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Orthodoxy Or Orthopraxy?


My Feb. 22 Jewish Press op-ed article “Losing Rational Orthodoxy” seems to have struck a nerve. Much of the feedback was positive, some was negative, and even more was intensely ambivalent.

One reader accused me of misunderstanding Judaism. Another wrote that I had finally brought up the issues that had been plaguing him for so long but that he had been unable to articulate. Yet another commented to me that I simply did not understand Orthodox practice, and that davening three times a day does not make for a religious person.

The truth is, I strongly agree with that statement. Unfortunately, the letter writer did not realize what he was suggesting, because concrete practice does not guarantee – nor does it even define – belief.

Harvard Professor Emeritus James Kugel has written “Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole ‘prepared table’ of Judaism – not just the idea of avodat H’, but all the detailed plan that goes with it.”

As an observant Jew, I tend to agree with the professor. I am, however, troubled by an increase in the emphasis on correct rote practice – orthopraxy – accompanied by little or no insight. This tends to turn believers into automatons and it diminishes the time-honored religious Jewish practice of learning through questioning and growing within a system of belief.

I’ve been told that a rabbi, well educated in both religious and secular spheres, recently informed his congregants during a sermon that while he himself went to college, he would not make the same mistake with his own children. The implication of the comment, according to the individuals who told me about it, was that good Jewish children should not go to college. It was fine for the previous generation to obtain a higher education but not for their children.

I am further told that this was presented to his congregants as his vision of the correct practice of religion.

If all his congregants were to follow his lead, and if we assume the 250 families in his shul average four children per family, then this rabbi will have potentially relegated 1,000 individuals to lives of relative secular illiteracy.

The recent cancellation of a charitable concert, which was to have been produced and performed by Orthodox Jews, is similarly quite troubling. If concerts will now be so easily disallowed, despite the proper precautions being taken, where will the opportunities for even a little diversion and socialization come from? Those who ask such questions are attacked as non-believers, though it would appear to be otherwise.

There has been much written about a recent study that found the rate of sexual abuse in the frum community to be similar to the rate in the general population. But rather than attempt to understand the study and its implications, all too many in the community have chosen to raise a tremendous uproar against anyone who dares suggest that abuse and domestic violence occur to such a degree in the Orthodox world.

Another example of orthopraxy masquerading as orthodoxy can be seen in the new so-called rules of dating that have become ever more stringent.

I was contacted recently by a young man who asked me to intercede on his behalf with his rebbe. The young man had been dating a young woman and gone out with her ten times. He was happy with the process but was not yet ready to make a commitment to marriage. Both he and the woman wanted to continue dating to see if the relationship could develop further. The young man said his rebbe told him to break it off because they had gone out the maximum number of times. Indeed, the rebbe told me the same thing. His position was unyielding.

A young woman came with a similar story – she was told that after 50 hours of dating a person, she should know if he was the one to marry. Here too, young people were being forced into a position of acting without thinking; believing and understanding did not matter.

All groups and religions require a degree of conformity. But Judaism has a system of faith that is different from most others. Most areas of halacha have a “yaish omrim” – another position, another view. The other view is always respected and discussed with an attempt to understand it, even if it is not generally accepted. The purpose of this methodology is to develop belief, not just a blind faith practice.

While it is true, as Professor Kugel indicated, that we tend to “like to be told what to do,” the limiting of knowledge to rigid practice makes for an extremely narrow philosophy of adherence. It is not just an exclusionary philosophy, but also a system that pushes those who might otherwise choose to be part of our religious community even farther away from the beauty of our beliefs.

We must allow ourselves to return to the system of understanding, insight, and questioning that leads to growth in both belief and practice. It has been the foundation of our existence and always will be.

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