For most of my life, I have been hearing complaints about what has often been called “the shift to the right” in traditionalist Jewish circles. The gist of this complaint is that observant Jews are becoming progressively more committed to stringency, dogmatism and secluding themselves from the outside world, preferring this to a serious engagement with challenges stemming from the philosophy, science, morals and political ideas of the surrounding non-Jewish world.
By temperament, I’m not much of an enthusiast for stringency, dogmatism and seclusion, and over the years my wife Yael and I have been involved in a number of efforts to strengthen countervailing tendencies in Orthodox Judaism. We were active in establishing opportunities for women’s Talmud study; created a series of programs for the study of Jewish texts alongside great works of Western philosophy; and published new editions of works by Eliezer Berkovits, one of the last century’s most important Orthodox voices arguing for the flexibility and openness of the Jewish tradition. On the face it, these credentials should make me a good recruit for what is today frequently called “Open Orthodoxy”—an expression originating in a 1997 essay by R. Avi Weiss in Judaism magazine.  While my own views diverge from those expressed in this essay on significant points, on the whole my intuitions have been, and still are, compatible with much of the vision articulated in Weiss’ original text.
But in recent years, as the Open Orthodoxy movement has gained momentum, I have found myself wondering whether the new “shift to the left” in American Orthdoxy is really on track to change things for the better. And I have found myself wondering, too, whether this is a movement that has any place in it for someone like me. These questions have grown particularly acute for me in the past year with the publication of R. Zev Farber’s manifesto arguing that Orthodox Judaism would be better off if it embraced the methods and conclusions of the mainstream of critical academic Bible scholarship—for example, the conclusion that (as Farber writes) “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters,” and that “factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s” ; and with the launch of the egregiously named www.thetorah.com website, whose purpose, as far as I have been able to understand it from conversation with Farber, is to popularize views of this kind among young Orthodox Jews for whom the relevant materials in scholarly academic publications may be too difficult to access.
How much traction do ideas such as these have among Orthodox Jews outside of narrow academic circles? I don’t really know. But in this letter I want to describe a particular event that I attended recently at an Orthodox synagogue—an event in which friends and colleagues of mine who have devoted their professional lives to the critical study of the biblical texts presented their work to the congregation, in what was explicitly touted as an example of “Open Orthodoxy” by the rabbi who hosted it.
And I want to try to state as clearly as I can what I found so disturbing about this experience.
Now, I don’t claim that the event in question was representative of Open Orthodoxy as a whole because I simply don’t know enough about this movement to reach such a conclusion. Maybe this was an extreme case, and many of the rabbis and lay leaders who have identified themselves with Open Orthodoxy would have been as uncomfortable as I was had they been there. But I do know that if someone with my general orientation could come away so thoroughly alienated, this should perhaps raise some questions about how the project of “opening” Judaism to the wider world is being conducted in certain Orthodox communities today.
The event I’m going to describe took place on a Friday night during an academic conference in North America. Orthodox Jews from several countries were taking part, myself included, and the local synagogue graciously opened its doors to the visiting scholars. The shul gave us the warmest possible welcome, including serving hot kosher Shabbat meals to scholars who were otherwise making due with granola bars and bananas. In addition, the synagogue invited the scholars visiting their community to put together a program for the congregation discussing their work, much of which was concerned with the history and archaeology of ancient Israel. Perhaps seventy or eighty members of the congregation attended the event, in which four of the visiting scholars spoke from the dais, and a fifth served as moderator.
The evening was in many respects pleasant. The presenters are sharply intelligent people and highly competent in their respective disciplines. They were well spoken and even eloquent. They presented not just opinions but all sorts of interesting facts—such as, for example, a handout with famous images of what is supposed to be the God of Israel, together with his wife the Queen of Heaven, etched onto an earthenware jug excavated in 1975 in an Israelite fort from the First Temple period in northeast Sinai. One of the speakers explained that you can tell who these images are supposed to represent because the inscription on the jug says so explictily, using the proper name of the God of Israel (“YHWH,” as it is often rendered in the professional literature) and referring to the goddess who is depicted as his consort.
Images of the God of Israel together with his wife? No kidding. With regard to this extraordinary artifact, one of the speakers helpfully told the audience: “You shouldn’t be surprised at all that we are finding this kind of thing. After all, this is exactly what the prophets in the Bible were fighting. The Bible itself tells us that this was what was going on and that the prophets were opposed to it.”
