control of Open Orthodoxy.” No longer merely a hardly-perceptible, liberal impulse led by a few “misguided” ideologues, Open Orthodox Judaism, warned a zealous editorialist, now possesses physical addresses and identifiable personnel to “blaze new trails and breach new boundaries.”

The Open Orthodox view their institutional growth as a more positive change in American Judaism. Actually, advocates of the liberal sector of Orthodoxy have also found it more useful to enumerate their organizations and seminaries rather than issue dissertations on theology. A case in point: Rabbi Zev Farber published an essay that questioned the divine authorship of the Torah.2 The Orthodox community condemned Farber for espousing a heretical position. To the chagrin of the many detractors, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where Farber had studied, did not revoke his ordination. Instead, the school reaffirmed its commitment to the Torah, with only indirect public repudiation of Farber and his positions. Likewise, Weiss has reviewed some of his earlier highly-criticized views and repackaged them in more religiously palatable forms.3 In a word, Open Orthodox “theology” has become an ineffective—and sometimes destructive—device. Consequently, a recent description of Open Orthodox Judaism offered more than doctrinal planks:

Something new is happening today. With the advent of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, Uri L’Tzedek, and in Israel Beit Morasha and Beit Hillel, and synagogues like Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue, there is a new spirit.4

Institutions are important to the emergence of Jewish religious movements, particularly those that dictate the parameters of Halakhah and religious change. In fact, most of the above-listed organizations that drive the so-called “new spirit” actively engage in discussions—to some degree or another—on the revaluations of Jewish law. No doubt, this is a most reasonable lens to examine the scaffoldings of a religion like Judaism that more often emphasizes rituals and deeds rather than miracles and creeds.

The role of institutional halakhic bodies to determine the contours of religious movements can be measured along historical lines. Certainly, this would not be the first occasion that likeminded religious organizations rallied to form a Jewish movement in the United States. For instance, in the nineteenth century Jewish proponents of “Reform” in America struggled along for a while to separate themselves from “Orthodox” rabbis. Especially in the laity’s view, it remained unclear why a traditionalist rabbi who deleted some minor prayers from the liturgy remained unquestionably “Orthodox” while another who dispatched with other parts of the Sabbath worship was considered irrevocably “Reform.”5 Then, in the 1870s, much was resolved. Reform exponents established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873) as a congregational body and Hebrew Union College (1875) to train future rabbis. Henceforth, these organizations—and, eventually, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889)—determined ritual matters and religious law for Reform Jewish circles and moved liberal Jews much farther away from their traditionalist counterparts.6

Many decades later, the Conservative Movement finally parted ways with Orthodox Judaism when its leaders formed the Rabbinical Assembly and its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.7 In contrast, the fledgling Modern Orthodox community in the 1960s declined to organize a specific group to determine Jewish law. The decision ensured that Modern Orthodox Judaism remained within the larger Orthodox camp. However, at the time of these pivotal decisions, it was not at all apparent whether Conservative Judaism or Modern Orthodoxy would form their own religious movements. Their fates rested upon historical contingencies; or, as one historian has called it: a “web of choices.”8 This is particularly true for the rabbinic elites rather than the laypeople who joined and helped steer religious movements. A thorough analysis of these historical episodes clarifies the nature of religious movements in American Judaism as well as helps the interested reader anticipate whether Open Orthodoxy will persist as a “subgroup” of Orthodox Judaism or depart to form a separate religious movement.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and Conservative Judaism

In 1927, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein delivered an important address before the Rabbinical Assembly. It was a precarious moment for the rabbinical group that was, more or less, composed of Jewish Theological Seminary alumni. The group was hardly of one mind, and had not been, if ever at all, since the untimely demise of JTS President Solomon Schechter. If anything, the opposite was true. The “rightwing” RA members considered themselves fully “Orthodox” and abided by the fullest strictures of Jewish law.9 They did this despite that the staunchly rightwing Agudath Ha-Rabbonim had long considered all graduates of “Schechter’s Seminary” beyond the acceptable pale of Orthodox Judaism.10 On the other side, a number of RA rabbis identified as “semi-Reformed;” this cohort had little in common with their coreligionists who identified as part of the Orthodox rabbinate.11 It was therefore up to those in the variegated center to preserve the Assembly and withstand the crush of internal polemic and diversity. One of the Seminary’s most outstanding graduates, Finkelstein took it upon himself to articulate, as he made it known in the title of his presentation, “The Things that Unite Us.” To his fellow JTS graduates, Finkelstein preached what he argued to be the shared importance they all placed on the “Conception of God,” devotion to the Torah and attitude toward considered change in the practice and ethics of Jewish law.12

In all probability, Finkelstein grew frustrated with the immediate reaction to his call for unity. Rabbi Max Kadushin opined that Finkelstein’s lecture failed to offer concrete examples and did “not objectively state the things that unite us.”13 Rabbi Eugene Kohn criticized his colleague for speaking in philosophic vagaries. More forcefully, Kohn surmised that Finkelstein’s position on Halakhah would satisfy just a “few” on his respective “right” and “left.” Kohn continued:

At any rate, it seems to me that, so far from representing an attitude toward change in Jewish law that is equally satisfactory to those of us, on the one hand, who see a grave danger to Jewish tradition in the intransigency of Orthodoxy to changing conditions and new ideas, and to those of us on the other hand, who equally see danger in the tendency of Conservativism to abandon time-honored practices, Dr. Finkelstein’s attitude of evasion must be offensive to both.14

Finkelstein was able to learn from his critics. His colleagues demanded more than just rhetoric; the Rabbinical Assembly required an institutional framework that would compel its members to share a more singular vision. One year later, Finkelstein, as president of the RA, launched the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to “guide us in questions of ritual and religious adjustment.”15 Halakhah offered a pragmatic solution to the theological questions that centered on “change and “tradition.” To its founder, the CJLS was a means to harness Conservative Judaism’s “philosophy” in a manner that both his earlier supporters and detractors could agree was conducted in a most concrete and pragmatic manner.

