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The Rise of Orthopraxy


A few months ago, football’s New York Jets willingly accommodated Jewish fans by moving their home opener from the evening to the early afternoon of the same day. That evening – Yom Kippur – would have presumably found thousands of the Jets faithful in synagogue and not at the Meadowlands or glued to their television sets.

This altruistic act – moving the game out of prime time – speaks volumes about the Jets’ sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities (perhaps it even propelled them to a successful season), to the influence of politicians and civic leaders to cause a commotion over trivialities, and to our sense of acceptance in general society.

From their perspective, it was a most decent and generous act. From our perspective, though, it is less salutary, and represented a triumph of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy.

While Orthodoxy literally means “correct belief” but in actuality encompasses an entire range of thought and behavior that is regulated by Torah, Orthopraxy (“correct action”) is much more limited in scope, requiring only the adherence to certain behavioral norms without any semblance of philosophical commitment to the system from which such behavioral norms emerged.

Obviously, some of the obsession with sports is nothing less than silliness; who wins or loses – or even plays – does not matter at all in the real world, and sports and other forms of entertainment are just diversions from the more significant endeavors in which we are engaged.

What happens, then, when the diversions become the essence, or at least a critical component, of a person’s life – so much so that one’s thoughts on Yom Kippur might have otherwise been on the game and not on life, family, health, sustenance and the fate of the world?

That is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of some of our fellow Jews, and begs the question: Is it any less contemptible to spend three hours on erev Yom Kippur fascinated by grown men pounding each other in pursuit of moving an oval-shaped pigskin across a goal line than it would be to do the same on Yom Kippur night?

Not really.

The only difference is that there would be no technical violation of the rules of Judaism to so while away one’s time on erev Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, the broader and more crucial questions are: Where was the person’s head, and heart, at that most solemn time? Where were his thoughts? Were they on repentance and introspection – a matter of the soul? Or were they just on weathering the impending 25-hour fast – a matter of the body?

The answer is clear, as it was in Isaiah’s time when he decried the insincerity of fasting without repentance, of the tendency of some Jews to underscore some deeds and not others because none was internalized as the will of Hashem or as divine service:

“They pretend to seek Me every day, they pretend to desire knowledge of My ways . they inquire of Me about righteous laws, as if they desire the nearness of God” (Isaiah 58:2).

The Orthoprax are an informal, incognito group of unknown size and scope who, for the most part, practice halachic norms but do not really believe in God (or that He chose us as the nation that would carry His moral message to mankind) or understand what they are doing. They might not even believe in the divine origin of the Torah, but identify themselves with the Orthodox community for social, ethnic, cultural or even aesthetic reasons. We usually do not know who they are – after all, it is a matter of the heart – but we do know how and where to find them.

They are the Jews who will come to shul – but barely daven. They will perfunctorily mouth a few words here and there while engaged in a persistent but likely not-very-stimulating conversation with their neighbors (people they would not talk to outside of shul for more than five minutes the rest of the week).

No wonder the Zohar (Parshat Terumah) labels people who talk in shul as atheists; they sit in the House of God but are oblivious to His presence. The words of the davening are either unfamiliar to them or do not resonate with them. Their only contribution to decorum is the occasional shushing of their children, a vulgar act of hypocrisy that, as Faranak Margolese noted in her book Off the Derech, is a major factor in turning off children to the life of Torah.

The Orthoprax attend shul because it is a social expectation, and their conduct in shul reflects it.

They are the Jews who are nominally shomrei Shabbat – they would never drive to shul, for example – but they will look for ways to swim or play tennis or baseball on Shabbat or encourage their children to do so, or leave the television on (or have the ubiquitous housekeeper turn it on) or read business newspapers on Shabbat, or perhaps even sneak in a business phone call or two when no one is looking.

Their children will text each in stealth (texting being the preferred method of communication even between teenagers who are sitting next to each other). Their divine service is external; if no human being sees them sin, it is as if it hasn’t happened.

That state of affairs was well known to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who admonished his disciples that “their awe of Heaven should parallel their awe of men” (Berachot 28b), the latter being more pervasive and substantial. The Orthoprax will “observe” Shabbat – they will not mow their lawns or drive to the beach – but Shabbat as a day of communion with the Creator is almost non-existent.

They are the Jews who will dress the part – as if, indeed, there is such a thing as “Jewish dress” beyond tzitzit and kippah for men and modest clothes for all. But they will conduct their business without integrity, stealing, conniving, cheating Jew and non-Jew alike, underreporting their taxes, hondling with contractors after the work is completed, stiffing their employees of their due wages – and often professing that they are acting perversely for the glory of Torah or to benefit a favored charity.

The Orthoprax will do good works, but those are socially useful and divorced from any sense of divine worship.

Most recently, Orthopraxy underlies such phenomena as the female clergy, the Partnership Minyanim (in which women chant portions of the davening, and a quorum of both ten men and ten women are needed to begin services), and the integration of Christians into special worship services.

These innovations blur or cross the line that defines halachic practice, and all, on some level, conflate self-worship with divine worship. All seek to make halacha “user friendly” and to render the Torah into putty that can be molded as the user desires – the Torah as akin to the American Constitution, which, Thomas Jefferson warned, could be twisted and shaped by unscrupulous judges “as an artist shapes a ball of wax.”

Note how the proliferation of Orthopraxy transcends all the traditional (and artificial) divisions in Orthodox life. It compasses right wing and left wing, modern, centrist and yeshivish, haredi and non-haredi alike. And one might well contend that all the deviations listed above trample on the halacha and the sacred institutions of Jewish life, and therefore strip the “ortho” out of that “praxy” – they are not correct practices at all. But that contention is only partially true.

