Orthodox Judaism: What’s the point?

If I had to label my Jewish affiliation, I’d say I was modern Orthodox. I’ve been a member of various Orthodox synagogues all my life, and feel uncomfortable in shuls that don’t conform to standard Orthodox traditions.

But there’s a problem, and I’m always aware of it when baal teshuva friends ask me what attracts me to Orthodoxy. I answer, honestly, that very little actually attracts me: I’ve never taken active steps to become Orthodox, in the way that geirim [converts] do. I’ve not been excited into becoming Orthodox. It’s just that this is what I’ve always done and I’d find it unnatural to do anything else.

They usually reply by commending me on my commitment, but no such commendation is due: it’s simply that in spite of the many problems I have with it, Orthodoxy is nonethless my club and, like it or not, I find myself loyal to it.

Do I find Orthodoxy admirable, though? No. Do I find it principled and morally righteous? No. Do I find that its leaders offer genuine leadership? No. Does it represent something that distinguishes it in the world? No.

Oh dear.

There’s worse. When I think about religious activities that I admire, I don’t find them in Orthodoxy—in fact, the very opposite. I find them provocatively absent.

It’s possible that what I miss may have existed in progressive Yiddish circles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but that’s not something I have any direct experience of or feel any connection to.

On the contrary, I’m English and my cultural references are English. My model for religious righteousness is therefore not Judaism but Anglo-Protestantism—notably the Anglo-Protestantism of the nineteenth century—and my heroes are the social reformers who battled against the devastating impact of industrialisation: the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, Edwin Chadwick, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce, Robert Owen, W.E. Forster, John Ruskin, Charles Booth, Thomas Horsfall—the list goes on and on.

These were individuals who were profoundly concerned about the condition of the poor, about the abuses of capitalism and urbanisation, about the need for health, education and equality. They took up arms against the great institutions of the day and achieved sensational victories, against the greatest odds.

In every case, what moved them was their understanding of religion and the demands it made on them. True, the very people whose complacency and ignorance they fought against also saw themselves as religiously impelled—but what moves me is not the false piety of the latter but the genuine piety of the former.

Over and over again, the great reformers quoted the Old Testament for its calls to social justice. Religion was not just a club, a list of restrictions and a set of daily habits: it was a moral mission.

Where do we see this in contemporary Orthodoxy? I don’t see it at all—at least, I don’t see Jewish leaders whose whole approach to Judaism is defined by the fight against oppression and self-interest. I see huge numbers of Jewish people involved in charity work and fundraising, but I don’t see what they do as driven by intellectual risk-taking and dissent but by social conformity (not least when their prime instruments are charity committees and fundraising suppers).

After news broke a few years ago about various financial and community scandals in the charedi world, I asked a charedi relation what the value was of a charedi yeshiva education if it cultivated, or allowed bochurim to cultivate, contempt for secular authority. I was told off. Apart from objecting—fairly—to my over-generalisation, my relation argued that such yeshivot had no obligation to teach civic responsibility: yeshivot were there to teach lamdut [religious learning], not act as proxies for the state.

I tried again. Hadn’t charedi yeshivot failed if their bochurim returned home thinking that it was normal and unexceptional to cheat on their tax returns (to say nothing of other derelictions)? What was the value of a yeshiva education if all that exposure to Torah and the prophets produced graduates who could scruple but had little moral prespective?

Another explosion. Bochurim, I was told, didn’t go to yeshiva to become better people but because there’s a halacha to learn. We haven’t spoken much since then.

It’s true that university students don’t go to university to become saintly either: they go mostly to develop proficiency in a subject that will earn them an income. Despite this, universities have demonstrated a massive institutional commitment to moral justice—practising it and promoting it.

From an English perspective, the acceptance of moral justice is a legacy of Christian socialism and we are all in Christianity’s debt. Again, this is not to turn a blind eye to the crimes of Christian evangelism—the self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, the proselytism that accompanied and in some cases prepared the ground for British imperialism—but it is a fact that we are all Christian socialists now.

From government patronage to corporate sponsorship to charitable endowments, the most common formula for determining policy on a range of issues is now to measure a proposal’s social utility, rather than its intrinsic value, the measure of which requires an expertise that is less transparent.

Indeed, the demand for social justice is now so well established as to be no longer the monopoly of Christianity. It is unquestionably the main force that drives Western secular liberalism, even in those communities—notably those at odds with the New York-Florida-California tricorn—that feign to despise it.

That is one element of its legacy. Another relates to how we think about religion. There are many ways to define a religion. Traditionally, it was simply the codification of socially determined perceptions of the divine. Religion might hold you to high account and set out procedures and principles, but it didn’t necessarily ask you to act beyond the interests of your own group.

It is now axiomatic, however, that any religion worthy of the name should also be passionate about radical causes that may compromise established interests and the status quo.

Orthodox Judaism cannot be classified in this way. If we do good works, we act on our own account, not because of institutional pressure. If we volunteer to help Magen David Adom or Chai Cancer Care, we do so because we want to, not as a result of our being members of a religious body such as (in the UK) the United Synagogue or the Federation or the Spanish and Portugese.

Even then, our work is invariably supportive, not challenging. We act to help those who need help rather than question the political and societal structures that give rise to need and inequality in the first place. That is to say, we don’t tend to act in ways that undermine our own security. But moral missionaries do.