The CJLS was one of several institutions that helped form the Conservative Movement. To be sure, the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1886) and its Alumni Association (1901), along with the United Synagogue (1913) were all pivotal steps toward the “birth” of Conservative Judaism.16 Yet, it was also true that despite the emergence of these institutions, it was far from easy to determine the differences between an “Orthodox” congregation and a “Conservative” synagogue in the United States. On the whole, neither was attended by strict Sabbath observers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, there was no guarantee that an “Orthodox” synagogue would feature separate seating for women and men. JTS rabbis were members of the Orthodox Union and OU shuls also claimed membership to the United Synagogue.17 In time, of course, this changed, as new educational and financial conditions impelled and enabled the subsequent generation of Orthodox Jews to uphold the dictates of Halakhah with greater care. On the other side of the ledger, the formation of the CJLS empowered Conservative Judaism to shape an alternative code of religious conduct that better suited the “modern” sensibilities of its members.

The creation of the CJLS, then, was, as its founders viewed it, a milestone in the emergence of Conservative Judaism. Ever the politician, Finkelstein made sure to place men who represented the full range of perspectives—from traditionalist Rabbi Max Drob to the reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan—to the Committee. The system was not perfect from the outset. The halakhic board engaged just a few questions in its first months of activity, and failed to reach a consensus on all cases. Yet, the Committee reassured their colleagues in the RA “that it has not been lacking in courage to attack the many problems that come to us [sic] as a result of the changed conditions of our present environment.”18 To prove its point, the Committee announced that one of its leading members, Rabbi Louis Epstein, was preparing a “lengthy responsum” to remedy the problem of the agunah, the “chained woman,” whose recalcitrant husband has refused to offer her a necessary bill of divorce.19

In 1930, Finkelstein celebrated the Epstein responsum and distributed the English-language position paper at the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual convention in Tannersville, New York. Epstein began his work with an explanation of ritual divorce according to the Torah and the Talmud. He did not deny that both charged a husband with the sole role of actuating a divorce from his wife. Nonetheless, the writer was confident that crucial changes in the marriage document would enable rabbis (at the behest of a wife) to execute a bill of divorce. To the RA President, Epstein and the other members of the CJLS had finally begun to fulfill his personal “conviction that we can work out agreement in practical decisions.”20 Finkelstein encouraged the Committee to convene more hearings and take bolder stands in the face of “intransigent Orthodoxy.”21 Perhaps, Finkelstein had Louis Epstein in mind. The latter was also quick to insist that while his paper stood on its own merits, he preferred to first prepare a more elaborate “pamphlet which we hope to send broadcast to the rabbis and scholars of Jewry everywhere.”22 This cautiousness, in all likelihood, was far too timid for Finkelstein.

Epstein’s appeal to traditionalists was of little use. His treatise “was ignored by most” of the Orthodox rabbinate.23 Some did pay attention, however. In 1935, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim banned any “student of Schechter’s Seminary” who dared to employ Epstein’s marriage contract.24 A 114-page attack on the Rabbinical Assembly and its Jewish law experts included many letters from leading Orthodox rabbis from Europe, Israel and the United States that accused Epstein of absolute heresy. The rabbinical group’s elaborate censure affected Epstein, who, owing to his Slobodka-training, had on many occasions identified as an “Orthodox rabbi.” From then on, his relationship with other Orthodox rabbis was considerably strained.

In the aftermath, Epstein and the other Committee members wondered aloud whether their group “should function merely as an interpretative body or whether it should also assume legislative prerogatives.”25 Certainly, their many RA colleagues—who complained that the “Committee is too conservative, too slow, too timid and too circumscribed in its scope”—hoped for the latter approach.26 In 1940, Epstein unhinged himself and the CJLS from Orthodox Judaism. He finally made good on a pledge to publish a lengthy Hebrew tract on the agunah problem that would plainly set out the differences “between us and the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim.”27 In his Li-She’elat ha-Agunah, Epstein outlined the “Halakhah of the Conservative rabbinate.”28 Consequently, his efforts were no longer an Orthodox enterprise.

The results of the whole affair were quite mixed. In the end, the Rabbinical Assembly did not adopt Epstein’s proposal. It remained on the RA agenda but was left to others to modify the halakhic formula of the marriage contract. Yet, the failed campaign did much for the rabbinical organization and fulfilled Louis Finkelstein’s vision for the Conservative Movement. In the post-World War II era, Conservative Judaism routinely looked to the CJLS to justify and prescribe normative Sabbath behavior (riding in automobiles), oblige a widely accepted solution to the agunah crisis (the “Lieberman Takana”) and to defend dietary practices (Rabbi Isaac Klein’s swordfish responsum).29 Accordingly, it was the institutionalization of a particular brand of Halakhah that finally separated the Conservative Movement from its Orthodox coreligionists.

Norman Lamm and His Reluctant Creation Called “Modern Orthodoxy”

In December 1968, Rabbi Norman Lamm characterized himself and his congregants at The Jewish Center in Manhattan as “Modern Orthodox.” He did so with hesitation.30 In the recent past, “Modern Orthodox” had been a title most often employed by traditionalist graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary who were uneasy with “Conservative” and preferred something more middle-of-the-road than was implied by plain “Orthodox.”31 “For better or for worse,” explained Lamm, the moniker was useful to express the shared “idea of uniting within ourselves two worlds—that of Judaism and that of the larger culture, the one that is expressed in Western civilization.”32 In the coming months, Lamm continued to waver. In another sermon at the Upper West Side synagogue, Lamm confessed that he was “uncomfortable with the title,” and went so far as to admit that “there is an arrogance about this assertion of modernity which should give offense to any intelligent and sensitive man.”33

Other Orthodox intellectuals echoed Lamm’s circumspection. In 1962, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik glibly adopted the “Modern Orthodox” designation as his own, but subsequently dropped it from his public lectures, thereby swiftly distancing himself from it.34 Four years later, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote that he “detested” the term.35 For Greenberg, “Modern Orthodoxy” placed far too much emphasis on “modern culture” and misrepresented Orthodox Judaism’s true guidepost: the Torah. What is more, the younger members of the Orthodox rabbinate like Greenberg were still old enough to recall that it was the traditional-leaning JTS ordained rabbi who described himself as a “modern Orthodox” clergyman.36 The new class of Orthodox rabbis wished for no confusion on that score. Likewise, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman balked at an attempt by sociologist Charles Liebman to anoint him leader of a nascent Modern Orthodox Movement:

Rightly or wrongly, one Jewish sociologist has named me as an ideologist of “modern Orthodoxy.” However, one can hardly regard modern Orthodoxy as a movement: it is no more than a coterie of a score of rabbis in America and in Israel whose interpretations of the Tradition have won the approval of Orthodox intellectuals who are knowledgeable in both Judaism and Western civilization. None of the rabbis feels that he is articulating any position that cannot be supported by reference to authentic Jewish sources. None wants to organize a separate rabbinic body, and several have rejected an attempt to publish an independent periodical, because they did not want the remotest possibility that this form of separatism be interpreted as a schism in Orthodoxy. I, no less than they, deny any claim to innovation.37

Furthermore, while Rackman championed a flexible approach to Halakhah, he was, at least in this period of his life, committed to working alongside Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and other luminaries who did not subscribe to his philosophy of Jewish law.38 In effect, any association with intra-Orthodox sectarianism was something that Rackman wished to avoid.

