Musing: Professor Sarna’s Hammer

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Jonathan Sarna, a professor of history (and someone whose company I have enjoyed on too-rare occasions) recently penned a piece (“Why is Orthodoxy Packing Up Big Tent”?) for the Forward in which he tries to minimize the import of a letter signed by scores of members of the Rabbinical Council of America saying, in effect, that the “Open Orthodoxy” movement is not only unorthodox but non-Orthodox.  He compares the widespread rejection of the “OO” movement by rabbis across the Orthodox spectrum to earlier rejections of movements within Orthodoxy that came to be included in the Orthodox tent. The RCA itself, he points out, was once condemned by some respected Orthodox religious leaders.

It is to be expected that a professor of history with a conceptual hammer will see every happening as a parallel of some earlier one.  But, with all due respect to Professor Sarna, the issue at present isn’t whether or not the RCA was once itself seen by some as beyond the pale.

The issue is whether the “big tent” has any walls, whether one can jettison essential elements of the theology of what has been called “Orthodoxy” over the past century and a half and still claim the mantle of that name.

Honored members of the “OO” movement have made theological statements and proposed “halachic” actions that are indistinguishable — indistinguishable —  from those of the Conservative movement in the 1950s.

Back then, Conservative leaders had the honesty to distinguish their movement from Orthodoxy, by the very name they adopted.  “Open Orthodoxy,” by striking contrast, is attempting to do just the opposite, claiming to be something it demonstrably is not.