W elcome 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.
2) Demonstrate that that mission, that set of core practices and beliefs, can be defined in a way that should be unequivocal and unarguable to anyone who accepts the authority of the texts of Jewish history, such as the Torah, Talmud, and the writings of at least the major rabbinic authorities, and
3) Demonstrate that recovering our awareness of this mission and putting it into practice would have far-reaching ramifications for the lives of Orthodox Jews, both as individuals and communities.
Just Say It Already
It is tempting to lead off with the definition of mission to which I alluded, to start off by saying, “I believe that Orthodox Judaism wants its adherents to focus on x, to see that as central to their mission as Orthodox Jews,” and then defend my perspective. I would love to do that, but I can’t.
One way to show why I can’t is to mention the ideas of two Israeli thinkers, whose views on this issue are not far distant from my own. Tovah Ilan suggested that the principles of Judaism, the foundations of what it means to be Jewish, are:
a) monotheism and rejecting idolatry (which she extends to any earthly,
material, or spiritual value that becomes all-encompassing); (1)
b) Jewish ethics, which she speaks of as emanating from a sense of
standing before God;
c) mitzvot, the need for commandments as part of perfecting the self;
d) a Jewish language with its own internal concepts, symbols, and ideas;
e) Jewish solidarity (not only as historical accident);
f) being a People of the Book, with a culture of intellectualism and of the
written word; and
g) balancing the universal with the particular, the individual’s needs and
the community’s, being fully aware of both. (2)
Gilli Zivan suggested a shorter but also interesting list. For her(3), Orthodoxy involves first, accepting the authority of the Shulchan Aruch and those authorized to determine halacha in each generation. She includes in that the belief that halachic (4) decisions need to build on existing foundations, not make the law anew each generation.(5) Second, it involves faith principles, which she cautiously suggests includes belief in a God Who created the Universe and is involved in history, somehow, as well as the belief that the Torah was given directly from God. For Modern Orthodoxy, she adds the belief that there should be a synthesis of Jewish and general culture. (6)
I single out these two because they say much that I will echo—so readers can have some sense of where I am going– yet do not obviate my attempt. I believe I will here point to items that did not make either of their lists, and I will go a step further, showing how these ideas, taken seriously, would lead to a reshaping of how Orthodox Jews experience their religiosity.
But a chief difference, the one that prevents me from leading off with even a précis of my views, is the fact that, perhaps due to the venues in which they were writing, neither supports or proves her claims. As a result, I have no evidence that people have read their views and said, “oh, that’s what it’s about; ok, let me adjust my life accordingly.” Instead, their views, whatever their pluses and minuses, are two among many.
By anchoring my claims in texts, I hope to weaken the hand of those who would ignore them. While I do not doubt the power of stubborn insistence on preconceptions, I hope and believe I can bring to the table sources that demand a response. To do so, though, I have to take a more roundabout route, building my case in such a way that we arrive at the conclusions together, having walked a road in which each step followed from the one that came before, so that we all agree together that what we find is the indispensable minimum of what it means to be Orthodox.
That, incidentally, is another difference between my project and Ilan and Zivan’s– I am not here to share my views of the Orthodox mission (7), I am here to share the system’s views, to demonstrate aspects of Orthodoxy that are, or should be, unarguable. To see how I could do that, I have to address several other complications of this project.
Target Audience: Orthodox Jews?
For a first example, take the phrase Orthodox Judaism, which I mean less as a denominational marker than as a synonym for those who strive to be עובדי ה’, servants of God (8), or שומרי תורה ומצוות, observant of Torah and mitzvot. I believe the sources I will adduce should define the mission of anyone who takes the service of God seriously, whatever affiliation they declare.
I recognize, however, that the denominational schisms within Judaism have destroyed any joint assumptions about authoritative texts too fully to hope that I will convince Jews from those other streams. If I am overly pessimistic, and my words ring true for Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or non- or post- denominational Jews, nothing would please me more. In trying to make only those claims I can fulfill, though, I accept that I will have to speak of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. Anyone willing to substitute the longer phrase “servant of God or observant of Torah and mitzvot as Jewish tradition always assumed” for each time I write the word “Orthodox” should do so, with my grateful thanks and appreciation.
The other complication of the term is that many who define themselves as Orthodox would and will reject my ideas, for reasons we will discuss in upcoming posts. For them, some of my ideas will be offensive, since they do not wish to entertain the possibility that they need to alter their practice and/or beliefs to come into line with what the religion wants of them. Because I am both interested in avoiding offense—if only for the practical reason that antagonism hinders progress toward truth or improvement— and in finding what Judaism unequivocally expects of its adherents, I will struggle to express myself forthrightly and honestly while still being sensitive to others’ concerns and feelings.
