If the Social Orthodox Had Been in Egypt, Would They Have Been Redeemed?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

About Gidon Rothstein


  1. Jonathan Berger

    Rabbi Rothstein, you write: 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.

    I don’t understand your claim in light of O.H. 215:2, which seems to state the exact opposite—that if there is no deviation from the established text, then it is proper to respond “Amen” (=to pray with) such a person.

  2. R Rothstein’s comments are well intentioned, but they echo the voice of a uniquely affluent, entitled generation of orthodoxy in the diaspora whose wealth and comfort have never before been witnessed in the history of mankind. I am not quite certain whom they are praying to, nor what they are saying, but in the words of one Holocaust survivor in Beverly Hills “these people daven a permanent and perpetual hallel for their good fortune to a Santa Claus of a God. They have no concept of prayer and avoda out of sheer terror of the God of Judgment, No Mercy and as much Evil as Good by any human comprehension”.

    On behalf of the Erev Rav, we stand clearly with Jay Lefkowitz. For the very many of us who have suffered irreparable catastrophe, for the millions from Israel to Buenos Aires who have lost children and loved ones in battle and terror, R Rothstein’s criticisms are both inappropriate and hollow.

    We cannot believe any longer in the God advocated to us in years of parochial education and indoctrination, particularly in the normative American Orthodox movement. Like the distorted view of Zionism and Israel itself, it is a fantasy of what should be rather than a theological discussion of what in fact is — that is, after all. why American aliya is so abysmally small. The mainstream MO philosophy is lovely, so long as one never actually has to live it and is protected by Constitution, Bill of Rights and, above all, extreme wealth and the safety of its socioeconomic bubble. More missiles! Terrible! Now switch over to the Yankees game, please.

    Judaism remains divided, in the words of the theological oncologist R B Wein, between those who already suffer from malignant theological cancers, and those who have simply not yet developed cancer. Not yet.

  3. Jonathan Berger, I don’t understand your reference, since the paragraph itself says that if the one saying the blessing was a heretic or a Kuthi, “or” changed the form of the blessing. Apparently, if we “know” his heresies, we don’t answer amen; if we don’t know of anything wrong with his faith commitments, “then” we go by the words he says.

    Gary Pickholz, I am sorry for the theological pain you are so clearly suffering. Rabbi Soloveitchik, z”l, was very careful not to tread into issues of how Hashem could or could not have done what was done, because of the closeness of his generation to the Holocaust. Even so, he spoke clearly of Judaism as service of God, and didn’t step back from it at all. If I have spoken in a vein that is still painful for you, I apologize for that. But whatever tack I should have taken, it cannot but include the fact that observance has to, by its very nature, be in connection to and confrontation with the divine. Running away from it may help people feel better, but they will still be running away from the warp and woof of the religion. I could and should have mentioned Chovot haLevavot in my article, an 11th century work that already knew enough Jews who denied the faith aspects of the religion that R. Bahya felt compelled to write a book laying out the Duties of the Heart.
    I don’t know the quote from R. Wein, but it sounds like there’s a piece missing– not everyone develops cancer, and the cure to cancer is to cut away the cancer, not decide the world operates differently. I wish you all the best in recovering from your personal theological cancer, and a return to what Elie Wiesel has spoken of as the central characteristic of the descendants of Yisrael, struggling with God.

  4. Gary Pickholz, with all due respect, I find it much more likely that it is the very comfort you decry that lead to “Social Orthodoxy.” In an era with real pain and tragedy, people should logically be so angry at God that they drop observance altogether. (Although, as is often pointed out, they keep the belief in the God with Whom they are angry- sort of the exact opposite of Social Orthodoxy. And oddly, in the country which has seen the most Jewish suffering in the last seventy years, i.e. Israel, you don’t see much “Social Orthodoxy”- quite the opposite, you’ve got lots of believers who aren’t so strict.) In an era with real deprivation, people have no choice but to, say, work on Shabbat or eat non-kosher food. In an era of rampant assimilation (especially as a way to get ahead socially), those less committed will simply drop the faith. In an era with real discrimination or mocking of religion (even by other Jews), it is much easier to drop outward observance even if remaining a “Marrano” of sorts.

    It is an era in which observance is easy, in which affluence makes it easy, in which we can be easygoing about God (one way or another), in which religious observance is tolerated and even praised, in which there is a strong Orthodox community, that the path of least resistance for the non-believer is to keep the other 612.

