The question of what makes someone Jewish really consists of two separate issues: biological descent and self concept. Self concept is the basic set of ideas that distinguish Judaism as a unique belief system and Jews as a unique nation. Three such concepts that are considered to be fundamental to Judaism is that we accept our mutual descent from the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, and the Revelation at Sinai as historical realities. When R’ Zev Farber, coordinator of conversions for the IRF, publicly denied the historicity of these events, he officially stepped beyond the boundaries of what can be considered Orthodox Judaism.
This put the YCT/IRF/Maharat complex in a difficult position. For the first time, they were going to have to define what they actually mean by Open Orthodoxy. To cast Farber out would be a definite limitation on how open their Open Orthodoxy could be whereas to keep him within the fold would affirm for many that Open Orthodoxy isn’t really Orthodoxy at all.
R’ Asher Lopatin, the President of YCT, attempted to give a diplomatic answer that he believed would satisfy critics and at the same time enable R’ Zev Farber to stay on board. He attempted to eat his cake and have it too. In the process, he finally defined for the world what Open Orthodoxy means and removed all doubt to where YCT/IRF/Maharat is actually holding on the religious spectrum.
The defense of R’ Zev Farber written by R’ Asher Lopatin could have easily been penned by famed Christian missionary Michael Brown, both in substance and form. R’ Lopatin and Brown are essentially espousing the same approach toward Scripture, that it is a literally work like Shakespeare or Harry Potter that is open to the interpretation of the author. They treat it as a work of fiction, not an actual historical documentation of the ancestors of the current Jewish people. This is what Open Orthodoxy actually means, in the words of R’ Asher Lopatin: the words of Scripture are open to the reader, though there is a classical understanding of it that is called Orthodoxy. However, if a person is a big enough scholar, they may maintain a different reading and still fall within the rubric of Orthodox. In many ways, is strikingly similar to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. For R’ Lopatin and Brown, it is the literary understanding of the Bible that drives their view of history; for Judaism it is the history that drives the view of Scripture. The only difference between the two is whether or not Jesus enters the equation. Both are also similar in the fact that they are deceptive in their language, using traditional terminology such as belief in Torah M’Sinai and double talk to hide the fact that their belief systems are anything but compatible with traditional Judaism. In addition, they both market their message to the segments of the Jewish population that would find their ideas the most appealing while at the same time are the least informed about the pertinent issues.
The ball is officially in the court of the Modern Orthodox movement how to handle the latest break with the mesorah (tradition). R’ Lopatin has spoken on behalf of the YCT/IRF/Maharat complex and has stated definitively that they have left the tradition, or more accurately are attempting to remake the tradition into something they find more consistent with their Western sensibilities. The traditionalist camp (Chasidic, Haredi, Yeshivish) have already written them off and made public statements to marginalize them. Modern Orthodoxy is left with the simple choice to take a stand for the principles of the Torah or slide off the map into obsolescence.