Defining Orthodoxy Down

Had someone back, say, in the 1960s had both the foresight to trademark the word “Orthodox” and no compunctions about licensing it, he’d be a wealthy man today.

 Once upon a time, when Torah-observant Jewish life in America was expected to expire in short shrift, the “O” word was something of an albatross (though I don’t know if they’re kosher).  Anyone wanting to establish a new-and-improved Jewish movement would coin a new-and-improved adjective – “Reform,” “Conservative,” “Reconstructionist,” something novel and shiny.  But “Orthodox”?  It bespoke a tired, dusty past, one without a future.

Times have changed.  Today, Orthodoxy, boruch Hashem, is thriving, and “Orthodox” seems to be the adjective of the era.  So much so that when the latest carbon copy (remember carbon copies?) of the Conservative movement is conceived, the last thing its proponents wants to do is to associate it with its languishing, moribund theological predecessor.  It wants an “Orthodox” label, the better to lay claim to Jewish legitimacy.

And so we have seen “Orthodox Feminism,” which flouts established halacha and rejects “patriarchal” elements of Judaism.  And “Open Orthodoxy,” which not only derides by its very name those committed to the mesorah (we “closed” folks) but proudly advocates for things demonstrably antithetical to the Judaism of the ages.

And now, in the April issue of the monthly periodical Commentary, we have the latest addition to the “Orthodox” bestiary.

The new animal, “Social Orthodoxy,” is introduced by Jay P. Lefkowitz, a former adviser in the George W. Bush administration.  To be fair, he claims to not really be inventing anything new, only channeling what he considers to be the religion of many “Modern Orthodox” Jews (although he thereby insults all the upstanding, halacha-respecting Jews who choose to call themselves “modern”).

Mr. Lefkowitz’s creation is, in a sense, the polar opposite of what was once called “cardiac Judaism” – the once-popular “I’m a believing Jew in my heart, even if I’m not observant of any of the Torah’s commandments” approach.  “Social Orthodoxy” means doing Jewish without believing Jewish.

To wit, Mr. Lefkowitz explains that he dons tefillin daily and attends a synagogue weekly.  He eats kosher and, when eating in non-kosher restaurants, orders vegetarian dishes.  He “pick[s] and choose[s] from the menu of Jewish rituals,” but “without fear of divine retribution,” indeed without belief in a Creator.  (To Whom he prays in synagogue isn’t clarified.)

He claims, ludicrously, that “Modern Orthodoxy” of the sort he extolls has its roots in the teachings of Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch; and, not ludicrously at all, sees its exemplification in the approaches of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the father of the aforementioned “Open Orthodoxy” and Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism’s parent.

Indeed, that latter movement, although it hasn’t gained many adherents, is pretty much precisely what the Commentary commentator is championing, albeit with an attempt at some “Orthodox” redecoration.  Kaplan’s first and most recognized work was entitled “Judaism As A Civilization,” and its title says it all.  The Jewish faith, to him, is not a world-view, not a religion, not a revealed mission from the Creator to His chosen people, but a culture, and nothing more.

Mr. Lefkowitz recounts the astonishment of a Catholic friend who asked him, “How can you do everything you do… if you don’t even believe in G-d?”

The writer, he tells us, responded by citing to his friend his ancestors’ response at Sinai – “We will do and understand afterwards,” which he reads as “engaging first in religious practices” and only later, if then, dealing with “matters of faith.”

Of course, that is an utter misunderstanding of what Naaseh Vinishma really means, that it was Klal Yisroel’s acceptance of a Commander, regardless of whether or not we comprehend His commands. It does not bespeak, chalilah, any postponement of emunah but, quite the opposite, is predicated on it.  Mr. Lefkowitz might do better to ponder Shema instead.

One wishes that he would have been more honest and straightforward and just declared himself a Reconstructionist.  But rather than add a new member to that smallest of the mesorah-spurning Jewish groups, he insists on appropriating the “O”-word, with yet a new antithetical adjective in front of it.

Mr. Lefkowitz reports that his children attend a Modern Orthodox day school.  Here’s hoping they receive a good education in basic Jewish texts and beliefs there, including what Naaseh Vinishma really means and the significance of Shema.  May his choice of schooling for his progeny merit him the nachas of true Yiddisheh kinder and einiklach.

© 2014 Hamodia

Spread the love