Friday, July 2, 2010

A last thought on the plight of the Orthoprax Rabbi

Something to ponder before Shabbos, following up on Part I and Part II, about the Orthoprax Rabbi.

I see the problem faced by someone who has been living a life of religion in a community of religion, and who depends on this life for his economic and social survival, and who then decides that he no longer believes in it. I have criticized his certitude, but I understand the situation as best one can without actually living it; as I noted in Part I, there was a time when I seriously feared I might end up that way, as well.

But living unethically is not going to solve his problem. It's not about Judaism or belief, it's about living a split life, and a deceptive life.

Michah 6:8 instructs us that Gd expects of us to, “Practice justice, love generosity and walk privately with Gd.”

Normally, we view the first two principles as social, and the third as covering our relationship with Gd. Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (19th century Germany, rebbe of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch), though, saw them differently:

והנה פרט מיכה ג' דברים נגד ג' מיני מצות, שבין אדם למקום, בין אדם לחבירו, ובין אדם לעצמו. נגד לעצמו אמר עשות משפט, שישקול כל מעשיו שיהיו במשפט ושלא יהיה עול בכפו. ונגד בינו לחבירו אמר ואהבת חסד, שהוא גמילות חסדים שבין אדם לחבירו. ונגד בינו לקונו אמר והצנע לכת

Michah specified three activities, representing three types of mitzvot: Between Man and Gd, between Man and Other, and between Man and Self.
Between Man and Self – Practice justice, meaning to weigh all of one’s deeds to ensure that they are just, and he has no corruption in his hand.
Between Man and Other – Love generosity, meaning providing acts of generosity between himself and another.
Between Man and his Creator – Walk privately.
(Aruch l’Ner to Makkot 24a)

In other words: Justice is not only about ensuring the safety of those around me. Justice is also about ensuring my own inner balance. It's a responsibility to myself. This is one of the reasons why the great majority of atheists and agnostics live ethical lives.

So what can he do? I've known many people who have had to switch careers mid-stream - professors who received terrible student evaluations, businessmen who were cheated by their partners, stock traders who lost their shirts and their confidence. It happens.

Ofcourse, one difference between the cases above and that of the Orthoprax Rabbi is that these people were forced out by external circumstances; this rabbi has no external pressures, only internal ones. And on some level he probably tells himself that this could be temporary; he might still be able to return to his previous faith, rather than give up his trade.

Another difference is that those other jobs were primarily jobs, for financial survival. The rabbinate has so much family and social weight that it is much harder to leave the field.

But for his own health, aside from the ethical responsibility to his community I discussed in Part II, I think he would be better off looking into academia, administration and management professions, civil service, a transition to law school or accounting, freelance writing, anything rather than remain in the synagogue rabbinate. Tell the family and community it's because of the stress of the rabbinate. It's healthier for him, for his family and for the community that depends on him.


  1. A rabbi is an employee of a congregation. As such there are certain ideas that employers have about those they want to employ. I would imagine that a congregation wants, as a spiritual leader, one who is, to quote Shakespeare,"Like Caesar's wife--above reproach." Inherent in this is that the rabbi be a believer. Had this man's shul been given an honest choice--look here, I don't believe in God but I know how to work as if I do--I doubt they would have chosen him. He's lying to his congregation about having the requisite "skills" and attitude necessary to do the job the way the employers want it done. Lying to keep a job is frowned on in the outside world, and woe betide the one who gets caught in the lie.

    If he really does think of the rabbinate as being only another job, then he needs to find another field to work in because he doesn't have the right qualifications for the one he's in.

  2. ProfK, same question I posed to TRH:
    i'm asking if it's a mekach taut if they can't tell/don't experience a difference in the product.
    Joel Rich

  3. I'll turn your question around Joel--how would they know if there is a difference in the product? How could they know if their "product" is the same or as good as others of its type out on the market?

    If I've only bought one brand name ketchup over the years and it pretty much does what I expect a ketchup to do I'd assume it was a good ketchup and representative of the product type. I could do this because the label is required by law to list all the ingredients inside the bottle--no surprises. And then one day at someone else's home I taste a different brand of ketchup and discover that yes, not all ketchups are the same despite what they put on the label. And I really do like this other ketchup much better. And I feel like I've cheated myself all these years because I assumed all ketchups were interchangeable. I didn't know enough to make a good judgement.

    What you are also asking is if the ends justify the means, and no, I don't believe they do when the means are based on a lie and deception.

  4. ProfK, Joel-
    Joel's framework doesn't apply, because the congregation is a consumer requesting a specific product. Once a consumer requests a specific product, providing something different is fraud regardless of the consumer's ignorance, and even regardless of the fact that the substitute might be better for him.
    If I buy a diamond and specify that I want it to be at least 24K, any substitute is unacceptable, even if cannot tell the difference.

  5. but if I buy counsleing services and feel my pain relieved, do I care that my therapist thinks therapy is a crock?
    Joel Rich

  6. We all go through challenges and moments in life where we question ourselves and our beliefs.

    There was a time when I was convinced that I was an atheist and a time when I convinced that I was going to become Frum.

