Open Orthodoxy is a form of Judaism that emphasizes intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension, a broad concern for all Jews, and a more expansive role for women. The term was coined in 1997 by Avi Weiss, who views halakha as being more flexible than his more traditional counterparts.
Weiss's desire for a Judaism that is more inclusive and open-minded than the prevailing norms led him to found new learning institutions to train clergy who would be able to employ this new vision: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) to train new rabbis who will be "open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic, and eager to transform Orthodoxy into a movement that meaningfully and respectfully interacts with all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, or background" and, later, Yeshivat Maharat to train women clergy.
In striving for a more 'liberal' Orthodox Judaism, Weiss was required to clarify the differences between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements within Judaism. He states that all Orthodox Judaism, including Open Orthodoxy, fundamentally differs from Conservative Judaism in three areas.
- Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai in its current form.
- Orthodoxy believes that "legal authority is cumulative, and that a contemporary posek [decider] can only issue judgments based on a full history of Jewish legal precedent", whereas Conservative Jews believe "precedent provides illustrations of possible positions rather than binding law. Conservatism, therefore, remains free to select whichever position within the prior history appeals to it".
- Orthodoxy is characterized by ritually-observant members who "meticulously keep Shabbat (the Sabbath), Kashrut (the Dietary Laws), Taharat ha-Mishpaha (the Laws of Family Purity), and pray three times a day", whereas Conservative Judaism "is generally not composed of ritually observant Jews. Thus, only in our community if a 'permissive custom' is accepted, can it be meaningful."
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
In 1999 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), which is currently located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York. Following its opening as a yeshiva, a rabbinical school was opened in September 2000 with its first class of seven students. Since its inception, YCT has described itself as an Open Orthodox institution, and its mission statement made heavy use of the term its founder Weiss had coined.
Controversies over YCT came to a head when in 2006 YCT applied for membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinical body affiliated with the Orthodox Union, the largest North American Modern and Centrist Orthodox body. YCT subsequently withdrew their application when it became apparent that the application would be denied.
Ordination of women
In May 2009, Weiss announced the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, a new school to train women as 'Maharat', an acronym for the Hebrew מנהיגה הלכתית רוחנית תורנית (halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leader), a title he created for a female version of a rabbi. The school's mission, according to its website, is "to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities" in a four-year full-time course. Sara Hurwitz was appointed dean of Yeshivat Maharat. On June 16, 2013 the first class of female maharats graduated from Yeshivat Maharat.
In February 2010 Weiss announced that Hurwitz would henceforth be known by the title of "Rabba". The move sparked widespread criticism in the Orthodox world. The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages issued a public statement suggesting that Weiss should no longer be considered Orthodox, declaring that "these developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox." Rumors circulated in the Jewish press that RCA considered expelling Weiss. Under pressure from the RCA, Weiss pledged not to ordain anybody else "rabba", although Hurwitz retains the title.
Shortly afterwards, the RCA passed a resolution praising the increased Torah education of women in the Orthodox world encouraging "halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities" for them, but stating: "We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title." This was followed by an RCA ruling issued in October 2015 that women may not be ordained, hired as rabbinical clergy nor titled as such.
In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss founded. Also in 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained as rabbi by that same organization, which made her their first graduate to take the title rabbi. In 2016 Lila Kagedan became the first female clergy member hired by an Orthodox synagogue while using the title "rabbi." This occurred when Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, which is Open Orthodox, hired Kagedan to join their "spiritual leadership team." In 2018 Dina Brawer, born in Italy but living in Britain, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and thus became Britain's first female Orthodox rabbi; she chose the title Rabba.
Many traditional rabbis within Orthodox Judaism opposed Weiss' new approach with Orthodox opposition to Weiss' views, community and institutions (both YCT and Yeshivat Maharat) growing over time. Open Orthodoxy and its proponents have met with harsh criticism and disapproval from within Orthodoxy. Prominent leaders from both the ultra-Orthodox and central or Modern Orthodox communities have levelled harsh critiques of actions and beliefs of Open Orthodox individuals or institutions, stating that Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodox Judaism, but rather akin to the Reform and Conservative movements.
At the 92nd Agudath Israel of America Gala in 2014, the Novominsker Rebbe, Yaakov Perlow termed Open Orthodoxy "a new danger... that also seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Judaism, that is steeped in heresy…" A year and a half later, in November 2015, the Agudath Israel of America denounced moves to ordain women, and went even further, declaring Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.
The Conference of European Rabbis followed suit that same month, stating, "The Conference views with great pain the deviations from religious foundations emanating from the movement called 'Open Orthodoxy', and warns that those who act in this spirit, alumni of the aforementioned movement... will not be recognized by us as rabbis, with all that entails." Jonathan Guttentag of Manchester, UK, explained that by systematically testing the boundaries of normative Jewish practice, Open Orthodoxy "has pushed the envelope that bit far, and... led to positions which take its proponents outside the Orthodox umbrella."
