Book Review: Journey to Open Orthodoxy by Rabbi Avraham Weiss

Protest sign from joint Israeli/Palestinian action (image courtesy of Cat Zavis)

Journey to Open Orthodoxy by Rabbi Avraham Weiss  (Ktav Publications: New York, 2019)

After decades of serving as a leading figure in Modern Orthodoxy, with deep institutional success, Rabbi Avraham “Avi” Weiss has written his magnum opus, a “vision” statement of Orthodox Judaism that he hopes is “inclusive, non-judgmental, loving, modern and open.” Ultimately, the book inspires many of these qualities while clearly situating Rabbi Weiss on the Orthodox spectrum. Unfortunately, it suffers from their inconsistent application and from the author’s apparent blind spot to his own subjectivity.

This book is clearly an important read for anyone who wants to understand American Orthodoxy, and Open Orthodoxy in particular. While it is only one man’s personal journal, it is from the man most associated with establishing and shaping this movement over the past half century. The book includes some seventy-three chapters, plus an introduction, charting Rabbi Weiss’s evolution as a Jewish thinker and communal leader through short essays written over some three decades. It includes guides to inspire and create spiritual communities as well as a few longer homilies and halakhic discourses, the latter principally about women’s ordination and conversion, the two areas in which he has been most at odds with the Orthodox establishment. These chapters defend himself against the Haredi and Centrist Orthodox Right from whom he and his students continue to be subjected to incessant accusations of having left Orthodoxy.

The book is divided into eight sections, from critical opening chapters on “Principles of Open Orthodoxy” – the key to which, Weiss claims, is “inclusivity” (the second section) – through a massive conclusion on “Mission” divided between “Spiritual Activism” (political activism rendered holy), “Shoah” (ritualizing Holocaust memory) and “Israel”, which places worship of the state and its institutions at the heart of his Divine service.

This is an extremely romantic work, often charming, warm, loving and inspirational. Rabbi Weiss is a gifted pastor, as is widely known, and his prose overflows with love for others. He is particularly well-known for his political activism and here he reprints editorials chronicling some of his more famous causes such as the release of Soviet Jewry and the preservation of the Auschwitz site. There is no question that Rabbi Weiss has put himself on the line throughout his career on behalf of Jewish causes that he considered worthy of public protest and the risks that come with it.

But as history teaches us, romanticism also has a dark side, and the book is also at times obfuscating, highly inconsistent, and often upsetting. Rabbi Weiss expresses deep love for “am Yisrael” (whose meaning is slippery) and occasionally for all humanity – and a desire to connect with people, to comfort them, and to welcome them. Rabbi Weiss insists “inclusivity” stands at the center of his Judaism; it is for him what distinguishes Haredi ultra-Orthodoxy from Modern Orthodoxy, which he argues Open Orthodoxy best represents. This is a highly debatable view, not only because these camps (“ultra” and “modern” Orthodoxy) are typically differentiated instead based on their relationship to modern culture, but also because it opposes the foundations of modern orthodoxy itself. Modern orthodoxy, then called Neo-Orthodoxy, first emerged in the nineteenth century as a movement committed to integration, opposed to kabbalah and Hasidism, and strongly anti-Zionist (one of its founders, R. Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888), was very opposed to Zionism, still in its nascent form). Rabbi Weiss’s version, in contrast, is dripping with the messianic romanticism of Rav Kook, Hasidism, and Religious Zionism as the key components of authentic “modern orthodoxy,” if not authentic Judaism altogether.

This ahistorical certainty in the correctness of his own vision is ultimately what renders it so problematic. Rabbi Weiss apparently lacks self-awareness about the constructedness and selectivity of his own theological choices and vision, and about the extent to which his Judeo-centrism, one might even say his Judeo-chauvinism, undermines his stated goal of Jewish humanism. This manifests in three interrelated areas: his advocacy of pluralism, his claim to humanism, and his approach to Zionism as Judaism.