Along those lines, the idea of a mission, a set of central or core goals that constitute what the religion is about, can seem foreign in a time when many have come to see Orthodoxy as a set of halachic rituals devoid of any universally unifying ideological content. I suspect that for many today, religion is a set of rituals and practices, without any goal other than the adherence itself (the question of belief is a vexed issue, as many argue that beliefs cannot and should not define religiosity). The idea of a mission, in contrast, argues that Judaism is about something, that the sum total of all of its beliefs, rituals, and practices is supposed to produce a certain result, a result with impact on the individual, on his or her community, and on the world.
There was a time when all religions knew this—Christianity and Islam certainly have missions, although I hope I can be forgiven for refraining from laying them out. That knowledge, it seems to me, has been suppressed in the search for religious tolerance, both within and between religions and denominations. Just as we prefer that others not persecute us for our beliefs, we try to do the same for others.
I will address this in upcoming posts, but would just point out here that that worthy goal gets in the way of letting a religion’s adherents know the reasons and rationale for their efforts. While I intend to articulate a mission consonant with living peaceably with neighbors of whatever denomination or worldview, the loss of that sense of mission for Orthodox Jews is too grievous to be countenanced.
Is Mission Inherently Worldview-Dependent?
A further complication of the idea of mission is that it seems to smack of the complicated topic of טעמי מצוות, supplying reasons for the commandments of the Torah. Rambam knew of thinkers who denied the existence of any identifiable rationale for mitzvot. While that view has largely disappeared from the Jewish world, the plethora of frameworks for טעמי מצוות, reasons for the commandments, seems to preclude any one identifiable mission. The gaps between seeing mitzvot as a vehicle of personal perfection, a method of improving human society at large, or a mystical tool to perfect the spiritual state of the universe might seem to doom any claim to define a mission that all strands would have to accept.
In more practical terms, there are many aspects of modern life about which Orthodox Jews disagree significantly, such as (to name only a few and in no particular order), the role of Western culture (including college and careers), the role of women, the role of the State of Israel in one’s religious persona and thought. These differences shape how many Orthodox Jews construct their lives, schools, and communities, and I would not be so foolhardy as to think I could articulate an unequivocally or unarguably correct view of these issues.
In these posts, I will argue instead that granting all of that—and staying away from those politicized questions– there are statements and goals of Orthodoxy more fundamental and universal to the experience of being an Orthodox Jew. To take the easiest example, if belief in a single God is a part of the mission of Orthodoxy (as it is), noting that does not say whether such belief is important for its effect on the individual, the community, or the mystical state of the universe, nor does it of itself determine a particular attitude towards Western culture or Zionism, but it must nonetheless be part of how any Orthodox Jews shapes his or her life.
What I seek and intend to do here, then, is to identify what the religion has to say about its most necessary aspects in ways that all the strands of thought would have to accept, and align with any particular policies or practices they decide to follow.
Before I can really get started on that, I hope next time to explain more fully the value I see in doing so, to clarify further why this will be worth your time and engagement over the course of the coming weeks and months, to build, I hope, a certain sense of excitement and purpose around investing your time and energy in considering these issues and posts. Closing once again with thanks to the WebYeshiva for hosting me in this project, I look forward to your comments here on the blog, and to seeing you next time.
(1) She cites a Chasidic saying that even worship of God can be a form of idolatry. A note on footnotes: I do not pretend here to have completely surveyed the literature on the topics I am raising. In the name of producing a manageably readable text, I have tried to budget my research and writing to include only that which I have found most essential to valid and useful conclusions. While fuller analysis of various literatures might improve this endeavor, I strive here for the good, not the perfect.
((2)Minds Across Israel, [ Hebrew: מחשבות ישראל, perhaps better translated as Thoughts of Israel] (Jewish Agency: Israel, 2003), pp. 70-75.
((3)Gili Zivan, Religion Without Illusion—Facing a Post-Modern World, An Inquiry into the Thought of Soloveitchik, Leibowitz, Goldman and Hartman (Shalom Hartman -Institute, Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan, Hakibbutz Hameuchad: Jerusalem, 2005.
((4)A note on spelling. The academic world has evolved a set of English spellings for Hebrew words that looks and feels foreign to most readers; I have opted instead for a popular spelling of those same words, although citations of academic literature reproduce the spellings they used.
((5) This, to me, is a central aspect of Orthodox halachic process, a topic I hope to get to in the fullness of time and of these posts.
((6) Zivan, above note 3, pp. 86-7. Her claim about Modern Orthodoxy may be true sociologically, but creates tension with some of the propositions we will identify here.
((7) Both because I doubt many people would accept my opinions and because for those who would, they are readily available in other venues, whether here at the Webyeshiva, in the shiurim that are being posted as part of the OU’s Nach Yomi project, or in my books Murderer in the Mikdash, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, and Educating a People: An Haftarah Companion As a Way of Finding a Theology of Judaism.
((8) I recognize that in a series of essays on Orthodox Judaism, most readers are likely familiar with Hebrew terms I will be using. For those who are not, I will also include English translations the first time I use any such terms.