A good point. And well timed to put this bizarre image in context for an audience struggling to understand what it could possibly mean. (By the way, I was not taking notes during this event because of the Sabbath. All of the quotations I am using here were jotted down only on Saturday night, twenty-four hours after the event. For this reason, I assume that others will remember what was said a bit differently from me. But I don’t think this matters much. At the very least, these quotations accurately describe the event as I experienced it.)
So there were some fascinating bits like that one, from which I think every Jew (and non-Jew) could have benefited. But there was also a lot of the kind of thing that you learn to expect from historians and archeologists of ancient Israel, even if they are—as is now often the case—themselves practicing Orthodox Jews. One of them explained that only the books of Samuel and Kings can be considered to be historical, whereas everything from Genesis to Judges is “not historical” (this is an academic buzz-phrase meaning that little, if any, of the biblical account up to Samuel actually happened); another explained that according to his findings, there was no conquest of the land by Joshua, but just a “gradual infiltration” by Israelite tribesmen; a third said that the religion of the biblical period was “not Judaism” but a different “ancient Israelite religion,” and that Judaism was only invented later. All the speakers treated the biblical texts as comprised of “different traditions” or “strands” that historians have been able to identify. At one point, one of the speakers asserted that there were in fact multiple different gods in ancient Israel that went by the name of YHWH, and that these different gods were only later combined into one.
All of this is standard stuff in the academic discipline of biblical studies. I don’t especially enjoy this kind of Bible scholarship because—as I’ve told my friends in the discipline many times—I just don’t think they are very good at distinguishing actual facts (things that can’t really be disputed) from the sweeping, largely hypothetical conclusions that they routinely draw from these facts. But as I say, none of the material presented would have been suprising to someone who follows academic Bible studies even a bit.
Still, there were a number of things that did surprise me, even more than the fact that all of this was taking place at an Orthodox synagogue:
First, none of the speakers disagreed with any of the others on any significant point. And none of them expressed reservations about the facticity of the conclusions being presented either. Not one of them said anything like: “Well, you know what you just said is really just a guess,” or “I think there’s plenty of room for intelligent people to disagree with you on that.” And none of them said anything to ratchet down the confidence level with an “I don’t know” or “we really can’t be sure about that.” In other words, the strong impression that was given was of a nearly perfectly monolithic view in which these scholars were all basically in agreement about just about everything significant—and in which all of them are basically certain about pretty much everything as well.
Second, the overall impression imparted was that the audience was supposed to just accept what they were hearing—either as a series of essentially undisputed truths, or at the very least as representing the range of views that intelligent people can legitimately hold on the issues under discussion. In part, this was a direct consequence of having five self-confident, agreeing, unequivocating experts present their views from a raised platform with the rabbi’s full-throated endorsement (more on the rabbi in a minute). But at least one of the scholars on the panel wasn’t satisfied with leaving this message implicit. So at a certain point, he decided to offer the audience a little meta-explanation of what was going on, just so that they all knew they what role they were supposed to be playing. As he explained:
“These things you’re hearing are what we believe in the Guild, even though maybe these views haven’t gotten down to the pews yet.”
In case you aren’t familiar with it, “the Guild” is a nickname that academic Bible scholars frequently use to describe themselves and their profession. Perhaps it’s origin is in some kind of self-deprecating joke, but today the term is used in all seriousness to constantly reinforce the belief that academic training in biblical studies confers a degree of competence in reading Hebrew Scripture such that no one from the outside is really in a position to question its results. On this particular evening, this comment from the dais expressed the texture of this conceit perfectly: The Guild is waiting for the day when their message can “get down to the pews” so that all these ignorant people can finally get some enlightenment.
None of the scholars on the panel felt the need to dissent from this comment, so that again, the impression given was that this view was shared by all.
And then a third, surprising point: The project of presenting all this truth to the people in the pews was accompanied by invocations of an enemy, a persecutor at the gate, that everyone in the room should be alert to recognize. As one scholar told the audience: “You should know that there are people out there who don’t want you to hear this. There are those who are against your being allowed to even have an event like this.” Another scholar confided in the audience that a student even had to drop his course because the student’s rabbi had told him not to take it. “Why the rabbi said that, I do not know. The student had already paid for the course, and didn’t know what to do.”