First, Rabbi Weiss challenges those on his right who would deny his Orthodox authenticity, but like his detractors he claims the mantel of authentic “mesorah” (tradition) against both Right and Left. He writes sincerely and compellingly about his love for other Jews and the need to respect them wherever they are. He even nods to the possibility that Jews on his Left might do some things better than the Orthodox. But he is the one who carries the mesorah– not the Haredi Jews, and not Conservative or Reform Jews.

To be sure, this is how nearly all rabbis talk, in fact, how most religious thinkers talk. It is expected to an extent for clergy to defend the authenticity of their own camp.Nevertheless, Rabbi Weiss’ formation of this kind of claim of authenticity is problematic in several ways. Above all, he fails to recognize how he too is picking and choosing texts and traditions over others while tapping religious language without clear definitions. He uses phrases like “Torah values” and words supporting innovation “but only within acceptable firm parameters” in loose ways that undermine his distinction between himself and those on his right or left, apparently unaware of his own selectivity.

While his defense of his halakhic authenticity against his Orthodox detractors seemed quite compelling, I found his rebuttal of Conservative Judaism very disappointing. He insists that they innovate through inauthentically mining the tradition for opinions that match their theological needs in contrast to Orthodoxy’s firm limits. But he then expresses countless iterations of the same principle, that the Torah is “the way of pleasantness,” that the tradition is rich with precedent to tap in the face of theological and ethical urgency, and that rabbis and communities must be trusted in their halakhic solutions. He practically uses Solomon Schechter’s notion of “Catholic Israel” as determinative of shaping authentic halakha at one point.

Thus, for example, Conservativism’s stance on LGBT equality was a major cause of his dismissing them as halakhically inauthentic decades ago. Now that Rabbi Weiss has decided he was wrong and halakha does indeed have room for LGBT Jews, does this not suggest he rethink his argument against their halakhic authenticity decades ago? With the benefit of hindsight, the argument needs refashioning to be convincing. This book was completed before his successors’ decision not to ordain an openly gay student who had been studying at their seminary for four years, but Rabbi Weiss could have addressed efforts by Rabbi Steve Greenberg to create same sex partnerships and whether these are authentically Orthodox. If so, how does this affect his dismissal of Conservative Judaism for pursuing it decades ago? If not, how does that effect his goal of inclusivity and Torah as constituting the way of sweetness and life, as he emphasizes?

Incidentally, Rabbi Weiss twice cites the radio personality and journalist Dennis Prager, quoting him about how liberal Jews “rationalize declaring that which is wrong to be right,” in contrast to Orthodox Jews’ commitment to halakha in confidence that it must be ethical. In light of Prager’s incendiary and hate-filled rhetoric, his misogyny, his peddling of lies, his hypocritical abandonment of his own principles of ethical leadership since 2016, not to mention his abandonment of Orthodoxy, citing him here can only hurt Rabbi Weiss’s case for Orthodoxy’s superior fidelity to the Torah. Whatever one may think, Dennis Prager is certainly not a source for any kind of Jewish humanism or ethical fidelity to halakha.

Rabbi Weiss praises pluralism but does not carefully define it. A serious discussion of pluralism would require the conundrum of pluralism and its challenges. Namely, if you respect Jews of other denominations for making authentic, informed choices, then halakha requires their treatment as heretics, as Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch argued. On the other hand, if you rely on the principle of “tinok sh’nishba” – that such Jews act in ignorance like children raised outside the faith and are thus not responsible for their lifestyles – then you can be inclusive but only quite condescendingly. Personally, I see a third option of humility, of accepting the possibility that my own approach might be wrong and others might be more “Torah true” and thereby create the space that lets in the light of true pluralism. This was not, however, the sentiment in Rabbi Weiss’ book. Indeed, a book that proclaims to be full of loving acceptance ironically seems unaware of how profoundly unhumble and confident of its own truth it is.

