The recent suggestion by the rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox congregation that one of the birchos hashachar (morning blessings) recited each day by Torah-observant Jews be eliminated—he sees it as insufficiently enlightened—is a reminder of an unpleasant but pressing task facing the Jewish community: To define the word “Orthodox.”
Words are mangled with disturbing regularity in the Jewish world. Jewish “observance,” once a clear and descriptive term, has become relegated to relativity. After all, isn’t a Jew who faithfully follows his clergyman’s prescription of social activism as the essential Jewish mandate… observant? He or she would certainly say so.
Adding the word “Torah” before “observance” doesn’t help much either. A Reform leader, after all, once famously proclaimed his movement’s wholehearted embrace of “Torah, Torah, Torah!”—undermining in six syllables more than 3000 years of a word’s synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that Reform theology unabashedly renounces.
“Mitzvah” has been turned on its head too. The Hebrew word for “commandment” has degenerated in many circles to mean “good deed” or even “what any particular person happens to think is a good deed.” The same aforementioned Reform rabbi once advised that every Jew “must examine each mitzvah [in the Torah] and ask the question: ‘do I feel commanded in this instance…?’” Now, feeling commanded and being commanded may not be mutually exclusive, but they are hardly one and the same.
Rounding out the abuse of words are chimeras like Conservative “halacha” and a Reform “Kollel.”
The word “Orthodox” has always been a lexical haven for Jews who affirm the divine origin of Torah and are committed to the entirety of our mesorah—traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices—and the integrity of the halachic process as it has existed for millennia. Although the “O-Word” was originally imposed on believing Jews by others, we have worn the label proudly; it implies faithfulness to the past and willingness to stand against the winds of societal change. And it has allowed us to set ourselves apart from all the contemporary parallels to the Second Temple period’s Sadducean movement—to borrow a comparison from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l.
In recent years, though, even “Orthodox” has been subjected to the Silly Putty treatment. People with ordinations from Orthodox institutions have invoked the imagined power of their pieces of paper to render “kosher” whatever the Zeitgeist or their own overly open minds have inspired them to embrace. Thus we have an “Orthodox rabbi” who prides himself on exemplifying what the Torah forbids as toeiva (“repugnant”); another who deigns to “ordain” women; now one who self-righteously declares that he can no longer “take G-d’s name in the context” of one of the birchos hashachar, and who “suspect[s], at this point in history, that it constitutes a Desecration of the Name.”
There is desecration here, yes, but not where the rabbi sees it.
Many Orthodox Jews, understandably, are reluctant to focus on attention-seeking rabbis seeking to boldly go, so to speak, where no Orthodox rabbi has gone before. But we ignore such things at our peril. Or, better, at the peril of forfeiting the last adjective signifying commitment to the Jewish mesorah.Like tikun olam and mitzvah the general Jewish public have no idea how to properly use these words but instead apply them willy nilly to whatever seems to catch their fancy. Rav Shafran is quite right that this is frustrating in general but at least before one could draw the line at "Orthodox". Even that seems to be going the same way these days.
However, it do find it interesting that this article inadvertantly points out a major flaw in the Orthodox system today.
Think of it this way: a person who insists that a beracha established by Chazal or who lives a lifestyle that openly endorses something the Torah calls an abomination cannot rightly call himself Orthodox. Fine, that's understandable. The person in question may be a decent human being full of good middos and with a honest heart and mind. It doesn't matter because the positions are definitely un-Orthodox.
So why is it that someone who cheats, steals, commits physical violence, trades illegally in human organs and then like but outwardly wears the right outfit and speaks the right dialect of Yeshivish can still call himself Orthodox despite engaging in such un-Orthodox activites?