Last week Jay Lefkowitz wrote an article for Commentary Magazine arguing for the legitimacy of what he calls “Social Orthodoxy,” which is founded not on common principles of religious faith, but on a common social network of Jews who all consider themselves Orthodox.
This article has been circulated around the internet, but hasn’t made much waves. This is probably because Lefkowitz’s claims are neither new nor surprising: The past few years have signaled the beginning of what promises to be many years, even decades, of significant changes for the Modern Orthodox community. Conversations about female ordination, women’s involvement in synagogue worship, and biblical authorship reflect the birth-pangs, to use a biblical metaphor, of a new period in Modern Orthodoxy. And only time will tell whether those trying to revolutionize this demographic will remain within its framework or at some point permanently step out of it.
Orthodox Judaism is founded on rabbinic Judaism, and rabbinic Judaism is fundamentally based on both core beliefs, like those iterated by Maimonides in the 12th century, and an evolving halakhic framework that acknowledges, responds to, and sometimes even embraces the world around it. The Talmudic Amoraim were not living in vacuums. They spoke the languages of their host countries. They interacted with the world around them. Over the centuries, rabbinic Judaism continued to shift its shape, its focus, and even its values. The idea that Orthodox Jews do not have the authority to halakhically challenge their forebears is one that has only gained popularity in modern times.
I embrace changes in Orthodox Judaism that are designed to reflect greater sensitivity towards all of its members. I am happy that my daughters are living in a time in which they will be offered opportunities to participate in their communities in meaningful ways. I am grateful that my son will be witness to this. Yet there is one aspect of this change which needs to be addressed. Observant Jews who would not argue Shabbat and Kashrut are foundational to Orthodox Judaism no longer believe that God must have a place in their religious lives.
In the past century, Jews have acknowledged that the study of God has felt alien to their religious lives. Franz Kafka’s The Castle has been largely interpreted as an unsuccessful search for God. Eli Wiesel has even put Him on trial. But what these texts have in common is that they are still talking about God. Like David in Psalm 39, who repeatedly insists that he and God are b’rogez, that is, no longer on speaking terms, David keeps talking. What we have encountered recently is different – it’s the absence of discussions about God. Lefkowitz’s piece was an organic culmination of this absence. Struggling with faith and our relationship with God as a covenantal people has always been at the core of observant Judaism; what we’re seeing now is that for many people, the struggle itself is no longer at the heart of their identity.
On the very same day that Lefkowitz published his article, Art Green, professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College, published a profoundly personal and honest piece on shma.com (http://shma.com/2014/04/awakening-the-heart/) in which he acknowledges that for the past fifty years or so, “we Jews were mostly too busy surviving and rebuilding our lives to worry much about theology,” and calls for a new sort of Jewish spirituality which focuses not on God, but on “the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence and beauty as objects of wonder and devotion.” Of course, Green isn’t Orthodox, but the attitude he speaks of has seeped into the left of center orthodox movement. When it comes to denominations, lines of demarcation are artificial – and yet, as Orthodox Jews, we define ourselves according to these lines, which are meant to preserve certain core, foundational beliefs.
The peripheralizing of God is partly responsible for the social insularity of far left orthodoxy. By not talking about God, they are left without a center, without a broader framework, without a point of dialogue with other traditional Jews and with their Creator. The result has been, to put it in post-modern terms, those claiming to be agents of change, myself included, are ignoring the Other that helps to define us, that helps to ground us, and that helps to improve us.
In the context of interfaith dialogue, Emil Fackenheim once noted the significance of the first two questions of the Bible. I will paraphrase and reorient his point here in the context of intrafaith dialogue. The first two biblical stories each center around one question. In the first story, God asks Adam, “Where are you?” God wants Adam to find Him, to commit to Him, to engage with Him. “Do you know where are you in relation to Me?” God asks Adam. In the second story in the Bible, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”
These questions that God asks Adam and Cain are not properly answered. Today we must confront these questions, and ready ourselves with a proper answer.
Have we engaged with God? Have we engaged with each other?