Second, it seems like Weiss’ overflowing love is mostly reserved for Jews. This is not a humanist position. It is highly grounded in Rav Kook and his Jewish spiritual supremacism. Tellingly, his “principles of Open Orthodoxy” suddenly stops talking about Rav Kook when he says that “Modern Orthodoxy” (which he insists he best embodies) does not believe in Jewish soul-superiority. I find this claim unconvincing, and he reverts back to Kook’s views on this – both in Rav Kook’s name and in his own name – throughout the remainder of the book. I very much liked his line about the importance of loving specific people, because anyone can love everyone, but it takes work to love someone. However, his use of this logic to prove that nationalism is the best path to humanism is not only flawed, it is belied by the third fault of the book.

Namely, just as Weiss seems unaware of the modern constructedness of his denomination, in fact all denominations, he is equally blind to the modern constructedness of Zionism. Zionists, like all modern Jewish denominations, draw selectively on Jewish history and texts to prove their authenticity, often reinterpreting texts out of context and impregnating them with new meaning that they claim is obvious and self-evident. This is totally legitimate and their construction of Jewishness is no more or less valid than many others. Moreover, most nationalists fail to admit this reality, at least for their own camp. (It is easier to emphasize the modernity of competing nations. “Nationalism,” Arthur Koestler wisely noted, “is comic only in others.”)

Combined with the self-confidence of owning religious truth, however, this is a particularly unappealing and dangerous view, as it is with Rabbi Weiss. His vision of Israel is decidedly anti-humanist and simply undermines his earlier statements to the contrary. I recall being shocked when I first heard him agreeing with Meir Kahane in a recording from decades ago. He claims to have evolved since then, but one does not easily see it in this book. He condemns the demonization of Rabin, for example, and yet essentially promotes similar language about the slain Prime Minister, comparing him to Kahanists because he wanted to remove settlers from the West Bank and allow Palestinians to return there. He condemns calling Arabs ‘Amalek’ (he curiously never uses the word Palestinian), but in the same breath labels them “figurative Amalek,” as if that is less incendiary or dangerous. Indeed, he demonizes Arabs in other places as well. This is his right, of course, but it undermines his claim of love for all humanity as well as his argument that nationalism leads to humanism. Interestingly, his only critiques of the state have to do with the Rabbanut, and he only seems to imagine American Jews bothered by the lesser status of non-Orthodox (or non-Haredi) Jews. Not once does he consider American Jews being bothered by the treatment of Palestinians, whom he seems to blame entirely for their situation, while simultaneously supporting settlements.

Above all, Rabbi Weiss grounds his calls for settlements throughout the West Bank in Jewish mythology and implicit assumptions of Jewish supremacism without ever considering the existence of Palestinians, either as individuals or certainly as a nation. This erasure is critical for it absolves Israel of the need to address competing national claims connected to the same land. Rabbi Weiss also never addresses what annexation would mean for Israeli democracy. Indeed, I would say Jewish supremacism in this way serves as a thread binding the entire book, despite its fill of romantic love and call for humanism. I found the chapter romanticizing Jerusalem unconvincing, even dangerous. The obsession with Jerusalem, and the inability of Israel (and Jewish leaders like Rabbi Weiss) to imagine sharing it is a major obstacle to peace and a major cause of anti-Arab treatment. That long chapter – like most of the book – never mentions Palestinians who constitute such an important part of the city.

Rabbi Weiss does have a chapter talking about how he went to comfort Palestinians whose mosque had been burned down by extremists, describing how his expressions of humanism calmed the Arabs who had been so biased against him. I have no doubt that his condemnation of the attack was sincere and heartfelt. In the context of the rest of the book, though, I found the chapter not comforting but patronizing, more akin to, “If only they realized we were here to help them,” that our terrorists – unlike theirs – are the exception.

