Modern Orthodoxy is constantly struggling to define itself. Many perceive it as a form of “Diet Judaism”: “Same great religion, fewer mitzvot!” It is not hard to arrive at such conclusions when there are in fact proponents of this movement who prove these misperceptions true with their words and deeds. The moniker of the Modern Orthodox is often used as an excuse to shirk one’s responsibilities to God and the keeping of the commandments.
What, then, is Modern Orthodoxy? It is an embrace of both Judaism in all of its facets, and the world in all of its nuances.
When Abraham identified himself to the non-Jewish population in which he was living, he told them, “Ger v’ toshav anohi imahem” (I am a stranger and resident with you). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik spoke of the role of the Jew as a “Ger v’toshav,” to be at once estranged from the world and an active participant in it; both a part of the world and apart of it.
I disagree that “if religion is anything, it must be everything.” It has always been a central belief of Judaism that we are human beings, even before we are Jews. It is through the prism of the Torah that we understand what it really means to be human.
This is why the Torah begins with the story of Genesis, and not with the story of the Exodus of Egypt. While the Exodus is the foundational principle of our Jewish peoplehood, we needed to understand what it meant to be human before we became Jewish.
The stories of Genesis – with its tales of morality, love, hate, fratricide, faith, hope, despair and family – are so thoroughly human; they were meant to give us deep insight into the human condition. Only after understanding our humanity can we then stand at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.
Our haredi brothers and sisters would have us believe that the central role of our lives is to be automatons in the service of God, that our only role in life is to serve God. In fact, there are plenty of sources in our rabbinic library that espouse such views and place them on a pedestal. But as is often the case in rabbinic literature, there are other voices as well, and they too deserve to be heard.
Those rabbis believe that had God intended us to be angels, She would have created us as such. Why then did God create us so thoroughly human? Is it really to be our lot in life to spend our few precious years on earth fighting the very nature of our humanity? Is it really a sin to be a human being? Of course not! In fact, we must relish our humanity and celebrate it; by doing so, we revel in the creation that God has wrought.
I love feeling the sun on my face and the smell of cut grass. I love wearing sweaters in the cold, jumping in puddles and ice cream. My greatest joys are my children, not learning a page of Talmud. When I was a kid, my rebbe told me that recess was a mitzva. When we asked him how that was possible, he replied: “If you run and jump and play in order to learn Torah and serve Hashem [God] better, then it is a mitzva!” This is simply incorrect. If anything, it is a hachana l’mitzva, a preparation for a mitzva, like building a succa; but it is not a mitzva. Why must the haredi world think only in those terms? Why must everything be either a mitzva or a sin? What happened to the world of reshut (voluntary duty)? Where one can do something that is just devoid of any religious significance? Why can’t we enjoy the world we live in? I get it: The fear is that an embrace of this point of view can be intoxicating. The human condition can be too overwhelming.
The rabbis have tried to warn us of this by their choice of the word heretic, apikores.
An apikores is one who denies the principles of Judaism, but it is not a Hebrew word. It is Greek and comes from the name Epicurus, the famous Greek philosopher who believed the sole purpose of this world is to seek its physical pleasures. In his view, there was no rhyme or reason to the world; our lives are ultimately worthless save for the pleasures we coax from them. The rabbis chose the name of this philosopher to be the very antithesis of Judaism, because they saw his philosophy as devoid of ultimate meaning.
Judaism, on the other hand, believes that following the Torah is the best way to appreciate the human condition. Its regulations on diet, sex, business and ethics are meant to channel our humanity in productive ways. Living in concert with the symphony of Halacha allows us to enjoy the pleasures of this world, yet governs them.
It creates space for them without allowing them to turn to hedonism.
We see this in the Torah’s complete silence on the afterlife. The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of any reward in the next world.
The reward and punishment promised in the Bible are strictly “this-worldly” in nature. If we follow the commandments, we are promised successful crops and security. If we do not follow the commandments and let our hearts go astray after our lusts, then we are promised economic ruin and war.
This does not mean that Judaism does not believe in an afterlife. What it does mean is that the emphasis we place on following the commandments is because of the good they engender in this world. “Schar mitzva, mitzva!” The reward, our sages tell us, for doing a mitzva is the mitzva itself.
Unlike Christianity and its focus on getting into heaven, our focus is on making this world into heaven. We have no monks in Judaism. We have no vows of poverty or abstinence, because these things take away our humanity and therefore curb our ability to truly serve God. As mentioned previously, we are to be both part of the world and apart of it. We engage in this world, and yet keep it at a certain distance.
God has a myriad of angels to serve Him. What She seeks are men and women willing to embrace their God-given humanity to bring about an even greater good, and become partners with Him. The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high school yeshivot and midrashot.