How Orthodox Is Open Orthodoxy?

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by R. Gil Student

My column in last week’s The Jewish Link

Rabbi David Rosenthal recently published a book on an emotionally charged communal issue. The book’s title—Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox—leads with his conclusion. To the author’s credit, he places his agenda front and center. Are we, as a community, willing to entertain this hurtful and painful accusation? We must give the issue due consideration, regardless of whether we ultimately accept or reject Rabbi Rosenthal’s conclusion.

To a secular Jew, the boundaries of Judaism remain vague. After rejecting the traditional matrilineal definition, even Jewishness rests in ambiguity. Yet, secular Jews overwhelmingly reject Messianic Judaism from the tent of Judaism. Ironically, many of these Messianic Jews (somewhat inaccurately called Jews for Jesus, which refers to members of a specific organization) observe more Jewish ritual than the average Jew, keeping some version of kosher and the Sabbath. Yet, broad consensus exists that Jews who accept Jesus as their messiah have crossed a communal boundary that remains undefined. However, even if they cannot precisely define the red line of communal acceptance, these judgmental secular Jews accept that it can be crossed.

Orthodox Judaism has stronger beliefs and practices than secular Judaism. Unlike the broader Jewish community, we reject atheism as theologically unacceptable and would reprimand an atheist rabbi who continues teaching in the name of Orthodox Judaism. If he doesn’t believe in God, he isn’t Orthodox and his teachings do not represent Torah or traditional Judaism. What purpose do we serve by declaring an atheist rabbi non-Orthodox? We prevent him from teaching his heresy to unsuspecting children and adults, who often lack the sophistication to differentiate between traditional and non-traditional beliefs.

Yet, do we want a community in which every rabbi is continually challenged whether he truly believes in God? We dare not allow a theological inquisition nor the suspicion and fear it evokes. We rightly assume that Orthodox rabbis and teachers believe in God unless otherwise indicated. And if they seem to reject God’s existence, a senior community official needs to have a delicate, private conversation to determine whether they should be advised to find other career options. We cannot have atheist rabbis teaching in our shuls and yeshivas. But we also cannot spend our limited energy and resources on weeding out atheists from the rabbinate. We need to find a middle ground between blanket acceptance and relentless inquisition.

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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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