Rabbi Weiss’ Judaism, in short, is totally intertwined with a particular right-wing Religious Zionist vision. He follows Rav Kook in describing the Israeli leadership as having the religious status of biblical kings. Hanging an Israeli flag in a home is described as a mitzvah parallel to the mezuzah. He positions love of the Stateof Israel almost as the primary commandment, writing that “unconditional commitment to the state” is demanded by the Torah. (These words were actually chilling for me; only fascists demand “unconditional” commitment to a state, although it should be noted Kahane was known to make that argument throughout his life.) It is also curious, given that demand for fidelity to the state, that Rabbi Weiss chooses to remain in the Diaspora. He reinterprets a Talmudic passage about Zion on the obligation to remember the Temple as part of remembrances like shaking the lulav for seven days and says it obligates the purchase of Israeli products, visiting Israel, and advocating for Israel. That is, of course, a modern interpretation, somewhat out of context, and to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “there’s nothing wrong with that.” It is, however, not what the text meant, any more than “next year in Jerusalem” meant moving the embassy or making Aliyah. In general, what we have here is an utter conflation of the land of Israel with the State of Israel (something we find in R. Zvi Yehuda Kook), and an assumption that this conflation is self-evident and opposing it is counter to authentic Judaism.

I have always long been struck by the paradox that those in the Orthodox world most open to progressive ideas about gender, sexuality and (outside of Israel) humanism, and most resistant to racism and Haredi innovations like Daas Torah (uncritical acceptance of the directives of the sages outside of their halakhic expertise), overwhelmingly check those Jewish values at the door in their approach to Palestinian rights and equality. Many seem blind to the hypocritical limits of those values and the philosophical and political inconsistencies therein. Indeed, many seem far more willing to question the hermeneutics of halakha and tradition than the dogmas of religious (rightwing) Zionism.

That said, there is a vocal minority of incredible rabbis and laity that takes exception to this approach and they are as attracted to Rabbi Weiss and Open Orthodoxy as I am. There is something innately attractive about this Orthodox denomination for those committed to both halakha and humanism that demands explanation and respect. I am sure it is connected to the foundation of inclusivity, even if I don’t think that value is fully realized here. I am equally sure it is part of his own brilliance, knowledge, talent, and caring for his students and their sacred charge.

Rabbi Weiss concludes on the back cover by “inviting readers to evaluate the book’s content while assessing their own journey.” This is a beautiful sentiment that matches its author’s loving interest in nurturing others. So this is what I take from the book: I would like to extract the inspirational love, the openness, the inclusion, the activism and self-sacrifice, and the suggestions for building communities based on those wonderful values – all as part of a system committed to halakha – but then cut out the national chauvinism and spiritual supremacism that undermines those otherwise laudatory values. In this, Rabbi Weiss serves as both inspiration and guide, even as I find inconsistency and problems in the vision he proposes.

An endnote from Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun.                                        I have great respect and affection for Rabbi Avi Weiss. I particularly appreciate his willingness to partner with me when Tikkun(well-known and frequently attacked and demeaned in some sections of the Jewish world for our critique of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and our insistence that the growing hatred of Arabs among West Bank “modern Orthodox” settlers was a khillul ha’Shem—a desecration of God’s name) organized a protest demonstration in 1994 at the headquarters of the NAACP which had convened a “summit” of Black leaders and included in it the hate-mongering anti-Semite and gay-bashing Rev. Farrakhan. So I have been saddened for decades by the other aspects of his worldview and the teachings he gives to the people who attend his rabbinic training program that are correctly highlighted by Joshua Shanes in the review above. I am particularly saddened by his inability to recognize that the injunction of Torah v’ahavta la geyr (repeated in various forms more frequently than any other mitzvah in Torah, as brilliantly highlighted by Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom) must apply to the Palestinian people who are, in fact, for the Jewish people a fundamental test of whether Judaism has any ethical integrity or whether the trauma of Hitler and the Holocaust make it impossible for many Jews to recognize the humanity of “the other.”

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