There’s an old joke about a group of elderly Jewish men sitting around a cafeteria table one afternoon, sipping tea (I said it was old), debating the existence of God.
Finally, one stands up, slaps his hand on the table, and says: “God may exist or He may not, but in any event, shoyn tzeit tzu davenen mincha” (In English, “it’s time to daven mincha” — I’m told it’s better in Yiddish.)
There are a number of morals to this story. The first, probably the most prominent, is that the connection between theological belief and religious observance often is thin. But perhaps reading a bit between the lines, another moral that speaks to me is that when the men decamped from the cafeteria to find a minyan, they all went to daven together. There wasn’t a group of believers (who daven) and another, separate, group of nonbelievers (who daven); there was simply one group of Jews, who love to discuss and debate belief, all of whom need and want to catch a minchah.
In certain ways, things have remained the same. There are still many Orthodox Jews who question and haven’t found orthodox (lower case) answers satisfying; whose sincere grappling with religion, study of texts, and contemplation of ideas has not resulted in beliefs that precisely match those they were taught in day school. And yet, they still slap the table, put down their glasses of tea, and go in search of a minyan. They may have questions and doubts about what the divinity of the Torah actually means, but nonetheless study and revere it, bind themselves to its values and mitzvot, and observe what had, for generations, been the unofficial definition of an Orthodox Jew — observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha. In effect, they follow the dictum of our ancestors in the Sinai desert who proclaimed na’aseh venishmah — we will observe even before we hear and learn and understand and agree with all the reasons behind the observance. They remain a committed part of the Orthodox community with which they self-identify.
Yet some things have changed. I recently thought about how excited we were in sixth-grade math, when we took out our new compasses and drew circle after circle. Our goal was to draw as perfect a circle as possible. Well, circle drawing, albeit without a compass, now has become a popular activity for some adults in the Orthodox community. Rather than welcoming those not completely traditional in thought as had once been the norm into Orthodoxy, their goal is to draw a circle around Orthodoxy small enough to keep out as many as possible of those who think or speak or write in nontraditional ways.
I once lamented that too many of my halachically observant compatriots strove to increase the number of homes in which they could not eat. Now, too many strive to increase the number of our brothers and sisters — people who attend shiurim with us, who are as careful about kashrut, Shabbat, yom tov, tzedakah, and gemilut chassadim as we are, who send their children to schools and camps and Israel programs with ours — whom they consider michutz lamachaneh, outside the Orthodox camp.
The target of these attacks recently have been those who affiliate with Open Orthodoxy, a subgroup of Orthodoxy that has arisen with the growing popularity and influence of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. My Facebook news feed and email inbox are flooded with articles decrying OO and explaining why it really isn’t Orthodox Judaism. While many of the articles come from the pen of a single writer who has taken this on as his cause celebre, he is not alone in his unending stream of attacks. For me, reading his articles is like rubbernecking at a highway accident; I try hard not to look but all too often the gory scene draws me in. I regret both, but it’s hard to refrain.
Local leaders’ reactions to OO are varied. One congregational rabbi pulls no punches. The name OO is deceptive and far from reality, he writes; its true name — with his apologies to the late Irving Kristol — is neo-Conservatism. While he claims that he has come to this conclusion in pain and with a heavy heart, and that his wish is to include and not exclude, he nonetheless uses his literary compass to draw an exclusive and exclusionary circle.
Fortunately, our community has a broad range of leaders and more than just this one model for how we can deal with a diversity of ideas. One local RIETS Rosh Yeshiva (who will, I know, protest the use of the word “leader” to describe him) has, as I’ve read on his Facebook page, discussed OO issues a number of times. Yet, while he occasionally uses his astute pen to take issue, sometimes strong issue, with certain aspects of OO, it is never to exclude or denigrate. A powerful intellect, an incisive thinker, and a forceful and eloquent writer, this leader disagrees and criticizes with clearly stated and clearly sincere feelings of respect, tolerance, inclusion, and friendship. His arguments, which include listening to what the other side says, are a paradigm of civil discourse. That is something that our community — and our country — could use lots more of.
Much of what I know about debating ideas I learned as a teenager at the feet of one of the most significant thinkers, intellects, and Torah leaders of my generation, R. Emanuel Rackman z”l. And if I can sum up those lessons in a few sentences, it would be this: Know the facts, think for yourself, and always — always! — consider the arguments on the other side and be respectful of those with whom you disagree. If you do that, he taught us, you can disagree with anyone.
But enough talking. Ich denk shoyn tzeit tzu davenen.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular contributor who has lived in Teaneck for more than 30 years, is a frequent writer of essays for Jewish publications when he is not practicing law in Manhattan.