The members of the Rabbinical Council of America agreed with Rackman on this point. They looked to their Orthodox rabbinical organization to support the likeminded activities of the English-speaking (as opposed to the unilingual Yiddish immigrants) graduates of Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago but not to emancipate themselves from other leading Orthodox rabbis and institutions. Its Halacha Committee, according to one writer, “was formed to answer questions submitted by individual members” and offer some “guidelines” to others.39 Far from paving a road of isolationism, its members were consistently cautious not to issue rulings that contrasted with—or, at least, veered too far away from—more rightwing Orthodox groups like the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim and the Iggud Ha-Rabbonim.40 In fact, during the 1950s, the executive leadership of the RCA advocated for a sort of partnership with those other rabbinical organizations.41 As a result, the RCA’s Halacha Committee never claimed the large role that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards assumed in Conservative Judaism.

However, Norman Lamm eventually recognized a great value in religious labels and encouraged his colleagues and congregants to assume an unabashedly “Modern Orthodox” identity. What propelled him was not a need to establish a certain kind of Orthodox Judaism. Rather, Lamm wished to offer a suitable agenda for the thousands of university-trained Orthodox Jews in the suburbs and in high-end urban neighborhoods that could no longer relate to the Judaism of their parents or their older rabbis. Truth to tell, it was a propitious moment. By the late 1960s, a generation of Orthodox children had grown up as graduates of Jewish day schools. What is more, thousands of Orthodox youngsters had been inspired by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and the Yavneh collegiate organization.42 In 1968, prominent lay leader of the old guard, Moses Feuerstein, credited young people with launching a “religious revival” among Orthodox Jews in the United States.43

This more Jewishly literate and secularly educated class of Orthodox Jews was well prepared to assume a leadership role, and with Lamm, dubbed one of the “most eloquent spokesmen for modern Orthodoxy,” at the helm.44 Yet, Lamm made it clear that his intention was not to isolate this younger and more “modern” cohort from other Orthodox Jews. He ventured to “formulate the world-view of ‘modern Orthodoxy’ in a manner that is Halachically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing.”45 Lamm did not seek to form a “movement in the accepted sense of the term.” Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, head of the Teslshe Yeshiva in Chicago and strong critic of the Orthodox Left, was the first to articulate this point. In fact, Keller was pleased that a centrist personality like Lamm rather than someone like Rackman who wished to institute “concrete policies and substantive changes in life-style” was driving this development.46

The best way to describe Rabbi Lamm’s creation is as a “sub-movement” within Orthodox Judaism. There were, of course, important distinctions between Modern Orthodox Judaism and the Orthodox Right. Lamm and other Yeshiva University-trained rabbis cheered on secular education, supported Religious Zionism and advocated for religiously neutral dialogue with their Conservative and Reform counterparts. Others did not; some like Rabbi Shimon Schwab boisterously discouraged these notions.47 Still, the common ground was large enough for Modern Orthodox exponents to maintain strong bonds and coexist with the Orthodox Right within the larger traditionalist camp. In large measure, unity was maintained because of Modern Orthodoxy’s reluctance to found a firm halakhic body unto itself.

Other writers read by Modern Orthodox Jews at the time, expressed a similar reluctance to develop a code of Halakhah that stood apart from other traditionalist groups. Take, for instance, the writings of Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, then spiritual leader of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue of New York’s Upper East Side. In the 1960s, he contributed a regular series of essays on Jewish Law in the semi-academic journal of the RCA, Tradition. According to one observer, Jakobovits’s “Review of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature” was the “journal’s showpiece” and its “most popular feature.”48 Jakobovits was part of a chorus of rabbinic writers who eschewed calls for reconsiderations of Jewish law and the like.49 With Orthodox progressivist Emanuel Rackman in mind, he cautioned against philosophizing in a manner that could lead to radical interpretations of the Talmud and its codes. “It is not always easy, or even possible,” he once wrote, “to extract the spirit from the law, at least not with any degree of precision and certainty.”50

To ensure that none of his halakhic essays ventured beyond “acceptable” standards, Jakobovits routinely cited halakhic authorities from all sectors (from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits to Hazon Ish) of Orthodox Jewish life. Eventually, Jakobovits relinquished his column due to the burdensome responsibilities that he had assumed as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.51 In 1970, the RCA journal resumed its Halakhah feature under the able direction of Rabbi J. David Bleich, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University. To a degree that surpassed his predecessor, Bleich cast a very wide halakhic net, refusing to close his readers off to scholars of Jewish law from far rightwing circles.52

Before long, the so-called Golden Age of Modern Orthodox Judaism came to a close. “The 1960s, perhaps the high point of modern orthodoxy in America,” as noted by one commentator, eventually gave way to the 1970s and a waning of Modern Orthodox spirit.53 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, then of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York and one of Modern Orthodoxy’s brightest lights, attributed this, in part, to what he perceived as the community’s inability to produce “genuine Talmidei Chachamim,” bona fide Torah scholars.54 Unlike Lamm, Riskin was one of a few Modern Orthodox leaders who at times expressed a desire to see Modern Orthodoxy expand into a full-fledged movement. He recognized that this was not possible without the production of a Modern Orthodox brand of Halakhah to serve as the institutional scaffolding of a religious movement.

