I find myself in a very precarious position as an orthodox rabbi, what we call in the Jewish world frum. I’m not talking about whether I affiliate myself as “Orthodox”, the label given to Jews of the traditional variety. Rather, I’m speaking of being orthodox with a small “o”, making me a member of a subset of clergy members across religious denominations that does things old school and carry on the traditional doctrine of our respective faiths. It is a group that is under assault from two directions: those people who want to throw away orthodoxy and religion altogether, and those who wish to remake it in their own image, which almost always means remaking the religion to just magically conform to the mores and values of pop culture. Sometimes that means trying to maintain a traditional veneer while other times religious services are reworked to look like summer camp.
Being as my work as a rabbi is mostly with college students, holding the party line is a brave decision, and some might argue stupid. While Reform rabbis on campuses all over the country are playing guitars on Shabbat and Hillels are holding interfaith and GLBT events, I go out and speak about the fundamentals of Jewish faith, cult busting, and just about anything that might get a rise out of students. Surprising, students seem to react well to it.
I’d like to offer my students, and anyone reading for that matter, a couple of reasons to consider looking into an orthodox religion as opposed to religion-nouveau. The answers may actually surprise you:
1. Orthodoxy has the answers: I’m not trying to say that orthodoxy has ALL of the answers. Obviously since there are multiple orthodoxies so it’s impossible for all of them to be right about everything. Still, in each religion there’s a consistent set of explanations for the deeper questions in life and how to respond to life’s challenges. These answers are time-tested and have been refined over centuries of challenges and reforms. There’s a reason why orthodox religions tend to share similar values: these are the values that have worked throughout the ages. Many ideas that people think are new or fresh are either challenges that have been brought in the past or old orthodoxies from other traditions that just couldn’t cut the mustard.
2. Orthodoxy is moderate: Despite the way some of the followers may act, tradition is actually a moderating force in religion. When people have to reconcile their radical new ideas with the old understandings of the world, they tend to have to back down from extremes in order to be taken seriously. Ultimately the consensus of many opinions over many years yields a happy medium that is loyal to the principles of the religion while not so over the top as to be unreasonable.
3. Orthodoxy is intelligent: The works of Augustine and the Ibn Rashid (Averroes) are poured over to this day by scholars religious and secular alike. The prominent role of literacy in Jainism is largely responsible for making Jains traditionally the most literate group in India. When the Koreans wanted to improve their education system, they looked to the Talmud and made it a core part of their curriculum. Examples too numerous to enumerate in the classical religious works can be shown illustrating the depth and profundity of orthodox religious thought. Very little that is being produced contemporarily can hold a candle.
Let’s just focus on one major point of why one engages in religious behavior: to get closer to G-d. I’m not talking about stimulating overwhelming feeling of spirituality that washes over you. There are many chemicals that can reproduce a similar feeling. I mean really coming close to your Creator. The only way to really do that is to do what your Creator actually wants, as the Rabbis said in the Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 2:4) “Make your will His will so He will make His will yours.” Someone rubber-stamping the vogue morals of the day isn’t going to get you there. Only someone who’s giving you time-tested guidance on the right way to live can help with this goal.
Let’s be honest, who would you prefer to guide you on your quest for spirituality: the principled rabbi or the Pez dispenser rabbi?