Eyes Wide Open

Rabbi Aaron Frank equates  Judaism to a rubber band; it can be pulled in many different directions.  Photos by David Stuck and Justin Tsucalas
Rabbi Aaron Frank equates
Judaism to a rubber band; it can be pulled in many different directions.
Photos by David Stuck and Justin Tsucalas

A quaint and unassuming house across from Pikesville High School has a sign in front of it. “Netivot Shalom” it reads, “Paths of Peace.”

The shul, which started as a breakaway minyan from one area synagogue, is now a vibrant and blossoming institution for men and women in the Pikesville area — men and women who are open to a synagogue without a formal rabbi, to kiddushim culled together from the fresh vegetables of the organic community garden in the backyard, and to a strand of Orthodoxy that allows women to give the d’var Torah before Adon Olam, that allows dialogues about issues such as homosexuality and believes there may be two culprits in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Netivot Shalom Vice President Rabbi Aaron Frank is among the synagogue’s founders and
its most active members. He calls himself Open Orthodox, which to him means open to “a plurality of ideas.”

“We see intellectual inquiry as a pathway to holiness,” he said.

Netivot Shalom and Rabbi Frank represent a small but strong cohort of the nuanced Orthodox community of Jewish Baltimore.  Open Orthodox is a term coined by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, N.Y., and is an author, teacher, lecturer and activist there. He is founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and of Yeshivat Maharat for Orthodox women.

Rabbi Eitan Mintz of Bnai Israel Congregation explained that Open Orthodox is really just a thread of Modern Orthodoxy. To him, it is a reclaiming of Modern Orthodox values, which he thinks have been experiencing a “rightward shift” in recent years.

Rabbi Eitan Mintz says open Orthodoxy is simply a reclaiming of Modern Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Eitan Mintz says open Orthodoxy is simply a reclaiming of Modern Orthodoxy.

“Opening Orthodoxy is espousing the essential original values of Modern Orthodoxy,” he said.
“It is espousing the value of openness — to the wisdom of secular knowledge, religious Zionism and women’s inclusion.”

Most Modern Orthodox rabbis, of course, would contend these values still define them and the institutions in which they learn and work. Yeshiva University long has been considered at the forefront of the Modern Orthodox movement. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva Univeristy’s Center for the Jewish Future, said he — and YU — believes in “Orthodoxy without
adjectives” but Orthodoxy that is part and parcel with the tapestry of life.

“We believe in an Orthodoxy that is committed to every detail of Jewish law and as part of that mandate views its responsibility to engage society through the prism of Jewish values. We don’t believe in a Robinson Crusoe lifestyle that withdraws from the world. We look at the halachic process as the means through which the tradition of the past … and the reality of the present … shape the
future,” Rabbi Brander said.

It’s the idea of Torah u’Mada, “Torah and Science,” that was first coined by Rabbi Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik, who inherited the post of head of the RIETS rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in 1941 from his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. But most argue that Rabbi Soloveitchik did not invent the concept, he simply named it.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says the greatest Sages brought together secular and Torah wisdom.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says the greatest Sages brought together secular and Torah wisdom.

“I believe Modern Orthodoxy is what Orthodoxy for all practical purposes has been from its very beginning,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. He cited important historical leader Moses Maimonides, who was a Jewish philosopher, jurist, physician and one of the foremost intellectual figures of medieval Judaism; Maimonides incorporated secular philosophies into his work. Rabbi Wohlberg noted Abraham ibn Ezra, a poet, astrologist, scientist and Hebrew grammarian and pointed to the mathematics of Levi ben Gershon, the Ralbag.

“This is nothing new. Isolating ourselves from the world is something new,” said Rabbi Wohlberg. “To me that is the change.”

Elastic JudaismBut it is not just openness to secular knowledge that Rabbi Frank and his colleagues are talking about.
It’s the idea that Judaism is elastic and can be stretched in this direction and that direction to make room for new ideas and to grapple with the strains and strengths of modern-day society. It is the ability to differentiate between halacha (Jewish law) and public policy.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says the greatest Sages brought together secular and Torah wisdom.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says the greatest Sages brought together secular and Torah wisdom.