Riskin’s critique was harsh. Still, it was certainly the case that the Modern Orthodox outsourced their halakhic questions to non-Modern Orthodox authorities rather than decide matters for themselves. Consider Modern Orthodox Judaism’s relationship with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The halakhic master of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a leading member of the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim and the Mo’etzet Gedolei Ha-Torah of the Agudath Israel; he did not, in any sense, hold an official affiliation with Modern Orthodox institutions. Nonetheless, Feinstein was without doubt the go-to rabbi for Orthodox centrists. “A joke among clergymen,” told one observer in the 1970s, “is that at the back of every young rabbi’s ordination certificate, for a quick answer to any religious question, is Rabbi Feinstein’s phone number.”55 In truth, this was hardly a joking matter. Feinstein loomed large in Modern Orthodox Judaism’s exploration of “women’s issues” in the synagogue. In 1974, Rabbi Lamm permitted considerably scaled-down bat mitzvah celebrations in his Manhattan synagogue, owing to that “one of the great decisors of our generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein” was “unhappy about the Bat Mitzvah” and permitted it with “only the greatest reluctance”56 A year later, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer of the Young Israel of Brookline turned to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to decide whether his congregation could allow women to dance with Torah scrolls on the Simhat Torah holiday. The latter was reportedly wary to introduce this practice but urged Kelemer to query Feinstein for a definitive ruling (the decision was an emphatic “no”).57

All of these developments and posturings helped establish a critical trend for Modern Orthodoxy in its first decades as a sub-movement within Orthodox Judaism. The community would not attempt to establish a firm set of halakhic guidelines apart from other Orthodox Jews in the United States. Moreover, this moderate impulse precipitated a particularly defining moment. In 1975, Emanuel Rackman proposed a solution to the agunah program. His formula was not too different from the one proposed by Rabbi Louis Epstein to the Rabbinical Assembly in the 1930s. In a memorable discourse, Rabbi Soloveitchik asked the RCA if its members “expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis?” In other words, Soloveitchik challenged his students and colleagues to remain within the broader Orthodox realm. Acceptance of the Rackman proposal, according to him, then, would remove the RCA from the Orthodox rabbinic fraternity. It would have represented a new direction in Halakhah. The RCA did not defy Soloveitchik. Rackman was rebuffed, and the sub-movement known as Modern Orthodoxy continued along as part of the broader Orthodox community.58

Open Orthodox Judaism and its “Web of Choices”

Recently, a reporter asked Rabbi Avi Weiss whether he believed that he and his disciples had formed a new religious movement in American Judaism. He demurred, asserting that religious movements cannot be formed in an instant. “You don’t announce movements, they evolve.”59 Weiss did not always think along these passive lines. Long ago, he envisioned a “Movement of Halakhic Judaism” that included parts of the Modern Orthodox community and the rightwing sector of the Conservative Movement, but only if the latter was willing to make considerable compromises to placate the former. “A natural offspring of such a ‘Movement’ would,” offered Weiss, “be a rabbinical school.”60 Despite an “enthusiastic” response to the message, the fusion of the Conservative Right and Orthodox Left never materialized.61

However, for Weiss, the vision of a rabbinical school lingered. In 1999, Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He and Rabbi Dov Linzer envisioned the upstart seminary as a center to forge an “Open Orthodox” rabbinate. Some years earlier, Weiss had articulated his Open Orthodoxy as a new expression of the Modern Orthodox Judaism to which he and others had long subscribed—an ideology that “is open to secular studies,” “open to non-Jews and less observant Jews,” “open to the state of Israel as having religious meaning,” “open to increased women’s participation.” As he wrote in 1997:

It is for this reason that I believe that the term that best describes this vision of Orthodoxy, is “Open Orthodox.” It is open, in that our ideology acknowledges, considers, and takes into account in varying ways a wide spectrum of voices. It is Orthodox, in that our commitment to Halakha is fervent and demanding.62

In its original conception, “Open Orthodoxy” was a term that Weiss coined to refine and shape his Modern Orthodox community. In contrast, Weiss’s and Linzer’s later pithy presentation of their Open Orthodox creed did not align itself with any form of long-established Modern Orthodox brand. Instead, Open Orthodox Judaism and its innovative rabbinical school stood by itself in an effort to “transform Orthodoxy into a more open and inclusive movement.”63 They launched Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as an alternative to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, offering a more “academic curriculum” and a professional training program on par with the types found in non-Orthodox schools. To observers, it was therefore unclear whether Weiss wished to remain within Modern Orthodoxy or forge something new within Orthodox Judaism.

The subsequent decade brought about more confusion than clarity. In 2008, Weiss cofounded the International Rabbinic Fellowship. The IRF offered YCT graduates a rabbinical fraternity. To date, the Rabbinical Council of America has barred YCT-trained rabbis from its fraternity, unless they come equipped with additional ordination credentials from Israeli organizations and the like. The RCA’s stance is unprecedented and, for some, reminiscent of the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim’s exclusion carte blanche rejection of American-trained Orthodox rabbis. Others argue that the rabbinical group’s position mirrors its relationship to, say, JTS graduates who are beyond the borderlines of Orthodox Judaism. In addition, the National Council of Young Israel also implemented policies to prevent graduates of the liberal Orthodox school from obtaining pulpits in its synagogues.64 “We have created an open space where rabbis don’t have to look over their shoulders and feel intimidated,” said Weiss at the time of the IRF’s founding. “We want to empower them to think for themselves.”65 The IRF provided a fraternal residence for institutionally homeless rabbis. However, Weiss stopped well short of offering a full vision for this organization, let alone announcing a new religious movement.

A year later, Weiss added another important item to his growing Open Orthodox empire. Together with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, he established a seminary to train women to serve as members of the Orthodox clergy.66 From the standpoint of Halakhah, opponents held up the minority view of Maimonides: that women are proscribed from appointment to positions of religious authority.67 Moreover, and more important to these critics, the emergence of female clergy flew in the face of Orthodox Judaism’s longstanding and ironclad tradition (masorah) of a male-dominant leadership.

