Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Orthopraxy & Obfuscation of Important Issues

It seems that the April 6 issue of Ami magazine contained a rather disturbing piece. The article is entitled 'The Impostors Among Us: Internet's Other Danger' and is penned by someone who could not possibly deserve the title journalist, one Rafael Borges.

You can read the article here.

The article's purpose is to discuss the phenomenon of Orthopraxy within the Jewish community. Those who define themselves as Orthoprax are, as the name suggests, those who practice the Orthodox lifestyle. They keep kosher, pray in shul and keep the halakhot. However, they do not share the same beliefs that those who would categorize themselves as Orthodox do. Those who are Orthoprax may, for example, not believe in God, Torah M'Sinai or a variety of other seemingly fundamental Orthodox beliefs.

Leaving aside the fact that Borges could stand to read The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Marc B. Shapiro, the man clearly demonstrates that he does not know the difference between reporting on a topic and writing a highly-opinionated, judgmental editorial piece. Rather than investigating Orthopraxy and offering clear insight into why people choose to belong to this category, he writes an article which is simply a form of blatant fear-mongering. A few of his choice quotes:

-"Sadly, the Gutbergs' can't have that kind of spiritual satisfaction because Aharon is a fraud. While he outwardly pretends to be a God-fearing, observant individual, he is nothing of the kind. He is an apikorus, plain and simple" (49).

-"But there still are intellectual threats posed by apikorsus, and the Internet has become a breeding ground for an ominous rebellion against the eternal truths of the Torah. Infected with the thought processes of secular philosophies, these heretics are among us as yeshiva bochurim and baalei batim, even in the higher ranks of our community."

-"He describes them [the Orthoprax] almost as mentally ill. 'To me, [the disbelief] is a sickness," he says.

-"The idea that an avowed atheist would still be attempting to marry a frum girl is more than unnerving. In addition to the fact that the girl would be marrying someone who has lost all traces of G-dliness, she would also be duped into a relationship established on dishonesty. She would be tied not only to an apikorus, but a fraud."

-"On this point the Charedim have it right; my skepticism was largely fueled by the Internet. The Internet allowed me easy access to all sorts of information that I might not even have thought of looking at otherwise. All the 'heresy' I could imagine was at my fingertips. I remember sitting for long hours surfing the web perusing all the information available, groping around looking for answers but just finding more and more heresy."

-"The Internet allows the Orthoprax to remain hidden and still maintain a support network, attacking the Orthodox world while feeding off it."

The article thus takes as its starting point the idea that anyone who questions Judaism and is not convinced by the 'proofs' there are to offer suffers from something akin to a mental illness. He also assumes that he knows better than God, forgetting the fact that every man is created b'Tzelem Elokim and claiming that the atheist or Orthoprax member is someone who has "lost all traces of G-dliness." He assumes that access to information or knowledge is the cause of the problem and that hiding information from children is the necessary precondition to their belief. In short, in some ways this piece is akin to that famous viral YouTube video "Bed Intruder": "Hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband cause they're raping everybody out here." The lyrics have just been changed to "Hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband cause they're thinking too much and we don't like what they think."

To demonize a group of people who are already struggling with their belief system, religiosity and theology is cruel. It suggests a total lack of appreciation for the legitimacy and authenticity behind people's struggles. You may disagree with the conclusions that your peers reach but who appointed you to be their God? And to some extent, isn't the fact that the Orthoprax are still connected to the community suggestive, at least in some cases, that their break with belief is not permanent? Perhaps if they could find the grounds, they might return to religion.

At the same time, I do not think it is right to mislead a community or people with whom one is in a relationship. It would be wrong to date a girl who is Orthodox when you are Orthoprax and not tell her. The Orthoprax Rabbi who blogs online is an untrustworthy specimen who betrays his congregants because of his own belief system. Such a man does not deserve to be the head of a congregation. As vile as this article is, it's correct when it talks about specimens like him. But I don't think he's an exemplar of the larger whole. My Orthoprax friends have made difficult decisions to try to accommodate others. Some have broken up with girls they really liked when they realized their philosophies would never accord. Others are concerned with the possibility of Yayin Nesach from their family's point of view and try to take care with this issue. To assume that everyone who is Orthoprax preys upon others is simply untrue.

In the hands of a competent person, this article could have been interesting and informative. It could have tackled issues that those who are Orthoprax consider and look at the reasons they don't believe in God, Torah M'Sinai or have difficulty reconciling Torah and Science. However, that would have taken intelligence and the ability to listen, both of which are in short supply in the self-righteous Charedi world. The frum kiruv presentations are laughable to anyone who actually has studied most of these issues intensively. Real questions deserve real answers. Struggle ought to be acknowledged. And pertinent issues ought not to be obfuscated but rather embraced, the challenge dealt with or at the very least, acknowledged.

