Open Orthodoxy

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Open Orthodoxy is a term first coined by Avi Weiss in 1997 to describe a form of Orthodoxy that emphasizes halakha (the collective body of Jewish law), intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension, a broad concern for all Jews, and a more expansive role for women.[1] He views halakha as being more flexible and open to innovation than his more traditional counterparts in Orthodox Judaism.

He states that all Orthodox Judaism, including Open Orthodoxy, fundamentally differs from Conservative Judaism in three areas.

  1. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai in its current form.
  2. 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".
  3. 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."[2]

Many more traditional rabbis have opposed this approach. Steven Pruzansky, a trustee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on the Board of the Beth Din of America,[3] 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 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." [4] 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."[5] 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"[6]

In November 2015, The Conference of European Rabbis stated "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." Rabbi 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."[7]

Similarly, also in the fall of that year, 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.[8][9][10]

In contrast, 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."[11]

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah[edit]

In 1999 Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), a rabbinic seminary in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx after resigning from Yeshiva University,[12] [13][14]where he had taught at Stern College for Women for decades.[15] The school's graduates work as rabbis in synagogues, college Hillels and schools,[16] but the Rabbinical Council of America does not permit membership to the school's graduates unless they have also been ordained by a traditional Orthodox rabbinical school.[17] In June 2013, Weiss handed over the presidency of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to Asher Lopatin.[16]

Ordination of women[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19] Sara Hurwitz was appointed dean of Yeshivat Maharat.[20] On June 16, 2013 the first class of female maharats graduated from Yeshivat Maharat.[21]

Sara Hurwitz[edit]

Main article: Sara Hurwitz

In June 2009 Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz as rabbi, giving her the title of "Maharat".[1] She was the first formally ordained Orthodox woman.[22]

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.[23] 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."[24] 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.[25] 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."[26] In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss founded.[27] Also in 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained as rabbi by that same organization, making her their first graduate to take the title rabbi.[28]


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".[29] Gordimer responded in an article in Cross Currents.[30] 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."[31]


  1. ^ a b Rosenblatt, Gary (June 26, 2009). "Between A Rav And A Hard Place". The Jewish Week. Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  2. ^ Weiss, Avi (Fall 1997). "Open orthodoxy! A modern Orthodox rabbi's creed". Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life & Thought. American Jewish Congress. 
  3. ^ Maltz, Judy (November 16, 2012). "U.S. rabbi faces dissent for slamming Obama". Haaretz. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  4. ^ Steven, Pruzansky (July 17, 2013). "Open Orthodoxy: The Rise of the Neo-Cons". Retrieved July 30, 2013. 
  5. ^ "American Jewry at the Crossroads: Isaac Mayer Wise, Solomon Schechter, and now...Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz". The Algemeiner. July 18, 2013. Retrieved August 2, 2013. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "European Rabbis: Open Orthodoxy 'outside the fold' - Jewish World - News - Arutz Sheva". Arutz Sheva. 
  8. ^ "Moetzes: 'Open Orthodoxy' Not a Form of Torah Judaism". Hamodia. 
  9. ^ "Breach in US Orthodox Judaism grows as haredi body rejects 'Open Orthodoxy' institutions". The Jerusalem Post - 
  10. ^ Josh Nathan-Kazis (3 November 2015). "Avi Weiss Defends 'Open Orthodoxy' as Agudah Rabbis Declare War". The Forward. 
  11. ^ "Asher Lopatin Set as Modern Orthodox 'Bridge'". The Jewish Daily Forward. October 9, 2013. Retrieved June 10, 2014. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Mark, Jonathan (December 24, 1999). "Modern Orthodox Rabbinical School Planned". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  16. ^ a b Hoffman,, Allison (April 29, 2013). "The New 'Morethodox' Rabbi". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved August 6, 2013. 
  17. ^ Dickter, Adam (June 12, 2012). "RCA Facing Leadership Challenge". The Jewish Week. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  18. ^ Harris, Ben (May 18, 2009). "New program to train Orthodox women as non-rabbis". Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  19. ^ "Yeshivat Maharat". 
  20. ^ "An Evening with Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz". Retrieved April 15, 2011. 
  21. ^ Cohen, Anne (June 20, 2013). "Orthodox Schism Over Role of Women Widens After Graduation of Maharats". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  22. ^ StevenM (March 10, 2010). ""Rabba" Sara Hurwitz Rocks the Orthodox". Heeb. Retrieved March 21, 2013. 
  23. ^ Mark, Jonathan (March 9, 2010). "Agudah: Avi Weiss Shul Not Orthodox". The Jewish Week. Retrieved January 1, 2013. 
  24. ^ "Rabbi condemned for ordaining woman". The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. February 26, 2010. Retrieved July 4, 2013. 
  25. ^ Eden, Ami (March 5, 2010). "Avi Weiss: No more rabbas". JTA. Retrieved April 6, 2013. 
  26. ^ Breger, Sarah (November–December 2010). "Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = a New Denomination?". Moment Magazine. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  27. ^ "Class of 2015". Yeshivat Maharat. 
  28. ^ Rabbi Lila Kagedan (25 November 2015). "Why Orthodox Judaism needs female rabbis". The Canadian Jewish News. 
  29. ^
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  31. ^