Despite these developments, scholars could not agree on whether Weiss and his followers were on the brink of establishing a new American Jewish movement. On the one hand, historian Jeffrey Gurock cautioned against overstating the significance of the formation of these institutions. “A wing of Orthodoxy,” he warned, “is just a wing,” To this scholar of Orthodox Jews, Weiss’s Open Orthodoxy was the most recent iteration of the perennial left flank of Orthodox Judaism, only with a touch more fanfare.68 On the other hand, historian Jonathan Sarna saw something more to this: “In American religion, when you have a new seminary and a new board of rabbis, including many who are not accepted to the RCA, one begins to wonder if in fact we are seeing the development of two movements that use the term Orthodox.”69

Since then, the tension has hardly abated. Most scathing are the charges levied by the commentators hailing from the so-called “Yeshiva World.” In 2014, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow declared at an Agudath Israel dinner that Open Orthodox Judaism was “heresy.” He also called on those situated in the centrist camp to “stand up and reject these new deviationists, cloaking themselves in the mantle of Orthodoxy.”70 Others have also taken up the fight. Here is the Yated’s response to an “Open Orthodox” rabbi’s support of homosexual marriage:

The truth is that for those following the escapades of Open Orthodoxy and all of its affiliates, this pronouncement, though sacrilegious and full of rishus (evil), is not surprising. They have been at the forefront of trying to legitimize toeivah (abomination) practice and lifestyle for a long time. Try calling yourself Orthodox, say you believe in the Torah and halachah, while simultaneously celebrating toeivah marriage, and you begin to understand the way that Open Orthodoxy is operating. Their basic mode of operation has been to vociferously maintain that they are Orthodox and retain affiliation with Orthodoxy, while at the same time ascribing to the “progressive” social agenda in vogue today. It is a social agenda that not only does not conform to halachah, but is diametrically opposed to halachah.71

With a Jacob Emden-like fervor, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has published dozens of articles on popular websites and blogs that call into question the authenticity of Open Orthodoxy as part of the broader Orthodox Jewish community. Time and again, he has charged the Open Orthodox leadership with breaking with tradition. He and others strongly condemned two leading Open Orthodox lights of espousing heresy: one denied the divine authorship of the Torah while another downplayed the importance of the messianic redemption. Further, Gordimer has focused a great deal on the kind of rhetoric employed by Weiss and Linzer, finding it provocative and at odds with many traditional commentators.72 As a member of the RCA and employee of the Orthodox Union, Gordimer’s heresy-hunt is more potent than that of the Agudath Israel and other rightwing Orthodox institutions.73

In the end, it will surely be the internal leadership rather than outsiders who determine the contours of the Open Orthodox community. Here, however, there is no consensus. One group has eschewed the use of the title “Open Orthodox,” finding it far more divisive than constructive. The leading voice of this approach occupies the highest seat among the Orthodox Left. In 2012, Weiss announced that he would retire as president of YCT and hand over the reins to Rabbi Asher Lopatin.74 In a departure from the old guard, the new head of YCT is far charier about denominational designations. In fact, his public pronouncements have indicated a desire that his school assume the mantle of Modern Orthodoxy and its sub-movement status rather than further the trailblazing and uncharted path of Open Orthodox Judaism.75

Still, there is a vociferous group that champions the Open Orthodox mantra. In doing so, this cohort has entered into the realm that helped solidify the boundaries of the Conservative and Modern Orthodox adherents: namely, Halakhah. To be sure, Weiss’s decision to ordain women as Orthodox clergy was very much a halakhic decision. He therefore made sure to disseminate formal responsa that supported his actions from leading liberal Orthodox scholars in Israel. Likewise, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, another branch in the Open Orthodox family, has in recent years supported semi-egalitarian prayer services—men still perform the most vital portions of the service—which also reflects a particular halakhic viewpoint. However, neither designed a format or forum to express an Open Orthodox type of Halakhah.

This sort of important institutionalizing activity has only begun in earnest within the last few months. Consider two recent publications. First, the IRF published a dense collection of essays exploring Judaism and brain death. Since the 1970s, Orthodox authorities have argued whether Jewish law may recognize brain death as the definitive expiration of a human being. The issue has several grave ramifications. Most notably, if brain death is actual death then one may harvest viable and vital organs from the “deceased” to help others in need of donations. If not, then the removal of these body parts would be tantamount to murder. Most—but not all—leading halakhists have taken up posts on the stringent side of the debate. Several years ago, the RCA published a report that argued strongly against the recognition of brain death as the “defining moment” of the end of life.76

In contrast, all of the articles in the IRF volume either supported the lenient “brain death position” or conveyed a sympathetic approach to that viewpoint. In particular, one writer, utilizing Maimonides as his lens into Judaism’s view of scientific inquiry, argued that mainstream Orthodoxy and its flagship rabbinical organization were out of touch with modern times: “Whereas the RCA study places the Orthodox community apart from the world of contemporary science and medical practice, Rambam’s emphasis on rational inquiry and evidence allows for a positive encounter with modernity. May we have the wisdom and courage to emulate him.”77 In addition, a number of writers issued strong critiques of Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Hershel Schachter, two important authorities in the mainstream Orthodox arena. Another reopened the controversy over Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s attitude on the matter.78 Still more poignant was the lengthiest essay in the IRF tome. In it, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg ventured beyond the immediate matter of organ donation to address what he perceived as Orthodox Judaism’s failure to embrace creativity and innovation. One particular passage captures Greenberg’s call for a fresh look at Orthodox Judaism’s relationship with Halakhah:

The “no change” approach has crippled halakha’s capacity to respond to the new realities of Jewish sovereignty and the economy of the State of Israel. It hamstrings our ability to move toward greater recognition of women’s dignity and leadership in Israel and the Diaspora alike. Where sources are found to justify women’s greater participation and leadership, the last resort of resistance is to claim that this hasn’t been done and is therefore unacceptable.79

More telling, perhaps, was the appearance of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s “Open Orthodox Haggadah.” The volume sold out in short order. Herzfeld’s Haggadah retained the traditional texts of the Passover rite and contained commentary that reflected much of the Open Orthodox agenda such as the need for increased female religious leadership, calls for new means to protect agunot from recalcitrant husbands and increased Jewish-Christian dialogue. More important, though, was Herzfeld’s inclusion of two Open Orthodox responsa. The first item was his own that permitted women to sing in the presence of men.80 Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat, the author of the second responsum, issued a lenient ruling on immersion practices for converts.81 Add to this a number of responsa published online by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of YCT on an assortment of women’s issues and it would appear that there exists a cadre of scholars interested in furnishing a corpus of Open Orthodox Halakhah.

