Thursday, April 11, 2013

Obligations, Rights, and Culture

The key to Jewish continuity is the subject of Gil’s post today. He excerpts British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book on the subject - who posits that the key is not culture but duty.

I think that’s right. In fact one of Rav Soloveitchik’s most oft quoted statements on the subject is the Judaism is a religion of obligations (duties) not rights. This is what Halacha is.

The common feature of these two statements is that it is duty and not some other value whether legitimate or not – that determines Judaism.

If I recall correctly - the Rav’s statement was made in response to the issue of feminism (what used to be called women’s rights issues). 

Feminism is a legitimate issue. Women should be given the same rights as men. But when it comes to the values of Judaism rights take a back seat to obligation. Obligation is what counts. Rights can only be exercised in that context. If Judaism forbids a practice, no one has a right to permit it. Not for themselves. Not for others. No matter how unfair it might seem. The same thing is true for culture. No matter how positive or attractive culture is, that too takes a back seat to obligation.

It is clear to me that if there is no obligation, there is no Judaism.  Someone who strongly identifies as a Jew culturally but does not obligate himself to any Mitzvah requirement cannot seriously perpetuate that version of Judaism.  Jewish humor, Jewish food, Jewish music, Yiddish theater, or even the Yiddish language are all obviously Jewish things.  But does eating gefilte fish, make one a Jew?

The Reform Movement would have you believe that. They say that if one lives like a Jew, then he is a Jew, regardless of whether he is observant.  Not that they consider doing Mitzvos unimportant. But they are only important culturally and not better or worse than Yiddish theater for example. So that Yiddish theater and gefilte fish are the same as eating Matzah on Pesach.

In theory one can just do all non Mitzvah related Jewish cultural activity and be a Jew in good standing in Reform Judaism.  This was also the ideal of the founding fathers of secular Zionism. Halacha was not defining. It was the culture that mattered. To the extent that rituals played any part was to the extent that they perpetuated the culture. To someone like Prime Minister Ben Gurion - the Torah learned in a Yeshiva was important only to the extent that it perpetuated Jewish culture. He had no personal use for Halacha.

If that is the definition of Judaism, then there is no Judaism.  It is merely faddism. Once the fad changes so too does the definition. The Jewish culture of a thousand years ago that is not based in Halacha will hardly resemble the Jewish culture of today. In order for a religion to maintain its longevity the way Judiasm has, there has to be a system of absolutes that are immutable over time and are a continual part of our lives. In Judaism, those absolutes are obligations given to us by the Torah. They are called Halacha.

At the end of the day, culture has little to do with how we define ourselves. To the extent that it has anything at all to do with it – is to the extent that our religious practices have become part of our culture. The reverse is obviously untrue. Culture does not determine Halacha. Nor do rights.

Heterodoxy seems to put a far greater emphasis on non obligatory things like rights and culture. When they conflict with obligation - rights and culture wins. This has given rise to 20th and 21st century innovations by Heterodoxy that have changed the face of Judaism in unprecedented ways.  

But rights based activism is challenging Halacha even in some Orthodox circles. The only difference between left wing Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is that the former still recognizes the primacy of obligations over culture or human rights. But still - the Halachic envelope is pushed as far as it can be. It is almost as if they are saying that Halachic obligations are an impediment to human rights and our ability to enjoy the culture! But… let us hold our collective noses and do what we must while pushing that envelope as far as we can.

That’s why we are seeing some very strange innovations in some parts of the Orthodox world. But you can’t turn a camel into a horse no matter how much you try. Let’s take Women’s Teffilah Groups as an example. I am not putting them down  - but if you want egalitarian Minyanim – Women’s Teffilah Groups don’t even come close. 

In my view, this attitude is wrong. We need to have a far more positive view of our obligations to God and not see them as impediments to our rights or our ability to participate in the cuture. We need to re-prioritize what we see as important in our lives. Halacha should be number one. Because that is the true key to our continuity.