The Catch 22 is that Orthodoxy, as a set of institutions, cannot commit to social reform in the wider world because it cannot match that reform on its own turf. Orthodoxy cannot self-improve. On the contrary, as the last redoubt of Torah-true Judaism, it sees itself as essentially already righteous—certainly more righteous than the non-Orthodox and those entirely outside the camp.

One prominent rabbi has taken a stand on this. The former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, argues in To Heal a Fractured World that Judaism has an ethics of responsibility. He testifies to admiring ‘the community-building, life-transforming, hope-creating work of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Bahai’ and commends the moral force of secular humanists from John Stuart Mill to Bertrand Russell.

What is significant about Rabbi Sacks’s declaration is not what he says, however, but that he felt it necessary to say it—precisely because no one else has said it. Many have thought him bold; others have found him ill-advised. Either way, his voice is not the authentic voice of Orthodox authority, of the dayanim or of the yeshivot. It is, by contrast, the voice of an English philosophy graduate, educated—prior to his interest in Chabad and ordination—at St Mary’s Primary School, Christ’s College Finchley, and Cambridge.

Orthodox Judaism has a different agenda, and it is largely to do with self-preservation. It believes in perpetuating its own particular vew of revelation but also the religious privileges of men, of prayers that speak exclusively and divisively of the needs and superior virtue of the Jewish people, of the suppression of self-definition and personal freedoms, and of the need for conformity, all of which it sees as divinely and rabbinically ordained.

At the same time it has nothing to say about feminism, victim theory, abuse, structures of impoverishment, militarism, environmentalism, waste and all the various bogeys of the left that, however fetishised by the academy, still need to be addressed—and addressed with intelligence and sensitivity, something that Orthodox culture shows no evidence of possessing.

Can it change? Not institutionally, because the leaders of our most influential yeshivot see no reason to do so, or no means of doing so. (Rabbi Irving Jacobs, once the head of Jews’ College in London, has spoken of Judaism as being consigned to a state of permanent paralysis by the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago, “like a fly in amber”.) Careers and marriage prospects can be devastated, also, by the slightest whiff of deviation.

Technical, halachic factors also stop Orthodoxy from changing, and this is enshrined by a lack of motivation. The most extreme wing of Orthodoxy—the only branch of Judaism that’s growing numerically—is particularly unwelcoming in this respect. One leading independent Orthodox rabbi believes the charedi establishment is talking of cutting itself off from modern Orthodoxy within the next 20 years and of setting up a register of acceptable names that will finally put an end to intermarriage between the two groups.

The only possibility of change, therefore, lies with Orthodoxy’s underdogs: individuals still committed to the club but painfully mistreated by it or pained by its mistreatment of others.

The most obvious group is that of Torah-educated, committed women. Of these, the emerging name in Britain is that of Dina Brawer, now preparing to be ordained in 2018 as Britain’s first Orthodox female rabbi by New York’s Yeshivat Maharat.

Brawer’s campaign to redress Orthodoxy’s gender balance by her own personal intervention has attracted considerable attention, as has her determination to help other women gain a better understanding of Orthodoxy’s hidden range and flexibility.

There is much to be admired in Brawer’s tenacity. There is a danger, however, that the demand for equal rights by some Orthodox women will eventually see women rabbanitot copying the very practices of the men who have kept them at bay—teaching the same way, teaching the same things, teaching to the same goals, confirming their reliability by upholding the same norms.

There are at least half a dozen women currently in the UK who might in time follow Brawer or who at least are capable of doing so. They are, however, hugely constrained and it isn’t clear whether what is constraining them is external or self-imposed.

Their individual shiurim and writings may stimulate thought, but no more so than their rabbinical male counterparts. Little in what they say has profound radical content; nothing is obviously female or feminist, upsetting to the establishment, or—more to the point—committed to issues further afield than the Jewish community’s own well-being.

At the same time, top-down efforts within the United Synagogue to give women more of a voice have been humiliating—often without the women involved seeming to be aware of the degree of condescension that they are party to.

This will not do. Victorian campaigners conducted their efforts on the behalf of others: the masses, the poor, the oppressed, the unhealthy. Today, the voices with the greatest impact are those of claimants themselves. Personal experience brings insights whose impact cannot be resisted.

Elsewhere in society, whole sets of rights have been successfully fought for by underpaid workers, by the homeless, by racial and religious minorities, by disabled campaigners, by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) campaigners, by victims of sexual abuse, by victims of unfair trading practices, by consumers, by environmental campaigners, and by many others.

Orthodoxy has never opened itself to these voices. The very opposite: it has closed its eyes to the conditions of disempowerment. Not a single Orthodox organisation can claim to lead the field in any social or economic initiative. Leading religious organisations continue to lag behind developments in social justice that the rest of society now takes for granted.

In charedi Stamford Hill in North London, young men who have dropped out of the chassidic world are starting to sue the local authority for not ensuring that they were given a proper education—in English, not Yiddish—when they were children. Until only a few years ago, rabbonim employed by the United Synagogue were not allowed to belong to a trade union.

It’s not unreasonable to expect rabbinic leaders to lead, and if Orthodoxy considers itself the primary expression of Jewish thought, then it should be the first to lead. How much longer do we have to wait?

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.
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