There are those of us who have become quite proficient – crafty is a better word – in manipulating the sources, in finding obscure opinions that, interpreted innovatively, tend to justify precisely what we want to do. Such people no longer desire to ascertain the will of God, but rather to satisfy their own inclinations while remaining in “technical” compliance with halacha, very broadly construed. It is as if they have transformed the Almighty into a divine caddy who carries for us a bagful of clubs known as “halacha,” and they reserve the right to remove any club when they so desire, and use them any way in which they desire. Most lacking is the concept of the Jew as the servant of God.

The Orthoprax wish to remain part of the community, relying on general notions of tolerance and Western concepts of religion as a “private matter.” And they do remain part of the community – often integral parts of the community – but a community no longer defined by commitment to the fundamental principles of Judaism, by subservience to God, or by eternal norms and values.

It is a social community, ethnically based and often geographically defined, but not a covenantal community. It is a community in which people perform actions that are roughly similar, but their hearts are not united. We certainly retain common enemies – Ahmadinejad is uninterested in these fine distinctions – but the nation of Israel should stand for something greater than that some evil people hate us.

Is there a value in Orthopraxy – in remaining part of a community of behavioral norms even if the philosophical commitment in lacking? Some point to a cryptic passage in the Yerushalmi, and in the Pesikta, citing, in Hashem’s name: “Would that they abandon Me and still observe My Torah!” As some explain, it is therefore better to observe the mitzvot even with a lack of faith than to observe only if fully committed. Undoubtedly, there is some merit to this – at least the individual practitioner remains tethered to the Jewish community, however tenuously. But that understanding is grievously flawed.

Better understood, the passage (a rhetorical question) seems to be admonishing us that it is impossible to abandon God and still observe the Torah for long; we can indulge ourselves for a time, but eventually even the practice of mitzvot will wither without an internal commitment.

Or Chazal are teaching us stages of development: people may begin the observance of mitzvot without a full ideological commitment, or must continue even if such commitment occasionally wanes – but eventually commitment and practice must coalesce, and the observance of mitzvot must mature from mere deeds to the development of the complete Torah personality. If not, then our divine service remains stunted, and not a little phony.

Worse, our youth are very sensitive to this double game, and some become disenchanted. They internalize the corrupt idea that in Judaism externals count for everything and sincerity for nothing. Like Esav asking his father halachic questions in a fatuous attempt to demonstrate his piety, our children can learn to play the adult game just as well as we can: emptily mouth the words of tefilla, read parsha sheets at the Shabbat table while clueless to what they are reading, or internalize the idea that the most harmful aspect of sin is not the sin itself but getting caught. Once learned, that approach is not easily forgotten, until the child either finds better role models or discards his commitment entirely.

There is a bright side to all this, or at least elements of comfort. The rise of Orthopraxy is on some level just a reflection of the human condition. The criticism applies to everyone, bar none. We are all flawed and all sinners, and the revelation of the flaws of public figures – even religious figures – is usually just a matter of time.

“For there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he [always] does good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20) – and yet we are still stunned and shaken when it happens.

We must distinguish, though, between personal frailties and systemic breaches. The “righteous” sinner (an oxymoron, but bear with me) stumbles because of human nature – an inability to control his instinctual drives – but confesses his sins, admits his guilt and does not seek to rationalize his wrongdoing.

There is, however, a “wicked” sinner, as well, who protests his innocence, who claims he has been misunderstood, who defends his actions on grounds that others are doing it, or, worst of all, that what he did is not sinful at all because the halacha changed, or should change, or he found an arcane but lenient source allowing him to do what he wants to do. The former is the position in which most of us find ourselves, and which is addressed by the commandment of repentance; the latter is a systemic violation for which there is no simple rectification. It is an act of spiritual gerrymandering by the sinner who has carved out for himself exemptions from halacha.

How do we triumph over Orthopraxy and reconnect our divine service to God? We can – must – infuse our mitzvot with a recognition of their divine imperative by returning to fundamentals. We should study ourselves, and teach our children, not only “how” we do things but also “why.” We all must learn the details of the mitzvot – from Shabbat to Pesach, from kashrut to monetary integrity, from the laws of Chanukah to the laws of Tisha B’Av – but also the framework of those mitzvot, how they combine to create a faithful, moral, decent servant of Hashem.

We must refine our davening so that – as Chazal ruled – it is better to say less with kavanah (a concentrated focus) than more without kavanah, and lose the notion that our prayer obligation is satisfied through the daily recitation of a certain quota of words. We must restore a sense of reverence and sanctity to the shul, or stay outside until we are ready. And before performing any mitzvah, we must pronounce, figuratively if not literally, that we are “ready and prepared to fulfill the commandment of our Creator.”

Kabbalat HaTorah (the acceptance of the Torah) required naaseh v’nishma – the commitment “to do” preceded the commitment “to learn.” It preceded it, but did not vitiate it. Naaseh cannot endure unless there is an ongoing nishma – and Talmud Torah must encompass not only what we should do but also what we should think and how we should feel.

The greatest of all orthodoxies – those correct beliefs that govern our lives – is, then, humility – humility that will enable us to absorb the divine values of Torah and not those of modern man, and recreate a nation of thinking, rational, wise, intelligent, good and ethical servants of God, a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua” (Gefen Publishing, 2009). He writes at www.rabbipruzansky.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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