Understanding Jewish Orthodoxy As A New Religion

I recently received a request for comment on a proposed discussion as follows:

“We’ll talk about the new government in Israel and the declaration by Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yosef that Reform and Conservative Judaism is a new religion.”

The question makes perfect sense within an Orthodox context. Like many religions, Jewish Orthodoxy imagines itself to be the model of authenticity. It is no different than Roman Catholicism considering itself the only authentic repository of the Christian religion, or Protestantism claiming that resting authority in a Pope is a fundamental violation of Christian principles.

Orthodox Jews will usually point to various aspects of the way that non-Orthodox Jews observe their faith as some sort of “proof” that they are not authentically Jewish. Virtually all of these arguments fail for one overriding reason: Jewish Orthodoxy has departed from age-old methods of re-interpreting the religion. That departure is by almost any reasonable definition more serious than the violations they attribute to others.

Consider this: there is not the slightest doubt that the Torah applies the death penalty to any violation of the Sabbath that it deems a violation. So why are there so few executions among the Orthodox for violating the Sabbath? If you bother to raise the question, be prepared for wagon loads of nonsense in reply. The simple truth is that Judaism realized that it was mistake to apply such a harsh penalty for these infractions and over time eliminated the possibility. During the period when the rabbis assume the role of religious arbitration for those calling themselves Jews, virtually all capital punishment was abolished, and one sage opined that if a court (Beit Din) executed more than one person in 70 years it should be regarded as a corrupt court and abolished.

This modification of the religion of the Israelites continued throughout history. For any given community, there could be long periods of stasis punctuated by upheavel which required radical action and often, significant change.

Among the more significant instigators of change in Europe were new intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment. In Eastern Europe, many Jewish communities experienced new freedom through Emancipation. Whenever there is change, there is almost always resistance to change. Beginning in the early 1700s, some rabbis, especially in Ashkenaz, began to argue that there was so much turmoil in the world that age-old mechanisms for modifying Jewish practice (halakhah) could no longer be used. This was hardly the first time such calls had been heard. At the dawn of the Talmudic era, the Amoraim declared that many of the rules which had been used by the Tana’im to alter the halakhah could no longer be used because the newer generation of rabbis did not have the vast institutional memory that the Tana’im possessed and were therefore prone to making mistakes.

The notion that the changed experience in post-Medieval Europe was so much worse than earlier periods is absurd on its face. The fall of the First Temple, the Babylonian Exile, the fall of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, more than 1,500 years of persecution by Christians and Muslims–all this was not a problem requiring the abolition of rules for changing the halakhah, but somehow the Emancipation was?

It is that claim, the claim that the Jewish people and their leaders are now forbidden from making changes to the rules for things like Sabbath observance, is a new claim. This one argued by reactionaries who did not want to see change to those observances. Since this imposed a new regulation of practice which had not been the case in the prior two to three thousand years of Jewish practice, the religion which argues this, Jewish Orthodoxy, has to be understood as a new religious movement which differed from all that went before it.

The Reform movement was created by Jews who believed that the Reformation and the Enlightenment and Emancipation were opportunities to do what Jews have been doing since the inception of the faith–modify practice in accordance with the ways that Jewish people want to live. Conservative Judaism began as a reaction to Reform because some members of Reform thought things had gone too far. But that too is a part of the age-old dialectic. The insistence that no change to loosen halakhic strictures can be permitted is the more radical notion.

Today, Jewish Orthodoxy represents the smallest movement within Judaism–even in Israel. Of course, in a place like Israel, if people need or want to go to a synagogue, they often have little choice. Non-Orthodox synagogues exist in small numbers and for the most part in large metro areas. But merely because a person uses an Orthodox synagogue or prayer book–does that actually make them Orthodox? If that person drives on Shabbat, flicks lights on and off, doesn’t maintain separate meat and dairy dishes, is that person really Orthodox, or is the more accurate descriptor, “Reform”–meaning that while they like the traditions, they see no reason of faith not live as they choose.

We started this conversation mentioning Chief Rabbi Yoseph. Yitzhak Yosef.jpg Ask yourself, does this man dress like Moses? How about Rabban Gamli’el? Sa’adia? Maimonides? Notice that biblical personages wore the square garments on which the tassels were supposed to be affixed, but by choosing to wear clothing that looks like a different place in a different era, R. Yosef needs to wear a talit qatan to observe the mitzvah. And notice that the Torah never suggests this is permissible. But the Jews of a much later era wished to dress differently and so they adapted. In other words, they were Reform Jews.

