Candid discussions of ideology and religious values within Orthodoxy should always be appreciated; ideologies other than one’s own – when grounded in Torah and mitzvot – must always be treated with respect, even if one does not personally agree with them.
Orthodoxy, both in its Modern and less modern variations, is a religion of deed and creed; it is not merely a legal system or a social community, though it is both of these as well. While many different works have addressed aspects of ideology (hashkafa), and many areas of ideology remain in dispute, central to Orthodox existence is the notion that observance of halacha is not optional or merely a matter of choice by individuals, but rather a “yoke” of heaven.
Orthodox Judaism stakes its existence (in a theological sense) on the proposition that the intentional curtailment of observance of halacha, even when sincerely motivated, is sinful and improper. Denominations predicated on the idea that Jewish law is not binding, or that it can mean something very different from the classical understanding of halacha, are from an Orthodox point of view improper approaches not only to Jewish law but to Judaism generally.
Let me restate this a bit more modestly. A less imperious Orthodoxy might say we believe that God revealed Torah at Sinai (Torah min hashamayim) and that the halachic process as it has unfolded is an extension of that revelation, and these two together are the central bar by which each individual must measure him- or herself.
While religious observance nowadays may be, in a practical sense, a matter of personal choice because we live (thankfully) in an open society, an Orthodox person’s own sense must be that of accepting a yoke – of obligation and responsibility – and not of personal volition. Any activity that portrays Orthodoxy as merely one religiously viable option among many has yielded that key point.
For this reason, Orthodoxy has always had a rather difficult time joining with other denominations of Judaism or faiths other than Judaism. Simply put, Orthodoxy is unwilling to implicitly or explicitly renounce its most basic claim – the uniqueness of its truth, and its central focus that Jewish law is binding.
(The above is, admittedly, a simplification when dealing with faiths other than Judaism, as Judaism might see these other monotheistic faiths as valid for gentiles but not for Jews. This detail is beyond the scope of this article.)
Having said that, Orthodoxy recognizes the reality of Jewish life in America, which is that there are, in fact, other denominations within the Jewish community that are sincere in their faith and serve the Jewish community in many ways, and that cooperation with them is sometimes both practically important and religiously valuable.
Cooperation is pragmatically important because a united front can sometimes lead to results that cannot be achieved individually, and religiously rewarding as it emphasizes that the unity of the Jewish people remains unbroken even in the face of vast theological, social, and halachic differences.
Orthodox Judaism is not, however, prepared to sacrifice its basic claim – the binding nature of Jewish law as the touchstone of personal conduct – in order toachieve this value.
Two basic guidelines have always resonated with me as correct.
First, Orthodox individuals and institutions gladly participate in communal events whose purpose is to socially, politically, or economically better the lot of the Jewish community as a whole, even if these events are denominationally centered, and even more so if they are not.
Thus, rallies for Israel, political and social action activities, marches on Washington, and Federation-sponsored hurricane relief are just a few examples of the type of complex, denominationally-based work that Orthodoxy joins. The rationale for joining these types of events is that due to their fundamentally non-religious nature, no theological misimpression is created.