Proud to be Open Orthodox!

In the last decade and a half I have been fortunate to study in a great variety of yeshivot and to have forged deep connections with many types of Jews. I have happily lived in Washington Heights and studied at Yeshiva University, where I encountered some amazing minds and souls in the beit midrash and in the academy. I deeply enjoyed my years in Religious-Zionist yeshivot in Efrat and Jerusalem, learning with my revered teachers Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Chaim Brovender, and Nathan Lopes Cardozo, and I have also grown immensely in my time studying in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot both in Jerusalem (in Mea Shearim) and America (in a Lakewood Kollel). Through these experiences I feel an expansive connection, having significant relationships in the “yeshivish” community, in Chabad, in Ultra/Centrist Orthodoxy, in Modern/Open Orthodoxy, and of course even among those outside of Orthodoxy and Judaism. I appreciate the diversity of Orthodoxy, of Judaism, and of humankind.

In concert with these experiences, my four years of rabbinical training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) transformed me in ways I could never imagine through some of the most critical, immersive, and introspective Torah analysis I have encountered. As a result of my experiences to date and especially because of my study with and learning from such compassionate mentors and luminary talmidei chachamim, I am proud to tell the non-Orthodox that we are committed to halakhah, talmud Torah, and to the welfare of the entire Orthodox community. And I am proud to tell the Centrist and Ultra-Orthodox communities that we deeply value our relationships with non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, our secular studies, our Zionism, and our support for increased leadership for Orthodox women. We strive to be Torah-true and integrated Jews, and to recognize and admire the diversity of Jewish life in general and Orthodox life in particular.

The Diversity of Orthodoxy

As Open Orthodox Jews, we affirm that Orthodox Judaism is stronger when we embrace our diversity. In Open Orthodox expression, diverse people committed to halakhic life come together to learn, pray, lead, and celebrate in an inclusive and expansive manner. I have deep appreciation for kabbalist thought and rational thought, Israeli Judaism and diaspora Judaism, masculine spirituality and feminine spirituality, outreach campaigns and in-reach campaigns, Kollel learners and philanthropists, those content and those agitated. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put the diversity of Orthodoxy well:

Orthodoxy is not a denomination. It encompasses astonishing variations… different groups evolved widely different responses to modernity…Orthodoxy, then, is diverse…. To what might we compare it? Perhaps the best analogy is a language. A language is determined by rules of syntax and semantics. But within that language an infinite number of sentences can be uttered or books written. Within it, too, there can be regional accents and dialects. Orthodoxy is determined by beliefs and commandments. These are its rules of syntax and semantics. But within that framework lies an open-ended multiplicity of cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and cultural styles (One People, 92-93).

In “Confrontation,” Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, cautioned that “The Westernized Jew maintains that it is impossible to engage in both confrontations, the universal and the covenantal, which, in his opinion, are mutually exclusive” (II:1). The Rav rejected that one must either be solely human, American, and secular or solely Jewish, religious, and separated.

The Challenge of Integrity

Today, sadly, many Jews have pulled back into isolation in “ghettos” or into full assimilation. To truly affirm both the Torah and an open approach to the world has become increasingly challenging for the 21st-century Jew. Rav Kook taught us that simple party affiliations or language affirmations do not reveal true beliefs:

There is denial that is like an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith akin to denial. A person can affirm the doctrine of the Torah coming from “heaven,” but with the meaning of “heaven” so strange that nothing of true faith remains. And a person can deny Torah coming from “heaven” where the denial is based on what the person has absorbed of the meaning of “heaven” from people full of ludicrous thoughts. Such a person believes that the Torah comes from a source higher than that! Although that person may not have reached the point of truth, nonetheless this denial is to be considered akin to an affirmation of faith. “Torah from Heaven” is but an example for all affirmations of faith, regarding the relationship between their expression in language and their inner essence, the latter being the main desideratum of faith (Orot Ha’emunah, 25).

I have met many perceived to be “liberal” who possessed the deepest of faith and many considered to be “more traditional” with a gap between their garb and their heart. I have learned (and continue to strive) not to be judgmental of others’ religious lives, but to partner with others in our collective aspiration to live a life of integrity.

