Thursday, February 12, 2015

Who are the Real Orthodox Jews?

MO rabbinic leader, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein
One of the words one will most frequently see here is ‘Orthodox’.  It is a word that I frankly do not enjoy using, but use as of necessity. It helps to define observant Jews. I would say that the definition of an Orthodox Jew is as follows: It is a Jewish individual that believes in God, the truth of the Torah narrative, observes its laws (Halacha) and does not veer too far off from tradition. Tradition is defined as more or less as Mesorah – Torah values passed on from one generation to the next.

The use of this word to define us has been challenged in a thoughtful editorial by David Sable in the Jewish Week. He suggests we abandon that term. Perhaps. But I’m not sure what to replace it with.  His point is that we need to sever our connection to a right wing that has abandoned the Orthodoxy of old.  He correctly says that ‘move to the right’ has turned Orthodoxy that was definitively American and liberal into a version of Charedism.  Communities that once shared liberal American values while being strict adherents of Halacha and sought Rabbis ordained in Yeshiva University are now increasingly looking to Lakewood for such leadership. In many cases he’s right about that. Here is what he thinks the yet to be named model is: 
The new niche is already carved out. It is dynamic, accessible and democratic. It values Jewish ethics and morality as an integral expression of religiosity and doesn’t denigrate them to a place below ritual observance. It welcomes the participation of women. It encourages questions and questioning. It rejects the entire notion of Dat Torah, the papal-like infallibility of some rabbinic leaders. It is steeped in and based on halacha , but its view of Jewish law is that it is an evolving system that needs to be sensitive to time and place. 
He seems to view Open Orthodoxy (OO) as the model.  That - he says - is where the Centrist of old would feel at home.

But calling Open Orthodoxy Centrist begs the question, what is Leftist Orthodoxy? I don’t think one can find anything to the left of Open Orthodoxy that can still be called Orthodox.  And I am sorry to say that OO has left the reservation.  What they now champion is what the Conservative Movement once championed. It is almost as if they can’t wait to catch up with the innovations Conservative Judaism. All in the name of Halacha, of course. Mr. Sable is not apologetic about this new movement being meticulous in Halachic observance, But neither is he apologetic about his view that Open Orthodoxy is the way to go.

I am very skeptical about this being the - yet to be named – denomination. It is not so much in how he defines it. It is how to interpret and implement it - that I have issues. Yes, Jewish ethics and morals are integral to Orthodoxy. And indeed they should not be denigrated. But his de-emphasis on ritual observance (Halacha) is troubling. I know he doesn’t not mean to denigrate it. But by putting morals ahead of Halacha, he seems to be missing the essence of what Judaism is all about.

Halacha defines us. Our morals and ethics are derived of the Torah. Ethical moral considerations beyond what the Torah tells us may be of value. But those values are not necessarily eternal. They are subject to the times. Furthermore when an ethical value which is not Torah based contradicts the Torah we reject it.

And while Judaism encourages questions and questioning, I believe this is a reference to someone like  OO Rabbi Zev Farber who considers the events at Sinai to be fictional. If that is what he means, I could not disagree more.

I have my issues with Daas Torah. I agree with him that there is far too much veneration of Rabbinic leaders to the point of infallibility. But at the same time rabbinic leaders deserve to be heard and their views respected even if we disagree. To imply that there is never a place for a rabbi’s input in matters of public policy is to reject the Torah itself.  It is important to have rabbinic leaders to guide us in areas where the right decision may not be apparent to even religiously educated Jews. What is not important is to always look to the rabbis with the most right wing point of view.  So that if for example the Agudah Moetzes states their view and Rav Soloveitchik disagrees with them, we have every right to follow Rav Soloveitichik and reject what the Agudah Moetzes says.

But to reject all expert Rabbinic opinion and rely on our own logic is a dangerous game that can lead us down the same path Conservative Judaism has followed. Yes Judaism is dynamic. But when it comes to major public policy decisions that radically changes the way we do things, we need to rely on experts. Not on ourselves, no matter how noble the motivation.

And yet Open Orthodoxy has done just that. They consider themselves expert enough and use Judaism’s ability to change with the times to innovate new policy without the slightest thought as to how people greater than themselves might rule on these issues.  Decisions that Rav Soloveitchik would clearly have condemned. They reject Mesorah which they say is no longer compatible with the times. That is exactly what the Conservative movement did.  Which is why they can now have female rabbis and allow interpretations of the Torah narrative as fictional. I fail to see any real difference between a Conservative movement that had always declared to be adherents of Halacha and Open Orthodoxy that has done the same. Except for the Mechitza issue, they are almost identical.

Mr. Sable rejects the Modern Orthodox Rabbi that has moved to the right. Here is how he puts it: 
Frankly we need clarity so that our children don’t get confused by so- called Modern Orthodox rabbis who don’t represent a world view that is consistent with the values that we believe in. I want clarity so that our children will stay inspired and involved without the need to “flip,” embracing a fundamentalist religious lifestyle. 
I’m not sure how he defines ‘fundamentalist’. If his is talking about a Modern Orthodox rabbi who was ordained at Yeshiva University who now embraces the Daas Torah expressed by the right, and rejects all of modernity, then there is nothing modern about him. But if he is talking about someone who adheres to Torah, respects right wing opinion even if he disagrees with it, rejects the many lines crossed by Open Orthodoxy but does not reject modernity when it does not conflict with the Torah and indeed encourages it both in the intellectual and recreational sphere, then he is talking about me.

Religiously - I am a Centrist. Not only intellectually and culturally but sociologically as well. Someone who does not believe in the excesses of the right or the left. To me that is the Judaism of the past and of the future.  And as I have said many times the new centrists are sociological and are comprised of the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy and moderate Charedim.

So at the end of the day, I’m not so sure I would reject the term Orthodox. Orthodoxy includes ultra Orthodox Jews as well as ultra liberal Orthodox Jews. What I would do instead is stop calling the extreme left (e.g. Open Orthodoxy) and the extreme right (eg. Neturei Karta) - Orthodox. But the rest of us are.