These comments added a strange, slightly paranoid twist to what was happening in the room. As if here, in this safe space, a precious light had been kindled: The Guild is trying to bring the light down to the pews. But swirling all around us are Dark Forces trying to snuff out this precious light.
The presentations were followed by a lengthy question and answer period. To my surprise, the questions from the congregation were nearly all supportive of the visiting Bible scholars and their work. (At least all of those that were coherent!) No one suggested that perhaps what the Bible scholars had presented wasn’t good science. No one suggested that perhaps what had been said was a problematic fit with religion. As far as you could tell from the questions, every single person in the congregation thought that everything they had heard was perfectly good stuff that could just be accepted without raising any difficulties of any kind.
Every single person, that is, except one. There was one white-haired, elderly gentleman, a veteran member of the shul, who raised his hand. When called upon, he asked the scholars on the dais the following question:
“Don’t any of you believe that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai?”
Finally, someone had raised the uncomfortable fact that the viewpoint being presented and discussed and elaborated all evening long might in some respects be at odds with traditional Judaism. Here, at last, was a chance for some real discussion, I thought.
But it was not to be. Sensing the danger, the moderator, himself a Bible scholar whose work I in fact very much admire, wheeled about in his chair and let loose the following response:
“I am going to use the prerogative of the chair to answer this question myself. And here’s my answer: There are some people who think that they can tell God what he can and cannot do. There are some people who think they are so clever that they can know, on God’s behalf, whether he had to give the Torah to one person at one time, or whether he could have given the Torah gradually, in an unfolding fashion, over the course of many generations. And that’s the answer to that question. Next question.”
Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to recreate the extraordinary degree of condescension, the sheer meanness, with which this answer was used to dismiss the old gentleman’s line of thought as illegitimate and not worthy of consideration. The truth is, I don’t even know if the old gentleman was himself committed to the idea that the Torah was given at Sinai. All he was doing, really, was trying to open up a discussion on what surely should have been an important question in an Orthodox synagogue—whether the Torah was given by God in something resembling the way in which this event was depicted in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
But this question was evidently so inappropriate in the mind of the moderator that it had to ruled out of bounds in this ugly, derisive manner.
I felt anger flare up inside of me. What about mipnei seiva takum (“You shall rise before a grey head”)? What about vehadarta pnei zaken (“You shall honor the face of an old man”)? Weren’t these commandments in the Torah anymore? The same verse in which these commandments are taught, Leviticus 19.32, ends with veyareta me’elohecha ani Hashem—“and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord.” The way we treat the older members of our congregation is a direct expression of whether we have internalized what it means to be God-fearing people.
But no one dissented. No one objected. And the question that had been asked, perhaps the most important question that anyone could have asked that night, went without an answer.
Let’s set aside the insolent manner in which the moderator delivered his response to the old gentleman’s question—and the remarkable fact that he clearly believed he was speaking for all the scholars on the panel, and for every intelligent person in the room. What are we to make of the substance of his answer? What are we to make of the claim that the old view that the Torah was given at Sinai should now be set aside and replaced by a new one according to which God’s revelation to Israel was “unfolded” over the course of many generations as anonymous scribes kept editing and re-editing the sources and pieces and bits of text at their disposal until somehow the texts that we have came into being.
This proposal is a peculiar variant of an old Christian doctrine known as “progressive revelation,”according to which God’s word appears only obscurely in the earlier parts of Bible, and gradually “unfolds” in subsequent parts until it finds full expression in the Christian New Testament. And today something like this theory has become a constant refrain among academic Bible scholars who are Orthodox Jews, appearing repeatedly in their published works as well as in personal conversation with them.
But the fact that something has become a constant refrain in certain intellectual circles does not yet make it a good idea, much less a significant theological position. Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I have not yet seen a carefully constructed and systematically worked out version of an Orthodox Jewish theory of “unfolding revelation,” and I doubt that one exists. Moreover, I strongly suspect that if such a theory were advanced in a suitably serious way, it would be immediately and painfully obvious that this kind of theory—which in its essence involves stripping individuals such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah of any kind of special insight into God’s word or standing within the Jewish tradition—cannot possibly provide an intelligent alternative to more traditional forms of Jewish theology.
