Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part II

Again: This comes from a non-proselytizing talk I delivered at a Conservative Temple a while back, on “Why I am an Orthodox Jew.”

In Part I I talked about the passion of Orthodoxy, contrasting Kafka’s critical description of his father’s Judaism with Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik’s description of his own, impassioned Torah study experience.

2) Credibility
Beyond the passion of Orthodoxy, I find Orthodoxy more credible, by dint of its tradition and of those who have conveyed the tradition.

It seems clear to me that there must be a tradition accompanying and explaining the Torah’s text, for everything - even the ability to identify letters and words - requires a tradition. This is true for any published text, and certainly for one conveyed across generations, cultures and continents.

Hillel said as much in his conversation with a would-be convert who didn’t want to know about rabbinic teachings (Shabbat 31a):

A non-Jew came to Shammai and asked, ‘How many Torahs do you have?’
To which Shammai replied, ‘Two: The written Torah and the spoken Torah.’
The man said, ‘I trust you for the written Torah, but for the spoken Torah I do not. Convert me on condition that you will teach me the written Torah.’
Shammai rebuked him and removed him angrily.
The man came to Hillel, who agreed to convert him.
On the first day Hillel taught him א ב ג ד.
The next day, Hillel reversed them.
The man said to him, ‘Yesterday you didn’t say that!’
Hillel replied, ‘Aren’t you relying on me for this? So, too, rely on me for the spoken Torah.’

This point has been made many times since the days of Hillel, and it remains true today.

More than that, though, I trust those who have conveyed the Torah, because of their expertise in it. That Abbaye and Rava are able to speak to issues of law and ethics in all of the diverse areas they address, as can their predecessors and their students, with an incredible breadth of knowledge at their fingertips and an incisive analytic ability they bring to bear on every page and line, demonstrates their expertise in the Torah they conveyed to us.

3) Diversity of Appeal
The third of my five reasons is the Diversity of Orthodoxy.

I hear a lot about how Orthodoxy seems so monolithic, but that’s far, far removed from the truth. Orthodoxy is not a rigid set of rules; rather, it’s an approach of respecting tradition and applying it to modern situations. And because it isn’t a set of specific rules, it encourages diversity bounded by tradition.

The following beliefs are all legitimately Orthodox:

Every woman should have the right to choose an abortion
The American government should prohibit abortion

Jews should get together with Christians to discuss issues of mutual interest
Jews and Christians should not get together for such discussions

The Israeli government should be willing to trade land for the sake of achieving peace
Land in Israel should never be given away

We have great diversity in Orthodox personalities: Poets and Pietists, Exegetes and Literalists, Mystics and Rationalists, Intellectual elitists and Populists.

All sorts of isms exist within Orthodoxy – Zionism as well as Anti-Zionism, Feminism, Humanitarianism – and their common denominator is that Orthodox approach of applying tradition to modern situations.

Often within the same personality we find great breadth:
Rambam – Doctor, Philosopher and Talmid Chacham
R’ Yosef Karo – Mystic and Legalist
Sara Schnierer – Outspoken advocate for women’s education and tz’nuah eishet chayil
(In fact, this diversity is so broad that it gives us problems – we have all kinds, even Neturei Karta.)

There are Orthodox communities which emphasize Torah study, there are Orthodox communities which emphasize Prayer and closeness to Gd, and there are Orthodox communities which emphasize social work.

I know there is diversity in Conservative, in Reform, etc. But, to me, this is a different kind of diversity; it’s diversity in which all spring from the same tradition and are trying to fit into that tradition, and are finding a place for their uniqueness.

More to come in the exciting conclusion, Part III.

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