I recently read a terrific book by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks titled Arguments for the Sake of Heaven, which helped me sort through some of my own, recent thoughts about what is commonly called ‘Orthodox Judaism’ and some who publicly claim to represent it.
The term ‘Orthodox Judaism’
The term ‘Orthodox Judaism’ did not originate in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Abraham Furtado (1756-1817), a communal leader of progressive views, grew restless with the conservative positions of the traditionalist rabbis. He sought for a word to describe what he saw as their obduracy in the face of change. He called them in one of the first recorded uses of the phrase – ‘Orthodox Jews.’ -Arguments, p.39
In fact, the first ‘Orthodox Jews’ actually rejected the phrase.
As Samson Raphael Hirsch noted, there is something odd about the word Orthodoxy itself. He objected to it. Judaism, he wrote, ‘knows of no mosaic, prophetic or rabbinic, and of no orthodox or progressive Judaism. It is either Judaism or it is not.’ -Arguments, p.192
My wife and I have Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family friends that we like to visit for Shabbat on occasion; and I recall that my mother, in an attempt to better imagine what our married life is like, once asked us about how Shabbat at our own home differed from our Haredi friends. We reflected upon the question, and responded that it did not differ much at all.
Still, when people ask me, “what kind of Jew are you?” I prefer to address the nuances of this question with them. Only if they’re looking for a short, simplistic answer do I say that “I function in the world as an Orthodox Jew.”
Different people understand Orthodoxy differently. When I was a child, I thought Orthodox Jews were a) different than me, and b) religious. I really didn’t know much about them. Some say that Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism. Some say that it is one of many equally legitimate Jewish denominations. Some say that it is archaic and not relevant in the modern world.
For many people who haven’t interacted with any Orthodox Jews, the differences among us may seem to be nothing more than superficial. For those with some exposure to Orthodox Jewish culture, the differences can be quite vast. When my wife and I were living in the center of Jerusalem, near the site of a weekly, disruptive ultra-Orthodox protest against car traffic on Shabbat, I found myself wondering how much I had in common with those protesting Orthodox Jews. Am I more similar to them, or more affiliated with them, than to Conservative, Humanist, Liberal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Secular or Traditional Jews because of my religious behavioral norms? I don’t believe so.
Not all Jews who identify themselves with Orthodoxy are religious, and some non-Orthodox Jews are also committed to living by halakha (Jewish law). Some members of Orthodox society don’t believe in God, but choose to remain in their communities because of family connections or social considerations, whereas many non-Orthodox Jews believe in a supernatural God. In fact, understandings differ as to whether Orthodoxy implies a set of religious practices, beliefs or both.
There’s no single, centralized institution, one religious leader or group that all Orthodox Jews hold as religiously authoritative. Orthodoxy is no movement; it’s a sociopolitical construct.
The standards for acceptable public behavior and expression, norms of dress, and political discourse found in most Orthodox communities chafe at me. Chasidic communities, it’s safe to say, are on one side of the Orthodox homogeneity spectrum:
Shabbat is an institution of law, vacations are a matter of choice. Shabbat is communal, vacations are personal… Chasidim take vacations en masse, refusing to admit individualism into the social structure. -Arguments, p.168
In truth, I am not much concerned with being Orthodox in a sociopolitical sense; but I am very concerned with being Jewish and living according to halakhah. Finding a halakhic community that doesn’t put a heavy emphasis upon uniformity has been challenging for me.
Orthodoxy is today experienced as consistent, lucid, and harmonious only in environments that exclude the secular world: in yeshivot, or chasidic circles, or restricted neighborhoods. These are environments that do not mirror society as a whole… This leads to a shift in the balance of tradition within any given enclave of Orthodoxy, away from diversity towards uniformity… -Arguments, p.213-214
While my loyalties don’t necessarily lie with Orthodox institutions in the Jewish world any more than they do with others, I can’t help but continue to describe myself in relation to the popular understanding of Orthodox Judaism. Today, many have come to think of Orthodox Judaism as synonymous with a) ‘religious’ and b) ‘authentically Jewish,’ including those both inside and outside Orthodox Jewish society.
‘Just Jewish’ is the identifier that fits me most comfortably, but this answer doesn’t satisfy many questioners. It sounds too vague, too complicated, or too noncommittal for them.
Orthodoxy: apart? a part?
Historically, most Orthodox institutions have kept themselves apart from Jewish institutions of other denominations. Most Orthodox rabbis today do not join local rabbinic councils with non-Orthodox rabbis.
Orthodoxy has found its strength precisely in its disengagement. No longer constrained by the need to formulate halakhah in such a way as to be livable by all Jews, no longer empowered to enforce Jewish law throughout the Jewish community, Orthodoxy was able to develop its own voluntary communities… -Arguments, p.194
This, of course, is the root of the aforementioned uniformity prevalent within most Orthodox communities, but it’s also had an impact upon the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish society.
