Israel Drazin

Must Jews be Orthopractic?

The word orthodoxy comes from the Greek root orthos, which means correct, accurate, straight, and doxa, opinion. It describes accurate belief. Orthodox Judaism is Jews who adhere strictly to traditional beliefs. The first known mention of Orthodox Jews was made by German “enlightened Jews” in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in 1795. The term was most likely developed to mock “traditionally-minded Jews” who believed that the five books of Moses and the “Oral Law” were dictated by God. Orthopraxy is in contrast with orthodoxy. It is a neoclassical Greek compound, orthopraxia. It focuses on conduct and means proper practice. 

The word Orthodox was used not to denote a specific religious group but to Jews who opposed enlightenment. But these Jews accepted the term and used it proudly. The acceptance and use of Orthodox is much like the use of Hillbilly, which is Scottish in origin. “Hill-folk” referred to people who preferred isolation from the greater society, and “billy” meant “comrade” or “companion.” Some scholars point to its first use in 1930 to describe country music. While some people see it as denoting inferior people, many country music lovers use it.

Maimonides composed a list of thirteen principles of Judaism. A person rewrote them, called them Ani Maamin, “I Believe,” and placed them in the siddur, the prayer book, and encouraged people to read them daily. But scholars recognize that Maimonides did not accept all of these principles as true, only accepting Y-h-v-h as God. Like Plato and other philosophers, Maimonides wrote that Jews, like other people, need to be told untrue ideas that they need to believe to feel good. He called them “Essential Truths.” He did the same for Yemenite Jews who needed to believe in the coming of a miraculous messiah, even though he was convinced that a messiah would be a normal human working normally. He even gave them a time frame for the messiah’s arrival. The Yemenites thank him even today.

But the Torah requires that all Jews engage in proper behavior. It does not require beliefs. This is seen throughout scripture.

An example is the weekly read biblical portion Va’ethchanan, which has many significant items.

The portion begins in Deuteronomy 3:23. From the start to 3:29. Moses “pleads” with God – the meaning of va’ethchanan – to allow him to lead the Israelites to Canaan. God refuses. God suggests that Moses go to the top of Pisgah and view Canaan from the mountaintop. Then, appoint Joshua to conduct the Israelites to Canaan.

Rabbis differ in their explanations of why God seized the leadership role from Moses. Some say it was a punishment for hitting a rock rather than speaking to it to cause it to spring water. Talking would have been a greater miracle. Hitting could have produced water by opening a clogged area. Others say it was because Moses no longer showed proper leadership behavior. Like the later prophet Elijah, whom God also removed from the earth, the two men criticized the people. I dislike the first idea because it seems too harsh a punishment. In any event, both focus on improper behavior, a violation of conduct that God desires.

Moses continues his discourse to the Israelites to stress proper behavior in the biblical portion. He uses several terms that refer to behavior often. One is The Hebrew word means “hear” but also implies “do,” as translated by the Aramaic translation Targum Onkelos, “accept.” It is like when a mother tells her child, “Listen to me.” She does not mean, “Wipe the wax from your ears, sit back, and pay attention.” She is saying, “Do what I’m telling you to do. A form of shema often appears in the portion.

So too do the root sh-m-r, “do” and “be careful” and the root a-s-h, “do.” The three verbs requiring acts appear dozens of times, with no hint that the Bible requires belief.

Moses describes God’s acts on behalf of the Israelites in Va’ethchanan, serving as an example of how the people should similarly act.

In 4:13, he says God established a covenant with the Israelites requiring them to “do”.

In 5:3, he states that the Israelites must learn and do the laws.

He tells them that performing the acts that God wants them to do “is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations that, when they hear of these laws, will say, ‘Surely this is a wise and understanding great nation.’”

He reminds his people about God giving them the aseret hadevarim, “the ten statements… to teach you statutes and ordinances that you should.”

The aseret hadevarim is called in Greek “Decalogue,” a translation from Hebrew, also meaning “ten statements”.

