The true orthoprax nature of the Jewish tradition

The term orthodox is a Latin term not indigenous to the Jewish tradition, representing an influence of Christianity; and, literally means correct doctrine (or correct belief) implying that religion requires correct doctrine in addition to right behavior.  In my view, the nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, if we insist upon using Latin terms (for some inexplicable reason), is orthoprax; which, literally means correct practice (or right deeds) implying that Biblical religion and traditional Judaism demand right behavior (ethically and ritually) but no binding theological dogma.  There is no binding dogma in the Hebrew Bible, and the Talmudic rabbis did not formulate a binding theological creed.

Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century), is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify principles of faith within a legal framework as a binding theological dogma in codifying his “13 Principles of Faith” as commandments in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  In my view, Maimonides was aware that a binding dogma is a distortion of traditional Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are positive and negative commandments of action (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of faith or belief; and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief).  Maimonides is thus the first in the Jewish tradition to create an orthodox conception of Judaism, according to the literal meaning of the term.  Not only is the term orthodox as a Latin term (and an influence of Christianity) foreign to the Jewish tradition; but, the philosophic conception reflected in the term (that there are principles of belief that one must accept) is also foreign to the Jewish tradition.  Such an orthodox conception is compatible with Christianity, which is a religion in the sense of a faith commitment (faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah) but is foreign to the pragmatic spirit of traditional Talmudic Judaism, which is a religion in the orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people.

The orthodox movement emerged as a social movement in the 19th century in Europe together with the reform and conservative movements although the ideological roots of orthodoxy are in the codification of a binding dogma by Maimonides in the medieval period.  Thus, orthodox Judaism (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) represents later historical development following the Talmudic period – and, in my eyes, orthodox Judaism is not only not authentic Judaism as is believed on a widespread basis but represents a distortion of the orthoprax nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.  People on a widespread basis also think mistakenly that traditional Judaism was always orthodox, and the contemporary non-orthodox movements represent a break with traditional Judaism that was always orthodox – however, the contemporary non-orthodox movements did not break away from traditional Judaism but represent a later historical development, like orthodoxy, within the Jewish tradition.

I object to ideological and philosophic distinctions in Judaism such as between religious and secular, and between ideological movements.  In my opinion, such ideological and philosophic distinctions are in violation of an explicit law of the Talmudic rabbis that it is forbidden to divide the Jewish people into ideological factions.  Traditional Judaism, orthoprax in nature, is far more practice and sociology than philosophy and ideology.  An orthodox conception of Judaism necessarily leads to division between Jews of differing ideological and philosophic viewpoints (in delegitimizing viewpoints that do not fit orthodox dogma); whereas, an orthoprax conception of Judaism allows for the bridging of gaps between Jews of differing ideological and philosophic viewpoints.

I once read about a young man who grew up in the orthodox Jewish world, and was married with several children already at a young age – and then he began to have questions and doubts of a philosophic nature concerning matters of faith and belief in a philosophic sense.  He described his wife as having blind faith.  His questions and doubts eventually led to him no longer believing in traditional orthodox beliefs, and as a result he no longer felt an attachment to Jewish tradition or a commitment to live a traditional Jewish life.  He and his wife divorced, and sadly his wife cut off any connection with him as did his children as well (perhaps influenced by their mother).  In my eyes, such a split in an orthodox family is an unnecessary tragedy.  I submit that the cause of such a split is the widespread acceptance of an orthodox conception of Judaism throughout the orthodox world (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox).

In the Biblical conception, which is orthoprax, the essence of religion is not faith or ritual but morality, as reflected in the verse “you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18).  Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic rabbis, formulated the essence of Judaism in an orthoprax sense as moral decency.  As the essence of Judaism, Hillel pointed to the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cited the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”.  It is simply astounding to me that people whether of a religious or secular background do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations of what it means to be religious are completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God.  This is even more striking in the case of Rabbi Akiva because the continuation of the Biblical verse that he cites as the essence of Judaism is “I am the Lord”.  Rabbi Akiva quotes only the beginning of the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency.  Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”.  On the basis of the orthoprax conception of religion of the Bible, and on the basis of the orthoprax conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the husband would not only not be viewed as a heretic but would be seen and appreciated as fulfilling the essence of religion by virtue of his moral character.

Moreover, the terms Jew and Judaism come from a root in Hebrew meaning thankfulness.  The attitude of the wife and children in cutting off any relationship with their husband and father when he has committed no intentional wrongdoing of a moral nature and simply because he holds as a matter of conviction beliefs that are not the politically accepted beliefs of his community is, in my view, from a religious point of view, an attitude (I assume unknowingly) of ungratefulness and a lack of appreciation.  By contrast, reflected in the secular formulations of the essence of Judaism (omitting God from their formulations) of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation, in which the focus regarding a moral atheist such as their husband and father is upon his moral character and behavior (and not upon his lack of faith in a theological sense) – the focus is upon appreciating the positive regarding such a person rather than condemning the negative.

If the husband were guilty of intentional wrongdoing of a moral nature, then there would be in my eyes a compelling reason not only for divorce but for cutting off any relationship with him.  But, in this case, the husband was not guilty of any intentional moral wrongdoing – and thus why should the wife and children not express thankfulness and gratitude to God for giving them a moral husband and father in spite of the lack of traditional orthodox belief and ritual practice of the husband and father (even if they are unable to remain together as a family)?  I understand very well that there would be difficulties for them within their orthodox community to live with a husband and father who is seen by them and by their community on a widespread basis as a heretic – and this, in my view, may be considered a compelling reason for divorce given the community in which they presently live.  However, in what way is cutting off any relationship with the husband and father justified?  It seems to me that cutting off any relationship with such a husband and father expresses from a religious point of view not only an attitude of ungratefulness to God but is an insult to God (who brought the husband and wife together according to orthodox doctrine that the wife and children apparently accept).

If in the orthodox world we were to return to our orthoprax heritage as reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic tradition not only would there be no reason to cut off a relationship with such a husband and father but also no reason for a divorce between the husband and wife.  On the basis of the Biblical conception of religion, and on the basis of the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the focus would be upon the moral character and behavior of the husband as the essence of Judaism, and he would be appreciated as fulfilling the essence of religion (rather than condemned as a heretic).  Furthermore, in reading about this wife and husband, and their tragic divorce, I recall that the husband told that despite his lack of orthodox belief he still did feel an attachment to tradition in the Synagogue – not to traditional prayers but to singing and dancing.  I am sure that had he been encouraged in a spirit of appreciation (rather than condemnation) the husband could have found many other things to which he could have felt attachment within the Jewish tradition in spite of his lack of belief in traditional orthodox doctrine.  If there had been an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation (rather than criticism and condemnation) technical solutions could have been found for allowing the family to remain together without divorce in spite of philosophic differences and differences regarding ritual practice.

Such a case in which two Jews, both of good character, who have differing philosophic orientations and approaches to ritual practice, cannot live together and raise a family together is, in my eyes, not only a terrible tragedy – it is an indictment not of Judaism but of an orthodox version of Judaism.  I emphasize that an orthodox conception of Judaism leads to fragmentation and division between Jews in the case of philosophic disagreement between them; whereas an orthoprax conception of Judaism allows for the bridging of gaps between Jews of differing philosophic outlooks and views as well as differing approaches to ritual practice.

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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