Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Fundamental Problem With The System

Well it had to happen sooner or later.  I finally found an article written by Rav Avi Shafran that I partially agree with.  It deals with someone I've written about before, how in the last few decades the word "Orthodox" has become stretched to mean things it was never meant to.

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?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

The fact that so many want to be thought of as Orthodox (no matter what they really are) is a form of praise, no? Maybe it says something about their aspirations, which are being blocked so far by their assimilated ways of thinking.

Bob Miller said...

"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?"

This self-characterization is a delusion, as much as the other kind is. Can't we be against delusions across the board?

JRKmommy said...

I understand your point, but think it's a useless argument.

"Orthodox" is a relatively recent term, and it wasn't originally a Jewish term.

If you follow a particular rabbi, that psak (ruling on matters of Jewish law) will be meaningful. If not, it won't. Period. Even in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, a Lubavitcher won't care that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef disapproves of gorgeous sheitels (wigs), while a Litvish child may have a teddy bear regardless of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's feelings about non-kosher stuffed animals.

A more meaningful question may be "what was the halachic basis for the psak?", and focusing on what the sources say, and whether the reasoning was sound.

Even at that point, though, one can respect that different rabbis may come to different conclusions. Nit-picking on the definition of a non-Jewish term strikes me as a way of trying to short-circuit real discussion.

Finally, I never really understood the point of outraged "you're a heretic" or "you're not a true X" comments. By definition, it's only believers who would mind being considered heretics, and it's only those who are a true X who would object to someone saying that they aren't.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

You ask a hard hard question. In truth the answer is simple - Orthadox is sadly defined by what people claim to believe and not by what they actually do. All of us continuously commit sins - that were you to stop and ask them - after some sad attempt at justification - they would probably admit are sins. You only stop being orthadox when you try to claim that what you are doing is the ideal thing to do.

ksil said...

orthodox jews keep shabbat and kosher.

thats it.

all the other shitahs are just parts of orthodoxy....there is nothing wrong with that

JRKmommy said...

I don't think anyone says that Orthodox Jews ONLY need to keep shabbat, kashrut and niddah.

Rather, those Big Three are often used as a quick indicator of who is committed to observing halacha, because they have a major impact on lifestyle, and they aren't things that you would do for any reason other than being committed to halacha (unlike "being a good person").

Michael said...

Shafran is totally inconsistant. There are so many more significant examples of Rabbinic behavior were one could draw the "line". (Thought I'm against that.) "Rabbis" who meet with support sworn enemies of the Jewish, ie Neturei Karata. Rabbis who support tax evasion, etc.

Furthermore in this specific case there is halachic basis for saying one positive bracha in place of the 3 negative ones. See here: http://morethodoxy.org/2011/08/05/halachic-and-philosophical-support-for-saying-god-made-me-an-israelite-instead-of-god-didnt-make-me-a-woman-rabbi-asher-lopatin/

And one more thing. Shafran harps on about our "Mesorah", but the problem is that in the last 50 or so years the Agudah has created a new "Mesorah" in its own image. Our true Mesorah was much more adaptive and flexible then today's Agudah types would lead one to believe.

Anonymous said...

The point has been made that what we're not is a given but what we are or are becoming depends on us.