If the Social Orthodox Had Been in Egypt, Would They Have Been Redeemed?
by R. Gidon Rothstein
Jay Lefkowitz‘s vivid description of Social Orthodoxy in Commentary is both beautiful and troubling. On the one hand, he highlights a remarkable aspect of the Modern Orthodox community. However, his unabashed theological admissions demand changes in how we make communal decisions. (Disclosure: I have met him socially but I doubt either of us would recognize the other without another introduction).
Defining the Social Orthodox
Mr. Lefkowitz uses himself as a representative example to tell us that Social Orthodox Jews engage in the bulk of the observances of Modern Orthodoxy, but as a way of staying connected to the segment of world Jewry with which they find themselves most in concert. It is, in his telling, observance as tribal marker, not connection to God. In his catchy opening, he recalls explaining to his future mother-in-law that he keeps kosher because he’s a “Jet.” Judaism as a gang, with observance the key to being part of the club.
What such Jews don’t do, according to Mr. Lefkowitz, is engage with or ruminate about the religion’s theological claims. As he says, after listing ways in which he and his family are connected to Modern Orthodox practices and affiliations, “But I also pick and choose from the menu of Jewish rituals without fear of divine retribution. And I root my identity much more in Jewish culture, history, and nationality than in faith and commandments.” (His picking and choosing raises questions about his observance itself; I ignore that here in the name of the more crucial issues I intend to address).
Let’s be sure we are clear about how far he has gone. Mr. Lefkowitz himself notes (as did Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, in a blog post dated April 8, 2014 that includes a moving cri de coeur at this phenomenon) that his commitment to observance as a way of affiliating with a particular group is pretty much the same as Reconstructionist Judaism. Mr. Lefkowitz does add the important caveat that Reconstructionists believe belonging comes before religious behavior, whereas he and other Social Orthodox Jews see observance as itself the belonging they seek. They don’t want to be Reconstructionist, they want to be and think of themselves as Orthodox. Another word for this is Orthopraxy, keeping Jewish law (mostly), just sidestepping or ignoring the faith component.
Belonging, According to Whom?
What Mr. Lefkowitz, private citizen, does in his personal religious life isn’t my concern or interest, nor do I want it to be. Moreover, if he shows up where I am praying, in today’s world, I feel no need to check his faith commitments.
I first note, though, that he ignores the history of the definition of Jewish belonging, which most definitely was not practice based. We have become accustomed to praying with all sorts of Jews, observant or not, believers or not. Nonetheless, it behooves us to remember that this is relatively recent, and was decidedly not the original practice of normative Judaism.
The Talmudic view (adhered to for hundreds of years) was that we could not and should not pray with nonbelievers, especially when this disbelief translated into even occasional halachic deviation. Only over time, and especially after the rise of Reform in the nineteenth century, did rabbis find ways to justify treating deviant Jews with less than the full opprobrium halachic practice until then required. (Some of those leniencies are questionable, so it’s not even obvious that we are allowed always to ignore disbelief or nonobservance).
We can agree with those eased strictures without losing sight of the fact that Judaism, for most of its existence, saw the abandoning of faith as itself removing one from belonging to the Jewish community. When Mr. Lefkowitz speaks of belonging by virtue of his practice, he is essentially warping the religion to which he claims to belong.
His mistake highlights one of the great successes of Modern Orthodoxy. As Hazon Ish has said, today’s mission must be to draw disbelievers closer to Torah with love. We have managed to create welcoming communities, where even non-believers feel comfortable attending synagogue, participating in religious activities and sending their children to day school. With thousands of Jews assimilating into the mainstream culture and disappearing, we have still succeeded in keeping others–too few but not insubstantial–within the community, even if only as partial participants.
The Greatness of Private Partially Observant Jews
Keeping people within the world of observance, even if they are missing what I see as essential elements of that observance, is an important success of today’s Jewry. If someone keeps Shabbat solely because it will improve family relations, they are still keeping Shabbat. The mitzvot that the Social Orthodox keep are still mitzvot, and Hashem can judge how to evaluate them.
