(photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is a debate among Orthodox Jewry as to what is to be defined as Orthodox.
The question is really about the boundaries of Orthodoxy. What should be allowed and what should be prohibited? But the better question would be, what in fact is Orthodoxy? When I was a boy in yeshiva, I remember the rabbi saying that the definition of Orthodoxy is to be found in the four volumes of the Shulhan Aruch.
In other words, the code of Jewish law, Halacha, is the demarcation. But the truth is more complicated than that.
Is it Orthodox to be a Zionist? Are Jews wielding power, whether politically or militarily, Orthodox? Are women’s seminaries Orthodox? How about women reading the Torah? One can very well make reasoned arguments from the vast resources of the Jewish bookshelf both for and against each of these ideas. Both Bnei Akiva and Satmar Hassidim have sound backing in rabbinic literature to support their positions. The reality is that Orthodoxy is a social construct, it is not a theology. We should not be looking for the definition of Orthodoxy within Halacha. In other words, just because something is halachic does not make it Orthodox.
One need only look around and see that there is a large range of beliefs and practices among the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews can be found anywhere from the enclaves of Mea She’arim to mansions in Beverly Hills. From the capital of Jerusalem to Capitol Hill, you can find Orthodox Jews living, working, praying and flourishing, each of them with different ideas, philosophies and attitudes. While the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are strictly observant of Shabbat, some are not. Most are strictly kosher, others just aren’t. Yet even those who do not strictly observe the laws will readily admit that their lack of observance is a failure of some sort. They are not saying the Orthodox definition of kashrut or Shabbat is wrong per se; they’re just not there. This phenomenon exists because Orthodoxy tolerates it, because Orthodoxy recognizes the human being as being only human.
The one thing that Orthodoxy does not tolerate is an attack on its authenticity or its validity. Orthodoxy has room for those who do not observe Shabbat, but has zero tolerance for those who say that one doesn’t have to keep Shabbat.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Orthodoxy is undergoing an identity crisis as Orthodox Jews from both the Left and the Right are trying to push the boundaries of their respective sides to define Orthodoxy in their own image. Open Orthodoxy on the Left and the shunning of women on the Right are just two examples.
The problem is that neither of them are Orthodox. It is not Orthodox to believe in human evolution, nor is it Orthodox to sit and learn Torah all day and force your family into a life of poverty. It is not Orthodox to have women rabbis, nor is it Orthodox to cut all pictures of them out of newspapers and magazines. They are all breaks with the norms of traditional Judaism as it has been practiced for thousands of years.
So what is Orthodoxy? What is meant by that word? The term “Orthodox” was originally a pejorative term used by the assimilationists and reformers of Judaism. It was used to disparage their traditional brethren who still held to the old ways. The term was used much the same way as we would use the term “narrow-minded” today.
In time, the term was seized by traditional Jews as a moniker of pride. Today, Orthodox Jews are proud to say who they are and are happy to publicly identify as such.
But if words are to have power and value, then the term itself cannot and should not stray too much from its original meaning. The word means that one is conforming to a rigid standard of beliefs, opinions and practices. It comes from the Greek – ortho, meaning straight, and dox, opinion.
The word does not correlate to Halacha. It refers to how Jews lived their lives before the onslaught of mass assimilation and the reform of Judaism.
The current debate about the soul of Orthodoxy would be well advised to realize that they are fighting over a 19th-century construct and trying to apply it to a 21st-century world. It is an endeavor that is sure to fail.
The question should not be “what is Orthodox?” but “what is true?” Is it a good idea? Will it be good for the Jews? What will be good public policy to ensure that there will yet be generations of Jews who are loving and living a Torah life? How can we best translate the word of God into our lives and let it elevate us to be a holy people and a light unto the nations? Let’s leave the old definitions behind as a vestige of history and try to create a new reality for us to live our lives and experience the covenant! The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.