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Avi Weiss Defends ‘Open Orthodoxy’ as Agudah Rabbis Declare War

A group of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis issued a proclamation November 2 asserting that the so-called Open Orthodox movement is not legitimately Orthodox and that rabbis ordained in its seminaries are not rabbis.

The proclamation by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who guide the Agudath Israel of America, is the latest salvo against Open Orthodoxy, the left-leaning Modern Orthodox institutions associated with Rabbi Avi Weiss.

The new proclamation specifically targets the Open Orthodox-affiliated institutions Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which trains rabbis, Yeshivat Maharat, which trains female religious leaders, and a small rabbinical association called the International Rabbinic Fellowship. The proclamation charges that the Open Orthodox “have shown countless times that they reject the basic tenets of our faith, particularly the authority of the Torah and its Sages.”

Weiss, who is rabbi emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, told the Forward that he saw the Agudah’s attack as an affirmation of his group.

“The statement is indicative of the strength of what we’re doing,” Weiss said. “There’s a real split that’s taking place within the Orthodox community, and we represent a more open and inclusive Orthodoxy, the real modern Orthodoxy.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of YCT, sought to shrug off the attack.

“It’s a little disappointing,” Lopatin said, reached via telephone as he was leaving Agudath Israel’s annual legislative breakfast, where, he said, attendees had been friendly to him. “If they had gotten to know who we are, they would have appreciated us as Orthodox Jews and leaders better.”

Open Orthodoxy is not a full-fledged movement, and many of those affiliated with it do not use the term “Open Orthodox” to identify themselves. Its institutions, too, are small: YCT is graduating only its 100th rabbi this year; the IRF has only about 200 members.

Weiss told the Forward that he saw no practical impact of the Agudath Israel rabbis’ statement. Yet in an email to the Forward, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran suggested that some Orthodox rabbis and organizations might not accept conversions or divorces performed by YCT-ordained rabbis.

“There was no precipitating event. This has been mulled by the Moetzes for many months,” Shafran wrote. “I suspect they held off as long as they could in good conscience, in the hope that the new movement might backtrack on some of its positions and statements but finally decided that that simply was not happening.”

The November 2 proclamation is the latest in a number of attacks on Open Orthodoxy by those on its right. At a May 2014 gala, one member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, called Open Orthodoxy heretical.

And the latest proclamation came just days after the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America officially barred the ordination of women and the hiring of female rabbis. The ban specifically prohibited the hiring of women using the title maharat, which was created by Weiss and is exclusively used by the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [email protected] or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis

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