    • Nachum Lamm, excellent point, and one I have contemplated before. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe we of the Erev Rav as consisting of both fraying fringes socioeconomically, although to date the experiences in israel and USA are antipodal experiences. There is no longer any center to hold, to paraphrase the beginning of World War I.

  5. We are told that the rasha (evil [son]) would not be saved, and “because he removed himself from the community, he rebelled against the essence.” The only example the haggadah gives us of someone who wouldn’t be saved is for the opposite reasons as the socially Orthodox. These are people who wish to be within the community, and the particular essential of faith that the rasha is scolded for lacking is far from their problem.

    The doxology isn’t merely “Hashem E-lokeinu Hashem Echad”, but it begins “Shema Yisrael”. When Rus converts (affirms the reality of her conversion?), she doesn’t begin by telling Naami “your G-d is my G-d”, but starts “your nation is my nation”. Membership in the people counts.

    (By a similar measure, I would place Open Orthodoxy to the right of Traditional Judaism [Halivni’s invention]. Even though UTJ split from the Conservative movement over the inability to accept the ordination of women, and Open Orthodox does ordain women, under some title or another. But UTJ isn’t looking to be a part of not trying to be accepted by the Orthodox community. And that alone is a huge difference.)

    In the same way, we share more beliefs with a J4J than with a Reform Jew. After all, the J4J believes in a literal Exodus of millions or people, a revelation of the Torah as we now have it at Sinai, etc… But, someone who returns to Orthodoxy from Reform is simply accepted, and someone who returns to Judaism from J4J should be going to the miqvah before being counted to a minyan.

    And it does seem clear from Tanakh, talk of the amei haaretz in Chazal’s day, the Rambam, etc… Social Orthodoxy was always the norm. It’s nice to want a community of poeple with their eye on the ideal (more than Ne’ilah and a few other times a year), and it’s important to do things to increase their number, but it’s unrealistic to say that’s what the community is ever going to look like.

    Tangent: Orthopraxy is a far more vague term. The Socially Orthodox don’t believe and are just going through the motions to conform. The Orthoprax include not only such people, but also those who have strongly held non-normative beliefs that also back external observance. E.g. Someone who believes the kind of thesis in TheTorah.org would be Orthopractic, but not Socially O.

    • Micha: The only example the haggadah gives us of someone who wouldn’t be saved is for the opposite reasons as the socially Orthodox.

      That is an interesting interpretation. However, while I hesitate to say “most” commentators, certainly many important commentators read the haggadah as saying that the Rasha rejected God by saying “ha-avodah zos lakhem”. I only had a chance to check a few but here are the commentaries that say “kafar be-ikar” means rejecting God: Machazor Vitri, Kol Bo, Shibolei HaLeket, Abarbanel and Gra.

      • I don’t see it as interpretation or commentary, but translation: “‘To you’ but not to him. Because he removed himself from the community, he rebelled against the essence.” It might depend on whether your nusach is “kafar” or “vekafar”.

        BTW, you know why the haggadah doesn’t make the same derashah “lakhem velo lo” on the chakham’s words? Because everyone know the guy who spends all day studying eidos, chuqim umishpatim has no interest in diqduq — you can’t nitpick his words! <grin>

        Seriously, though,without mar’eh meqomos I can’t reply. I just gave the hagadah as it reads na’ively. But I think the rest of the diatribe of the value of just wanting to be counted among the observant community stands either way.

        And the Chazon Ish might even allow us FFBs to be counted among the tinoqos shenishbe’u. Especially when it comes to elements of Yahadus you feel O culture is underplaying and neglecting educationally.

  6. If we do reject the social orthodox (whatever that is, still not completely clear), they may eventually reject us and all of what we do.

    I have to wonder if perhaps Christianity would have never existed had the political divisions of the Jews and their acts due to that division had been different at the time. Who knows?

    • I do not believe that R. Rothstein was suggesting we reject anyone. He explicitly praises the fact that they are part of the community. He was only commenting on the making of decisions for the future of the community.

      • I’m trying to understand the headline “Would They Have Been Redeemed?”, since we are commanded to think of each and everyone of us as having been ourselves redeemed, if they wouldn’t have been redeemed then, it’s as if they aren’t redeemed today.