People call the aseret hadevarim “the ten commandments despite there being more than ten in the statements. Counts vary. Some say there are thirteen commands.”

Having experienced the revelation of the Decalogue, Moses tells his nation, “Know today and set it in your heart that Y-h-v-h is God.” As stated in the past, during biblical days, the heart was considered the organ that promotes thinking, the mind. The verse demands that the Israelites think about God. As will become more apparent shortly, this requirement is articulated in the Shema, which became a central part of daily morning and evening prayer. It states clearly that Jews must think about God constantly to act as God requires.

Moses repeats the Decalogue, first mentioned in Exodus 20, with many alterations. As with other subjects that he discusses in Deuteronomy, he makes changes from the wording in the prior biblical books for various reasons. As with other matters in Deuteronomy, his purpose for the changes was probably to influence the Israelites to do what God requires.

In Moses’ version, there are two addition “as Y-h-v-h your God commanded.”

Zachor, “remember [the Sabbath day] is changed from a thought process to an act, shamor, “keep,” “observe.”

Similarly, rather than stating God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy, he said God took the Israelites from Egypt to act on the Sabbath day.

There are also spelling differences, an addition saying honoring parents will be good for you, and changes in the wording in the ninth and tenth statements.

Abraham ibn Ezra explains that honoring parents will benefit you because your children will see how you act with your parents and treat you similarly.

While the Masorites did not consider Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6 as part of the ten statements but just an introduction to them, Maimonides did. He said it is a command to know about God.[1]

This is the meaning of Exodus 33:22-23. When Moses requested God to let him see Him, God replied, “Stand upon the rock. When I pass by, I will place you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see my back, but you will not see My face.” God says, “You cannot see what I am doing, but you can know Me by what I have done. You will see Me in the laws of nature. Study the sciences to see Me.”

There is no requirement in the Decalogue, an essential document, to believe in anything, only to Va’ethchanan 6:4-9 continues with the Shema, which supports the contention that the Torah wants Jews to be orthopractic. While the Shema was discussed previously, it is worth looking at it again regarding what the Torah demands. I will translate the six verses, number each item, and highlight what should be noted.

“(1) Hear Israel, Y-h-v-h is our God. Y-h-v-h is one. (2) You must love Y-h-v-h your God with all your heart, nefesh, and might. (3) These words that I am commanding you today must be on your heart. (4) You must diligently teach them to your children, and talk about them when you sit at home, walk outside, lay down, and rise. (5) You must bind them as a sign on your hand, and they must be frontlets between your eyes. (6) You must write them on your house’s doorposts and gates.

(2) As previously stated, shema in Hebrew means paying attention, but depending on the sentence’s content, it denotes what a mother intends when she says, “Listen to me.” She demands that her kids do what she says.

(3) Many ancients, including Israelites, considered the heart the source of thought and “love” the act of thinking. Nefesh in the Bible is not “soul“ as it is today, but a person or body, the same usage as in English when we say, “There were six souls in the room.” The words say that God must be in all your daily thoughts and behaviors and in using your belongings. The latter possibly being a reference to charity, among much else.

(4) This sentence introduces what follows: You must think and act as God demands in the following situations.

(5) Teach God’s laws to your children and talk and perform them daily in all your activities.

(6) Both 5 and 6 are metaphors. Five states that you must do (hands) everything as God commands and see and plan (eyes) activities accordingly.

(7) You must perform divine commands when leaving home and your community.

While five and six are understood as requiring the wearing of tefillin and placing mezuzot, these are practices instituted by the Pharisees or their successors, the rabbis. The earliest finds of tefillin are at the Dead Sea in Qumran in Israel, where they were placed in the first century CE.

Thus, in the 118 verses in Va’ethchanan, there are dozens of commands to act with none to believe. People who enjoy gematriot observe that the Hebrew letters for 118 is azi’el, which means “God is my strength,” suggesting that we attain strength by acting as God demands.

[1] Sefer Hamitzvot, Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 5744, page 53, note 1.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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