Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Senior Rabbi of KJ reflected on the article written by his congregant on social Orthodoxy. (Everything below is his words and the sermon is complete w/o editing.)
This past Shabbat morning, I delivered a sermon entitled The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews? The sermon responded to a recently published article in Commentary by KJ Member Jay Lefkowitz, entitled The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account… Jay’s article elicited a great deal of interest and some criticism. I devoted my sermon to the article, to some unjustified criticism which came to my attention, and to my own reactions to Jay’s excellently researched and analytic description of a very important phenomenon in Orthodox Jewish life.
The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews?
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
April 26, 2014
The Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, owes a debt of gratitude to our member, Jay Lefkowitz, for opening a conversation on a phenomenon that has existed for quite some time and that is growing in numbers and influence in America and, perhaps, in Israel as well. Jay calls it “Social Orthodoxy.” It could be described as “cultural Orthodoxy” or “communal Orthodoxy.” He describes a committed Jewish life that doesn’t rely on God or a divinely authored, authoritative Halakha for inspiration or obligation. No one is being obligated to do anything. Social Orthodox Jews are developing what might be described as a voluntary commitment to behave in a religious way as a manifestation of their commitment to the Jewish people, to a 4,000 year old history, to Zionism, and to Jewish culture. All of this is expressed through serious, religious practice including Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer, tefillin, kashrut and other forms of observance. As he writes: “And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity. This way of life makes the social Orthodox Jew part of the Jewish people and the sweep of Jewish history in a very powerful and fulfilling way.”
Jay freely admits in this article that he – and, no doubt, many other social Orthodox Jews – who act like religious people, who speak like religious people and who look like religious people, do not really relate to God or to the divine authority that lies behind a life of mitzvot.
He graphically describes this phenomenon in a conversation about religion which he had with a devout Catholic friend as a young adult. He writes: “When I explained (to my friend) that I was an observant Jew and began each day by reciting the morning prayers, but wasn’t really sure how God fit into my life, he was perplexed. When I admitted that these theological questions didn’t really occupy much of my attention and certainly weren’t particularly germane to my life as an observant Jew, he became agitated. And when I told him that I certainly wasn’t sure if Jewish law was divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations, he threw up his hands and said: ‘How can you do everything you do, and live a life with so many restrictions and so many obligations, if you don’t even believe in God?'”
When I read this exchange I had a déjà vu experience. It was about sixty years ago that I had an extended debate with Jay’s father, my tennis opponent of almost seventy years (we have played about 500 sets over these years and Jerry Lefkowitz is narrowly ahead of me by something like 251 to 249).
The debate took place in my parents’ living room on a Shabbat afternoon. Jerry was explaining exactly the kind of life that his son and daughter-in-law and their children live today, a life to which he subscribed: observant, deeply engaged in Jewish culture and Zionism, committed to Hebrew literacy, but without a firm belief in God or Halakha.
I remember saying to him that I couldn’t understand why he accepted upon himself so many restrictions and rules if there was no divine authority behind them. I said that if I didn’t believe in God and a divinely based Halakha, then I would go inside to my bedroom in the middle of Shabbat and take out my pack of cigarettes and light up a cigarette. Why should I deprive myself of such pleasure if there are really no compelling rules about Shabbat? Jerry’s answer was that he keeps Shabbat because that’s part of being a Jew and uniting with Jewish culture and history over thousands of years. I found that position perplexing.
I have to admit that over the years I have come to feel that Jerry and his wife, Myrna, had a point. Part of the proof of the validity of that point is their children and grandchildren, specifically, Jay and Elena and their three children and the life that they lead.
So, clearly, what Jay describes as Social Orthodoxy is good for the Jews. It keeps many Jews together and on the derech, so to speak.
But I am still troubled by some of the concerns that I had sixty years ago. Those concerns were highlighted in an analysis of the Haggadah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he published recently in YU’s publication “Passover to Go.” Focusing on the question of the rasha – the skeptic son – in the Haggadah, “What is this avoda,” Rabbi Sacks identified the question of the skeptic son as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains it, when it translates the word avoda as tircha – hard work or bother. The Talmud says that the rasha is asking a question about the Passover sacrifice. Why all this bother and effort? Why this plethora of rules about a festival sacrifice? The Ritva (a medieval commentator who never experienced the Passover sacrifice) focuses on the seder itself and suggests that the rasha is asking: “Why is it necessary to go through this whole tedious Haggadah before getting to the meal? Why can’t we just sit down and eat? Why go through the whole effort of telling the story in so many ways about the exodus from Egypt and the progress of the Jewish people from idol worshipping to the service of one God? Let’s just eat!”
In truth, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, Judaism does require tremendous effort. It is a system of detailed attention to religious practice in Shabbat, kashrut, nidah and mikveh and a myriad of other responsibilities. Who needs all this, asks the rasha!
In fact, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders tried to keep Jews close to Judaism by easing the requirements and giving Jews the opportunity to be less restricted and restrained in Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha and other ritual performances. What happened was that, rather than keeping Jews closer to tradition, the lessening of demands led Jews to move further and further away from Judaism, the opposite of what was the intention of the leaders.
Interestingly, what are the holidays that non-Orthodox Jews celebrate in the largest numbers? They are the holidays that require the biggest effort: fasting on Yom Kippur and celebrating the seder and Pesach. Apparently, Rabbi Saks suggest, Jews find meaning in the effort which the rasha rejects. This should not be surprising. Anything worthwhile is achieved through effort and struggle: becoming an artist, a musician, a scholar, a doctor, lawyer or financier. Why should religion not require tircha – effort?
The real question that Jay raises for the Orthodox Jew is the question of sustainability. Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? How is Jewish history, Jewish culture and commitment to Jewish people-hood going to demand of me and my descendants the kind of avoda – effort and consistency – that is required of a committed Jew? Doesn’t such effort and consistency rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored Halakha and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals? If it is the latter, why not allow driving to shul on Shabbat; why does one need a blech on the stove for Shabbat? Can’t one have a meaningful Shabbat without a blech? And why require a mechitza during worship? Can’t one have an inspirational davening without separating men from women?
These are serious questions which are not easily answered by reason and logic and a desire to be part of the Jewish people and 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Orthodox or Halakhic Jew – answers them by saying: all of these are required by Jewish law. They may or may not enhance our religious experience, but they are obligations which are part of the Halakhic system to which we subscribe.
It isn’t that we fear a thunderbolt hurled by God at us if we fail to perform a mitzvah or if we commit a sin. But there is something compelling about a life of Torah and mitzvot when one feels that such a life is based upon a divinely ordained system.
Many of today’s Social Orthodox Jews have sustained their commitment beyond a first generation. Jay and Elena Lefkowitz and their children are a case in point. They lead a highly committed Jewish life in our community, impelled by deeply ingrained cultural, historical and social forces. And yet: will those forces, divorced from a divine, Halakhic imperative, have a lasting power for the Orthodox community as a whole? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox be able to answer the Haggadah’s question: Why exert all this effort and all this expense and this whole avoda and undertake this detailed, comprehensive and demanding way of life?
That troubling question remains. On the answer to it depends the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Jay Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.