Open Orthodoxy founder tells story…

March 23, 2020

Yonah Jeremy Bob ● Jerusalem Post

Rabbi Avi Weiss has been running one campaign or another for decades.

Journey to Open Orthodoxy is likely his ultimate work, not only summarizing many of the issues where he has made a mark as the founder of open Orthodoxy, a spin-off of Modern Orthodoxy, but also showing his personal evolution along the way.

In this book, which traces his development from earlier writings, Weiss hits a veritable checklist of hot-button issues that virtually all Jewish denominations are struggling with in one way or another, but also seeks to present a unifying vision for his approach.

“My understanding of Open Orthodoxy goes well beyond such controversial issues as women and Halacha, interdenominational and interfaith relations and LGBT+ inclusion,” he writes.

He continues, “For me, Open Orthodoxy is holistic, all-encompassing, embracing the whole of Jewish spiritual, religious, halachic and national life.”

Walking a tightrope, Weiss said that he professes “an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the halachic system,” but that he disagrees with the Orthodox Right who view chemistry, language, medicine” and other areas of study as profane.

Rather, he says that “all disciplines are potentially aspects of the Torah. In a word, there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint.”

Regarding gender issues, he explains that “Open Orthodoxy parts with the non-Orthodox community, as Halacha is not fully egalitarian.

However, he also pushes the envelope from his right flank, defending his ordaining of women with the title “rabba” (a feminine variation of rabbi).

This goes even farther than the title “maharat” (an invented title that gave women leaders recognition, but avoided called them rabbi), which is slightly less controversial in Orthodox circles, where women have traditionally not served as clergy. He states that the “rabba” title maintains female clergy within the role that Halacha permits them, but denotes “more dignity and respect” than other female clergy titles.

Fleshing out the difference between an Orthodox rabba and a non-Orthodox female rabbi, he writes: “In Conservative and Reform Judaism, a woman’s role is identical to a man’s role. In Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90% of areas, but there are distinctions.He explains that a rabba can conduct a wedding ceremony, including the reading of the ketubah (a form of a prenuptual agreement), but cannot sign the ketubah (which only men can do.) Moreover, he says that women can manage religious services in
ways permitted by Halacha, but do not count for the quorum of 10 required for a prayer service.

Another area where Weiss engages in a difficult balancing act is in addressing the homosexual community. On one hand, he does not conduct gay weddings. On the other hand, he writes that “to demand that gay people not have a life partner is, for many, akin to a death sentence,” stating that “we must do all we can to find a way for Halacha to help guide gay couples to live in loving partnerships.”

His vision of inclusivity is always broader than a specific issue. In the book, he says: “At its core, inclusivity sets Open Orthodoxy apart. This means interfacing with the nonaffiliated, other streams of Judaism and other faith communities… the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged.”
Entering this minefield of pushing the envelope on so many contemporary issues, Weiss writes defensively at times as one who has already been attacked and is anticipating being criticized further.

Anticipating his critics, he says: “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.”

He goes on to connect some of his trailblazing views to the Torah, remarking that, “like the Torah from which it emerges, Halacha is an eitz hayyim, a tree of life, and a living organism,” which is never afraid to confront “the needs of the day.”


He says that these institutions have “stepped into the breach. While many were convinced we could not succeed, we’ve exceeded expectations.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Weiss effused about his successors who have taken over the above institutions as well as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where he conducted services for decades.

At some point, Weiss swivels to controversial issues in Israel where he has staked out strong positions.

Though he said that his father revered the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, he criticizes it for “consolidation of rabbinic authority and use of coercive powers” which have “alienated much of Israel’s citizenry.”
More specifically, he rebukes the rabbinate for a situation where, “of the 300,000 Soviet émigrés to Israel who are not halachically Jewish, only 20,000 have been converted over the past 30 years.”

He accuses the Rabbinical Council of America of capitulating to what he calls the Israeli rabbinate’s unnecessarily onerous process.Weiss advocates easing the path to become Jewish and notes that the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded, is a practical arm for implementing his more open approach to conversion.

Showing his character as a maverick, Weiss intersperses discussing down-to-earth controversies with a call to focus all efforts on soaring spiritually by embracing song and dance in prayer and an open-minded outlook emphasizing broader values like holiness and embracing other Jews as part of a person’s wide family.

Weiss’s book also has sections about religious Zionism, problems in the area of Jewish divorce, the Holocaust, Israel’s plight during the 2014 Gaza war and a variety of other issues he has dedicated himself to over the years.

One tension in the book is his explanation of his evolution.

For example, he says that he became more liberal on certain women’s issues after being confronted years later by a former student. The student shocked him with her explanation of why his earlier apologetics to convince her to accept parts of the prayer service which conflicted with her female identity had failed.

The arguments made by the woman were not new ones, so it appears that what changed Weiss’s view was hearing the human frustration of his former student, whom he respected.

It is not 100% clear from Weiss about where such emotional encounters should trump previously built intellectual foundations and how an open Orthodox person knows when to turn Right or Left.

But he did tell the Post that an open Orthodox approach to Jewish law serves as a bridge between past and present. It must be grounded seriously in tradition, but how a question is asked, addressing human pain and sizing up the sincerity of who is asking the question have a role to play.

In addition, to the extent there is no mathematical answer, this could also be because no one, in Jewish denominations or other faiths, really has a completely systematic answer for how to approach all of the many shocking and diverse new issues that modernity throws out at religion.

In any case, this book will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of modern and open Orthodoxy and one of its trailblazers in recent and future decades.