No doubt, all of this is a far more humble and less ambitious enterprise than Rabbi Louis Finkelstein’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. At the very same time, the Open Orthodox’s willingness to explore the broader halakhic terrain has outpaced the initial, more circumspect steps traversed by Rabbi Norman Lamm and his colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s. This, then, returns the discussion to the matter of historical contingencies. The destinies of religious movements are set in motion by a “web of choices” determined by its rabbinic leaders and laypeople. For those communities that veer toward traditional Jewish practice, the establishment of organizations to set forth halakhic boundaries is a pivotal step in the creation of new religious movements. This helps explain how the Conservative Movement parted ways with Orthodox Judaism and clarifies Modern Orthodoxy’s ability to remain within the fold.

In the final analysis, the fate of the Open Orthodox and its place within American Judaism will also depend on similar crucial choices. For those who draw their lines along various women’s issues, the schism has already occurred. I have argued that movements do not part ways on single positions, no matter how controversial. This sort of divisiveness is animated by the establishment of new and exclusive halakhic bodies. These kinds of institutional mechanisms tend to isolate one community’s religious observance from another.


In 1968, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan opened his Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. For decades, Kaplan represented the leftwing of Conservative Judaism. His views were intolerable to many within the Conservative camp but Kaplan was “determined not to be divisive.”82 For years, Kaplan managed to avoid schism within the movement. Nevertheless, after his retirement from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Kaplan and his followers recognized that they had moved far beyond the borders of Conservative Judaism and opted to formally found Reconstructionist Judaism. In a sense, Kaplan chose between his own creative principles and fidelity to the Conservative Movement. He surrendered unity for the sake of his Reconstructionist beliefs. For his opponents within Conservative Judaism, Kaplan’s departure was a relief. For others who were inspired by Kaplan but comfortable within Conservative Judaism, it was a traumatic moment.

I am reminded of this historical moment due to the recent events that have transpired since I completed this essay. Since then, Rabbi Avi Weiss and other Open Orthodox leaders resigned from the RCA.83 Shortly therefore, Weiss published another essay on Open Orthodox Judaism. In it, he asked and answered the questions dealt with above:

Since the founding of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), and some years later, Yeshivat Maharat (YM), I and others have been asked whether we are creating a new movement within Orthodoxy. Movements are generally not announced; they evolve. They are not proclaimed; they emerge, sometimes gradually, other times, swiftly. Their growth is usually painstaking, surfacing here and there. While they meet opposition, if they are strong and viable, they coalesce to become a powerful voice. It’s only years later that one can assess whether a movement has taken root.84

Surely, Kaplan and Weiss differ markedly in their theologies and worldview. Yet, there is an important commonality. Weiss’s essay represents a significant departure from his earlier articulations. In the 1990s, he had attempted to shape Orthodox Judaism from within that religious camp. The results were rather mixed. Attempts to develop an Open Orthodox creed that could fit within the borders of American Orthodoxy were met with resistance from many people. Now, it appears that Weiss and the leaders of other, more-developed, Jewish law-driven Open Orthodox institutions are content to venture alone—outside of the “camp”—and to let others determine whether they are in fact Orthodox or not. Much like Mordecai Kaplan, there will be some who are relieved and others who will be dismayed. I count myself among the disappointed group. I submit that this is not because I subscribe to Rabbi Weiss’s beliefs—I personally do not—but because recent events betray an earlier commitment to working cooperatively within the Orthodox Jewish community. In the future, it appears that it will be the task of others who are still within the pale to lead Orthodox Judaism.

About the Author: Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. He earned his PhD in the field of American Jewish history at Brandeis University under the mentorship of Dr. Jonathan Sarna.  He was ordained at Yeshiva University and received an MA in Education from Columbia University. Dr. Eleff is the author and editor of six books and more than thirty scholarly articles. His forthcoming volumes include Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS) and Pulpits, Power and Pews (Oxford University Press). Both are expected to appear in 2016.

  1. I am very grateful to several friends who offered comments and criticisms that improved this article. I benefited greatly from conversations and support from Yitzi Ehrenberg, Moshe Schapiro, Ben Steiner, Yair Sturm and Shimon Unterman.

    [1] I. Schwartz, “Kabbolas HaTorah and Modern-Day Rejectionists,” Yated Ne’eman (May 22, 2015):102-3. 

  2. Zev Farber, “The Opening of Devarim: A Recounting or Different Version of the Wilderness Experience?,”, (accessed July 24, 2015). 

  3. See, for example, Shmuel Herzfeld, The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2015), 58. Compare this to earlier articulations discussed in Zev Eleff, ““Psychohistory and the Imaginary Couch: Diagnosing Historical and Biblical Figures,” Journal of American Academy of Religion 80 (March 2012): 94-136. 

  4. Herzfeld, The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah, xix. 

  5. See, for instance, Harold Sharfman, The First Rabbi: Origins of Conflict Between Orthodox and Reform (Malibu: Pangloss Press, 1988); and Bernhard N. Cohn, “Historical Notes,” American Jewish Archives Journal 6 (January 1954): 16-24. 

  6. Michael A. Meyer, Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion: A Centennial History, 1875-1975 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1992), 7-47. For this and Reform Halakhah in the twentieth century, see Joan S. Friedman, “Guidance, Not Governance”: Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2013). 

  7. See Jonathan Sarna, “The Parting of the Ways: How Conservative and Orthodox Judaism in the United States Became Two Separate Movements,” unpublished conference paper, 2009. Dr. Sarna’s essay and perspective informs much of the present article. 

  8. See David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 365. 

  9. See Max Drob, “A Reaffirmation of Traditional Judaism,” Jewish Forum 12 (October 1929): 416-20. 

  10. See “A Dangerous Situation,” American Hebrew (June 17, 1904): 130. 

  11. See Eugene Kohn, The Future of Judaism in America (New Rochelle: The Liberal Press, 1934), 98. 

  12. Louis Finkelstein, “The Things that Unite Us,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1 (1927): 42-53. 

  13. Max Kadushin, “Discussion: The Things that Unite Us,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1 (1927): 63. 

  14. Eugene Kohn, “Discussion: The Things that Unite Us,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 1 (1927): 59. 

  15. Louis Finkelstein, “Traditional Law and Modern Life,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 3 (1929): 29. 

