Social Orthodoxy – Faux Pas or No Pas?

Dear Orthodox Jews,

Bob Dylan muses that “If your time to you is worth savin’/Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin”; in other words, a person survives the changes of the world by accepting them. If they don’t, they get left behind. Such a change within the fold of Orthodox Judaism has been the rise of “Social Orthodoxy”. I believe that changes like this one need not necessarily be seen as favorable, but rather be analyzed so their effects may be perceived. In Social Orthodoxy, a Jew feels as if they are rarely disconnected from each other and seldom alone. In an article written in April 2014 for Commentary Magazine, Jay Lefkowitz conjectures that Social Orthodox Jews believe that “Being Jewish meant being a member of a club, and not just any club: a club with a 3,000-year-old membership, its own language, calendar, culture, vast literature and a code of law, and, of course, a special place on the map” (Lefkowitz, n.pag). He also points out that in this sect a Jew rarely feels disconnected or alone, be they in a synagogue, summer camp, or travelling in Israel.

I would also like to remark that the Social Orthodox live intensely Jewish lives: they keep Shabbat, Kosher, Mitzvoth, and Halakhah to the best of their ability. They attend daily prayer services 3 times a day. They are proud of their Jewish culture and community, which is exactly why they seemingly flaunt their “Jewish security blanket” wherever they go; having a social structure that contains Orthodox Jews is important to them, and rightfully so. Not all issues that Orthodox Jews face can be discussed with non-Jews. That Jewish community support is something to be grateful for, and, at least to my knowledge, no one rejects that sentiment. What is seen here is exemplary commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people, which is the Social Orthodox Jew’s raison d’être. This foundation, combined with the realization that religious practices are an integral part of Jewish continuity, informs us why exactly Social Orthodox Jews are observant. They are devout, but not solely for the conventional reason.

What a seemingly ingenious way to live as an Orthodox Jew- we as a group must have practices and values that foster both community and continuity within the Jewish realm. We lose our identity as a group when we do not carry out those practices. We crave something tangible in our religion whose origins are not in pure faith.

That craving is understandable, but prioritizing satisfying it in lieu of achieving goals of certain institutions in Judaism is a failure. Such a failure can be seen in an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat when it holds a “Kiddush”, or sanctification service. This is a service where the congregants gather in a room and the Rabbi of the synagogue says a short prayer over a cup of wine or grape juice. Once the prayer is over, everyone is allowed to partake in the food. It is a very nice way to interact with all the congregants socially and simply enjoy oneself for a little bit of Shabbat. Unfortunately, there is one group of people that seems to exploit this order of events-members of the JFK (Just for Kiddush) club in synagogues across the world. To clarify, this is not a club people actually identify with. It is simply a title that appropriately describes the behavior of some synagogue attendees. They arrive at synagogue right when Kiddush starts. They do not come before the Kiddush, and they do not come after the Kiddush. Heaven forbid they come just before, lest everyone know what they are up to!

Such behavior motivates people to attend synagogue simply to get food, but that is the least concerning impact. Those who attend synagogue after the prayer service show that they do not care enough about it to partake in it. Also, this is improper behavior according to Halakha, or Jewish law. The synagogue is meant to be a “small sanctuary” for humans to pray to God in, especially on Shabbat. Halakha charges all males above the age of Bar Mitzvah (usually around thirteen years old) to pray every day, three times per day, including Shabbat. They attend to and nurture their relationships with other people, but their relationship with God is not nearly as important.

Therefore, it is no wonder to me that so many Jews have trouble connecting with praying to God. It is also no wonder that people spend so much time pondering how God could let so many travesties ravage the world, which is legitimate, when they could be devoting the same time and energy to learning how He conducts the world, effectively neutralizing the need to ask such a question. Such learning can be easily achieved by following along in the reading of the weekly Torah portion, looking at the Biblical commentary, or paying attention to the Rabbi giving his Dvar Torah (speech about an idea regarding the current week’s Torah portion).

Additionally, by showing up to synagogue so late, people in the JFK club waste so many hours of their Saturday morning doing frivolous things like talking with a friend at their house or sleeping in instead of praying to God. Social Orthodox Jews show little interest in the faith-based actions of their religion- social ones are the only ones that seem to make them feel valued and noticed by others. Further analysis reveals that this conflict roots itself down even further in the subconscious.

Another problem that is a symptom of being apathetic to praying during synagogue is consistent with talking during personal prayer recitations. Yet again, we see that the Social Orthodox view their relationships with other people in a higher regard than their relationship with God. This talking not only distracts the two people involved from their prayers, it also disturbs those surrounding them; for that reason it is rude to do so. A person does not lack the self-control to remain silent for two hours during the day, in a time designed to reflect on oneself and have a deeply personal experience without any distractions.

Altogether, the “new” parts of Social Orthodoxy that differ from regular Orthodox Judaism attempt to support the thesis of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in regards to the priorities of social structure, behaving according to Halakha, and believing in the tenets of Judaism, which is that “belonging precedes behaving precedes believing” (Lefkowitz n.pag). This thesis is fundamentally incorrect. The correct order is more likely the one above reversed. Ironically, a potential Jewish convert goes through this reverse process. First, they must learn the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth in the Torah and the halakhot of each, allowing them to believe in the institutions of Judaism itself. Next, after learning the laws, the person acts like a Jew by going to synagogue, praying, keeping Kosher, and gradually taking on more and more laws until they are keeping as many as they can. This is the “behaving” portion of the saying. And finally, once the person is truly convinced they would like to become a Jew, they perform a full-body immersion in a Mikvah, or ritual bath, and become a Jew.                                                                                            There is great value to the advances of Social Orthodoxy, but it seems that the negative aspects take away from the positive ones almost to the point where the institution is neutral. The situation does not have to stay like this. If Orthodox Jews get their Social Orthodox-JFK club-attending friends to walk with them to synagogue before Kiddush, they can show those friends how beautiful the Jewish liturgy is. This would not even represent a major sacrifice; the JFK member still has an opportunity to socialize on the way to synagogue since they are walking with someone else. As a result, there is incentive for the Social Orthodox Jew to arrive at synagogue earlier than they usually do. This example is only one of many solutions to negating the downsides of Social Orthodoxy. Let us show our fellow Jews that although social interactions are important in Judaism, they are not the be-all and end-all of our religion.


Ilan Hirschfield

About the Author
Ilan Hirschfield is a Modern Orthodox 19-year-old Jew from Rochester, New York. He currently attends Yeshiva University in New York City and is majoring in chemistry, with a minor in both mathematics and English studies
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