Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rights and the Search for Meaning

Selfie – which means taking a picture of yourself - is the Oxford  Dictionary ‘Word of the Year’. The ‘Word of the Year’ is an annual project for this esteemed standard bearer of the English language.  It is chosen by frequency of use. ‘Selfie’ was the most frequently used new word in 2013. From CNN
Language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% since this time last year," Oxford wrote in justifying its choice. 
It has now been given its rightful place in their dictionary. How appropriate that is for the times. For we are living in an age where the self and individual rights dominates almost everything we do. As such  the liberal mindset dictates that as long as no one else is harmed, people should have the right to do whatever they want… irrespective of its value. And it should have the blessing of the State. This is why gay marriage has become such a popular cause. And it is why feminism has become the driving force in so many areas of American life. The motives behind feminism are just. Women have been historically treated as second class citizens even in enlightened societies like ours. Even as late as the 1970s.

But the obsession with rights has a downside. One of the more thoughtful essays on this subject was written on a blog called PopChasid. The author describes himself as a Baal Teshuva.  To me this establishes his credentials as a thoughtful person who does not do things by rote or because of fashion.

A Baal Teshuva as commonly defined is someone who was not raised in an observant home. They have come to observance seeking meaning in their lives. Although there are many reasons that someone may become a Baal Teshuva (BT), I have to believe that giving meaning to their lives is the most significant part of their thought process.

As a very funny video (below) on the subject illustrates - the Baal Teshuva should be our role models in the area of sincerity.  Those of us born into religious families and know no other way of life often tend to do Mitzvos out of habit. We often don’t even think about what we are doing. An example of this is in our daily prayer service. One of the most difficult tasks for me is to actually concentrate on the words of the Shemoneh Esreh (Amidah) that I say – and have said 3 times daily since before my Bar Mitzvah in 1959. Try as I might it is sometimes impossible for my mind not to wander at some point during that prayer.

The BT is not like that. They want to serve God properly, and go to great lengths to learn how to do that.  For them, it isn’t about serving God in ways that best ‘speaks to them’. It is about doing selflessly what God wants of them.  

Contrast that with the new wave of rights based Orthodoxy that is being led its liberal left wing. The left does not cater to the mindset of what you can do for God. It caters to the mindset of people who seek what God can do for them. In other words, it is more about self fulfillment albeit in religious terms. For the liberal mind - if Orthodox Judaism doesn’t ‘speak’ to them, they will find another denomination that will. This is not seeking truth. This is seeking self fulfillment.

Now there is nothing wrong with being fulfilled in life. But self fulfillment should never come at the expense of compromising beliefs or values. In an effort to accommodate the ‘self fulfillers’ the left has resorted to compromise. They have tried to combine the ‘linen’ of Torah - with the ‘wool’ of  feminism in an effort to accommodate both. But whenever you try to combine things which are not fully compatible you may end up with a forbidden mixture of Shatnez… even though both ‘ingredients’ are by themselves ‘kosher’ and of high value in their own right. Together they are a bastardization of both... or nearly so.

I understand and even respect their motives. But that does not mean their solutions have any more value than Shatnez. Rights and obligations by their very nature often tend to contradict each other.  One of them has to give way to the other. Those who truly value feminism in all its implications will never find in in Orthodoxy. In my view that is demonstrated by those who leave Orthodoxy to join other ‘more tolerant’ denominations. Orthodoxy did not ‘speak to their ‘needs’. In other words, their need for self fulfillment superseded their will to serve God in the way He prefers.

This is what the BT is actually running away from. Here in part is how PopChasid puts it:
(T)he story of the Baal Teshuva Generation is, more often than not, missing half its story. This is the story of not just what attracted them to the world of orthodoxy, but what repelled them from the world of liberal Judaism.
There was something distinct that pushed most of us away from liberal Judaism.  A common strain, if you will.  There were many reasons, to be sure, but this one thing, this one thing was common with the vast majority of us. It’s the obsession with externality.  The obsession with how the outside defines us as opposed to how we define ourselves.
Almost all of us grew up with this (very American but transposed onto Judaism) obsession.  It’s an obsession that eats away at the soul of America and which liberal Judaism has adopted along with it. Many people think of obsession with the external as only having to do with judging people by their looks… But it’s so much deeper than that.
Activism, the obsession with “rights”, is right there along with it. The fight for rights, of course, is so important.  It’s why so many of us are able to live happily in our country, despite how different we may be. But there’s a negative side to being too obsessed with activism.
The more you fight for something, the more you talk about rights, and fighting for them, the less time you have to find meaning.  This is a purely practical consideration.  When you are always fighting for the answers you already have, you have no time to search out the answers you need.
So many of us grew up in that culture.  The culture of answers.  The culture of rights.  The culture of activism. And we grew tired of it.  Rights were nice… but liberal Judaism had become so obsessed with them, and so obsessed with the external of their religion, that we were left dry of meaning.  Dry of depth….
(T)he baal teshuva generation exists just as much because of where they came from as where they are now. The liberal Jewish movement, and that includes many people who ran away from their orthodox lives, would really love you to believe that we were all tricked.  Or that we’ll come running back one day. The more this narrative is spun, though, the more the reality is hidden.
The reality that meaning is what people are looking for. And the constant debating over women wearing tefillin, over Women of the Wall, (etc.) may all be important, on some level.  But it’s the obsession over those things, the defining identity on those things, that will continue to cause the Baal Teshuva Generation to strengthen and the bleeding of the rest into the secular world.
Some of this debate has spilled over into the more liberal forms of orthodox Judaism as well.  That’s how this whole tefillin thing started right? Of course, that makes no difference.  This isn’t about orthodoxy or lack-there-of.  Which is what so many people seem to misunderstand.
This is about appropriation of a world that values externality, of rights and activism, over meaning.  And orthodox folks do this plenty.
This is about people searching for something real in their lives.  This is about having a depth of experience.  About finding an identity that speak to our souls.  Because, at the end of the day, rights don’t do a thing for us if we aren’t “full”, if we aren’t connected to meaning.
Liberal Judaism may provide that.  But its obsession with rights and activism has blocked any possibility of that happening.  And the more orthodox Jews who start to buy into that worldview, the more will be leaving those denominations as well.  Choosing to (be either) secular or a different brand of orthodox.