  16. Michael R. Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). 

  17. Jeffrey S. Gurock “From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious Worlds of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth-Century America,” in American Jewish Identity Politics, ed. Deborah Dash Moore (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 159-204. 

  18. Julius H. Greenstone, “Report of the Committee on the Interpretation of the Jewish Law,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 3 (1929): 59. 

  19. Epstein had already addressed the RA on this issue. See Louis M. Epstein, “Marriage Annulment,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 2 (1928): 71-83. 

  20. Louis Finkelstein, “The Present and Future of Traditional Judaism in America,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 4 (1932): 10. 

  21. Ibid., 12. 

  22. Louis M. Epstein, “A Solution to the Agunah Problem,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 4 (1932): 87. 

  23. Louis M. Epstein, “Adjustment of the Jewish Marriage Laws to Present-Day Conditions,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary 5 (1935-1936): 232. 

  24. See Regina Stein, “The Boundaries of Gender: The Role of Gender Issues in Forming American Jewish Denominational Identity, 1913-1963” (PhD diss., Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1998), 276-77. 

  25. Julius H. Greenstone, “Report of Committee on Jewish Law,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 6 (1933-1938): 31. 

  26. Julius H. Greenstone, “Report of Committee on Jewish Law,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 6 (1933-1938): 433. 

  27. Milton Steinberg, “About Rabbi Epstein’s New Book,” Bulletin of the Rabbinical Assembly 3 (November 1939): 14. See also Stein, “The Boundaries of Gender,” 285. 

  28. Yehudah Leib Epstein, Li-She’elat ha-Agunah (New York, 1940), 16. 

  29. See Jenna Weissman Joselit, “In the Driver’s Seat: Rabbinic Authority in Postwar America,” in Jewish Religious Leadership: Image and Reality, vol. II, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2004), 659-70; Pamela S. Nadell, “New and Expanding Horizons,” in A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly, ed. Robert E. Fierstein (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2000), 92-93; and Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “The Turning of the Tide: The Kashrut Tale of the Swordfish,” BDD 19 (January 2008): 33-36. 

  30. Several years earlier, in fact, Lamm expressed some unease about the use of the term “Orthodox” to describe Halakhic Judaism. See Norman Lamm, “Is Traditional Orthodox,” Chavrusa 4 (March-April 1960): 4. 

  31. See, for example, “Modern Orthodoxy,” American Hebrew (April 7, 1916): 630; Solomon Zucrow, Adjustment of Law to Life in Rabbinic Literature (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1928), 183; and S. Felix Mendelsohn, “The Question Box,” Chicago Sentinel (February 11, 1943): 9. 

  32. Norman Lamm, “The Purists,” Sermon delivered at The Jewish Center, December 14, 1968, New York, NY, The Lamm Archives, Yeshiva University, New York, NY. 

  33. Norman Lamm, “The Arrogance of Modernism,” Sermon delivered at The Jewish Center, May 23, 1969, New York, NY, The Lamm Archives, Yeshiva University, New York, NY. 

  34. See Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Fir Derashot (New York: Orot, 1967), 29. 

  35. Irving Greenberg, “A Letter to the Editor,” Jewish Observer 3 (December 1966): 16. 

  36. See, for example, “Prominent Rabbi,” American Hebrew (November 5, 1920): 758. For an early negative view of the “Modern Orthodox” labelling, see Uriel Zimmer, The Jewish Adolescent: A Guide for Today’s Girl (Brooklyn: Balshon, 1963), 99. 

  37. Emanuel Rackman, “A Challenge to Orthodoxy,” Judaism 18 (Spring 1969): 46. 

  38. See Emanuel Rackman, “Halachic Progress: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s Igrot Moshe on Even Ha-Ezer,” Judaism 13 (Summer 1964): 365-73. On Rackman’s flexible view of Jewish law, see Emanuel Rackman, “Can We Moderns Keep the Sabbath,” Commentary 18 (September 1954): 211-20. 

  39. Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate (New York: Shengold, 1982), 34. 

  40. Ibid., 42. 

  41. Ibid., 132-35. 

  42. See Zev Eleff, “‘Viva Yeshiva!’: The Tale of the Mighty Mites and the College Bowl,” American Jewish History 96 (December 2010): 287-305. 

  43. See Speeches and Addresses Given by Rabbis and Religious Lay Leaders at First World Conference of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Synagogues (Jerusalem: World Conference of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Synagogues, 1972), 94. 

  44. See James Yaffe, The American Jews (New York: Random House, 1968), 133 and Charles S. Liebman, Pressure Without Sanctions: The Influence of World Jewry on Israeli Policy (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1977), 261. 

  45. Norman Lamm, “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis,” Jewish Life 36 (May-June 1969): 6. 

  46. Chaim Dov Keller, “Modern Orthodoxy: An Analysis and a Response,” Jewish Observer 6 (June 1970): 3-4. Later, Keller targeted Lamm in a number of writings. See Chaim Keller, “A Letter that Should NOT Have Had to Have Been Published,” Jewish Observer 28 (June 1995): 30-32; and Chaim Dov Keller, “Where Do You Draw the Line: An Open Letter to Rabbi Norman Lamm,” Yated Ne’eman (February 20, 2004): 4. 

  47. See Zev Eleff, “Between Bennett and Amsterdam Avenues: The Complex American Legacy of Samson Raphael Hirsch,” Tradition 46 (Winter 2013): 8-27. For a clear articulation on the points of disagreement between Modern Orthodox Judaism and Rightwing Orthodox ideology, see Aryeh Z. Ginzberg, “The RCA Controversy,” Jewish Week (July 27, 1990): 22. 

  48. David Singer, “Voices of Orthodoxy,” Commentary 58 (July 1974): 57. 

  49. For example, see David Singer, “Debating Modern Orthodoxy at Yeshiva College: The Greenberg-Lichtenstein Exchange of 1966,” Modern Judaism 26 (May 2006): 113-126; and David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 28 (May 2008): 134-48. 

  50. Immanuel Jakobovits, “Review of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature,” Tradition 4 (Spring 1962): 258. 

  51. For his final review essay, see Immanuel Jakobovits, “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature,” Tradition 9 (Winter 1966): 102-11. Upon accepting the call as chief rabbi, Jakobovits believed that he could still maintain his column. See Immanuel Jakobovits, “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature,” Tradition 8 (Fall 1966): 55. 

