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The Problem With ‘Social Orthodoxy’

If Jews are trading theology for community, it’s time for Orthodoxy to evolve

Joshua R. Fattal
April 07, 2014

Last week, Jay Lefkowitz wrote an essay in Commentary defining what he terms “Social Orthodoxy,” a new phenomenon that finds many modern Orthodox Jews basing their religious life less in theological belief and more in the religious practices of the community. For Lefkowitz, these Jews “behave as Jews so we can belong as Jews.” He justifies this dogma-free adherence to Jewish law by arguing that Judaism is a people, not a religion—which he defines as a club that demands a long list of religious activities of its members.

There is some truth and worth to Lefkowitz’s depiction, not least of which is his stated goal, to observe the commandments in order to remain connected to Jews across continents and centuries. But Lefkowitz’s innovation, which normalizes the club-like mentality of social Orthodoxy, actually puts the very continuity of that great tradition at risk. While Lefkowitz’s essay is filled with telling descriptions of the state of Jewish life in America today and a historically accurate portrait of this community’s history, his idealization of a hollow religious life, where religious action has no internal meaning whatsoever, is intellectually shallow and functionally unsustainable.

The problem that Lefkowitz identifies as the basis for his argument is real: today’s modern Orthodoxy, because of its social involvement in the secular world and embrace of modern liberal ideas, is only tenuously connected to the traditionally defined Orthodox movement. This is no more apparent, he argues, than when it comes to religious belief: “If unwavering acceptance of the Torah as divine is the precondition for Orthodoxy, then the term ‘Modern Orthodoxy’ may well be a misnomer for many Jews who identify as Modern Orthodox.” This group of Jews has by and large come to express doubt about their faith, all the while remaining actively engaged in American Jewish communal life and adhering to halakhic religious practice. Seen most clearly, it’s a generation of Jewish teenagers who, though they “lead lives that are completely focused on Jewish values, ideals, and rituals,” also send text messages on Shabbat.

But at this point, where Lefkowitz might be expected to challenge the intellectual cohesion of this kind of duality, he simply accepts, and even praises it. Texting on Shabbat violates religious law; how then can one who engages in such behavior still be considered to lead a life completely focused on Jewish rituals? Has Lefkowitz really reduced his standard of halakhic practice to that of convenience?

Some Jews believe that religious law is divinely inspired. Others believe that it is the product of centuries of rabbinic ingenuity. Whichever the case, though, that law is imbued with meaning: be it rational meaning because of the function it has in society, or simply because God commanded it. To remove both these sources of meaning from the equation, to reduce religious practice to mandatory club activities, is to diminish the entire history of Jewish legal tradition. Lefkowitz is indeed correct in citing the Jewish mantra, “We will do first, and understand afterwards.” But he’s forgetting that this was never a sanction to act mindlessly.

In fact, Judaism has a long tradition of the exact opposite: mindfully considering the sources and worthiness of religious practice. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides pioneered a Judaism centered on the role of reason in divine decree, and began his code of Jewish law with philosophical and moral beliefs—a philosophical foundation required of every Jew. And of the figures Lefkowitz cites: Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodoxy, devoted the whole book of Horeb to the meaning of divine commands. Joseph Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man, Halakhic Mind, and Lonely Man of Faith looks to find meaning in the law; and Eliezer Berkoviz’s entire God, Man, and History focuses on rationalizing religious practice. But Lefkowitz ignores this tradition when referencing these figures.

Instead, he uses Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, as his model of a Jewish thinker who pays more attention to Jewish living than Jewish believing. But there is no shortage of reason in Kaplan’s doctrine. In fact, he advocates for a much more reasoned Jewish future than Lefkowitz’s social Orthodoxy. In Judaism as Civilization, Kaplan writes, “As a civilization, Judaism is not a static system of beliefs and practices but a living and dynamic social process.” While Lefkowitz appears content to perform rituals he has divorced from meaning, Kaplan accurately asks, if the meaning is no longer relevant, why perform them at all?

If the modern Orthodox world is ready to admit that certain practices have become irrelevant to modern Jewish life, than it is incumbent on that community to evolve modern Orthodoxy to discontinue those practices deemed outdated. That kind of evolution can be seen in the way various modern Orthodox communities have changed their practices as they concern women’s rights and gay rights, two areas Lefkowitz himself mentions but fails to logically apply to other halakhic realms.

By removing the very thing that gave rise to religious practice—meaning—Lefkowitz describes a Jewish community involved in the world of today but stuck inexplicably in fossilized behavior of the past. He may be able to take pride in calling himself a “Jet,” which he sees as membership in a club that performs activities for their own sake. But he’s taken the easy way out instead of stopping to ask the challenging but necessary question of why. Doing something just because because others do it, or because it’s been done for years, is one of the first things parents teach their children not to do. Judaism, a religion steeped in intellectually deep, culturally rich, and historically miraculous tradition, deserves no less from its adherents.

Joshua R. Fattal is a Junior at Columbia University. He is Managing Editor of The Current: A Journal of Contemporary Politics, Culture, and Jewish Affairs, and was a Jewish Week 36 Under 36 award winner in 2013.

Joshua R. Fattal is a Junior at Columbia University. He is Managing Editor of The Current: A Journal of Contemporary Politics, Culture, and Jewish Affairs, and was a Jewish Week 36 Under 36 award winner in 2013.

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