Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Idiocy of Orthopraxy

Although I personally sit somehwere in the grey part of the religious spectrum (dark grey, to be sure, but not black) I do tend to think a lot in terms of black and white when it comes to philosophical beliefs. For me, complexity is either a mostly good thing (medicine) or a mostly bad thing (secular morality). Choosing the right treatment for a suffering patient is not a simple yes-or-no process but that's what makes morality so challenging. Deciding on what's right or wrong in secular moralism is, in my view, the opposite. Often easy decisions motivated by base emotions such as lust, envy and ego are cloaked in high faluting complexities that do nothing to change the underlying urges of the person making the decision. For example, a teenage girl who wants an abortion beause she didn't take the birth control pills her physician gave her can often wax quite eloquently about how responsible she's being since she's not going to bring a baby she can't take care of into the world. Unfortunately, underneath the veneer of nobility there's the underlying facts: if she was truly responsible, she wouldn't be pregnant and in this position in the first place. The abortion isn't about her rising to a challenge. It's about cleaning up her "oopsy". I don't have much time for speeches like that. I much prefer the teenage girl who announces "I screwed up, I can't handle the consequences." For me, that's true honesty even if I disagree with her position.
One of the time-honoured boasts of Orthodox Judaism is that we are the only major religion which has never spread itself by force. The Chrisians and Muslims may have crusades across their respective domains forcing locals to accept "the true faith" or die but we never did that. Historically, this is not true. The conquest by the Hashmonaim of Idumea a century before the Common Era was accompanied by the mass conversion of that population to Judaism. Of course, we got Herod and Aggripas out of that which might explain why such mass conversions were never tried again. Another contributor could be that fact that Judaism was never really in a position to mass-convert anyone. Yes there were the Khazars but that was voluntary. And again, look what it did for them. They went from being a world empire to has-been's shortly after.
However, there are different ways to coerce people into certain behaviours. Yes, clubs, guns and the threat of painful death are time-honoured with an excellent track record, but people often forget that social pressure can be just as effective in closed communities and societies.
One thing the proliferation of blogs on the Internet makes clear is that this kind of social pressure is rampant in the Orthodox Jewish community. Now, amongst the Chareidim with their strong emphasis on social conformance and their ability to limit their members' education in many cases, this kind of pressure is inevitable. For Chareidim there is a stark life choice: you're either 110% like us, or you're out, off the derech, etc.
What I've found more surprising is that this phenomenon of social conformance exists in the Modern Orthodoxy community as well. Why am I surprised? One of the features of Modern Orthodoxy that differentiates it from the Chareidi brand is its emphasis on personal autonomy. As opposed to Chareidim who all defer to the "Gedolim" in everything from politics to which brand of toilet paper to buy (I prefer Cashmere myself) Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on allowing its members the freedom to custom-design their religious practice. For some, it results in their being nearly Chareidi. For others, it ends in a personal religious practice level slightly to the right of Conservatism.
Yet it is now impossible to ignore that many within the community are practising without believing. From what I've seen, they divide into two groups: those who are afraid to reveal what they're truly feeling for fear of the repercussions such a revelation would have on them and their families, and those who simply haven't moved on because of inertia.
For the former group I have the greatest sympathy. Although they are living a lie, they are doing so for noble reasons. It seems much of their doubts revolve around two causes. The first is an educational gap. They were taught about Judaism but not about how to prove its truth. As a result, when they meet conflicting philosophies that seek to prove Judiams's falseness, they are ill-prepared to defend their faith. They basically seek truth and their education never provided them with the reassurance that what we believe is true. The second is the corruption within Orthodox Judaism today. The gap between the messengers and the message to too much for many. The view that an Orthodox Jew must be somehow criminal as part of his beliefs is ingrained for many. It is a horrible failing on our part but the message remains unblemished even if the messengers are dirt covered.
For the latter group, however, I have no positive feelings. They are living a lie and they are exerting a negative affect on their compatriots who wouldn't even realize the pernicious effects of this influence. They have accepted everything negative about their heritage from outsiders who have no interest in truth but rather hate religion and God and are happy to use them to bring down the whole structure of their lives. They are active participants in their own self-hatred.
Consider some of the blogs that proudly declare their allegiance to this philosophy. For example, Modern Orthoprax, the latest incarnation of XGH. There is also Orthoprax who has been around a lot longer and been more consistent. Basically, here's what it boils down to for them: Look, act Jewish but don't believe a word of it.
There are certain beliefs, for example, that are central to Judaism and cannot be altered: the revelation of Har Sinai, for example, the Divine authorship of the Torah for another. Orthoprax denies both of these. There may be a God (for some it seems negotiable) but the Torah is a man-written book and the Oral Law is inevitably dismissed as an invention of "the Rabbis".
Again, it's one thing to have doubts as to the truth of Judaism. Usually that's due either to an inadequate education or listening too much to secular liberals who selectively quote sources that are convenient for them. You could go one step further - those secular liberals are often the products of a limited education and are simply quoting the dogma they've learned. And on it goes. For every book "proving" there is no God, there is another equally well written one that proves He is out there. Books proving both that the Bible is false and that it is in fact 100% verifiable abound. Secular liberals deal with this by simply disqualifying anything they disagree with from consideration. It makes coming to their predetermined conclusions that much simpler. They then hypocritically condemn the religion for doing the same thing. To be closed minded and deny God is enlightened. To be closed minded and accept Him and His Torah is primitive.
The truth, whatever it is, is incredible complex but accepting it is a yes-or-no final option. (See first paragraph again)
But at some point, we have to ask this group to either fish or cut bait: You cannot declare yourself to be an observant Jew but deny the fundamental principles of the faith. You cannot say you are Orthodox but refuse the accept rabbinical authority, either Chareidi or MO.
For the group living the lie and hating it, efforts must be made to show them the truth of Judaism that the self-righteous high priests of secular liberalism tell them doesn't exist. They must be shown love and understanding so that all their doubts can be happily resolved and they can regain their inner equlibrium.
For the latter group, confrontation (obviously non-violent) is my suggested approach. Prove how you can honestly call yourself frum or stop pretending to be. A Judaism by coercion loses it value and you, by claiming to be coerced, sully the experience for the rest of us.


Jewish Atheist said...

. Secular liberals deal with this by simply disqualifying anything they disagree with from consideration.

That's not true. Most of us have considered the things we disagree with. Far, far more than Orthodox people have. I "considered" Orthodox Judaism for two decades. I read the science-Torah reconcilers. I read apologetics. I read Kaplan. I went to yeshiva. I even attended a Discovery seminar.

To be closed minded and deny God is enlightened.

Nobody says that. Atheists don't have a notion of kefirah. To be open-minded and see that there's no evidence for God (for traditional definitions of the word "God") is enlightened. To forbid yourself or others from considering religious arguments the way many religious people do for arguments against their particular religion would be unenlightened.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> I read the science-Torah reconcilers. I read apologetics. I read Kaplan. I went to yeshiva. I even attended a Discovery seminar.

Cleaerly you wasted years of your life along the way.

> To be open-minded and see that there's no evidence for God (for traditional definitions of the word "God") is enlightened.

But don't you see? You're using the exact argument I said you would. Who says there's no evidence for God? Who says thinking that is enlightened? Who makes that objective decision?

Orthoprax said...


"Basically, here's what it boils down to for them: Look, act Jewish but don't believe a word of it."

Hardly. Who's blog have you been reading? 'Cause that ain't the message of mine.

If your post was supposed to be a description of orthopraxy as I understand it then I just don't recognize it in what you've written.