Open Orthodoxy

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Raiders of the Lost Dvar Torah

Seven years ago next week (parshas Toldos) Rabbi Avi Weiss published the dvar Torah, “Yitzhak: Teaching us about Downs Syndrome”. It should be listed at the HIR (Rabbi Avi Weiss’ congregation) web site at Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat – parshas Toldos (Kislev 5760 November 12-13, 1999), however for a well-known essay it is conspicuously missing. The dvar Torah was titled as a "Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat", and the years 5759 and 5761 are listed, but no 5760.

One blog reader harshly and presumptuously stated to me that there are no 5760 divrei Torah listed at the HIR "Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat" site:
Why is it conspicuous that the article is missing when THERE IS NOT A SINGLE FORSHPEIS FROM 5760 ON THE WEBSITE??? You are being deceitful and misleading as usual. If you want to criticize things Rabbi Weiss said, that's one thing, but don't make things up.
That commenter is incorrect. Oddly, the divrei Torah are only missing for the book of Bereishis. Shemos, Vayikra, Bamidbar, Dvarim, all have 5760 divrei Torah listed in those sections. It is anomalous that this high-profile well-known dvar Torah is not also there. Thank you reader, for ensuring that my blog readers are not mislead.

The complete dvar Torah can be found here: Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 133

“Yitzhak: Teaching us about Downs Syndrome” represents a prototypical drash style of liberal divrei Torah. It contains elements of shock value and a tone that humanizes our holy Avos in a way that is untraditional. Open Orthodoxy, a movement started by Rabbi Avi Weiss, is a controversial, growing sect of Orthodox Judaism. I believe it is important to understand the hashkafic origins of provocative divrei Torah that are being elicited by Open Orthodox proponents.

The most audacious controversial idea of the dvar Torah is that Yitzhak’s alleged attributes are compared to the pathology of the genetic disorder, Down’s syndrome:
The upshot: Yitzhak is easy to deceive, he lacks individuality, is spared grief, is compliant and is even laughed at. My dear friend, Rabbi Saul Berman points out that there is a common thread that weaves itself through each of these characteristics - they are often found in those who have Downs Syndrome.
There is no classical opinion that suggests that Yitzhak had Downs. Still, the fact that his attributes fit into this mold, teaches a vital lesson - those with Downs possess the image of God and have the ability to spiritually soar, to spiritually inspire and yes, even to lead.

There are other statements within the dvar Torah that are provocative by traditional Orthodox standards:
"There is something naive, almost simplistic, about our second patriarch Yitzhak (Isaac)"

"there was something funny about Yitzhak; when you looked at him, you would laugh"

"Yitzhak is absolutely compliant. He goes to Moriah to be slaughtered without persistent argument. He seems to agree with everything he's asked to do, no matter the consequences"

"Once again Yitzhak is depicted as one for whom key decisions are made and one, who felt especially attached to his mother."

When this dvar Torah was published, many readers condemned it. One comment that best distills the criticism is the following:
Ribono shel Olam! Forget the Down's Syndrome issue...By the time you finish with this totally appalling material, to say Yitzchok Avinu had DS (r"l) is almost a limud zechus.
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 133

Rabbi Weiss responded to critics that his dvar Torah was only meant to illustrate compassion for those that are challenged:
For some, spirituality is exclusively bound with the intellect. Those of lesser intelligence are not viewed as having the capacity to have spiritual depth. The Forshpeis was an attempt to say that spirituality emerges from the whole being-not only from the mind, but also from the soul. Those with Downs may be blessed with the spiritual brilliance to become the greatest tsadikim or tsidkaniot of their generation. - "An Addendum to Last Week's Forshpeis on Down's Syndrome"
Rabbi Weiss' sentiments are compassionately well-intentioned but disregard the main criticism of “depictive disrespect”, which he unfortunately did not address at all in his "addendum".

Since Rabbi Weiss defended his dvar Torah, why did HIR either remove or not post it at the HIR web site? Why not post the dvar Torah with Rabbi Weiss’ follow-up statements? Is the “missing” dvar Torah an implicit recanting/repudiation of that dvar Torah?

Update: Parshas Toldos 5767 (2006)
In a dvar Torah for parshas Toldos, Yaakov and Yisrael: The Integration of Body and Soul, Rabbi Avi Weiss stated the following:
One wonders how Yitzchak could have been so naive to prefer his eldest son Esav more than the younger Yaakov.
One may wonder why Rabbi Weiss didn't use more terse, less connotative language such as, "One wonders how Yitzchak preferred his eldest son Esav more than the younger Yaakov." Or, maybe not.

Relevant links:
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 131
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 132
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 133
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 134
- Avodah Mailing List Volume 04 : Number 135

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