Weiss, Avraham “Avi”. “Journey to Open Orthodoxy”, Urim, 2019.
Wisdom from Rabbi Avi Weiss
I recently received a letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss’s assistant telling me that the Rabbi has a new book out and asking if I would like to review it. I was extremely flattered since I have admired the rabbi’s work for years. For those of you who do not know, Rabbi Weiss is an ordained Orthodox rabbi and the founder of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale as well as two rabbinic schools and who has worked to bring open orthodoxy to us as a way of modernizing a very old and traditional religion. He has helped to raise his voice of moral conscience (and mine) for all humankind and I have often turned to his writings when I find no suitable answers myself. He shows us here that Judaism is a journey and it is different for each of us. My journey began as an Orthodox Jew and an ardent Zionist who went to live in Israel on a kibbutz for many years (as an academic in residence). While there, I lost my ties with the Jewish religion while living in a strictly secular society where Shabbat simply meant white tablecloths. I lived like this for some 35 years until returning to America to learn that if I wanted to have a community, I would have to join a synagogue. I, indeed, did so but I became a reform Jew yet filled with the traditions that had once been an integral part of me. I have never stopped trying to reconcile the two kinds of Judaism in my life.
In “Journey to Open Orthodoxy”, Rabbi Weiss presents his vision of Judaism, the very vision that recently has become known as ”Open Orthodoxy.” We see that Open Orthodoxy goes beyond such controversial issues as women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion. Rabbi Weiss (or Rav Avi) sees Open Orthodoxy as holistic and embracing all of Jewish spiritual, religious, halakhic and national life. He invites readers to evaluate the book’s content while looking at their own journeys and hopefully considering that branch of Orthodoxy as an inclusive, non-judgmental, loving, modern and open approach to our religion.
Rav Avi covers many topics in his book and I am simply going to quote the list rather try to put into my own words.
Mesorah: Bridging Past and Future
Is Halakha (Jewish Law) Ethical?
Da’at Torah: Do Decisions of the Rabbis Close Off Discussion?
Nation Is Family
Creating Spaces for those with Disabilities
Embracing the Elderly
Alternatives to Kiruv (Outreach)
Interdenominational and Interfaith Relations
Infusing Halakha with Spirituality
Belief and Doubt
Coping with Adversity
Reining in Israel s Chief Rabbinate
Conversion: Building Walls or Welcoming People In?
Ritualizing the Shoah
The Holiness of Israeli Soldiers”
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I was naturally interested in what the Rabbi had to say so I read that section first (even though I was already somewhat familiar with his position). If Judaism is to be inclusive, it means inclusion of all Jews. Rabbi Weiss admits that he was not always so open to the LGBTQ community but he admits that he has evolved even to the point of acceptance of gay couples and their children as full member households. I was surprised at first to learn that a synagogue here in Boston accepted a gay couple and their daughter as a household and granted them membership and this was not a modern Orthodox synagogue. At first some of the congregation was not happy but as we all know change takes time. If we blur the lines between synagogue and state, we jeopardize the freedom of religion, one of the main precepts of this country.
There are those who still see homosexuality as perverse but the world is changing quickly. We have just seen a minister of the Church of Latter Day Saints announce that he is gay and leaving his wife of 30+ years and the pulpit. Rabbi Weiss tells us that as “an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject a person who seeks to live a life of same sex love”… “to single out homosexuality from other biblical proscriptions is unfair and smacks of a double standard” and I must add AMEN.
Through the writings here, we see the evolution and maturation of the good rabbi’s reflections. “Journey to Open Orthodoxy” is a collection of articles that the rabbi wrote over several years, and he notes when he wrote, published, or gave them as lectures. In some of what you read here, you will find that Rabbi Weiss agrees with far-right Jews and with others he is more open. He believes that God gave us the written and unwritten law at Mount Sinai and it is the word of God. “No human being can declare it null and void…. Therefore, the law must be kept even when its ethical underpinnings are not understood.”
But he also stresses that while Open Judaism reveres the wisdom of great rabbinic authorities yet “we should not follow them in non-halakhic areas blindly as do far-right Jews.” He advises us to think for ourselves and “to act with decisiveness.”
He sees Israel having enormous religious meaning and that we should rely on God to bring about necessary change, Open Orthodoxy feels that we have an obligation to act. “Women should be allowed to serve as spiritual leaders but not called “rabbi,” but Maharat, Rabba, or a similar title.
Seventy-five essays make up this book and it is divided into eight sections. In the section “Principles of Open Orthodoxy,” “he distinguishes it from Modern Orthodoxy,” which he feels is moving to the right. In “Inclusivity,” he stresses that we, as Jews have universal responsibilities and must include LGBTQ Jews as well as Jews who have decided to remain less observant. “Gender” looks at the many issues involving women in six chapters. He would allow women to wear tefillin. In “Faith” he talks about problems people have when life brings them hardships and pains. And there is so much more but if I continue to tell you what is here, you won’t have to read the book and my point is to get you to read. I feel so much better now that I have read it.