Open Orthodoxy’s Name Game Doesn’t Make It Any More Orthodox

I never did like the name “Open Orthodoxy”.

It doesn’t take a Talmudic genius to see its not-so-subtle insinuation, that the rest of the Orthodox world is somehow…“closed.”

Closed, though, to what? To beliefs at variance with those of the Judaism of the ages? Well, yes, that’s the definition of Orthodoxy.

Closed to innovations rejected by recognized authorities of halacha, or Jewish religious law? Ditto.

Closed to Jews who are unlike ourselves? Tell that to the thousands of non-observant Jews who study daily in community kollelim with non-judgmental Orthodox rabbis, or who participate in efforts like “Partners in Torah” paired study-sessions, or who interact with the myriad traditional Orthodox “outreach” organizations. And that doesn’t even touch on Chabad.

So I was heartened to read that the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” was unceremoniously jettisoned.

Apparently, back in July, The New Jersey Jewish News received a communication from “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,” or “YCT,” the seminary of the movement that must no longer be named, informing the paper that, “We have been referred to as an ‘Open Orthodox Seminary’ by your newspaper, which is incorrect. ‘Open Orthodox’ is not a term that we use to describe ourselves, nor is it part of any language on our site, mission, marketing materials, etc.”

The present tense in that last sentence is used pointedly. Because the term now prohibited was in fact the institution’s credo, included even in its mission statement at its founding in 1999, and was used thereafter until relatively recently.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the father of the now-abandoned phrase, touted the term when he introduced it as “expressing vibrancy, inclusivity and non-judgmentalism,” and as conveying the new movement’s embrace of non-traditional ritual roles for women, embrace of homosexual relationships, relaxation of Jewish religious law’s requirements for conversion and encouragement of interfaith dialogue.

None of that, of course, has changed with the abandonment of the ill-fated phrase. The once “open” group has now claimed an adjective once employed by others but which had fallen into disuse: “Modern”.

Because what was once called “Modern Orthodoxy,” which never dared abandon what the erstwhile “openers” have cast overboard, shed that phrase long ago, in favor of “Centrist Orthodoxy.” And so, with “modern” un-copyrighted, the new group dusted it off and decided that it looked nice on them.

The change, though, of course, is cosmetic. The Open/Modern Orthodox, whose institutions include the earlier mentioned YCT, “Yeshivat Maharat,” which trains women religious leaders, and a small rabbinical association called the International Rabbinic Fellowship (“IRF”), haven’t changed any of their stances.

And so, despite the name-change, a question persists: In what way is the renamed movement’s approach to Judaism different from that of the long-established Conservative movement? Both claim to honor halacha, Jewish religious law, but see a need to “bring it up to date”, to better comport with contemporary values like egalitarianism and acceptance of gay relationships. Both favor “liberalized” rules for conversion and revamped rituals.

Words’ meanings, of course, can change.

Once, not very long ago, “mouse” referred exclusively to a furry little creature, and “gay” simply meant “joyful.” But reasonable people take issue with Humpty Dumpty, who insisted that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” In the real world, most words have objective definitions.

Which leads me to the word “Orthodoxy.” Over the past century or two, it has been synonymous with full acceptance of the Jewish religious tradition – including, of course, the historicity of the Egyptian exodus; the fact that the Torah, both its written and oral elements, was bequeathed our ancestors at Mt. Sinai; and that the patriarchs and matriarchs existed – all concepts that prominent products of or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are on record as questioning.

Orthodoxy has also meant a refusal to custom-tailor halachot and texts so that they can coexist more neatly with contemporary mores – something which the Open Orthodox certainly don’t adhere to.

Were the Open/Modern group to simply call itself a new branch of the faltering Conservative movement, it would be deprived of the free publicity and celebration some Jewish media so eagerly offer it. After all, there’s nothing particularly newsworthy or remarkable about a “Neo-Conservativism” movement. But such a renaming, as PR-unfriendly as it might be, would be the honest way to go.

So, while I’m happy that “Open” has been tossed, I wonder why the YCT/Yeshivat Maharat/IRF nexus is focused on the adjective in its erstwhile self-description at all?

Perhaps what is needed for the movement is not a new adjective, but rather, a new noun.

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Open Orthodoxy’s Name Game Doesn’t Make It Any More Orthodox

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