- This is exactly what many Orthodox Jews wish to do in New York. They want Judaism to be built on ceremony and beautiful sentiments. For example, they stress the lighting of the Sabbath candles, the white tablecloth for the Sabbath table, the decorating of the sukkah, and transporting the etrog in a silver case. They desire a decorous prayer service and insist that all the worshipers sing together when the Torah scroll is removed from the ark!
~Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik from The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, volume 2, page 228
Religion is not a ceremony!
In a certain type of religious observance that I have newly encountered, the emphasis, when it comes to religion, is on its being a ceremony. The shul is beautiful and worthwhile because of the cantors, most of whom are actually opera-trained professional singers. The beauty is to be found in the spacious building with its lovely decorations. One goes to shul to see and be seen; it is the high point of the fashion show. If you are not correctly garbed, people whisper about you. Designer clothes are a necessity for prayer, it appears. Prayer is constantly interrupted by everyone welcoming one another.
Everything must be exactly right. The dishes must be made of flawless china. The napkins must be white cloth, with a silver napkin-holder. There must be a bottle of white wine, good for digestion. The food must be Shabbos food; there have to be challot, fish, chicken, and so on and so forth. Everything must be beautiful.
But what good is any of this if one does not keep the mitzvot, or violates Shabbos?
Tell me, what good are your singing cantors and dazzling flowers and pretty napkins if you violate Shabbos? This is all a pretense!
And this, I have decided, is the difference between philosophical and cultural Modern Orthodoxy.
Philosophical Modern Orthodoxy subscribes to the religion of Judaism. Philosophically, we deviate from religious observance which is a mere transplantation of European culture. Times have changed in that we are more learned. We are able to read; we have opportunities we did not have in the past. We incorporate secular learning and all that is wonderful about it into our Judaism and our observance, and indeed, this heightens and truly complements our religious observance. We do not see baseball, sports or games as being inherently purposeless or a waste of time, but a useful, important part of childhood. Everything has its place; everything can be used for the good.
But the emphasis, nevertheless, is on the religion! This is religion allied to progress, to quote Rabbi Hirsch. Religion is the most important part of it!
- "The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will his views and aspirations be, the less aloof will he be from anything that is noble and good, true and upright, in art or science, in culture or education; the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man previal and become dominant in human society: the more joyfully will he seize every opportunity to give proof of his mission as a Jew, the task of his Judaism, on new and untrodden ground; the more joyfully will he devote himself to all true progress in civilisation and culture- provided, that is, that he will not only not have to sacrifice his Judaism but will be able to bring it to more perfect fulfilment. He will ever desire progress, but only in alliance with religion."
~Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "Judaism Eternal," page 238
The Jew is to desire all that is good in art and culture and the world at large, and all of it can be good, but it must be in alliance with religion. Philosophical Modern Orthodoxy advocates for this approach. It believes:
- "To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is th esum total of our task in life. To be a Jew in synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit, as father and as mother, as servant and as master, as man and as citizen, with one's feelings and one's thoughts, in word and in deed, in enjoyment and privation, with the needle and the graving-tool, with the pen and the chisel- that is what it means to be a Jew. An entire life supported by the Divine idea and lived and brought to fulfillment according to the Divine will."
~Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "Religion Allied to Progress," page 237
One may be a Jew anywhere, no matter one's occupation, and one can and ought to delve into the treasure-troves of secular studies, but this cannot be in conflict with one's Judaism; one cannot turn on lights on Shabbos!
Cultural Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is different. To Cultural Modern Orthodoxy can be applied the idea of ceremony; this is a Ceremonial Modern Orthodoxy, and it is held together by shreds and patches and laxity in halakha. Both Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Soloveitchik decried the believer in ceremony; Rabbi Hirsch writes that "there is perhaps not another word in our language which, to the same degree as "ceremony," connotes at the same time solemnity of form and hollowness of content" (Hirsch, "The Jewish Ceremonial Laws," page 57).
Cultural Modern Orthodoxy is a facade. It is a desperate yearning to be part of American culture. The cultural Modern Orthodox teenager will see no problem with pretenses. The cultural Modern Orthodox teenager will not see relationships as something sacred but rather as part of our throwaway society; s/he will have no problem with choosing which commandments to keep. The cultural Modern Orthodox teenager does not feel any commitment; they are bound because of the society they keep, their parents' edicts and laws, and if they return to Judaism after their rebellious stage, it is probable that they pick and choose what they will keep.
Now, this is very different with someone raised in American society. I am not discussing someone who is not religious from birth and who has never been exposed to religious Judaism. I am specifically talking about a group of people who have been raised "religiously" but whose religiosity, for the most part, is a sham. And why is it a sham? Because it is a ceremony! Everything is a ceremony, a costume, a mask; there is no feeling, there is no depth, there is no commitment; it is a burden that one assumes due to societal pressure. One acts a certain way in front of one group of people and acts differently in front of another, not due to one's internal sense of values, but due to external values that have been imposed upon you!
Such a person will not have a problem violating Shabbos or discussing others as though they were so much "meat," objectifying and depersonalizing people without a thought, without a qualm. They will have no problem doing this because the religion does not mean anything to them; it is merely a costume.
I went to North Shore Country Day; they were honest there. People were what they were, whatever they were, and they did not hide it or pretend to be something they were not. If they were American teenagers, interested in sports and ballgames and gameplayer consoles, so good! That's a wonderful thing! But they were good people; they were sincere, genuine people. They did not adopt something they did not believe in; they did not pretend to be part of a religion or a group if they didn't believe in it. They didn't present one exterior to the world and really act differently inside. They were not hypocrites. They may not have had my priorities or all of my interests, and they cannot be faulted for that, but they were good people, principled people, people with their own true value systems and morals. They did not seem one way and then act another.
I have never encountered this type of Jew before! Fundamentalist Jews I have encountered, yes, or hypocrites, but someone who acts differently before every crowd, someone whose only connection to Judaism is through its artistic expression, someone who is one thing on the inside and something totally different on the other- no, I have not seen this before, and I am disturbed by it! I am very disturbed by it.