Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Orthodoxy Defined?

Rabbi Avi Shafran
I happen to be an admirer of both and usually agree with the views of both. Today I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with them. I am talking about Rabbis Avi Shafran and Natan Slifkin.

Rabbi Shafran was interviewed by Tablet Magazine about using the term Ultra Orthodox to define ‘really religious Jews’.

Rabbi Shafran said that he finds the term offensive. I can understand why he feels that way and he does have a point. The word ‘ultra’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as going beyond others or beyond due limit : extreme.  Who would be satisfied being defined as extreme?  

Asked how he feels about  the term Charedim– he said he didn’t like that either: 
The Hebrew word is lifted from Isaiah, chapter 66: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.” The haredim, then, are those who tremble. In Israel, the word is mainly used by secular Jews to describe their more observant neighbors. It’s not always meant kindly, although the community itself seems to have adopted it… it implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true.  
I obviously agree that you don’t have to be Charedi to be as meticulously observant as they are. But as Rabbi Slifkin notes: 
 (T)his is precisely why charedim chose it and like it as a definition - because they believe themselves to be more "trembling at the word of God" than others.  
Rabbi Natan Slifkin
So while it is true that Charedim do like that term, and use it frequently when referring to themselves – I believe that is more the case in Israel that it is here. I do find it having a pejorative tone when used by those outside of their community. (Let me hasten to add that although I do use that word when referring to them I do not use it in a negative sense. I use it descriptively and without any malice – having no better term to describe them.)

The real ‘bone of contention’ is the following comment made by Rabbi Shafran when asked what term he thinks best describes ‘really religious Jews’: 
“Personally,” said Shafran, “I prefer ‘Orthodox.’ Let prefixes be used by others: centrist, modern, ultra-modern. We’re the original, in no need of a prefix.” 
Here I agree with Rabbi Slifkin. Up to a point. Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch quite accurately describes the origin of that term and its intent by those in the Reform movement that coined it:
It was not the "Orthodox" Jews who introduced the word "Orthodoxy" into Jewish discussion. It was the modern "progressive" Jews who first applied this name to "old", "backward" Jews as a derogatory term. This name was at first resented by "old" Jews. And rightly so. 
I never personally thought of the term Orthodox in any pejorative way. But that was the intent of those who coined the term.  Why do I still prefer using that term? That’s because words evolve into meanings that were not in any way intended as their original meaning. Such as the word ‘gay’. If you were gay in the 40s, you were just a joyous happy person. If you are gay today, you are a homosexual.  Orthodoxy is no longer used in a pejorative way today. It is used descriptively to define observant Jews.

Which brings me Back to Rabbi Shafran. I disagree that the word Orthodox should be limited to that segment of Orthodoxy otherwise known as Ultra Orthodox or Charedim. It is a much broader category encompassing all observant groups from Left to Right. (Although I would leave out the extremes at both ends for reasons beyond the scope of this post.) 

I am not Charedi. But I am clearly Orthodox. That I more narrowly define myself as a Centrist does not make me any less Orthodox. ‘Centrist’ is more of an adjective to the noun ‘Orthodoxy’. Which describes a Hashkafa – not a level of religious observance.

I reject his claim that what people call ‘Charedi’ or ‘ultra’ are the original Orthodox. Rav Hirsch dispels that notion very forcefully. Before the late 18th century that term did not exist as a religious denomination. Some of the points Rabbi Slifkin makes in rejecting Rabbi Shafran’s claim are valid too.

Orthodoxy should be the term that describes observant Jews throughout the ages. These are Jews that conformed to the norms of their traditional society. Jews that - as a group - did not depart in radical ways from their forefathers except in times of existential crisis called Hora’as Shah. 

Orthodoxy is the broad category. The prefixes are just descriptive of the Hashkafa, not about how religious one is as long as they are observant and have not veered to the extremes of either the right or the left. I believe Rabbi Shafran meant as much when he said:  (The term ultra) implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true. 

So what should the most religious Jews among us be called if not ultra Orthodox or Charedi? Good question. But then again, it isn’t necessarily true that Charedim are the only ones that should be considered the most religious Jews among us.

One final thought about all of this. I am disappointed at Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to Rabbi Shafran. As much as I defended him when his books were banned by Rav Elyashiv – who was at the time considered the Gadol HaDor by that very community – I cannot do so here.

The manner in which he criticzed Rabbi Shafran is unfair. He cites an article long ago retracted and deleted by  him (acknowledging that the point he was trying to make was badly executed) as an example of some of the remarkably silly things (Rabbi Shafran has said) in the past

Mentioning an article unrelated to the issue at hand is unworthy of Rabbi Slifkin who I otherwise greatly admire.  Using the word silly about his thoughts  serves only to bring unnecessary ridicule to the person whose thoughts on this issue he has justifiably challenged. (I do however cut him a bit of slack because of how certain members of the Agudah Moetzes – whom Rabbi Shafran speaks for - has treated him after his books were banned. Still doesn’t make it right though.)

Besides, Rabbi Shafran said here is not silly. 

I know there is a lot of animosity against Rabbi Shafran by certain people. As a spokesman for the Agudah he is an easy target for them. A lot of people (most – but not all by people  left of center) are very upset by some of their positions or decisions taken by them. I have had my own questions about some of those decisions.

But no one should ever use insulting and disparaging language just because they disagree with them or their spokesman. Even if that disagreement is strident!  (Unless there is a Chilul HaShem involved in which case the following Talmudic principle is followed: ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ain Cholkin Kavod L’Rav – when God’s name is desecrated, do not honor to a rabbi if he is responsible for it).

I disagree with Rabbi Shafran on occasion too, as I did in part with him here. But I still respect and admire him. At the very least, he should be treated with no less dignity than any other human being created in the image of God. Unfortunately, I all too often see the opposite happening right here. And I protest it!