I was also disturbed by the end of the article, which informs the concerned reader: "Since the writing of this article, appropriate steps have been taken to protect the public from this posek." This refers to someone who confided in Borges about his Orthopraxy and mentioned if not for the fact that people were looking over his shoulder when he gives psak, "I'm sure I would just be maikel for people if I felt like I wasn't being watched." Clearly, it's not ideal for an Orthoprax person who possibly doesn't believe in God to be acting as a posek for a religious community. On the other hand, the suggestion behind the statement that "appropriate steps were taken" is that this man was outed by the journalist, which is a horrific breach of journalist protocol. It's a bit like a doctor breaking HIPAA, in fact.

It also gives one pause when one considers that known child molesters are still permitted to teach at yeshivot lest we ruin their parnassah. Yet someone with dangerous beliefs will be ousted from his position of giving psak without regard to his parnassah. The double standard is breathtaking, and, I think, heartbreaking.

Hat-Tip: Rabbi Fink (whose piece, incidentally, I don't entirely agree with)


TPW said...

I also read the postscript and wondered whether the posek had been outed by the journalist, which would be absolutely horrifying and seems quite probable from the tone of the whole article.

In fact, the whole end of the piece was terrible--the writer talks about the conversation between him and Aharon petering out because he doesn't have much in common with an apikores.

The final paragraph in your post about parnassah is spot on. The whole critique is spot on, really.

Anonymous said...

I guess it all depends on what the "appropriate steps" were. That could mean about a million different things.

If he was my posek, I'd feel pretty cheated if someone knew my Rabbi - who I'm placing a TON of trust in - was giving me bad ruling but knowingly let my Rabbi continue to do so.

It's like a doctor who secretly knows he's not qualified to give medical advice but continues to practice. It's not so clear cut that a reporter is wrong to stop him from practicing even if it's done quietly (rather than by, say, publishing his name or other identifying details).

There's a responsibility to the patients the doctor will harm in the future too.

E. Fink said...

Nicely done.

Would you mind sharing, either here or on the comments on my blog, what you disagree with?


Shades of Gray said...

Two points:

1) A different viewpoint appeared in YU's Commentator("The Modern Orthodox Response to Orthopraxy", Eli Putterman, November 6, 2009), linked below:

"With this background, some policy questions can be considered. The first is the stance to adopt towards the individual Orthoprax Jew; it should be self-evident that he is not to be despised for his beliefs. On the contrary, in many cases, the decision to remain observant rather than depart for a less demanding environment, whether Reform Judaism or humanism, demonstrates a profound appreciation for the social, intellectual, and psychological aspects of Orthodoxy. Some even remain Orthoprax out of a feeling of deep connection to and identification with the Jewish people and its traditions, for which they deserve naught but our admiration. In sum, the Orthoprax serve as living disproof to the oft-cited contention that the truth of Orthodoxy is so obvious that its denial arises solely from the desire to follow one's base impulses unencumbered by its self-denying regulation"

2) Also of interest, I googled "Ami Magazine and Orthopraxy" on Sunday, after having read the Ami article on Shabbos. I found the following communication on one site:

"January 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Hi. I’m a writer for Ami Magazine. I’m doing a story on Orthoprax Jews and would be interested in interviewing you, with full anonymity.


tesyaa said...

My Orthoprax friends have made difficult decisions to try to accommodate others. Some have broken up with girls they really liked when they realized their philosophies would never accord.

This has nothing to do with Orthopraxy - many couples have broken up for hashkafic differences, even when both are believers. On the other hand, compatibility, companionability, and the desire to share a certain kind of lifestyle are more important than belief. I agree that at the outset a couple is better off if they share a worldview. But if that's impossible, it's still possible for them to make a life together.

tesyaa said...

My Orthoprax friends have made difficult decisions to try to accommodate others. Some have broken up with girls they really liked when they realized their philosophies would never accord.

This is interesting, because it implies that your Orthoprax friends are mostly, if not all, male. Why do you think more males that females are Orthoprax? Is it because of the whole "women are closer to Hashem" thing? Or is it because men tend to be much more analytical than women?

Chana said...


Neither. In general more of my friends are male than female, hence my experiences and knowledge occurs primarily with males.

arcanacoelestia said...

