From Openness to Heresy
By Avrohom Gordimer
Outright heresy is emanating from the heart of the YCT rabbinic world. No, this time we are not dealing with Open Orthodoxy (as YCT founder Rabbi Avi Weiss refers to his movement) innovating novel practices that can sort of be reconciled with minority or exotic halachic opinions, nor are we dealing with Open Orthodoxy promoting yet another new brand of controversial inclusiveness or further blazing socio-religious trails that mainstream Orthodoxy and its halachic leadership deem as beyond the pale. This time, we are dealing with denial of the singular Divine authorship of the Torah – heresy of the highest order – publicly espoused in writing by one of Open Orthodoxy’s most prominent rabbinic leaders. And we are also dealing with the rest of Open Orthodox rabbinic leadership refusing to condemn this heresy in its midst.
Rabbi Zev Farber, PhD., who holds Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin semicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is coordinator of the Vaad Hagiyur of International Rabbinic Fellowship and is an IRF board member, and is an Advisory Board member of Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi Farber recently published a brief article entitled “The Opening Of Devarim: A Recounting Or Different Version Of The Wilderness Experience?” in which he addresses textual differences between the events recounted in Parshas Devarim and the presentation of these events in earlier parts of the Torah. (For example, the Torah in Sefer Shemos refers to Mount Sinai as “Sinai” and in Sefer Devarim, the mountain is termed “Chorev”; the court system in Sefer Shemos is presented as Yisro’s idea, whereas in Sefer Devarim, it seems to be presented as Moshe’s idea, as it is not attributed there to Yisro; Sefer Bamidbar presents the dispatching of scouts to explore Eretz Yisroel as Hashem’s idea, whereas in Sefer Devarim, Moshe attributes this endeavor to the people; Sefer Bamidbar describes the confrontation with Edom following B’nei Yisroel’s request to pass through Edom’s territory, whereas Sefer Devarim omits mention of this confrontation; in Sefer Devarim, Moshe states that Hashem commanded him to fight Sichon, whereas this command is absent in Sefer Bamidbar, where it appears that the battle with Sichon was a consequence of his own belligerence; etc.) A typical Orthodox Jew would reconcile these apparent differences by working within the system, realizing that these differences are not contradictions, and turning for elaboration to the Meforshim, who address these issues. Furthermore, Sefer Devarim is Mishneh Torah – Restatement of the Torah – and as such, by definition is somewhat of an interpretation and an elucidation of events, geared to a different generation and emphasizing certain things while omitting others. However, Rabbi Farber adopts what he terms the “academic approach” to understand the above differences. He shockingly writes:
The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.
Then, after presenting a two-paragraph synopsis of the narrative of Parshas Devarim, Rabbi Farber concludes with his “Summary” section:
Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there is no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. Whether it be the description of the scout story, the reaction of the Edomites and Moabites to Israel’s request, or the legitimacy of dwelling in the Transjordan, the two versions work with contradictory assumptions.
Rabbi Farber writes that the Torah was penned by at least two different authors, and that its sections are irreconcilably contradictory. This is heresy of the highest order. (Rabbi Farber, in another exposition about Parshas Devarim further demonstrates his approach of denial of the singular Divine authorship of the Torah, writing that the Torah reflects a “multivocality of a work redacted from disparate sources”. Very, very problematic.)
While it is a grave sin and a tragedy for any Jew to espouse heresy, especially if he is a rabbi, it is important to realize that Rabbi Farber is the most accomplished, high-ranking and showcased YCT graduate out there: he is the only person ever to have been ordained by YCT with Yadin Yadin semicha, qualifying him as a dayan; he regularly publishes articles in Open Orthodoxy’s journals and is a staff writer for Morethodoxy, the Open Orthodox hashkafa website; his role as the head of the IRF geirus authority is extremely significant. Rabbi Farber, quite arguably YCT’s most scholarly and eminent rabbinic graduate, is Open Orthodoxy’s greatest “poster boy”, if one can employ such terminology.
For these reasons in particular, and in light of Rabbi Farber’s general high-profile and authoritative role in the Open Orthodox rabbinate and its IRF and Yeshivat Maharat affiliates, one would hope and expect that YCT and IRF leadership would condemn Rabbi Farber’s words in no uncertain terms and disassociate from the heresy espoused by Rabbi Farber that the Torah is a man-made document (“penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience”). The jarring reality is that YCT and IRF leadership have refused to speak up on the issue and condemn this open heresy in its midst, despite having been apprised of this heresy a week ago (and perhaps even prior) and despite the heresy being disseminated in a very public manner.
It is time for Open Orthodoxy’s leadership to reassess the direction of the movement and take strong steps to redirect it, for articles such as that of Rabbi Farber are way beyond being described as “Far Left” Orthodox or representing the “Reform branch of Orthodoxy”, as some have referred to Open Orthodoxy. (But see here and here.)
