Thursday, October 06, 2011

Labels - A Necessary Evil

There was an interesting article in the Jerusalem Post a couple of weeks ago by Rabbi Stewart Weiss that asks some challenging questions. What exactly does it mean to be Orthodox? And what does it take for someone to no longer be considered Orthodox? Indeed what value is there at all to being called Orthodox? The title of the article should tell you where he stands on the last question: “Don’t call me Orthodox”.

His premise is one that I have heard many times and one that I have addressed before. It is one that I wish could be applied universally. Labels are counter-productive and tend to divide. I agree. He illustrates this with a personal anecdote.

When he was a chaplain visiting the sick in Chicago, a patient asked him what kind of rabbi he was. He realized the purpose of the questioner. Whatever denomination they were, they wanted a rabbi of similar beliefs. They believed that only such a rabbi could properly minister to them. Not wanting to alienate the patient - he fudged an answer in an attempt to give the pastoral care the patient needed. He said: “I’m a Jewish rabbi!”

It would be nice if we could all just define ourselves as Jewish. No Conservative; no Reform; and no Orthodox. We are all just Jewish. The differences between us are personal – each of us having our own level of personal observance – no matter which Mitzvos we observe and which ones we don’t.

The Sephardi community is like that. There are no denominations among Sephardim. Their level of religious observance runs from meticulous observance of every single Mitzvah all the way to virtually non observance of even an important Mitzvah like Shabbos. They are all one big community and they see the rabbi as their religious authority whom they all honor - chief among them Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. There are no Conservative or Reform Sephardi theologies, rabbis or Jews. There are just Jews with differing levels of observance.

The result of this approach is far greater sense of Achdus -unity among them. Sephardi Jews interact with each other socially regardless of how observant they are. Sephardi Jews do not look for religious or theological rationalizations for their behavior.

I wish it was like that for Ashkenazi Jews. But it’s not. When the first denominational break-away happened, it forced labels upon us. It was the most divisive act ever done by a group of Jews since the days of the Mishna when the Sadducees broke away from the Pharisees. The Reform founding fathers created their own theology and rabbinate. There was no way to reconcile it with traditional Judaism. There was now an option for a Jew to justify his non observant behavior theologically and to completely dismiss the traditional rabbi as a source of belief and practice.

Once there was one split - there came others. Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism are the most prominent - each with their own definition of what Judaism is. There is no way for a Jew to simply define himself as Jewish anymore. It isn’t only about the level of observance. It is about the theology. There can be no unity with heterodox theologies that Orthodoxy sees as heretical. We therefore cannot and do not recognize other denominations.

But they are there proclaiming themselves as legitimate alternatives to Orthodoxy. We therefore have no choice but to label ourselves. We otherwise risk being seen as tolerant of heresies. So much as I wish there were no denominations in Judaism –there are. And only by identifying ourselves can we have an intelligent discussion about who and what is legitimate or not.

Once we have labels it is important to know how to define them. These labels although borne of theological necessity have become sociological groupings that are now defined more by lifestyle than theology. So Rabbi Weiss’s rhetorical question about what it takes to no longer be seen as Orthodox remains. Here is how he puts it:

It began earlier this summer with the tragic death of Leiby Kletzky, the eightyear- old hassidic boy brutally murdered in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. The press reports screamed that his killer, Levi Aron, was an “Orthodox Jew.” Excuse me? An “Orthodox” Jew?! Can we really say that a monster who kidnaps, strangles and dismembers a young child – stuffing his body parts in a garbage dumpster and a freezer – is “Orthodox”?

Obviously kidnapping and murder are not Orthodox customs. But I would have to disagree with saying that it is impossible for an Orthodox Jew to commit murder or kidnapping. It is the old ‘No True Scotsman’ argument. You cannot define all deviancy out of your social tag. An Orthodox Jew is currently identified by several key factors – in particular keeping Shabbos and Kashrus. It is also defined by community. If one lives in an Orthodox neighborhood, goes to an Orthodox Shul, has mostly Orthodox friends, and (in the case of a man) wears a Kipa and Tziztzis then he is Orthodox. If he murders someone than an Orthodox Jew has murdered someone. The same thing is true about any crime he commits.

Rabbi Weiss would like to define out of Orthodoxy all miscreants who are Shomer Shabbos. Whether they cheat in business, their taxes, or murder someone. Personally I would like to write them out of Judaism and even humanity. But the fact is they are both human and Jewish. And they are Orthodox if they live an Orthodox lifestyle and self identify as such.

Rabbi Weiss argues that one should not judge a book by its cover. He quotes his mother as saying something to the effect of “Frum is a Galach - Ehrlich is a Yid”! (I believe Rav Aharon Soloveichik made the same comment although I never personally heard him say it). This is something I subscribe to. This statement is a rejection of Frumkeit in favor of Ehrlichkeit. We should avoid judging a Jew by his outer trappings:

Part of our problem, I suggest, is an almost obsessive fixation on the outer trappings of apparel and appearance. We judge others instantly by the clothes they don, the styles they employ, the costumes they wear. Clothes are indeed important guardians of modesty, but they do not necessarily connote religiosity.

I agree. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with whether a person is Orthodox or not.