Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part I

Gil at Hirhurim is running a series of views on Why people choose Orthodoxy, starting here. His theme reminds me of a talk I gave at a Conservative synagogue a couple of years ago. They invited in a series of rabbis from different approaches – Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform – to talk about why they follow the approaches they do. I had the unenviable task of giving the first week’s presentation, but I did end up enjoying it. I have an audio recording somewhere... I'll have to see if I can dig it up.

Disclosure: Technically, I didn’t “choose” Orthodoxy – I grew up in an Orthodox home, and have varied from that Orthodoxy only to go a little to the left or right. However, I have chosen Orthodoxy insofar as I choose to continue to live this life in this way, every day, and I used my session to explain why I do that.

And one more important point: The goal was not to proselytize. I didn't go out there telling people to be one thing and not another. I am quite aware that some of the things I described about Orthodoxy exist elsewhere, in Judaism and beyond, and sometimes in stronger doses than exist in my own Orthodox life. My purpose was only to answer the question: "Why am I Orthodox?"

I started out with the story of a woman who goes into a post office and asks for a book of stamps for her Chanukah cards.
The clerk asks, “What denomination?”
“Oh, good heavens!” she replies. “Have we come to this?! Well, all right, give me 50 Conservative, 2 Orthodox, 37 Reform and 11 Reconstructionist.”

I continued to explain the five major attractions I feel in Orthodoxy:
-Its dynamic energy and fervor
-Its credibility
-Its diversity
-Its intellectual and practical challenges
-Its vision for the future

1) Dynamic Energy and Fervor
I cited Franz Kafka’s essay (“My Father’s Bourgeois Judaism” a.k.a. "Letter to My Father") on the Judaism of his youth, in which he wrote the following to his father:

Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, patiently went through the prayers as a formality, sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was present in the synagogue (and this was the main thing) I was allowed to hang around wherever I liked.
And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were, as for instance when the Ark of the Covenant was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open in the same way whenever one hit a bull's-eye; except that there something interesting always came out and here it was always just the same old dolls without heads….
That's how it was in the synagogue; at home it was, if possible, even poorer, being confined to the first Seder, which more and more developed into a farce, with fits of hysterical laughter, admittedly under the influence of the growing children…
How one could do anything better with that material than get rid of it as fast as possible, I could not understand; precisely the getting rid of it seemed to me to be the devoutest action.

In contrast, I see great passion in the beliefs and practice of today’s Torah-observant Jews, across a spectrum that runs from the Charedim of Bnei Brak to the JOFAs of Manhattan.

Listen to Rav Soloveitchik’s famous words on the passion in teaching Torah today (you can find more here):
The old Rabbi walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with a wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age.
The Rabbi is seated and sees before him rows of young, beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rabbi is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty. He asks himself, "Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rabbi in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives?" The Rabbi starts the class in Talmud, uncertain as to how it will proceed.

Suddenly, the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rabbi, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rabbi, Reb Chaim Brisker… The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity--Rabbenu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Raavad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva, and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats.
The Rabbi introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halacha; the Raavad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Raavad, as young people are apt to do. The Rabbi softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rabbi tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and, suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.
All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision and all operate within the same categories. A mesora collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times. This joining of the generations, this merger of identities will ultimately bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. It will fulfill the words of the last of the Hebrew prophets, Malachi, "And he [Elijah] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers" (3:24). The Messianic realization will witness the great dialogue of the generations.

After a two or three-hour class, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the mesora experience--giving over from generation to generation--years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in a commonalty, bridging the gap which separates the generations.

Continued in Part II and Part III.


  1. Loved the Post Office joke.

    I was quite interested in your quoting Kafka. He has been put down by some religious Jews as an example of the assimilated Jew; however, he had begun to discover Zionism and began to study Hebrew when he got sick. If he had been well-enough to move to Israel, he may well have re-discovered even more of his Judaism. And if he had had you as a teacher...

  2. I'm looking forward to the rest.

  3. Leora-
    Very kind of you.
    I'm no Kafka expert, but I find his views on the Judaism he observed so compelling that I can't but think he was cheated of the chance to experience a deeper form of religion.