“Some people see Judaism as a rubber band and some as a twist tie, like from the bakery shop. The Torah I learned is a rubber band. It can be pulled in many different directions. But, if you pull too hard, it will break,” said Rabbi Frank.

Where do you draw the line?

“The line,” said Rabbi Frank, “is halacha. If someone came in on Shabbos and said, ‘I want to light a bonfire, it helps me express my Judaism,’ we would say, ‘That’s nice, but no.’”

But Frank would likely be open to a discussion about it — and about same-sex marriage, about tznius (modesty) and about how much land Israel could surrender in the name of peace. It’s this questioning — not only that one can question, but that questions are glorified — that sets Open Orthodoxy apart. It has become the hallmark of Rabbi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT).

YCT is known for combining a rigorous, traditional approach to Jewish text with an innovative curriculum and openness. YCT is “an educational institution that has taught students to question, to crave new understandings and to embrace all kinds of Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Steven Lieberman, chairman of the board of YCT in a statement.

“Everything can be questioned, everything is on the table,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, YCT president-elect. “I said this to some Haredi people, and they said that in any yeshiva you can ask anything. Maybe, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Questioning and challenging does not mean disrespect but a love for and comfort with the tradition.”

But within the Orthodox world, YCT is still struggling for widespread acceptance. A large swath of the Orthodox community is either ambivalent about Weiss’ yeshiva or outright hostile to it. A 2007 article in Yated Ne’eman asked the question: “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: Is It Orthodox?” and it called the school a “threat to halachic Judaism.”

The school is not accredited by the main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America. Not a single one of its 81 ordained rabbis serve in a synagogue affiliated with Young Israel, one of the nation’s largest Orthodox synagogue franchises, which has thwarted synagogue affiliates from hiring Chovevei rabbis. Weiss claims a warm relationship with the Orthodox Union, but an OU official was careful to note in an interview with the JTA Wire Service that the organization has no formal relationship with Weiss’ school.

The new Rabbi Lopatin hopes to change that.

“I want to make sure Chovevei Torah is an integral part of the Orthodox world. I do think there’s a perception that Chovevei is left, for liberal Orthodoxy. I want to start with getting the word out that we’re open to the right and the left,” he said.

Rabbi Frank seconded Rabbi Lopatin’s sentiments, noting that at a synagogue like Netivot Shalom, the congregation is open to all types of Jews. This means accepting, for example, women who cover their hair with headscarves, to him a mark of a more open Jewish Orthodox woman, and women who choose to wear wigs, which is more in line, he said, with right-of-center Judaism.

He also noted he thinks the fear of questioning is not an inherent knock on the concept but a
result of the trend toward a more simplistic, insular Judaism.

“I think people like simple answers, and the world is moving more and more in that direction. People want to be told to wear X. Dress like this. It is very comforting. Submitting to authority is OK, just don’t leave your brain at the door,” Rabbi Frank said. “I see Judaism as the ohel [tent] of Avraham and not the teva [ark] of Noach. … In the teva, they closed the doors to keep the rain out.”

And while YCT graduates may not be placed in certain positions, they are making their marks across the country. All eight members of its 2012 graduating class found positions as rabbis — in Chicago, California, Tennessee, New York and even Finland.

In Baltimore, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah was ordained at YCT; he did not return repeated request for an interview for this article. Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh is also a YCT graduate.

“I would say Modern Orthodox is thriving [in Baltimore],” said Rabbi Mintz. “We have seen more rabbis who are affiliated with Open Orthodoxy become spiritual leaders in the community. … And you can look down the beltway at Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld [head of the National Synagogue, of Washington, D.C.] and Rabbi Nissan Antine of Potomac. This is really a sea change in many ways.”

A Thriving Jewish BaltimoreBut nationally, Baltimore is not considered a Modern Orthodox — and certainly not an Open Orthodox — community.

