There is considerable criticism of the orthoprax model of Judaism. Orthopraxy is the concentration on practice (praxis) while orthodoxy focuses on belief (doxa). Halakhic expression will perpetuate Jewish affiliation through the generations. Belief is abstract and can wean but implemented rituals are routine and interconnected to later generations. It will keep the Jewish flame alive and bright. Present theological difficulties stifle religious generational transmission but an all encompassing traditional ritualistic framework may be the salvation needed.
Hand Not Heart
The orthoprax model maintains historical evidence. Prior to the creedal implementation, dogma was absent religion. Beliefs/theology was central but practise was the ultimate manifestation. In an ideologically driven world, I still believe the old way can be effective. Yet, what is effective? Is it high numbers of remaining members or accurate depictions? The Haredi model is the best in the former sense. Continuity is preserved at high rate, but what is the transformative effect? It is an island. There is a strong isolated and strict lifestyle. A lifestyle that is not necessarily congruent historically. Halakha demands engagement in society, not alienation. Many rabbinic sages were educated extensively and participated in it rigorously, not studying endlessly in their study halls. Haredi Judaism may quantifiably have more members consistently reciting Shema every morning, but they also throw rocks at passing cars, are anti-science, and super conservative. Their isolation is not traditionally viable nor advocated.
Yet, from strictly a religious perspective the numbers do not lie, but we also should not misrepresent them in a vacuum. The less religious one is, the higher the probability children will not be. In the modern orthodox world, many families have seen their children become more religious than them, but also others have left the fold entirely. If there is a ‘blemish’ in the religious identification, the children will more likely move down a rung. It is a dangerous game. Removing God or Sinai from the spotlight is a big ‘blemish’ to the doctrine of divine revelation and has consequences, but I am not sure lying to oneself about their position for the sake of higher allegiance is profitable. Most Jews of all denominations prefer to marry Jewish. Many Jews indeed continue to do so despite a rare connection to the revelational aspect. They find some linkage to the tribal community. Ironically, even intermarried couples sustain and promote Jewish values to their children.
I recognise the potential danger, but I do not think deception is the correct path solely to retain more followers. We need to be honest with ourselves. Yet, ‘blemishes’ may not be a dealbreaker if executed correctly. If there is a ‘blemish’ but is explained to the child adequately, it is plausible that continuity persists. Children can trust their parents, and honesty must be at the onset. A child may reject their parents’ ways because they see it as a cop-out or their parents’ insincerity regarding their convictions. A strong affinity to one’s views is inspiring and respectable. I think children can understand, and hopefully, mine will as well someday.
Is this orthoprax/social orthodoxy/sceptic outlook tenable? I think so, but our education of Judaism must change. We call it ‘orthodoxy’ signifying the ideological centricity. ‘Orthopraxy’ or halakhic Judaism must revive its thematic necessity. We are more concerned with actions than beliefs. It is what you do, not what you think. Thought does provide weight to action but it need not be the doctrines demanded. Worship is a communal process to unite in a participatory event. The Jewish lifestyle is perpetually communal and familiar.
In the debate club some time ago, there was a question forcing immigrants to learn American values/dogma (something along those lines). One of the counterarguments retorted was why we needed to teach values if they follow the law. We want lawful citizens, not necessarily ideologically uniform robots. Some diversity is okay. If a communist family came to America, they should be allowed entry as any law-abiding citizen. Their anti-democratic views should not hinder the ability to live peacefully. They are properly obeying, and the educational system of the country will habituate them to its values. Children who attend public schools will acquire the virtues of democracy and freedom. Whether or not they accept democracy has no bearing on their lawfulness. They will inevitably accept certain values by constitutional expression but that is not the same as internalising national dogma. America is a country where people reside and will fight for their peoplehood. To be fair this argument would be more exact if there was an American dogma to believe Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence or they were a heretic. Yet, to be an American is to heed the constitution and follow the norms.
Similarly, Jews will do the same and always will. We are blood-related, closer than Americans. We have a collective memory dating millennium. Even children of immigrants though they did not choose to be part of a new nation do not hold the close ties of Jews. They can be forced to accept certain regulations but to believe something cannot be coerced to obey. A born Jew does not have this option. He is a full-fledged Jew biologically and ontologically. Should he be forced to absorb doctrines, or is heeding the practises sufficient? Will routine completion habituate the dogma? Affirmatively. A Jew is part of a tribal community, not an ideological cult. Jews should be judged by their completion of deeds, not the affirmation of their beliefs. I do not think a convert has to accept any dogma either. He must follow the law but not the doctrines. R’ Shagar makes this point and quotes Maimonides as approving of it in his Vezot Briti though Maimonides may contend that no absolute acceptance is required. One is joining the covenantal community, not just the tribal community. The Torah is more concerned with tribal attachment than theological acceptance. There is a cultic methodology to accept as an inherent member or by becoming a member.
This halakhic-centric non-dogmatic trend is plausible and endearing. It returns to an earlier time of tribal connectivity. A life of exertion, not pondering. There is a desire to remain part of the tribe. Law needs to be reignited with a passion of value. We do things because they are purposeful to our lives. They aid in our personal development and connection to our ancestry. The anti-traditionalist rhetoric is reminiscent of continual refusal to purge truth for comfort. Our communal heritage remains indicative of our tribal identity. Halakha is a tribal action that is communally binding. We act as a unit to perpetuate our existence and influence in the world.
David Curwin, “Sanctifying Our Choices: The Solution to the Paradox of Orthodoxy” Hakirah 27 pp. 209-223.
Elli Fischer, “Noah Feldman, ‘Orthodox Paradox’ and Jay Lefkowitz, ‘The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account’ The New Jewish Canon (Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah), eds. Yehuda Kurtzner and Claire E. Sufrin, Academic Studies Press, 2020, pg. 412.
Jared Hickman, “The Theology of Democracy” The New English Quarterly 81:2 pp. 177-178.
Jacob Katz, “Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 2 pp. 3-17.
Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Content Character and Creativity trans. Michael Prawer (Vol. I: The Second Temple Period) (Maggid Books, 2010).
Samuel Lebens, “Proselytism as epistemic violence: a Jewish approach to the ethics of religious persuasion” The Monist 104, pg. 385.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Faith, History, and Values (Jerusalem: Academon, 1982), pg. 144 [Hebrew].
Emmanuel Levinas, “To Love the Torah More Than God” Judaism 28:2 pg. 218.
Peter Lipton, “Science and Religion: the Immersive Solution” Philosophers and God: At the Frontier of Faith and Reason eds. John Cornwell and Michael McGhee, Continuum, 2009, pg. 46
Shimon Gershom Rosenberg, This is My Covenant: Conversion, Secularism, and Civil Marriage ed. Zohar Maor, 2011 [Hebrew].
Isadore Twersky, “Religion and Law,” Religion in a Religious Age, ed. S. D. Goitein (Cambridge, MA: Association For Jewish Studies, 1974), pg. 70.