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The Mission of Orthodoxy, No. 5: What Makes a Central Text of Judaism?

Be Not Overquick to See the Central

We are just about to start taking up actual texts and the ideas they convey, but we have to be careful in choosing statements or verses. The Talmudic tradition includes seductively pithy encapsulations of Judaism, stating that some single matter is the “whole” of the religion, or similarly expansive encomia. A classic, and much-quoted, example will show the pitfalls of using such statements to build our case here.

The Talmud tells of Hillel being approached by a potential convert who had already been rebuffed by Shammai, asking that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot (1). Hillel answers “What is hateful to you do not do unto others, that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go and study.”

Many take this as proof of Judaism’s central focus on interpersonal ethics. I am all in favor of improving that area of our lives, but note several problems in reading this text as making that point. First, Rashi (generally accepted as the interpreter of first resort in Talmudic texts) offers two interpretations of the word לחברך, to your friend, and the first sees it as referring to God. In that case, Hillel’s essence of Judaism consisted of avoiding that which was hated in the eyes of God, without any interpersonal element implied.

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The Mission of Orthodoxy, No. 4: Maybe There Is No Mission, and How Would I Find It?

Last time, we discussed several reasons people might reject my particular version of a mission, but there are also those who deny the concept completely. For those people, I offer the following brief review of the claims and my response.

No Such Thing as a Mission

Before diving into the identification of those sources that will tell us about the mission of Orthodoxy, and finding what they say, I want to mention the widespread and intellectually influential group of thinkers who see such an attempt as doomed to failure. Without addressing their concerns, I fear readers will approach my ideas with minds too clouded to accept the truths I hope to share.

Some insist that Judaism is Orthoprax, focused on acts and rituals, not faith. Others argue that the range of versions of Orthodoxy precludes any common or unifying theology (1). In their understanding, the ideas I offer here err in a different way than we have seen so far; it is not that I will pick the wrong essential list of Orthodoxy, but that there is no such list to offer.

One flaw in their reasoning stems from their building their view by accepting the claims of all who call themselves Orthodox, prejudicing the endeavor from the start. The beliefs of Orthodoxy, at their very least, include a recognition that sources of tradition (in particular, the Torah) make necessary and prescriptive statements about some issues, including what it means to be following the Torah. Just as US citizenship does not accrue to whoever claims it, Orthodoxy is not a matter of personal perspective, and accepting the self-definition of all who call themselves Orthodox starts from a place prone to leading down a dead end.

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The Mission of Orthodoxy Project, No. 3: Rebutting Reasons to Reject the Project

In my previous post, I dealt with the value of being aware of a mission to Orthodoxy, and explained why I did not believe the clear requirement to observe all of Torah and mitzvot precluded that kind of thinking.

Today, we will take up some other objections that might be raised. In broad terms, there are many Jews who believe they already know a different set of central aspects of Judaism and others who deny there is any identifiable mission to the religion. What they have in common is that they, intellectual or communal leaders and laypeople alike, likely approach posts such as these convinced they know better. Such closure of mind predicts they would reject my claims or brush them off as one view among many.

I take them up before offering my own ideas precisely because I want to clear our minds, so we can be open to the possibility that the texts we will study make points that should be obvious and unarguable to anyone who reads them. Since my fondest wish is that readers come away from these posts feeling enlightened as to what (Orthodox) Judaism must mean, not that they have read one person’s interpretations of the religion (however creative or interesting), I need to do my best to sweep away any barriers that might get in the way of that experience.

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The Mission of Orthodoxy Project, No. 2: Reasons to Seek a Mission of Orthodoxy

I want to open by thanking the WebYeshiva for hosting these posts, and repeating how much I hope that readers will also contribute to a lively discussion in the comments section of the blog. We closed last time with the promise to offer reasons to value this project. As I said there, I will be striving to show what all Orthodox Jews should have to accept as mission-shaping and central aspects of their religiosity.

Opposition and the Value of Overcoming It

In the tradition of “two Jews, three opinions,” that claim might seem quixotic or Pollyannaish. This is especially true given the many important contemporary thinkers—whose ideas we will get to in upcoming posts– who would reject my definition of Orthodoxy’s mission as too minimal, too trivial, or simply wrong.

Since the tenor of the times seems so against the ideas I intend to demonstrate, I want to kick-start our enthusiasm by describing the upsides of the project, the advantages of knowing the unequivocally central elements of Orthodoxy and what individuals, communities, and the world would get out of coming to understand these truths.

My starting point is what I call the economics of spiritual energy, a term that takes full account of the fact that almost all human beings necessarily make choices about where to devote their religious efforts. Once we accept that, we can also begin to expect that Judaism would have guided us on how to make those choices most felicitously, by giving us an identifiable mission.

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The Mission of Orthodoxy Project, No. 1: Welcome and Introduction

Welcome to The Mission of Orthodoxy project, hosted by the WebYeshiva with my great thanks. In this project, I will be attempting to recover the sense of focus and mission that Jewish sources tell Jews to bring to their lives. I call it a “project” in the sense used by other Websites for a long-term endeavor chopped up into blog-length pieces.

I am using that format for two main reasons. First, it will discipline my presentation, since each piece will have to stand on its own. Second, perhaps more important, it is a format that invites reader comment and reaction, helping me notice gaps in my thinking as I go along. In that vein, I invite you to respond to what you see here, to let me know what you think of my thought process, so that we can, I hope, start a conversation about these issues.

To give a basic idea of where I hope to go, the Mission of Orthodoxy Project intends to:

1) Demonstrate that Orthodox Judaism has a mission, a briefly encapsulated set of goals which are supposed to shape and inform all of a Jew’s religious endeavors; if so, it would define aspects of Orthodoxy that are in some sense more necessary than others.

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