“Overwhelmingly, Baltimore is a non-Modern Orthodox community,” said Jay Bernstein, who is active in the Modern Orthodox arena. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be Modern Orthodox here. We don’t feel persecuted or anything like that. But the pride and the history in Baltimore is not toward Modern Orthodoxy.”

This is largely, Rabbi Wohlberg suggested, because of the influence of Ner Israel Rabbinical College.

“I think generally Modern Orthodoxy thrives in a community where there are more professionals and more people involved in business and the arts,” said Rabbi Wohlberg. “Ours is a more insular community, more people work for the government and are more involved in the yeshiva world. … And Modern Orthodoxy in Baltimore has suffered losses for the best reason possible: many have moved to Israel because of their Zionist inclination.”

That point was driven home a couple of years ago when Baltimore’s Modern Orthodox school, Yeshivat Rambam, closed. Bernstein said he views Baltimore as yeshivish and that Rambam’s closing solidified this for our community.

“Rambam, more than any other school, represented Modern Orthodoxy in Baltimore. Its closing was a defeat for Modern Orthodoxy … It made Modern Orthodoxy less of an option,” Bernstein said.

Ari Taragin would disagree. He is vice president of Ohr Chadash Academy, a kindergarten through 8th grade school, which speaks to the more Modern Orthodox student, or at least one interested in
engaging in the modern world. On its website, the opening page states that the school aims “to produce ethically sensitive young men and women who are engaged with the world around them and who will possess the skills, knowledge and understanding they need to contribute to both the Jewish and broader community in which they live.”

The school had 85 students in its first year and has 115 today, one year later. Taragin said it looks promising.

“I would not say we are hoping to survive,” Taragin said. “I would say we are flourishing.”

Taragin noted that his cousin was one of the first students at Baltimore’s Bais Yaakov School for Girls. Then, the school was so small it operated out of a private home. Today, it is bursting with more than 1,000 young women.

Taragin, and many others like him, think it is time to move past the labels. He said he feels a tremendous sense of achdus, Jewish unity, in this city and that there is room for all types of perspectives and even more growth — for his school and the rest of the community.

Rabbi Shmuel Silber, rabbi of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, has a similar
perspective. Suburban draws members from all walks of Orthodox Jewish life, and Rabbi Silber himself said that he is influenced by the YU outlook, by a more yeshivish world and by chasidut.

“There is a danger in labels,” he said. “The danger of labels is that they become exclusionary.”

In Orthodox Judaism he said there are a great number of common denominators: fidelity to halacha, allegiance to the statues of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. Within the greater Jewish world, Jews can come together around concepts such as chesed (kindness) and Israel.

Rabbi Silber said he did not mean to discount the shades of gray within each synagogue and
institution. Those nuances are important, he noted, and provide a safe space for people who want to pray and learn with others like themselves. It is important for identity building — “you have to know who you are and what you are.”

He does not consider himself Open Orthodox. Rather, he considers himself a Jew.

“The Torah says that by Har Sinai, the people camped at the base of the mountain. The word “camped” in Hebrew is in the singular form. Why is it singular when it should be plural? Because
the Jews were like one people, with one heart,” recounted the rabbi. “It does not say one people with one opinion. That has never happened. We will never agree on everything. But despite disagreements, we can still have unity of heart.”

Ultra Orthodox. Mainstream Orthodox. Modern Orthodox. Open Orthodox.

There is a common denominator:  Orthodox.

“The goal should not be defining movements but building bridges,” said Rabbi Silber.

And when push comes to shove, Rabbi Frank said he feels the same way. All of Baltimore benefits from the strength of the Orthodox community in that there are schools, synagogues, kosher
establishments, etc.

Rabbi Frank said he does not hope to change Jewish Baltimore in any way. Rather, he hopes
Netivot Shalom will be another option in an already thriving community. .

“I don’t think Modern Orthodoxy will overtake mainstream Orthodoxy here in Baltimore,” said Rabbi Frank. “I am OK with that. I just think people should know it exists — and is growing beautifully.”

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