These doubts of mine do not, of course, make “unfolding revelation” an illegitimate point of view for professors to explore. But speaking personally, I am growing impatient with the way this slogan of “unfolding revelation” is invoked time and again as a bandage to plaster over the wounds that irresponsible critical Bible scholarship has inflicted and continues to inflict on Judaism. A great deal more work is going to have to be done before anyone can or should treat such a position as sound philosophy or serious theology. In the meantime, it is simply outrageous to think that this fragment of a theological position is so self-evidently convincing that all you have to do is invoke its name—as our moderator did in his diatribe that night—to render all further theological inquiry or discussion superfluous.
Yet this was the only opinion on the matter that audience was permitted to hear.
The fellow who moderated that evening should be ashamed of himself.
No one else dissented or asked any tough questions that night. Before the evening was over, one of the congregants took it upon himself to hold a little one-man pep rally applauding what had taken place in the synagogue that evening. Noting that some of the speakers were from Bar-Ilan University, an Israeli university affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, he expressed his pleasure “at discovering how much progress has been made in recent years in moving Bar-Ilan to the left—or rather, up! Which is perhaps a better way of putting it.”
And then there were closing comments by the young rabbi, who enthusiastically expressed his pleasure over having had such an event in his synagogue. His comments included not a word demurring from what had been presented or the way the evening was conducted. His view of the event, as I remembered it twenty-four hours later, was this:
“Here in our synagogue we advocate what we call Open Orthodoxy. What we mean by that is that unlike others who avoid dealing with the issues presented by modernity and academic thought, we want to confront issues like this by meeting them head-on, presenting the scholarship here in the synagogue so that we can wrestle with the hard issues instead of avoiding them.”
I’ve been in that room many times in my life. Too many times. And by now I know it quite well. It’s a room in which there is a single, politically correct point of view that everyone is expected to express. A room in which those who toe the party line are praised over and over for being enlightened, fearless, and committed to the search for truth, while anyone who raises a doubt is greeted with anger and ridicule. A room in which those who might have disagreed or asked a tough question make a quick calculation that it’s just not worth being publicly embarrassed over it and retreat into silence, or else adjust their views to fit in. A room that is said to be set upon by enemies from the outside, enemies who are invariably lacking in any capacity for intelligent thought, who have no good points of their own to make, who in fact possess no recognizable virtues at all. In other words, it is a room in which the persuaded are lavishly rewarded for being persuaded, the undecided are relentlessly pressed to choose the right side or face the consequences, and skeptics—unless they are in the mood for a serious bruising—are made to shut up.
There is nothing “open” about that room. No free discussion ever takes place in it. There is endless talk, of course, and sometimes there are heated disagreements. But the talk is all within pre-determined boundaries, and the heated disagreements are about countless small matters that only mask the stifling uniformity of thought that prevails on every subject of real consequence.
In exactly this way, there was nothing “open” about the “Open Orthodoxy” event I attended at that synagogue that Friday night. I don’t think anyone intended for it to turn out this way, but it turned out this way nonetheless: The sad fact is that there was no “discussing hard questions openly and thoughtfully.” There was no “wrestling with the challenges posed by modern ideas.” And the amount of “confronting tough issues head-on” was zero. Instead, what took place was nothing but a teach-in for the position that certain well-known academic theories about the Bible are really the only legitimate view that intelligent human beings should be willing to accept. And more generally, for the view that critical biblical scholarship as it is currently practiced in the universities is a reliable science whose findings are so compelling that serious people, if they are honest, really should just accept them as true.
I’ve already said that I have no idea how representative that event actually was. But it did help me to better understand some of the things that have been nagging at me about the Open Orthodoxy enterprise for some time. Here’s one of the main ones:
Is Open Orthodoxy an approach whose aim is the critical engagement with non-Jewish ideas and culture? Or is it just a euphemism for accepting the authority of non-Jewish ideas and culture in an ever-growing number of areas? If the latter, then it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that Open Orthodoxy is on its way to becoming yet another assimilationist movement.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not interested in witch-hunts. I don’t want to drive anyone out. Any movement that encourages the diligent study of the Torah, the keeping of the mitzvot and the tradition, and steadfast support for Israel, is one that I am prepared to regard, on balance, as a positive force in the world.