For further reading, there is (of course) a vast scholarly literature on this topic. Remaining as one of the best is the masterpiece of Joseph L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism, originally published in 1972. Blau was a student of Salo Whitmayer Baron, and taught at Columbia (where he Chaired the Department of Religion) for most of his career.

On Being a Mentsch: The Legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs With a Nod to the Opposite of a Mentsch, Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a mentsch. The word is Yiddish and conveys the notion of an honorable person. In today’s dialect, one might say that he was a stand-up-guy. I need to say at the outset that Rabbi Jacobs was far more Orthodox than I am comfortable with. I would not consider attending his synagogue because he was adamantly opposed to allowing women to have have the opportunities for public prayer. In Rabbi Jacob’s synagogue women were not called to the Torah, they did not chant the services, and they did not even sit with men.

Louis Jacobs was a thoroughly orthopractic rabbi. He scrupulously kept Jewish dietary law and honored the Sabbath and the festivals. He was consulted far and wide by those who sought to live their lives according to Halakhah, the standards of traditional Jewish practice.

Louis Jacobs was a highly educated man. He earned both the Rabbinic ordination and a secular doctorate at the most rigorous of institutions. He was a faculty member of the Jews College of London and a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. By the end of his life he authored 50 books including one of the standards of modern Jewish scholarship, the Oxford Companion to the Jewish Religion.

In 2005, a Jewish newspaper with the highest circulation in the British Commonwealth conducted a poll to determine who was the greatest British Jew of all time. Rabbi Jacobs handily defeated Moses Montefiore and Benjamin Disraeil. A silly poll to be sure, but still!

Despite these vast accomplishments in both the scholarly and religious realms, Rabbi Jacobs became a target of hostility by the British Orthodox establishment. What was his great sin? In one of this 50 books, We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957, Rabbi Dr Jacobs expressed his support for scholars who discerned different documents comprising the Torah. This doctrine, known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) had been in development for over a century by then and was and still is the accepted theory of the construction of the Torah by every Biblical scholar who is willing to apply to the Bible standard literary and historical analyses to ancient materials.

The DH is even accepted by major Christian denominations and taught, for example, in the seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church. The opposition to the DH is confined to two populations–the Evangelical Protestants who group the DH with Evolution as forbidden doctrines,  and extreme Orthodox Jews. The reason I qualify Orthodox with “extreme” is that there are people who call themselves “Modern Orthodox” who have found various ways to deal with the literary theories of the creation of the Bible without simply denying obvious fact.

Upon publication of We Have Reason to Believe (which has gone through more than five editions), Rabbi Jacobs was branded a heretic by members of the British Orthodox establishment. He was slated to become the Head of the Jews College of London, but that path was now blocked. He was compelled to change congregations–and more than once.

Eventually, a group of Jews coalesced around Rabbi Jacobs who worshiped according to tradition, kept dietary laws and were in almost all respects indistinguishable from Orthodooxy. They took the name Masorti which means “traditional.” This could have become a numerically significant movement in England akin to the Conservative Movement in the United States, except that ironically enough, Rabbi Jacobs was too Orthodox. The Jews interested in the Conservative Movement were pressing for greater reform, particularly with regard to the removal of a barrier between men and women (mehitzah).

When Rabbi Jacobs was 83 years old, he went to an Orthodox synagogue on the occasion of the uphruph of his granddaughter. (Uphruph is a Yiddish word which means a celebration of an upcoming wedding.) He expected, as is the custom, to be called to the Torah. But in a public display of pique, he was denied this opportunity by the order of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was in a position of authority at this synagogue. Rabbi Sacks claimed that he was saving Rabbi Jacobs from the sin of perjury, since he was precluding him from participating in a ceremony which proclaims that the Torah is truth and all its words are truth.

Thus Rabbi Sacks struck a great blow for Orthodoxy. He deprived an old man of the opportunity to honor his granddaughter.

Rabbi Jacobs held to his view of tradition and was surrounded by a loving congregation, the New London Synagogue, from 1964 to his death in 2006. It was in the year before his death that he received news that British Jews viewed him as the most influential Jew who ever lived in England.

Rabbi Sacks will be recalled as vindictive and bitter, spreading disharmony and hostility within the Jewish community. He recently gave a speech before the House of Lords (he was recently named a Baron of the British Empire) which was heard by at least the two or three Lords who turned out in an otherwise empty chamber. He is the very definition of the word “jerk.” I believe that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered for his humility, piety, dedication to congregants and students, and for his willingness to engage with modernity. That is why, even though I disagree with him on many of the important issues of the times, I say that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered as a mensch.