We have witnessed Open Orthodoxy break ground by welcoming the leadership of Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College as “honored guests” at YCT’s first chag ha-semicha, where these Reform and Conservative leaders danced in celebration with the YCT musmachim (YCT Newsletter Spring 2006), to engaging in interfaith activity that goes way beyond what Rav Soloveitchik permitted, as described here, here, and here; to devoting massive efforts to fighting “Homophobia” (going back to a shocking article about this in the 2005 YCT Newsletter, which featured a YCT campus rabbi’s extensive support of LGBT groups; (see also); to advocating changes in geirus requirements here and here,and here; to suggesting significantly modifying parts of the morning berachos here and here; to promoting the celebration of homosexual lifecycle events hereand here; to advocating recognition of “gay marriage” here and hereand here; to halachically rationalizing the homosexual act and encouraging gay relationships (and see here and here); to attacking statements in Tanach and Chazal and disparaging our liturgy here and here; to advocating for feminization of the synagogue and tefillah; to having women serve as chazzan for male-female services here and here; to ordaining women; to expressing discomfort and dismissive attitudes regarding Talmudic opinions that do not conform with modern liberal sensibilities here pg.36 of this; to slandering the character of the Avos and Imahos here and here and here; to somewhat celebrating intermarriage; to its most accomplished musmach now writing outright heresy that denies the singular Divine authorship of the Torah. The total degeneration of commitment to belief and tradition that took the Conservative movement well over a century to undergo is being accomplished by Open Orthodoxy in about one short decade.
How did this all happen? There appear to be two factors at play:
1. Agenda-driven Judaism: Rather than surrendering (to use Rav Soloveitchik’s terminology) to the yoke and objective directives of Halacha, Open Orthodoxy first set forth its goals (feminism, egalitarianism, etc.) and then tried to fit the Halacha into them. Picking and choosing opinions and authorities that meet a predetermined agenda rather than submitting to the Torah’s values and dictates regardless of what they state, leads one to Reform his Judaism and eventually craft (or “Reconstruct”) it as he sees fit. As the Rav homiletically commented, “Kavata itim l’Torah?” implies, “Did you make the values of the times fit into the values of the Torah, or did you try to fit the Torah into the values of the times?”
2. Mesorah-light Judaism: Many of the innovations of Open Orthodoxy have been defended and justified by Open Orthodox leadership due to these innovations not being technically codified in sifrei Halacha as prohibited or invalid; Open Orthodox leadership has consistently dismissed claims that its controversial innovations are problematic because they violate Mesorah, the uncodified part of Torah. (See here and here.) This cavalier approach, of denying that there is more to Halacha than one can find on a sefarim shelf and denying that deference to Torah tradition and to greater Torah authorities are part of the bricks and mortar of Orthodoxy, has led to a total disconnect and the spinning off a very foreign ideology under the term “Orthodox”. Without a sense of connection, fidelity and reverence toward the Ba’alei Ha-Mesorah and their methodology, Torah study and theology become a free-for-all, such that radical and heretical approaches emerge.
One can follow the paths of heresy and distortion of Torah straight to the door of Yeshivat Maharat. As Yeshivat Maharat’s graduates and students now begin to publish essays about women in the rabbinate and the role of women as halachic authorities (see, for example, and a whole collection of related writings), the very problematic message of personal subjectivity in Halacha rather than submission to the objective Divine halachic mandate is very clear. These Yeshivat Maharat writings approach Torah She-b’al Peh as a misogynistic, man-made body of laws that egregiously lack women’s input, arguing that women’s voices must contribute in order to (re)shape Halacha. Halacha is denigrated in this Yeshivat Maharat literature as an unfair system that needs female input in order to become equitable, with the Yeshivat Maharat literature glorifying the Maharat women as comparable to heroic abortionists fighting for women’s rights in an oppressive male-dominated society.
This halachic subjectivism, distorted understanding and disparagement of Torah She-b’al Peh are precisely what the Conservative movement has historically invoked in justifying its gradual abandonment of Halacha, and are extremely antithetical to Orthodox belief. Disparagement of the Chachmei Ha-Mesorah as misguided chauvinists, as the Yeshivat Maharat literature presents things, is outright heresy, as shown here in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, and here and undermines any sense of belief and real acceptance of Torah law.
Whither does Open Orthodoxy view itself headed? These words from Rabbi Asher Lopatin, incoming president of YCT, are quite foreboding:
But my dream is to have Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadar, and Chovevei on one campus, to move in together. We’d each daven in our own ways, but it could transform the Upper West Side.
There is not much more to say. The path to total abandonment of Orthodoxy has been set in motion, and the ball is in the court of Open Orthodoxy’s leadership. Serious introspection and swift action are indeed needed.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and a member of the New York Bar.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: At some point between the time that the author completed his essay last evening on the East Coast and now, the text of one of the critical quotes in Rabbi Farber’s piece changed. We present the new version in the interest of fairness. Readers can compare them. Rabbi Gordimer will react to the change in a forthcoming comment.
Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there appears to be no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. The simplest literary approach is the academic one which posits multiple authors with multiple traditions. How such an approach meshes with traditionalist belief requires serious thought but it is necessary to start by recognizing the simplicity and straightforwardness of the academic approach.]
[AUTHOR’S ADDENDUM – Since the time I wrote my essay, new material has come to light that addresses the concerns of may commenters. They asked if Rabbi Farber’s position must be seen as different from that of others who dealt with difficulties in the chronology and style of different texts in novel ways, e.g. Ibn Ezra and R. Mordechai Breuer z”l. The following quote speaks for itself, and should obviate the need for longer responses (emphasis added):
Prophecy does not come as a verbal revelation from God to the prophet, but as a tapping into the divine flow. Even while channeling the divine wrath against the injustice of the rape, the Deuteronomic prophet (i.e. the author of Deuteronomy) was still a human being, his scope remains limited by education and social context. The prophet could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.
Those who wish to see the quote in fuller context, and my understanding of it, should turn to a longer comment of mine in the Comments section.]