More than that, we have a long tradition of welcoming less-than-optimal observance, recognizing that it can lead to growth. Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7 speaks of Hashem bemoaning the Jews’ failure to keep mitzvot, ready even for the Jews’ to have abandoned Hashem if only they’d have kept the mitzvot (הלוואי אותי עזבו ומצוותי שמרו, would that they had abandoned Me and observed my mitzvot), and Bavli Pesachim 50b famously adjures us to be involved in Torah for less than proper reasons, since it will lead us to the proper reasons.
There would seem to be some limitations, as Tosafot notes. Based on Berachot 17a’s saying that it is preferable never to have been born to being involved in Torah for improper reasons, Tosafot assumes that a negative motivation would be unacceptable—less than perfect motivations are fine, but negative ones are not.
Even at a personal level, then, we might have some question about how confident we can be that it’s fine for the Social Orthodox to tread their path towards full observance (as we all do). But I stress that that’s not for me to judge, and I don’t want to be seen as judging it. Where it becomes necessary to take up the call is when it is brought into the public realm.
Challenging and Required Reactions
While we certainly do not wish to chase Lefkowitz or anyone away, when he chooses to make a public issue of his version of Judaism, he obligates us to respond for three central reasons. First, his articulating this category of Orthodoxy will lead others to assume it is a religiously valid option, that this is one more version of Orthodox Judaism.
I believe all Orthodox Jews should be vocally denying this possibility; I do it here to fulfill my personal duty to do so. When people assert new falsehoods about Judaism, we have to stand and be counted, not repeat the error of our forefathers at Mount Carmel, who stayed silent when challenged by Elijah to choose between Ba’al and Hashem.
Nor do I feel that I am being overly sensitive, because his article received wide and celebratory attention. Additionally, the term seems to be entering the common lexicon. In a recent conversation, I assumed the obvious impossibility of an Orthodox Jew who didn’t believe in God, and the man with whom I was speaking, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, said, “What do you mean? There are the Social Orthodox.”
Jay Lefkowitz may be giving voice to a percentage, large or small, of self-identifying Orthodox Jews, but the rest of Orthodoxy, especially those of us proud to be Modern Orthodox, need to make clear that this is not a credible version of Orthodoxy.
Muddying the Waters, Keeping Halachah?
The second reason the article needs to be highlighted and decried is that people like Jay Lefkowitz—he is far from the only one—weigh in on communal questions of Modern Orthodoxy and how we should walk into the future. While, as I said, I have no need to exclude people whose faith commitments aren’t what seem to me necessary, we all should recognize that we do have to exclude their views about Orthodoxy, or at least approach those views with great caution. Once we know they don’t share Orthodox faith commitments, and hence an Orthodox worldview, we have to recognize the likelihood that their perspectives will not be Orthodox ones.
One way to show this is through Mr. Lefkowitz’ claim to practice halachah. He ignores the many simple halachot that require belief; for example, the first obligation in Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments is to believe in God, the foundation of all existence. For Ramban (and the simplest reading of Exodus 20;2), that faith has to explicitly include that He took us out of Egypt.
The wearing of tefillin Mr. Lefkowitz celebrates as part of his daily life is explicitly connected in the Torah to an awareness of God’s having taken us out of Egypt and of all of the Torah, including all its many faith statements. The Seder we are all about to enact is a statement of our belief in simple propositions about God and how God acted for and towards us in Egypt.
A person who does not subscribe to the faith claims of the religion isn’t just lacking in his or her relationship with God—that’s between that person and God—but rather, ip so facto, he or she cannot claim to be practicing Orthodoxy. Halacha without God is culture, not religion. In which case, their views of what does or doesn’t (or should or shouldn’t) fit the Orthodox future are less than valuable.
He No Play-a Da Game…
One simple demonstration of my point comes when Mr. Lefkowitz raises partnership minyanim, which he suggests will grow and flourish within the Orthodox world. I am on record, in a Tradition article from 2005, as rejecting the sufficiency of the halachic arguments offered to justify such services.