Similar sentiments were echoed in a press release of a ruling by the Rabbinical Alliance of America on February 22, 2018, likening Open Orthodoxy to Reform and Conservative Judaism, and stating, "The clergy of this movement are espousing philosophies of the generation of the Sin of the Golden Calf."
Prominent Central Orthodoxy leaders have also stated that Open Orthodox practices or beliefs are incongruent with Orthodox Judaism. These include Hershel Schacter, Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Yeshiva University and Avrohom Gordimer, a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kosher among others.
Steven Pruzansky, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey and a trustee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on the Board of the Beth Din of America, argues that Weiss' approach closely resembles early 20th century American Conservative Judaism and in his opinion would more aptly be called "Neo-Conservative" rather than "Orthodox" Judaism. Concluding an opinion piece in Matzav.com he states that "clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed ... Neo-Conservatism. 'Open Orthodoxy' is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality. The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives."  Moshe Averick, a columnist for the Jewish magazine The Algemeiner Journal and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, agrees with Pruzansky that Weiss has created a new Jewish movement in America, comparing him with Isaac Mayer Wise (founder of Reform Judaism) and Solomon Schechter (founder of Conservative Judaism in the United States). He compares Weiss's ordination of three women as Maharat on June 16, 2013, with the so-called Trefa Banquet of 1883, which marked the split between Reform and Traditional Judaism in America. Says Averick: "Weiss' movement, a form of Judaism that enthusiastically embraces the ideologies of feminism and liberal-progressive-modernism while coating it with a strong Orthodox flavor, could accurately be labeled as Ortho-Feminist Progressive Judaism," but "the term coined by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky ... Neo-Conservative Judaism ... has managed to fit neatly into the slot to the left of Orthodox Judaism and to the right of Conservative Judaism." In October 2013, dozens of rabbis who defined themselves as "members in good standing or [who] identify with the Rabbinical Council of America", signed a letter arguing that Open Orthodoxy has "plunged ahead, again and again, across the border that divides Orthodoxy from neo-Conservatism".
The Orthodox Union (OU), Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and National Council of Young Israel have all in turn responded to Open Orthodoxy by severing their ties with the Open Orthodox institutions. The RCA does not accreditate the rabbinic qualifications of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or Yeshivat Maharat graduates, the OU and Young Israel do not accept females as rabbinic clergy, and Young Israel Synagogues no longer accept candidates with YCT accreditation.
Furthermore, in response to Open Orthodoxy new organizations have arisen within Orthodox Judaism as a result of the desire to actively and emphatically voice opposition or critiques against Open Orthodox positions or actions when the pre-existing Orthodox organizations have been slow to voice decisive opinions. These include the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV) and Traditional Orthodox Rabbis of America (TORA).
Response to Orthodox criticism
According to Marc Shapiro, Avrohom Gordimer "has assumed the mantle of defender of the faith" and "sees his goal as exposing the non-Orthodox nature of Open Orthodoxy". Shapiro stated that to "deny them the simple courtesy of mentioning their names ... is in my opinion simply disgraceful". Gordimer responded in an article in Cross Currents. Ysoscher Katz, Chair, Department of Talmud, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, has also threatened legal action against Cross Currents despite claims on Facebook that he was open to these debates, if they "continue to publish Avrohom Gordimer’s libelous and unfounded accusations against me."
In contrast to the negative stance of the Orthodox rabbinic community, Steven Bayme, National Director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, sees Open Orthodoxy as the most authentic form of Modern Orthodoxy. In reference to the installation of Asher Lopatin as incoming president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Bayme said: "The event demonstrated the power of an Orthodoxy that is truly modern, in the sense of synthesizing modern scholarship and culture with Judaic tradition and learning, and an 'Open Orthodoxy', open to all Jews and open to hearing other viewpoints."
YCT, itself, the brainchild of Weiss, however, ultimately reacted to the severe Orthodox disapproval by attempting - at least in name - to distance itself from the term 'Open Orthodoxy.' The school has removed all references to Open Orthodoxy on its website, replacing "open" with "modern." In an interview with the Jewish Week in August 2017, Asher Lopatin, the school's president said: “When they say, ‘Open Orthodox,’ I say, ‘We are Modern Orthodox. We are a full part of Modern Orthodoxy.’”
The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss served as rabbi ("Senior Rabbi") until his retirement in 2015, and where he continues as "Rabbi in Residence," continues to define itself as "an open Orthodox synagogue."
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Modern Jewish movements which reject Jewish tradition are ill-qualified to determine or express authentically Jewish positions. The Rabbinic Fellows of the CJV have the necessary knowledge and expertise to correct the record.
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Orthodoxy is portrayed too often in the Jewish and general media in ways that are incompatible or not fully representative of authentic Torah positions. As the general society rethinks and revisits traditional values while it contemplates new moral and ethical issues, it is our duty as rabbis to teach the truths of Torah to all who will listen.
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The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit – is an open Orthodox synagogue serving the entire Jewish community by warmly embracing all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, orientation or background.Missing or empty