Sunday, February 11, 2007

Philosophical vs. Cultural Modern Orthodoxy

    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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

[The] philosophically Modern Orthodox would be those who are meticulously observant of Halakhah but are, nevertheless, philosophically modern….The behaviorally Modern Orthodox, on the other hand, are not deeply concerned with philosophical ideas... by and large, they define themselves as Modern Orthodox [either] in the sense that they are not meticulously observant [or] in reference to… right-wing Orthodoxy."

from a lecture on Modern Ortgodoxy.

Yes,the behaviorally Modern Orthodox are certainly an interesting group....You are right in saying that they are mainly about the externals.

Emily said...

Excellent post. :) I think the same comments apply to most any group though, not just MO.

eli said...

I am proud to consider myself philosophically MO, but I question the distinction between Philosophical MO's and Cultural MO's. In my community, it seems that the only philosophical MO's are the Rabbis and learned lay leaders. Everyone else is just...cultural. This situation is similsr to the one the Conservative movement finds itself in. The Rabbis are learned...the congregations are for the most part, ignorant.

Ezzie said...

I think the same comments apply to most any group though, not just MO.

I agree with Emily. :P

Emily said...

Ok, now that my HW is done, here are my more specific thoughts. What you've picked up on is the difference between people who are born into something, and people who choose to be there. And I don't mean to say that people who are born into orthodox families can't be committed, but I would bet that by and large the people who are just interested in the trappings, in the external show, aren’t the ones who grew up with something else. And you see this in every group, the people who are democrats because their parents are, the people who go to church every Easter simply because they always have. You have to wonder what the children of people who are only surface deep in a group think?
I think it matters more when it's in a group that you care about being a part of. I know this sort of attitude bothers me in the MO community primarily because of the potential for other people to misinterpret what there doing as representative of the whole community. The say one thing and do another attitude is what makes it hardest for me to justify wanting to sign on for Orthodox Judaism, since it leaves everyone with a bad feeling about the whole group. It's particularly damaging in such a small community, since the good examples aren’t always as visible as the bad ones.
There is a lot of beauty in the external trappings of Judaism, but they can be incredibly hollow without a deeper commitment behind them.

arora said...

"...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...."

I disagree with this generalization.

Their feeling, depth, and commitment may be of a wholly different nature than your commitment to belief in God, TMS, and an identity that is subsumed in 'Jewishness'.

Their commitment may instead be to the value of *community* and to those ceremonies they see as enhancing their communities. They might choose these ceremonies out of respect for a tradition that arose out of beliefs they don't personally subscribe to (due to a *commitment* to intellectual honesty,) but they can still value and *feel deeply* about some of the positive family/social values these ceremonies represent.

MO Mother said...

I am disappointed that you, who understands the conflicts people face with regard to figuring out who they are, would use such generalizations and indeed prejudices to classify and crticize an entire group of people. You have no idea whether or not everything is ceremony without feeling or depth (whatever that means). You have no idea
what anyone struggles with; or in
which stage they are on the path of working out their relationsip with G-d and the demands of Judaism
Unless you have suddenly been
given the ability to read souls- please know that it is far better to assume and to celebrate that all individuals are seeking and growing- even those with white tablecloths.

Chana said...

Perhaps I ought to qualify that the specific group I am referring to is my own- adolescents. And the adolescent culture within Cultural/ Behavioral Modern Orthodoxy is one that fully supports everything I have stated.

I think that both Arora and MO Mother's comments might be taken to reply to those attached to customs/ behaviors out of significant feeling but unwilling to make an entire commitment, and those people would of necessity be of the older generation and variety. Such people are subject to completely different rules. You will notice that I deliberately specified someone who has been raised with this false "religiosity" and who responds to it by shedding it whenever it is not necessary.

Arora writes, "Their commitment may instead be to the value of *community* and to those ceremonies they see as enhancing their communities. They might choose these ceremonies out of respect for a tradition that arose out of beliefs they don't personally subscribe to (due to a *commitment* to intellectual honesty,) but they can still value and *feel deeply* about some of the positive family/social values these ceremonies represent."

I absolutely agree with this when it comes to members of the Conservative, Traditional or Reform movements. I even agree with this when it comes to the older generation of cultural Modern Orthodoxy. I think that this excuse does not justify the teenager's actions. I am not discussing the intellectual mind that has probed and queried and found other paths. I am discussing a group of people who wear their religion in public and shed it in private, whose actions are not provoked by a torn soul and confusion, but only by a desire for pleasure with the least cost. I am discussing the person who knows halakaha and rejects it, not from an intellectual premise, but from a desire for pleasure and because it is meaningless to them. That is what I find so disturbing- how can one know all the laws and still reject them utterly!

MO Mother,

"I am disappointed that you, who understands the conflicts people face with regard to figuring out who they are, would use such generalizations and indeed prejudices to classify and crticize an entire group of people."

Perhaps I was unclear about whom I meant.

"You have no idea whether or not everything is ceremony without feeling or depth (whatever that means). You have no idea
what anyone struggles with; or in
which stage they are on the path of working out their relationsip with G-d and the demands of Judaism."

Perhaps I have no idea in that, as you later mention, I cannot read souls, BUT I have a very good idea from my interaction with/ observation of such people of what categorizes normal behavior within such a society. And normal behavior suggests no respect for halakha or the law, but rather respect for pleasure to the exclusion of all else.

"Unless you have suddenly been
given the ability to read souls- please know that it is far better to assume and to celebrate that all individuals are seeking and growing- even those with white tablecloths."

You are ascribing to people the very motivation I claim they lack! You want to see everyone as growing, seeking, striving to be better but failing through no fault of their own. You want to see these people as dedicatd, committed Jews- as much as they can be. But they are not! That is the very flaw. These people are NOT growing or striving. They are complacent. They admit no wrongs. They see no divide between the fact that they don the white tablecloth and violate Shabbos. If they saw the divide and felt unhappy over it, suffered over it, then I would be kind and subscribe such motives to them. But in the absence of this, what reason have I to assume they are this kind of emotionally-committed Jew? It is the ceremony that is attractive, and ceremonies have no binding value! What this means is that we are raising a youth who would not protect their Judaism. One has to love one's Judaism to choose it over other things, and if one is attached merely to ceremonies and facades, there is no reason to do this. That is the problem.

Do you think I would not like to do the things they do without a thought? Do you think I don't wish at times I had been born without this? But the whole aspect of religion is that of choice and vision- one does this at the expense of that, one sacrifices this for that end. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have people adapting to others' exteriors while feeling no moral guide motivate them. You cannot have someone as a dedicated Jew and simultaneously pursuing all those avenues which are closed, because of religion, to the dedicated Orthodox Jew! If it were just the white tablecloths, there is no problem. But it is what the white tablecloths mean that is so dangerous. One does not die to defend the religion of the white tablecloth!

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Hi Chana; I loved your last line, "One does not die to defend the religion of the white tablecloth!"

However...going off on a slight tangent (or not), we are seeing a strange connection in Israel that may be unique within Jewish history.

Has there ever been a period of Jewish history, where cultural Judaisim is combined with Jewish nationalism?

Israel today consists of many aspects of cultural Judaism, and while some of it is halachik some is just as cultural.

And yet...while the majority of Israel is not "religious"...there are many who die to protect it.

And while they are not dying over white table cloths, that is about the maximum one can expect from many secular kibbutizim.

Anonymous said...

MO mother wrote:
"Unless you have suddenly been
given the ability to read souls- please know that it is far better to assume and to celebrate that all individuals are seeking and growing- even those with white tablecloths."

I doubt it very much that the individuals you are talking about "are seeking and growing".
What they are doing is hiding behind all that "seeking and growing"...to please themselves.

e-kvetcher said...

Chana,

I admit that I am also puzzled by this behavior, although I see it among adults (not just teenagers) where I live. And I am surprised that you have not seen it, since I live in your home town.

You say - "I am discussing the person who knows halakaha and rejects it, not from an intellectual premise, but from a desire for pleasure and because it is meaningless to them."

It seems to me that some people have strong rational, rule-based components to their personalities. They thrive on understanding the rules, the reason behind them, and live their life according to them and derive pleasure from this process. Others are just not wired that way. And the two kinds of people often simply CANNOT understand how the other kind functions. So you're right, the latter kind doesn't reject halacha because of an intellectual analysis precisely because it is not in their nature to subject their behavior to an intellectual analysis.

I tend to be the rational type. But I have become convinced over the years that most people are not. And in many ways, the irrational types are the ones that are glorified in human society, in literature, and in pop culture. I mean most tragic heroes got there because of their inability to rationally act in difficult situation. And in some ways this is why we enjoy watching them make a mess out of their lives.
You mention 'pleasure' quite often in your post. I am not learned enough in Jewish texts, but isn't there something that says that those that sin because of their desires for pleasure, vs those who sin because of ideology are treated more leniently because the Sages had understood how strong the impulse for pleasure is in human beings?

rivkayael said...

Jameel: do you think this connection may just be secular nationalism rather than a connection to cultural Judaism? I'm not being faceticeous here...though I also wonder how one justifies secular Israeli nationalism without having to reach back to the Torah defining us as "a people".
Chana: love that line about tablecloths! LOL.

Rapunzel said...

Do you think there is a difference between someone who rationalizes away the observance of certain halachic requirements and someone who merely sloughs off responsibility out of convenience? Or do you condemn them equally?

Chana said...

Rapunzel,

I do think there is a significant difference between one who rationalizes away halakhot and one who sloughs them off out of convenience. The most important part regards one's intentions, which are not always discernible to others.

I believe that someone who is earnestly seeking and searching and who truly looks through laws and halakha, learns the sources and is dissatisfied...and who continues his search and decides not to keep the laws, if compelled by honesty and intellectual premises, cannot entirely be faulted. Because we as humans are gifted with our intellect, and it is through our mind that we relate to the world. Someone may of course be mislead- and I am not the one to determine who that would be! But I believe that in that situation, where someone has looked at the roots of the laws and through careful study, has decided that he rationally cannot uphold them, he has at least tried. He cared enough about the situation and his observance to make that effort to keep the laws, to comprehend them.

This is different from someone who begins his search or quest dissatisfied and who is merely looking for a way out while trying to hide under an intellectual premise. This person's emotions are at the root of his observance or lack thereof. There, too, the emotions might be evoked by powerful factors and might be very valid, and the person might even struggle to observe, but feel like s/he is living a lie. I do not find this person's choice to leave religion to be as compelling, because it is driven by emotional factors, nevertheless I can understand it.

What I cannot condone are a group of people who are part of the "entitlement generation," myself included, who have been raised in what is the good life, as it were, never having been subjected to the physical torments and trials of others, who, for selfish purposes abandon or throw away the religion when it suits them and don it when it suits them as though it were a pair of clothes. The problem is that these people do not care. They do not care for the religion, they don't undertake any kind of struggle to determine whether or not they desire to stay religious. They simply act as they wish.

I have more respect for the person who truly delves into the laws- and even decides to depart from them! or who truly feels an emotional connection to Judaism but is plagued by doubts or troubled by questions- I have more respect for this person who honeslty analyzes his feelings/ doubts than for a person who cares nothing at all, but wears their very lifestyle, their beliefs and their values as a costume.

What I think I am condemning, then, more than different approaches, is the utter lack of caring. Religion is a major part of one's life; it informs one's actions and philosophy and outlook. Yet for these people, it is not there. When they want to act religious, they do, and when they don't want to, they don't. What is that? I don't understand that! I don't understand this utter lack of caring, this lack of passion and curiousity and desire to understand or fight or question. How can you live your life subscribing to ideals that you don't truly support? How can you play lip-service and yet violate the laws you claim to respect? How can you not care?

SJ said...

Yes. Yes. Chana, you are right. One of the biggest problems facing Judaism today is the sense of entitlement among the youth, the apathy, the lack of passion. There are many major MO organizations that are searching for a solution to the precise problem you have described--if you have one, please enlighten us!!

Ezzie said...

Chana - In response to your last comment: Don't we see that - from a Jewish historical perspective at least - those who merely followed their impulses are given a certain sympathy, while those who split intellectually were more condemned?

e-kvetcher said...

Ezzie,

You made the same point I made in my comment...

rivkayael said...

I wonder if Spinoza would have been excommunicated if he had lived during the Enlightenment. Hopefully things ARE changing--that people are beginning to realize that grappling with God and disagreeing is better than apathy!
Chana: I think part of the hope for an answer lies with people like you, people who passionately care and who set an example. People who care to grapple, who live the joy that really is the essence of Judaism, who don't condemn. I don't know you personally, but from what I read from your writing, I think the greatest thing you do is just living the way you are and letting your life, rather than your mussar, be an inspiration to all. I think if more of us would really take joy and revel in our learning and practice, some progress might actually be made. Maybe that's why kiddush HaShem b'tzibbur is so important.

DTC said...

"One does not die to defend the religion of the white tablecloth!"

NOW you tell me! (but does it make a difference if you put a plastic on top of it? :-) )

All levity aside, I think that this distinction behavioral and philosophical MO needs to be reviewed. There's a lot of what passes as behavioral MO that's really a desire to be philisophical MO but isn't really so sure how to get there.

For example, take Birkat HaGomel. It appears to be fitting for so many expressions of Hakarat Hatov but in reality is very limited in scope and any "unauthorized" use leads to beracha levatala and thereore "yatza secharo behefsaido." So many questions are asked about the proper usage and scope because people WANT to express themselves in what appear to be a halachicly appropriate way but they don't know how to.

A lot of the ceremonial aspects of behavioral MO that R. Soloveichik bitterly opposed arise from this thesis. Ceremony is supposed to be an expression of a halachic emotion. We say kinnos on Tisha B'av because halacha demands that we express our sorrow. Ceremonies that arise from the feeling of "I should be doing something because I feel that I have a need to do so and therefore create a ceremony that expresses that emotion while not violating any explicit halachos" are the exact opposite.

R. Soloveichik once said that "we're so careful about shabbos but how many people are as careful about Erev Shabbos?" Channeling our emotions into the halachic system is not easy at all but that's where the border is drawn: how can we channel our emotions to move from behavior to philosphy?

Arora hit it on the head: "but they can still value and *feel deeply* about some of the positive family/social values these ceremonies represent." I'm willing to be that while unfortunately there are people for whom all of the ceremonies and rituals are meaningless and empty, there are plenty of people within the behavioral MO camp who recognize the values but just can't place those values as aspects of halacha.

Ezzie said...

E-K - Sorry! Great thinking ;)

inkstainedhands said...

This strongly reminded me of a film I once saw about a family who treated Judaism as simply a culture and nothing more. You saw the father's dishonest business dealings and his position as the owner of a burlesque club, and then you saw the entire family sitting around the Shabbat table, just doing it because it was a tradition, and not attaching any value to it. Then, when both of the sons developed a liking for non-Jewish girls, you see their mother's (or was it grandmother's?) horrified reaction, and you think, "Well, what did you expect? When your Judaism was so superficial, did you really think they would value it or care about it?"

Woodrow/Conservadox said...

I don't think you can expect this much reflection out of most adolescents - of course, this is true for adults but for even an greater extent.

My sense (and certainly my personal experience) is that unless they happen to be fervently intellectual or idealistic, adolescents tend to want to move away from religion, and then swing back when they get older.