But for myself, I cannot accept any worldview that interprets the manifold achievements of Western science and scholarship—of which I am a great admirer—as justifying a situation in which various academic disciplines are simply given carte blanche to walk into synagogues and Jewish schools and speak authoritatively about what Jews (or Christians, or anyone else) absolutely must think on a given topic.
It is an unfortunate fact that the institutional autonomy of the different academic disciplines makes the modern research university an almost perfect hothouse for the generation of vast intellectual enterprises whose worth as engines for the discovery of truth is principally in the eyes of their own practitioners. The fact that academic disciplines are largely shielded from critical appraisal by anyone outside “the Guild” (they’re all guilds, it’s just that the Bible studies people are not embarrassed to say so) does not mean that Jews are under any obligation uncritically to accept the findings of these disciplines. On the contrary, given the natural human inclination to laziness, unthinking acceptance of authority, stupidity, and groupthink—not to mention the overtly anti-Semitic origins of many academic paradigms—we have every reason to suspect that any given idea presently popular in academic circles may very well be a bad one. And sometimes they are not just bad, but very, very bad.
Nor does the fact that “the consensus of scholars” in a given field thinks X have the slightest bearing on whether X is true. Much of the time, the fact that something commands a consensus among scholars reflects nothing other than a simple self-selection process: Only people who could bear to think that X is true are willing and able to stick it out in the field. Everyone who had better sense than that found the whole thing oppressive already in the early stages of their training—and fled to become an expert in something else.
Critical Bible scholarship is in this regard neither better nor worse than any other academic discipline. There are brilliant people in “the Guild,” and some good ideas as well. But this is an academic discipline that Solomon Schechter, who knew a thing or two about scholarship, correctly referred to as “The Higher Anti-Semitism.” And while academic Bible studies has changed in some ways in the century since these words were written, it has not changed anywhere near as much as many Jews who are active in the field seem to think. Among other things, it is still given to the natural human inclination to laziness, unthinking acceptance of authority, stupidity, and groupthink. And so there is no reason in the world why its practitioners should be afforded any kind of authority over what Jews are taught to believe either in Orthodox institutions or in any other part of the Jewish community.
So the question I would put to the Open Orthodoxy movement after my first time attending an Open Orthodoxy event is this: There seems to be a tendency among certain young rabbis to accept the premises and major findings of the dominant school of critical Bible scholarship as being so secure as to be impervious to reasonable doubt. In other words, they are willing to be skeptics about literally everything that is handed down to them by way of Jewish tradition. But they are unwilling to subject academic scholarship to this same skeptical or critical challenge. I have corresponded with some young rabbis and scholars who even think that they are “saving Judaism” (this is an actual quote) by importing critical Bible scholarship into Orthodox Judaism lock, stock and barrel.
What I want to know is: Where does Open Orthodoxy stand here? Is it committed to the uncritical acceptance of whatever happens to be the current consensus among university Bible scholars on matters in which “the Guild” sees itself as expert—first in the area of the historical study of the Bible and its composition; and now, increasingly, in the area of Jewish theology as well? Or does Open Orthodoxy have the capacity for a truly skeptical or critical appraisal of academic biblical criticism—by which I mean an appraisal that may involve the rejection of many of the premises and conclusions that the academic Bible Studies consensus holds dear?
Personally, I want no part in any movement that chooses the first road. But that is of course not very important. More important is this: I have no doubt whatsoever that if Open Orthodoxy—or “Modern Orthodoxy” more generally—chooses to grant the main stream of critical Bible scholarship a de facto authority in its institutions, these movements will quickly lose their way. That is, they will quickly lose the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood both in science and in Torah.
Any Jew who wants to see how this story ends need only look at the trajectory of the mainline Protestant denominations, which a century ago made precisely this choice, incorporating historical-critical Bible scholarship directly into the training of their ministers and into the preaching in their churches. Judaism was spared this fate for the simple reason that a century ago, academic Bible scholarship was an almost exclusively Protestant affair. But today, we Orthodox Jews finally have dozens of Bible critics of our own—observant Jews (“Orthocrits,” I suppose we should call them) who are highly regarded in the universities as leaders in the field of historical-critical Bible scholarship. This gives Orthodox Judaism an historic opportunity to repeat precisely the mistake that Protestant Christianity made a hundred years ago, and to reap precisely the same devastating consequences.