Whether I am right or wrong, Mr. Lefkowitz’s article makes clear that he and all those like him don’t engage the halachic system, since that system builds off of faith connections to God as part of the way halachic decisions are made. The question in halachah is always “what would God want of us, to the best of our ability, to figure that out?”
Social Orthodox Jews, in ignoring or rejecting that question, take themselves out of the conversation. In order to “play the game” of deciding halachah or any legal system (and certainly any legal/religious system), one has to be a full member. We wouldn’t accept the legal arguments of a foreigner who has no sense of how American life works, unless and until they fully absorbed the ethos of American law as a whole.
So if Social Orthodox people speak up about what they see as the right way to handle any of the issues of the day—Mr. Lefkowitz also names women’s issues and homosexual rights, two important examples—those who are Orthodox in the fuller sense of the word have to evaluate their views with the constant recognition that these people approach the question without the central component of how we approach it. And then see whatever their opinion is worth.
Questions of Fact
Finally, two quick debatable points in his presentation. Least important, he refers to “half Shabbos,” the rumored practice of some teens, who will text on Shabbat, but will otherwise keep Shabbat fully. My daughter and other teens I know (who socialize in crowds that include putative “half-Shabbos” Jews) all swear there is no such thing, that those teens who text aren’t committed to any Shabbat observance, whether or not they happen to act on their lack of commitment. Just to mention what I have heard repeatedly from those likely to know.
Second, and more importantly, Mr. Lefkowitz argues that the Jews’ saying na’aseh ve-nishma, we will do and we will hear, could be read to mean that they would act first, and work on their faith later. Sources do read this statement as saying the Jews committed to obedience even without full understanding of the commandments, but none I know of that imply it would be acceptable to act without faith.
This is also a particularly unconvincing reading given that these Jews witnessed the plagues, the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, and were about to see God speak to Moses in front of the entire congregation; even if Mr. Lefkowitz doesn’t think the text is historically accurate, as I suspect he doesn’t, the text’s own assumptions are that the people have seen these events, which would make it impossible not to believe. Their statement means a lot, but it can’t mean that.
Had He Been There, Would He Have Been Redeemed?
Seder night, we speak of the complications of raising children, and some ideas for how to manage or address different types of challenges in passing along the tradition of our view of history, starting with the Exodus. One of those children is the wicked one, about whom the Haggadah opines, “had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.” I think Mr. Lefkowitz’ article, and the version of Orthodoxy he suggests as reasonable, runs the risk of fitting into that category.
In one sense, they most obviously are not similar to the Haggadah’s wicked child. The wicked child challenges the work around the Passover holiday (including, especially, the sacrifice we do not yet have the privilege of offering), but the Social Orthodox are happy to join in the Passover preparations, because that’s part of being a “Jet.”
But the answer the Haggadah tells us to give is more of a problem. We are told to cite the verse that says, “Because of this (the Paschal sacrifice), Hashem took me out of Egypt.” We explicitly recognize that the practices we do now stem from the eternal obligation God placed on us by taking us out of Egypt. Without our recognition of not just the practices but the underlying history of those practices, the Haggadah seems to believe a person would not have qualified for redemption (and recall that the Haggadah likely means this seriously—traditional thought assumed that twenty percent or fewer of the Jewish population actually left Egypt).
As I said, I take no pleasure in pointing fingers, excluding people, or seeing them as outside the proverbial big tent. But Mr. Lefkowitz has thrown down a gauntlet that needs to be taken up. He has asserted as plausible that which is not, and has made clear that our Modern Orthodox communities host members whose opinions are not Orthodox and should not be taken into account when the issues and the vision of the future of Orthodoxy come to the fore.
This is a troubling and problematic situation, and bears careful consideration for how we can move forward, maintaining as much unity as possible while ensuring we do not mistakenly accept as Orthodox that which is not. Everyone, even the wicked child, is welcome at the seder. But only those committed to Jewish faith and practice have a voice in how to tell the story of God redeeming us from Egypt.
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