The Faith of Open Orthodoxy

To me, the great contribution of Open Orthodoxy can be that we are committed to a Judaism that holds the fundamental paradox of being simultaneously particularistic and universal. Our commitments are not solely to the 10% of Jews in America who identify as Orthodox, but to the entire community, to all of klal Yisrael. We are fully committed to Jewish law, supporting Jews and the State of Israel, and celebrating the uniqueness of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. And we are also fully committed to partnership with non-Jews, fighting global injustice, and celebrating our differences and commonalities with other peoples. I have found through the building of the Orthodox social justice movement (Uri L’Tzedek), that the latter can be just as Jewish as the former when it is rooted in Torah and Jewish ethics. Open Orthodoxy, to me, does not just mean that we are a little bit more open on this issue and a little bit more inclusive on that issue (as important as openness and inclusivity are); to me, rather, Open Orthodoxy means that we are committed to Judaism and to the world, to Jews and to all humanity. We are Torah Jews and global citizens, and those identities inform and inspire each other.

To have true faith in the Torah is to believe that it has – and we as its guardians, interpreters, and transmitters have – a message for the world. If this is the case, then the totality of our study cannot be an occasional or even regular sermon, class, or beit midrash study session. Rather, these core values must be manifest in many ways throughout our lives. This is what I find so compelling in an Open Orthodox approach to halakhah, that it strives to integrate our entire lives—even those parts frequently labeled secular—into a life of Torah. We understand that God’s presence is in the history we are living, and so we do not hide from the present, from the world around and within us. For me, halakhah is not about blind irrational submission but about intentional transformation (tikkun atzmi, tikkun kehilla, tikkun medina, tikkun olam).  Halakha literally translates as “progress.” While it’s deeply rooted in the past and guided by core Torah values, it’s primarily future looking to help solve societal problems, bring holiness into our lives, and cultivate the ethical personality.

Machloket l’Shem Shamayim

There are those who are concerned by the expansion of Open Orthodoxy. Sometimes they have offered constructive critique. This we welcome, in the spirit of genuine machloket l’shem shamayim (an argument for the sake of heaven). All people have the right—and, for those of us in positions of leadership, the responsibility—to teach their approach to Torah in an open marketplace of ideas. But sometimes concern about Open Orthodoxy has given way to being threatened by it. Sometimes Orthodox leaders have publicly, and more often privately, defamed and hurt the professions of Open Orthodox rabbis. I see nothing noble in such actions. I do not think we should be in the business of defining others’ identities for them.

Torah, and the Orthodox community, is strongest when we positively keep our eyes on the prize, when we stay out of political infighting, when we eschew demeaning and invalidating others. I have faith in the religious community as astute and perceptive. I believe religious people will gravitate toward truth wherever they find it, and not be persuaded by angry polemics that seek more to destroy than to build, to compete rather than to collaborate.

If one observed major segments of the Orthodox community, one might come to think that following blogs of who is in or out of Orthodoxy is the central activity of religious Judaism, more important than Torah learning, supporting Israel, spending time with family, and acts of loving-kindness. G-d forbid this becomes the norm, and those of us in Jewish leadership must constantly steer the community back to the central tenets and commitments of our faith.

I admit my bias. I love Rabbi Avi Weiss like a father and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg like a grandfather. I admire Rabbi Asher Lopatin moving about the community, and Rabbi Dov Linzer teaching and learning in the beit midrash. I trust their judgment on how they guide our community. I feel my YCT teachers and friends are like intimate family and my classmates have become my rebbes. I pray that our community will grow because I love G-d, Torah, and Israel, but also because I love my partners in building a more open, inclusive, and rigorous Jewish community. I feel challenged and liberated in a dynamic Orthodoxy that touches my spiritual core on a daily basis.

I am so proud to be Orthodox and also to “expand the palace of Torah” (as Rav Kook taught) to engage more creatively in secular study, to increase our engagement with and support for Israel, to increase women’s roles in Orthodox leadership, to expand our solidarity work for justice outside of Orthodoxy, and to engage in deeper spiritual practices. My teachers, colleagues, and I will be critiqued because we are on a radical mission to take responsibility for the Torah and defend the tradition in the post-modern era, but those critiques will not deter us. In fact, they strengthen our resolve for this supremely critical mission. We will always welcome tochacha, constructive feedback, when given with wisdom and proper good intentions. But we must dismiss destructive, mendacious, and unsophisticated public attacks. Our role is to serve G-d, to increase the awareness of G-d among klal Yisrael and kol yoshvei tevel (greater Israel and all the inhabitants of the world), and to mend the brokenness in the world. Those striving to serve G-d cannot be governed by fear. True religious leadership requires both enormous humility and enormous courage. We have too much holy work to do in such a short period of time to give any time or attention to those demanding our obedience to their specific norms and ideologies.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.