Q. Yoram Hazony has published a critique of the so-called “Open Orthodoxy” movement in which he more or less says that “Open” Orthodoxy is too open to be Orthodox. What do you think?
A. First let us look at the terminology. “Open” and “Modern” Orthodoxy are not the same thing. Modern Orthodoxy basically tries to live in and connect with modernity, and in that sense it probably represents the majority of today’s Orthodox Jews.
This is not to be taken as in any way denigrating the Charedim, whose critics deride their garb and call them “ultra-orthodox”. Though they often (but not always) utilise modern developments in the field of technology, the Charedim have a passionate focus on tradition. Whether Chassidic or non-Chassidic, they have impressive levels of Torah learning, observance of the commandments, and creating large families.
Both they and the Modern Orthodox stand for halachah, but the Modern Orthodox are more accepting of university education and participation in western culture. Modern Orthodoxy takes for granted the existence and authority of God and the authority of Torah.
Some people prefer the title “Open Orthodoxy”, but it has come to mean something theologically dangerous. Hazony writes of a Shabbat symposium at an Orthodox synagogue in which “Open” Orthodox speakers – including the rabbi of the congregation, and apparently also including scholars from Bar Ilan University in Israel – put forward a highly untraditional view of the Bible in which nothing Biblical is as it seems. Literary, historical and sociological studies are utilised to argue that the Bible as we have it cannot be true.
It might have helped if there were a leavening of self-criticism and self-doubt amongst the speakers, if, like Rashi sometimes, they humbly said, “I really don’t know”, but they were so full of themselves that their view might have been open but it wasn’t Orthodox.
A modern writer has said, “Some people’s minds are so open that their brains fall out”. In this case I tend to think that the rabbi and the speakers had let their brains fall out. If they recited traditional liturgy with its constant God-talk (“God gave us the Torah”) they presumably said under their breath, “Sorry, God, but these are only words and I don’t really mean them”. If they read the Torah in services, they presumably said, “This is how my ancestors lived, but I have a different mental stance”.
Are there intellectual problems with tradition? Are there linguistic problems, historical problems?
The sages of the Talmud were not unaware of the problems and debated them in great detail. But in the end, the Talmud and the tradition had a clear commitment: “God is true, the word of God is true, the Divine mind is wise, and I don’t presume to cast my teachers and the beliefs of the tradition onto the scrap-heap.”
A century ago, a student attended a philosophical lecture by the German Jewish scholar Hermann Cohen and came up to him in tears with the words, “Very fine reasoning, Professor, but what has happened to the Ribbono Shel Olam?”