Chana, thank you for this thoughtful commentary. It reminded me of my favorite story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Joy". Apparently inspired by the Book of Job, "Joy" tells of a deeply pious rabbi who loses his wife and children, one after another, to a fatal disease. After these tragedies the rabbi loses his faith in God, but inexplicably becomes even more dedicated in his Talmudic studies and Halachic practice. In effect, he becomes "Orthoprax". I will not discuss the ending in detail because I assume some have not read it yet, but I will say that it leads to a heart-wrenching revelation about the subtle way God works in the lives of those who question Him the most severely. Chag Pesach Sameach (in advance) to you and Heshy.... as always, your blog is a blessing to me and all your readers.

Ksil said...

Tesyaa, we are like mirror images of eachother.....its crazy.

I wish you only the best. Great comments about the marriage - describes me perfectly.....just struggling with how to deal with the kids now that they are older

Anonymous said...

In general more of my friends are male than female,
An analysis of this result would be worthy of its own post.
Joel Rich

tesyaa said...

ksil, thanks for the kind words. My suggestion for the older kids is to have them in the most modern environment possible, which doesn't necessarily mean LWMO, but just a place where they are allowed to question and explore ideas.

ksil said...

tesyaa - i agree, except that my kids are in pretty hard core schools - i try to detox them when they get home, but its a challenge

Sophie said...

I cannot even begin to describe how disgusted I am by that article. The quotes you chose aren't even the most egregious examples of outlandish statements in the article, but they are bad enough. I have never read anything so utterly judgmental and lacking in any human compassion. How can the author consider himself an exemplary Orthodox Jew (as he clearly does) when he has so much disregard for the central Orthodox precepts of chesed and rachamim? I find it horrifying.

I can't believe that a publication would publish something like this as anything but an opinion piece. I guess that's why I don't generally read Chareidi magazines.

Charedi said...


I think Chana's point was that the Orthoprax guy was honest enough to break up with someone he loved (unlike the author's assertion that they are all dishonest impostors).


I do not think this is typical of Charedi writing. There are some very good articles written all the time in Mishpacha and in Kulmus and in Binah and in the Hamodia Magazine.

kisarita said...

orthopraxy does not mean living a lie. You can be an open, proud orthoprax.

Noam said...

Hey all Ami mag is known for pushing the envelope, in every issue they have managed to print at least one almost-taboo article. They are the newest kid on the block and will mix regular fare with inquirer style articles to get the readership.

Having said that, I think we are all orthoprax to a degree. We all struggle with our assorted demons and desires. we are human after all.
There is no need to publicly announce ones religious status. BUT if one does, it makes a definite willful statement.

haley said...

this comment has little to do with your critique of the ami article, which, incidentally, i agree with. just a thought regarding orthopraxy. aren't we all inherently orthoprax, albeit it on a smaller scale? there are those among us, myself included, who are wary of certain halakhot and consider them to be baseless or unnecessarily stringent. while we may lack belief in that particular commandment, we nonetheless continue to perform it. but think about ALL jews. let's take pesach for instance. yom tov sheni shel galiut and kitniyot are perfect examples of halakhot that should no longer apply. nevertheless, we continue to observe these commandments for no real reason. we are, for the moment, practicing Jews who have no real belief in what we are doing. does this not suggest that we are all orthoprax?

Anonymous said...

Just came across your blog by accident through a reference from another that I follow. I've spent some of this evening reading some of your other comments with great interest. Let me declare an interest in that I am neither Orthodox, nor Orthoprax, just Reform and based in Europe, so your world is a learning curve for me, but no less fascinating. I apologize if I speak out of turn.

When you say:

"To demonize a group of people who are already struggling with their belief system, religiosity and theology is cruel. It suggests a total lack of appreciation for the legitimacy and authenticity behind people's struggles. You may disagree with the conclusions that your peers reach but who appointed you to be their God?"

Does this apply in your opinion only to those in the Orthodox/prax world, or also to the wider spectrum of religious Jews such as myself, or also to other religions? I support the sentiments you expressed both in this contact and at large, but I wanted to get a better understanding of whether there is for you a boundary to such an opinion. Again if my question appears naive, or foolish it is not asked with any intended maliciousness.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I had never heard the term "orthopraxy" though I know some people who might define themselves that way.

I'm a bit different. I believe in God, love learning Torah, and believe in the value of traditional Judaism, but I don't practice much. I don't fit well in to any of the synagogues in my area, and I've moved farther and farther from Jewish practice in the past few years. I still pray, but not daily and rarely in shul.