  52. This was evident from his very first official installment. See J. David Bleich, “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature,” Tradition 11 (Spring 1970): 84-98. 

  53. Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Schocken Books, 2009), 210. 

  54. Shlomo Riskin, “Where Modern Orthodoxy Is At—And Where it is Going,” Jewish Life (Spring 1976): 29. 

  55. Ronald I. Rubin, “The Most Powerful Rabbis in New York,” New York Magazine 12 (January 22, 1979): 41. For a variant version of this “joke,” see Alex Weisfogel, “Y.U.: American Phenomenon,” Jewish Life 37 (May-June 1970): 49. 

  56. See Norman Lamm, “Tradition and Innovation,” November 2, 1974, The Lamm Archives, Yeshiva University, New York, NY. On the history of bat mitzvah, see Regina Stein, “The Road to Bat Mitzvah,” in Women and American Judaism, eds. Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 223-34. 

  57. See Aryeh A. Frimer and Dov I. Frimer, “Women’s Prayer Services—Theory and Practice,” Tradition 32 (Winter 1998): 32-33. 

  58. See Lawrence Kaplan, “From Cooperation to Conflict: Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy,” Modern Judaism 30 (February 2010): 46-68. 

  59. Amanda Borschel-Dan, “At Orthodox Women’s Ordination, Preaching a Halacha of Compassion,” Times of Israel (June 11, 2015). Available at: (accessed on June 24, 2015). 

  60. Avraham Weiss, “Is An Alliance Between The Modern Or Centrist Orthodox And The Conservative Traditional Movement Possible?,” June 11, 1989, paper delivered at the convention of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, Union for Traditional Judaism Archives, New York, NY. 

  61. “Conference ’89—A Retrospective,” Hagahelet 3 (Winter 1990): 3. 

  62. Avraham Weiss, “Open Orthodoxy!: A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed,” Judaism 46 (Fall 1997): 418. See also his point of clarification in note 33. 

  63. Dov Linzer and Avi Weiss. “Creating an Open Orthodox Rabbinate,” Sh’ma 33 (February 2003): 10. 

  64. See Noach Lerman, “Are You ‘Rabbi’ Enough for Young Israel?,” The Commentator (October 15, 2007): 1. 

  65. See Gary Rosenblatt, “Taking on the RCA?,” Jewish Week (May 2, 2008): 30. 

  66. See Anthony Weiss, “Orthodox Women to be Trained as Clergy, if Not Yet as Rabbis,” Forward (May 29, 2009): 1. 

  67. On Maimonides view as a minority position in Halakhah, see Moshe Feinstein, “Im Ishah Yekholah le-Hiyot Mashgihah al Kashrut,” Ha-Pardes 35 (October 1960): 12-13; Meir Amsel, “Ishah Ke-Mashgihah al Kashrut ve-Din Pasul Ishah bi-khol ha-Mesimot,” Hamaor 10 (October 1960): 14; and Moshe Feinstein, “Bi-Din Pasul Ishah bi-Mesimot,“ Hamaor 10 (December 1960): 4-5. 

  68. See, for example, Jacob Neusner, “The New Orthodox Left,” Conservative Judaism 20 (Fall 1965): 10-18. 

  69. See Sarah Breger, “Do 1 Rabba + 2+ Rabbis + 1 Yeshiva = A New Denomination?,” Moment 35 (December 2010): 63. 

  70. See Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Agudath Israel’s Leading Rabbi Blasts Non-Orthodox as Heretical at Fundraiser,” Forward (June 6, 2014): 12. 

  71. Avroham Birnbaum, “‘Orthodox’ Rabbis Celebrate Sedom,” Yated Ne’eman (July 3, 2015): 18. My thanks to Zev Blechner for alerting me to this editorial so that I could include it in the final draft of this essay. 

  72. For his most comprehensive critique, see Avrohom Gordimer, “Open Orthodoxy and the Rebirth of the Conservative Movement,” Cross-Currents, July 27, 2014, (accessed on June 28, 2015)  

  73. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, NJ, has also written a number of highly critical essays on Open Orthodoxy, in tones that exceed Gordiner’s. See, for example, Steven Pruzansky, “Our Generation’s Mechitza,” Rabbi Pruzansky’s Blog, July 8, 2015, (accessed on July 21, 2015)  

  74. See Uriel Heilman, “Asher Lopatin to Succeed Avi Weiss at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (August 27, 2012). 

  75. See, for example, Asher Lopatin, “How to Rejuvenate Modern Orthodoxy,” Mosaic (August 19, 2014). 

  76. See Asher Bush e. al., Halachic Issues in the Determination of Death and in Organ Transplantation (New York: Vaad Halacha of the Rabbinical Council of America, 2010). See also David Shabtai, Defining the Moment: Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah (New York: Shoresh Press, 2012). 

  77. Charles Sheer, “Torah u-Madda and the Brain Death Debate,” in Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death, ed. Zev Farber (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2015), 391. 

  78. Marc Angel et al., “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Brain Death and Organ Donation: A Testimony,” 221-27. 

  79. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, “A Life of Halakha or a Halakha of Life?,” 309. 

  80. Shmuel Herzfeld, The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah, 42-48. 

  81. Ibid., 150-65. 

  82. See Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 362. 

  83. See “In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (June 29, 2015). 

  84. Avi Weiss, “Defining ‘Open Orthodoxy,’” Tablet Magazine (June 30, 2015). 

About Zev Eleff

Rabbi Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).


  1. Where does the will of the laity fit in? It seems to me that the Conservative movement was led down their path by where their pew dwellers wanted them to go.

  2. I thought the label Rabbi Lamm coined was “Centrist”, not “Modern”, though I never understood how the term clarified anything in any case.

  3. The writer adopts the traditional position that the ghetto walls are there for the Jews’ benefit – to keep the world out. He fails to acknowledge that the entire Jewish world is a continuum – and that there is far too much intra-family overlap to consider such gradations in thought as separate denominations.

    And he also forgets that there are black hat shuls where, because he is a RIETS musmach, they’ll call him “Mister”

  4. Thank you for your discussion of Rabbi Lamm who exhibited Gevurah and humility in his approach to Judaism and kept modern orthodoxy squarely within orthodoxy despite his critics both from the right and left.

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