    I am not in either of those places anymore, I am somewhere different now. Some people still think that one day they'll see me receive smicha and maybe it will happen.

    I understand that we want our rav to be rooted soundly in his faith, to believe so that he can lead.

    But I think that it is mistake not to allow for moments of doubt. In fact, I would be concerned about someone who said that they never doubted. I think it is healthy to ask questions and irresponsible not to.

    All of it is a long winded way of saying that I understand why people are concerned, but this may be a phase. He is entitled to spend some time reflecting upon it.

    If he comes to the conclusion that he truly doesn't believe anymore, well maybe that is the time to step down.

    My apologies for the long comment.

  7. Joel-
    A congregation is not buying therapist services; the congregation is hiring a salesman, to sell Judaism to itself and to others.

    100%; my problem is when he declares himself certain, and embarks on a life course in which he knowingly deceives others.

  8. "Justice is also about ensuring my own inner balance. It's a responsibility to myself."

    I think this may be a lifetime goal. It is too easy to get out of balance, or not find it in the first place. Neither nature nor nurture automatically produces balance, I've found.

    Perhaps it is through our questions that we seek balance. Our doubts and uncertainty allow us to see many possible perspectives. Then hopefully we choose the one that rings most true with who we are.

    Of course when we are not so sure who we are in the first place, this is harder.

  9. Hi Rivka,

    Welcome back. I agree that it's a lifetime search, and that balance achieved does not necessarily remain so. But the search is crucial, for our own stability and our own integrity.

  10. I think I've figured out what bothers me about the whole orthoprax label. If I were to start attending mass, abstain from eating meat on Friday and would celebrate the panoply of Catholic holidays would I be a Catholic? Not to the Catholic church and not to Catholic practitioners. If I did not accept the underlying theology of belief they would not dub me a catholiprax.

    Why would judaism even have a label such as orthoprax? The underlying fundamental for our religion is the belief in one God. If that belief is missing then the person without it who does certain public actions would be no different from my catholic example above--not a Jew at all, just aping or copying actions that "real" Jews do. The Jewish religion is about God--anything else is just commentary. Erase God from the equation and you don't have orthodoxy no matter how you try to persuade yourself and others that you do.

  11. Hi ProfK,
    Why assume that works for the Catholics works for us?

  12. I thought Judaism was about not doing to others what is distasteful to you, and all else was commentary (R' Hillel). I'm not aware of any mitzvah that requires belief in G-d, though I could be mistaken.

    Personally, I agree that if you remove G-d from the picture, what is the point of being Jewish, but I know many others who are uncertain about the "G-d question" and observe Judaism because it's their cultural/ethnic/community identity. This is what their community does, and they are a part of it, so they do it too.

    What is it that Klal Yisrael says upon receiving the Torah at Sinai - "na'aseh v'nishma" - we will do and we will hear. It sounds much like the origin of "fake it till you make it." :-)

  13. Why assume that works for the Catholics works for us?

    All religions are theology based--the theo=God. Without that underpinning theology there is no religion, by definition. Why would our religion accept a term like orthoprax? Why not call it what it really is--a lapse of faith, or perhaps a personal, individual crisis of faith? Why 'institutionalize' it through the use of the label, as if it were only another branch of the religion rather than abberant to the religion?

    Re "na'aseh v'nishma," what could be a better example of true faith? You have told us what to do and we'll do it because You said so God. We'll study the laws afterwards but first we will commit ourselves completely because we believe and we have faith--"b'emunah kol zos."

    Re the Orthoprax Rabbi, it's the lying and deception and dishonesty towards his kehila that bothers me. We are told "Kedoshim t'hiyu ki kodosh Ani." Because he denies the existence of God his actions towards his congregation are certainly not "holy."

    I would imagine that everyone has had at least one moment of doubt at some point,and I don't except myself, but we don't go around institutionalizing those doubts as self justification.

  14. Rivka-
    What you pose here is a classic question, but take a look at the start of the Aseret haDibrot, in the 20th perek of Sh'mot. The Rambam understood that to be a mitzvah: To believe in HaShem. Note as well the line from Sh'ma - And you shall love HaShem...

    I'm with you on his dishonesty, and, for that matter, on the issues of creed and doubt. I just don't accept the parallel to Catholicism.

  15. ProfK; one is not catholic by assenting to catholic doctrines. one is baptised. After which one is a bad catholic, mediocre, catholiprax, etc. You leave out a very deep, fundamental difference between Jewish and not-Jewish in this point. The majority of the non-Jewish world, Hinduism aside, is comprised of people who must assent, at some point, to what they believe to be a member of a faith community. Orthodox Jewry, particularly on the right, is all about people OBSCURING conversion, veiling transformation, even of their "gedolim" (r. Wolbe is a fine example), etc so as *to be considered a member of a faith community*. Gerim in this setting experience something even the BT who travels the furthest to become religious DOES NOT; a Ger fundamentally REFUTES their essence, formerly a whole person fractures based on what their heart, mind has convinced themselves of - a BT, an FFB lives an AFFIRMATION of them self. The fun begins when you're some one like me, a ger who wants to leave because he actually believes this stuff more than his peers do, more than it seems certain rabbis do.