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.

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