Orthodoxy has become radicalized. The connections once made between it and secular culture on the one hand, and the collective Zionist enterprise on the other, have grown attenuated and thin… This does not make relations between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish world easier. -Arguments, p.178-179
Recently, I’ve been reminded of this, for many comments posted by Orthodox readers on Times of Israel blog posts and articles that pertain to non-Orthodox Judaism or Modern Orthodox Judaism are simply mean-spirited, insensitive and often – gloating or mocking. This concerns me greatly because so many people associate these very same, self-identified representatives of Orthodoxy with authentic Jewish tradition and halakhah, which I love so much.
Neither Jewish law nor Jewish thought mandates an all-or-nothing approach to tradition. Reform Jews have made affirmations that are significant and positive…. The view that nothing the Reform movement does short of a complete return to Orthodoxy can have significance is hard to justify by any other than isolated texts… -Arguments, p.223-224
Given the balkanized state of Orthodox Jewry, the degrading, dismissive responses that too many Orthodox commentators post on other people’s opinion pieces are simply unbecoming for Jews who claim to represent true Torah Judaism. What might be the impact of such comments upon the public? How might they affect people’s views of “authentic Judaism,” and more importantly, Torah? And, frankly, why do these Orthodox readers have to knock other Jews down in order to build themselves up?
It’s also interesting to note who these commentators tend to criticize. For example, many of them have no qualms telling Orthodox women who are studying for Orthodox semikha (rabbinic ordination) that they are not really Orthodox, but I’ve yet to see one of them write that the Orthodox rabbis who perpetrate sex crimes against their congregants aren’t really Orthodox. Why not, I wonder? And how can they make such a claim on behalf of the entire Orthodox community, which has no centralized religious authority? When do the Orthodox shuls that hire women rabbis officially cease to be Orthodox? Is it when they sign the rabbi’s contract? Or when she receives her first paycheck?
Do we aim to be a part of the Jewish people? Or do we serve to tear Am Yisrael further apart with sin’at chinam (baseless hatred)?
The oft-cited 2013 Pew Report on Jews in America was hardly the first indicator that assimilation is continuing to thin the ranks of the non-Orthodox movements, although it has become the most recent springboard for the re-energized, gloating comments about the eventual demise of non-Orthodox Judaism.
Three decades ago, in the Spring of 1982, Tradition Journal (a publication of the Orthodox Union) published The State of Orthodoxy: A Symposium, in which twenty Orthodox rabbis responded to a series of 8 questions about Orthodox Judaism. The very first question immediately drew my attention:
- Do you believe that recent developments warrant the triumphalism exhibited by important segments of Orthodoxy which predict the total disappearance of non-Orthodox movements?
The response that I most enjoyed was Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s zt”l, and I’ll quote it here, in his memory:
We are justifiably gratified by the growing number of baalei teshuvah. Yet, even as we recall hazal’s emphasis upon the significance of every individual as whole world, can we forget that these represent a minuscule part of their alienated peers?
Nor do I share the glee some feel over the prospective demise of the competition. Surely, we have many sharp differences with the Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed over or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured. Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or in Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether rather than drive to his temple?
HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l,
“The State of Orthodoxy: A Symposium,”
Tradition 20:1 (Spring 1982): 47-50.
Orthodoxy: assumptions and responsibility
Years ago, some wonderful, kind Orthodox Jews welcomed me into their homes and community, and introduced me to Jewish tradition in a beautiful and compelling way that I had never before experienced. They changed the course of my life, and I am so thankful for that.
I came to think of Orthodox Judaism as both a) juxtaposed to and in competition with the non-Orthodox denominations, and b) the most authentic expression of Judaism. This thinking was nurtured and reinforced by the Orthodox Jewish educators and rabbis that I was exposed to. I still recall, for example, my first day at a yeshiva in Jerusalem that I attended during college. The rabbi who welcomed us off the bus brought out his guitar, and played us an original song of his, mocking the North American non-Orthodox Hebrew school experience. At the time, this seemed completely natural and reasonable to me.
Over the years, after learning more, and learning from many different kinds of Jewish educators, I’ve come to question my assumptions about Orthodox Judaism. I’ve learned that some Orthodox rabbis do join local rabbinic councils, and call their non-Orthodox counterparts by the title “rabbi”. I’ve learned that there is a wide range of political views in Orthodox society. I’ve learned that Orthodox Jewry is fragmented, and the various forms of today’s Orthodoxy have each only existed for several hundred years. I’ve learned that it’s complicated.
I’ve also learned that while nobody can authoritatively speak for all of Torah, there are those who presume to, while waving their Orthodox flags up high in the air. They do not necessarily represent even the majority of Orthodox Jews, but they make themselves known more than those who exhibit humility. And in a world were so many people claim and so many others assume that Orthodox Judaism is synonymous with Jewish authenticity, I believe that the damage these people could cause to the reputation of Jewish tradition is unconscionable.
Judaism is beautiful. Our tradition speaks with many voices.