Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part III of III

This series of posts summarizes a non-proselytizing talk I delivered at a Conservative Temple a while back, on “Why I am an Orthodox Jew.” I decided to post it after Gil at Hirhurim started posting a series on "Why People Become Orthodox." You can find the latest in that series here.

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

In Part II I talked about the credibility of Orthodoxy’s tradition-bearers and the diversity of Orthodoxy’s appeal and reach.

4) An Intellectual and Practical Challenge
Orthodoxy appeals to me because applying tradition to modernity is a huge challenge.

Orthodoxy requires intellectual breadth and depth, to handle issues as wide-ranging as surrogate motherhood and downloading music from the Internet and genetically modified foods.

Orthodoxy is practically challenging, too, but that is to Orthodoxy’s advantage. Here’s Naomi Schaefer Riley speaking in the Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled "Reviving Judaism":
Religious groups that have grown the fastest in recent years (including Orthodox Judaism) are the ones that demand the most of their adherents, not the ones that offer religion (and refreshments) cafeteria-style.

On the other hand, I look back at Kafka’s comments and see what happens when religion is not challenging.

5) Hope for the future
And, last but not least, Orthodoxy has great hope for the future.

In this I don’t only refer to the standard statistics about the future of each denomination, its intermarriage rates and its rates of disaffection. (Although I do take pleasure in noting Marshall Sklare’s 1955 prediction in “Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement” – Orthodox adherents have succeeded in achieving the goal of institutional perpetuation only to a limited extent; the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.) I refer also to the way Orthodoxy looks at the future of Judaism, the Jewish people, and the world, at what is, and at what we could make of it.

I refer you to this 1975 talk by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, entitled “Concepts in Jewish Education”:

[Commenting on Genesis 44:19-20, Yehudah speaking to Yosef, viceroy of Egypt: “My master asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or brother?’ And we told my master, ‘We have an aged father and a young child of his old age…’”]

He [the teacher of Rabbi Soloveitchik] said: Joseph was not talking about a visible father…but about a mysterious hidden father… he inquired about existential parenthood, not biological parenthood. Joseph was anxious to discover whether they feel themselves committed to the origin… Do you look upon your father as branches look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the foundation of your existence? Do you look upon him as a provider and sustainer of your existence?...

Are you modest and humble? Do you believe that the old father, who represents the old tradition, is capable of telling you something new, something exciting, something challenging that you did not know before, or are you arrogant, insolent, vain, and demand independence from the father?

He addressed himself to the one who had a reputation as a prodigy, whose father was a blacksmith: Who knows more, Izhik who knows 150 pages of Gemara by heart, or his father Jacob the blacksmith who could hardly read Hebrew, can hardly daven? Are you proud of your father, are you humble? If a Jew admits the supremacy of his father in effect he recognizes also the supremacy of the universal father, who is very, very, very old and is called ‘atik yomin’.

…You can then also interpret in the same manner the second question: “Do you have a brother?”... Does your time awareness encompass the present, or the future as well? Does my existence embrace my parents, family, friends or generations before me? Do you plan not for the world of today, but for the world of tomorrow?

Do you believe in the improbable, in the fantastic? Do you behold a vision to make the improbable and fantastic happen so that it can turn to reality? Do you believe what the future can bring?

The brothers responded: Yes master, we do have a very old father. We feel that we are all deeply rooted in him… Yes master, we have a young talented bright child with a shining eye representing the world of tomorrow. This child is challenging us to make the generations unborn yet possible and to make non-being emerge as something real.

I am Orthodox because I love the fervor.
I am Orthodox because I believe the history of our tradition.
I am Orthodox because I appreciate diversity.
I am Orthodox because I embrace the challenge.
And I am Orthodox because, to paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik, I believe in the improbable, in the fantastic. I behold a vision to make the improbable and fantastic happen so that it can become reality. I am Orthodox because I believe in what the future can bring, and in what I can bring to the future.

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