  7. gidonrothstein

    Mark, First, it’s interesting to wonder whether the Social Orthodox strive to think of themselves as having been redeemed then, since I’m not sure they believe in the historical Exodus (if you believe in the historical Exodus, it’s hard to see how you can choose not to engage with the divine, or not worry about divine retribution for your failings).

    But yes, anyone who wouldn’t have been redeemed then, if they continue that mode of behavior, they wouldn’t be redeemed today. What we’d hope is that all of us work on improving ourselves so that, whatever would have happened to us back then, we today become the kind of people who would have merited going out.

  8. R. Micha, you are being uncharitable towards UTJ. ‘Orthodox’ Judaism rejected them, no matter what they believed in or did. Why should they try hard to join? My father in law knows more shas and poskim than anyone I know, is medakdek b’mitzvot and has smicha from an acknowledged Talmid chacham. But because it says JTS and R Saul Lieberman on the certificate, here he would be referred to as Conservative Rabbi. When an Orthodox institution invited him to teach it was on condition he get another smicha from an ‘Orthodox’ institution. Like another test on basar v’chalav would make him kosher to the Orthodox? And you blame him and his group for not going out of their way to be part of ‘Orthodoxy’? How about the Orthodox establishment recognize that this is a group of people with practices and beliefs that are within what is currently identified as orthodox and say ‘yes, you are part of us’?

    Chag Kasher v’sameach to all.

  9. Mr. Lefkowitz’ article is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, the article is trying to describe a reality the writer observes, not promoting a redefinition of observant Judaism, even though he is describing his own spiritual condition as well. One could understand Mr. Lefkowitz as, yes, rationalizing his condition, but at the same time somewhat wistful that the leadership of MO Judaism does not provide a model of intellectual or spiritual engagement with his world. If this is so (and I believe this is quite possible), then this article should prompt not criticism but soul searching – what is it about MO and MO spiritual and intellectual leadership that is so out of touch with the Lefkowitzes of our times? Are we so focused on questions of quinoa (obsessive looking-over-our-right-shoulder) that we have finessed real questions of kiyumiut?

  10. I refer readers to Ehrenriech, Living with a Wild God, 2014.

    R Rotstein, I must reject your basic and fundamental assumptions of faith as well as Halacha. That cannot possibly be the core concept of Judaism, particularly in a post Holocaust world of constant evil and doubt.

  11. gidonrothstein

    Gary Pickholz,
    I respect the depth of your feelings even as I disagree strongly with you. Without claiming to have an answer to the Holocaust, I have to say that faith in God has always been the core concept of Judaism– it is literally what made Avraham different than those around him.
    I also think that characterizing the post Holocaust world as being one of constant evil and doubt is an unfortunate way to look at it. To see only one side of a picture is always a problem. In fact, post Holocaust life has largely been pretty good for the Jewish people (the Holocaust itself is the tragedy). Post Holocaust, we’ve seen many remarkable salvations– the establishment of the State of Israel, the rescue of Yemenite Jewry, the release of Soviet Jewry, the release of Ethiopian Jewry, the ability of Jews in the West to live according to their faith when they choose, the economic flourishing of the State, its success in most of its wars, etc. I’m not saying it’s all been great, but an objective evaluation would find much on the positive side as well (when we as a people certainly haven’t deserved all that good– assuming God does exist and has told us how to live, and the overwhelming majority of us refuse to live that way, why should we expect good rather than punishment?) And yet we get much good.
    So I would urge you to maybe rethink your perspective. Without denying the issues you raise, I think you’re not seeing the whole picture. Being a Jew has always meant having faith, and has until relatively recently meant striving to follow Halachah. When Jews haven’t and then bad things happen, on a national scale, we can and should bemoan the tragedies, but if we then see a time of good and calm and bounty, let’s not lose sight of that part of the puzzle as well.
    I do hope you find your way to a fuller picture of Hashem’s world, and that you find comfort in the good, even if it doesn’t take away the loss. As Job did, for example, in the restoration of his wealth and the birth of new children– they didn’t make up for the lost ones, but given that Hashem had decreed the loss of the first ones, he could take some comfort in building a new life. As I hope we will all be able to, until such time as we get the full comfort of the Arrival of Mashiach, the time of the Resurrection of the dead, and the death of death.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter



%d bloggers like this: