Why did this concept come into being? At first, because of social/ political/ economical realities. Within a certain social structure, only certain people were literate and possessed the time and/or means in order to engage in serious study of the Written and Oral Law. Other people were involved in earning a living and worked very hard, or perhaps simply were not in contact with those who would have been able to teach them. There is much beauty in these simple people. In all the 'Tales of the Ba'al Shem Tov,' these countrypeople's innocence and sweetness leads to heartbreakingly beautiful stories of the truth with which they serve God. There is the powerful story of The Shepherd and the Silver Coin, for instance.
The shepherd does everything in his power to serve God. He plays his pipe before Him, sings for Him, dances for Him, and finally
- When at last he came back to himself, he got up and said: "Master of the World: I have blown my horn for You; I have sung You songs; I have done handstands in Your honor. But what is any of this worth compared to Your greatness, awesome Father in Heaven? What more can I do to serve You?
"Last night the squire who owns the flock made a party for all his attendants. At the end he gave everyone a silver coin as a gift. He also gave me one. And this coin I am giving You as a gift -- to You, God, Creator of the World who created the Heavens and the Earth and the mountain and the water and the flock and me, the little shepherd..."
As he said this, he threw the coin upwards... and at that moment the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand stretched out from the Heaven to accept the coin.
The Baal Shem Tov said to his students: "This young shepherd has fulfilled the commandment to "love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).
There is something infinitely beautiful about this shepherd's relationship with God. He did not have the talent and skill or time to devote his mind to the house of learning, he was not a member of the elite, but in his own simple and pure way, as one of the masses, he served God.
This relationship is true. It is pure. It is based on the shepherd's knowledge of and love for God.
Another proponent of the divide between the elite and the masses, and perhaps the most famous one, was Maimonides. Indeed, his Codex of Jewish Law as opposed to his Guide for the Perplexed illustrates many times over that there is a necessity for the masses to believe in a certain guiding philosophy, statement or dogma (ostensibly in order to maintain their faith in God) while the members of the elite do not need to ascribe to such a philosophy.
But today? How are such ideas to be implemented today?
Today, we (assuming we live in civilized countries) are all given an education. We are all literate, educated, able to read and write and ostensibly think. We all have that power. So what applies to us- the law of the masses or the law of the elite?
But this question is very intertwined with another question-
What is the purpose of Judaism, and more particularly religious observance? Is it:
- 1. To keep the greatest quantity of people frum/ observant/ religious (Service of God and keeping the mitzvos in the Torah are of primary importance; the means to those ends are negligible.)
2. To allow people to know God, that is, to have people engage in a quest for God in an attempt to know, love and fear Him, and engage in a committed relationship with him?
What is the difference between these two ideas, you may ask? Well, the difference stems from two different viewpoints.
- 1. The Chareidi/ Agudah viewpoint which champions the idea of the elite and the masses, most particularly expressed in the form of the elite withholding information from their masses in order to keep the greatest number of Jews ostensibly "religious"
2. The Modern Orthodox viewpoint which argues the idea that nowadays, the masses have the status of an elite and that we must be upfront, deal with information as it exists, and not dismiss/ hide ideas
To give you practical examples of the ways in which this would be expressed, I offer some potential examples:
In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of evolution will not be taught or discussed. This idea will be considered one that could only cause people to have doubts or to leave Judaism, hence not reasonable for the goal of "keeping the most people frum or observant." In a Modern Orthodox school, evolution is considered a legitimate problem/theory, and it probably will be taught (perhaps tempered by Rabbi Slifkin's view or books on the matter.)
In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of living a life where one interacts with gentiles and non-Jews is not considered optimal for maintaining one's Judaism, and hence gentiles are derided, or at the very least, relationships with them are not encouraged. In a Modern Orthodox school, while perhaps they do not encourage actively recruiting gentiles as friends, they are seen as people who are muddling their way through life just as we are, not as potential traps of promiscuity, lust and other sorts of sinfulness.
In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of biblical criticism and/or the Documentary Hypothesis will not be broached, or if it is discussed, will only be dismissed as utterly laughable. In a Modern Orthodox school, even if the entire idea is not necessarily taught, it is given validity in that it is a logical approach and the people who utilize it are not utter fools. In some schools, it even enhances one's approach to the Torah.
In other words, much of the time the Chareidi/ Agudah approach is to engage in ad hominem attacks or polemics against people, ideas or institutions that don't seem to work with keeping people frum and their Judaism intact. An insular approach is favored. After all, most people will remain frum if they are never exposed to anything outside frumkeit, right? And if they are taught that everything outside of frumkeit are simply the ravings of deluded mad people, right?
The problem with this religiosity is that it is an ignorant religiosity. It is religiosity practiced in a vacuum, religiosity afraid of the world in which we live. It is a religiosity of the masses, even though these masses now have an education that would befit an elite. What good is this religiosity, I would question, when it cannot exist outside of this insular little community? It cannot stand on its own two feet. It is not an understood commitment to God. It is simply the way things are. This is the way I was taught and what I accepted; I am an Orthodox Jew and that is all.
So then, you'll argue, why do I see beauty in the shepherd's approach? Why do I not mind the seemingly ignorant religiosity he practiced?
Because he didn't have the opportunity for more!
Those shepherds, those laypeople, those tavernkeepers- they did not have the time or money to become scholars or to find out the whys and wherefores of their Judaism. They were simple people, but it was not a simplicity caused by deliberate ignorance, a deliberate blinding or refusal to understand certain facts; it was an ignorance caused by their tasks and life-roles. They were the masses simply because they did not have the political/ economic/ social ability or security to become the elite.
Nowadays, how can anyone dare avow that a religion based wholly on blindness and ignorance is a committed relationship to God? What good is this frumkeit that is cultivated simply by wearing blinders? It falls away at the merest touch of the outside world!
This is why the Modern Orthodox approach- correctly applied, mind you, the philosophical versus the cultural approach- seems to be much healthier, and in the long term, will accomplish the goal that the Chareidi/ Agudah schools seem to be striving for. The Modern Orthodox approach is not to dismiss problems or flaws or contradictions but to embrace them. Ah! There are dilemmas and ethical issues and confusing statements and perhaps a Redactor, and out of all this confusion comes glorious reality. We are dealing with reality, not attempting to delude ourselves into a world that does not exist. The Modern Orthodox approach, which allows and forces the individual to truly explore his commitment to Judaism, should, ideally (and does, in my experience) create very committed Jews.
Personally, I think that the person who has quested and tried and dealt with various issues in an attempt to act as a committed Jew but who ends up non-observant is more authentically religious than the one who maintains his religiosity by avoiding everything that could potentially undermine it.
More simply, in the words of a very wise person I once knew, "There is a heresy that is holier than observance."
I might qualify that statement by stating, "than some types of observance."
How can one commit to knowing God and loving God if he only knows him in a vacuum? The very suggestion adds an element of shakiness to the relationship. The observant person is afraid, because if his ghetto walls fall down, his religiosity falls with it. What a strange relationship! What a shaky relationship!
Is not the relationship cultivated by Modern Orthodoxy, the relationship in which we need be scared by no problem, no contradiction, no irreverency, no scientific revelation- stronger? Will it not persist? For this is the relationship that does not fear! This is the approach where questions are allowed and everything can be discussed! There may not be answers, but the questions are very valid!
If I serve God simply because my parents served Him, what does that make me? A blind follower! Had I been born Christian, I would have served Jesus; had I been born Muslim, I would have served Allah! Is this the kind of observance I want to offer to God?
And if I serve God out of avoidance, what does that make me? Why, a non-believer, someone who thinks that at the merest touch God can be undone! If I believe that I must avoid literature, science and every form of secular studies that ennobles man in order to serve God, then in truth my faith is born of weakness and it rests on nothing; it is fallible!
You want to know what the non-observant Jew had done, the non-observant intellectualite, not the "tinok she-nishba?" He has tried! He has quested! Perhaps he started off observant, but in his desire to know God and to serve him in a holy, committed relationship, he realized it would not be truthful or authentic to do these things, and so he did not, could not. He preferred not to lie, preferred not to engage in rituals and ceremonies that were for him repugnant or held no meaning. He did something authentic and frightening- he was truthful in his commitment by saying, "I cannot."
Is this a bad thing? Does God prefer that man fake religiosity? Would God be happier if man offered up prayers that weren't meant, kept a holiday he didn't believe in, as it were, consummated a marriage to a woman he didn't love? Is this what God wants of man?
From the episode with Saul, we know that God wants obedience.
But what if one cannot obey?
What is better, to be truthful or to be ostensibly "religious?" For what is held against Modern Orthodoxy is the fact that theoretically more people depart from Judaism when they are Modern Orthodox than when they follow the Agudah/ Chareidi path.
Does God want a false religiosity? Does he prefer this to an authentic denial? Does God want man to pretend to believe or to follow when he does not, cannot? Does God want a religiosity borne of lies, or a religiosity borne of avoidance and self-imposed ignorance?
I cannot answer for God. I do not know His answer.
For me, personally, based on my own inner sense of justness and truth, I cannot see God as desiring a false religiosity. God knows it is false, remember, as does the person practicing it. Is it not more authentic to face God, as Job did, and tell the truth? I think that man must be willing to accept the consequences when or if he denies God; he must be willing to accept responsibility for his actions. But I personally find it infinitely preferable to do what is truthful rather than what is false, to deny God if you cannot accept Him rather than engaging in a false and meaningless observance.
Would you wed a woman you did not love and could not treat respectfully simply because your parents had betrothed you to her, perhaps even because you had committed to her? Would you engage in this sham of a relationship?
Not if you had any true respect for the woman and her feelings.
So perhaps I may argue, even though it may seem revolutionary, that the very person who denies God or who becomes non-observant in his own way is actually the person with the deepest, most committed, most authentic relationship to Him.
That is not to say that religious individuals are not committed. No! The religious individual who serves God out of love and truth and whose service is not a falsification is also a deeply committed person living authentically.
Let me also not hesitate to say that some laws are always difficult, and it is not good to simply do away with them. There is a concept, after all, that "from fulfilling the action [for the wrong reasons] one comes to do it [for the right reasons]" or mitoch l'shma ba l'shma. So if one truly believes there is a God but finds some mitzvot difficult, I absolutely do not advocate doing away with those mitzvot or picking and choosing the ones that are meaningful. At this point, as with any task in life, one must simply work on things one finds difficult.
But this is different from someone whose entire observance is a sham or a falsehood.
Hence I would argue that if the goal of Judaism is to form a committed, authentic relationship with the Creator, and having formed that relationship, act on His Will, following the commands of His Torah, this is an approach that can only work if we see people as having more of the elite status than the masses status (although there are always those who are specialists in a particular area and to whom we must turn for guidance) and if we do not see (intellectually caused) non-observance as the ultimate evil, but rather as yet another form of an authentic response to God. If people are seen to have the elite status, then their religion is one that can work beautifully with everything in the world, not with a mere part of it, that can benefit from a free-flow and intake of ideas and concepts, and that results in man's deepest desire, passion and love for his Creator, God.