“Happy Orthodox”

Pardon the cliche, but, like all nice Jewish boys, I have to make sure I talk to my mother regularly.

The conversation turned to a sort of interdenominational/post-denominational program I’ll be going to in a few months’ time, and Mom said something along the lines of being sure there wouldn’t be Orthodox Jews there. I surprised her by saying that, actually, there would be a decent number of Orthodox folks there.

That sparked a little turn in the conversation where she mentioned that my sister used to ask what it was like being around our great-grandparents, who were Orthodox Jews. Mom said that it was different–her grandmother used to work hard cleaning out garbage cans, etc. (my great-grandparents owned an apartment building in Miami Beach), and she didn’t wear long sleeves.

Afterward, I spent some time thinking about how it is we draw lines regarding not only who is in or out of the Jewish community, but what practices, beliefs, and concepts are in or out. I think the thing that concerns me about where the various forms of Orthodox Judaism are headed is that, for the most part, the drive is toward more consistently strict interpretation and observance.

It’s not that I don’t understand the age and influence of concepts like siyag le-Torah (a fence around the Torah). I do. But it seems to me that the validity of that principle is dependent upon accepting the at-bottom-divinity of both the written and oral Torah.

Why? Because to do otherwise seems too prone to slippage in a system that derives the legitimacy of its behavioral requirements from the divine nature of its source. If you accept a compromise in the authority from which the law derives, you at some point undercut the very authority of the law itself. This fits conceptually with a system that says in one text that certain laws are like mountains suspended by a thread, but which also conceives of itself as engaging in a process of preservation and recovery of what the law was like in its original revelation.

So, looping back to my mother’s characterization of her grandparents as “Happy Orthodox” as opposed to what she sees today, is it simply in the nature of Orthodox Judaism to continue to drive toward a more conservative point? If so, does that mean that one of the major movements in modern Jewish life is simply driving itself to some form of fundamentalism?

For the rest of us, what does it mean to interact with texts that have such a conservative drive to them?

As a Humanistic Jew, I think of those texts as touchstones, necessary components of Jewish history: to be consulted, to be studied and understood, but fundamentally human in origin and thus not authoritative. Different from one another as they are, the texts we have mask dissent and diversity of practice and thought throughout Jewish history. That’s a necessary aspect of reducing things to text, in part because authors and editors are forced on a practical level to decide what things are in or out, and in part because authors and editors have agendas that they serve in creating texts.

That’s not to say that R. Joseph Karo, in developing the Shulchan Arukh, cynically included or excluded positions contrary to his own; I generally don’t doubt that authors believe themselves to be doing what they claim to be doing, so I don’t doubt that R. Karo was genuine in producing a code of what he believed was divinely required of the (at least non-Ashkenazic) Jewish people. But that perspective, well in-line with perspective of prior rabbinic scholars for nearly 1500 years, excluded various other positions and carried with it a particular view about the origins and legitimacy of the laws.

So what, then, to make of those texts? I think the best we can do is to recognize their value and know that we are capable of deciding and acting otherwise based upon what we see and know–and then doing so. To do otherwise is to set aside what has made Judaism what it is–the capability of its people to decide and define it–in favor of Judaism as we find it, which is only what other Jews have already decided.