Wednesday 12 November 2014

046) The Faith Stalkers

Jay Lefkowitz[1] recently wrote a personal account of what he calls ‘The Rise of Social Orthodoxy.’ He is a self confessed religious Modern Orthodox Jew, who shares his experience of a new phenomenon gaining momentum in the community called ‘Social Orthodoxy’.

What is Social Orthodoxy? It is a term used to describe Jews who observe Torah practices and rituals, yet grapple with internalizing and translating these practices to the faith level. Jay describes himself as follows: ‘I start my day each morning by donning tefillin...I occasionally find myself stuck in cities on a Friday far from home because I cannot travel back to New York City in time for the arrival of the Sabbath. I go to synagogue each week and celebrate all the Jewish holidays. My children go a Modern Orthodox day school...I would appear to be the very model of an Orthodox Jew... But...I root my identity much more in Jewish culture...than in faith and commandments. I am a Social Orthodox Jew and I am not alone.’[2]

He certainly is not alone.

But there is emerging, even a more extreme type of Social Orthodoxy compared to the one described by Lefkowitz:  -Philip Gallagher[3], an academic sociologist, uncovered a significant sector of the Orthodox community who ‘...identified as Orthodox, but may not stringently observe the laws of Kashrut and Shabbos...(they) worked to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance. Activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath...are accepted because they were out of the public eye.’ Often social pressures and the desire to belong play a more important role than theological doctrine.

My own experience of the community bears testimony to the emergence of Social Orthodoxy. Compared to twenty years ago, in many circles it is now considered ‘hip’ to be religious. A woman told me she was seriously considering to become, in her words, ‘shoymies’ (a new word for shomer shabbos), because all her children’s friends were ‘shoymies’. It was clear that she had no desire to understand anything about Shabbos as long as she could be perceived to conform.

The apparent widespread texting on Shabbos that takes place between Social Orthodox youngsters, certainly does not resonate with religious observance. Nor does popular attendance at learning programmes seem to get translated into practice, but this is overlooked as long as the attendees are seen in the right places. Perhaps we are witnessing the birthing and emergence of a new movement: The Ultra-Social Orthodox.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein writes a fascinating critique on Social Orthodoxy, saying it blemishes the image of Modern Orthodoxy. In particular, he challenges Jay Lefkowitz’s article, even though Jay employs none of the deviousness of the more ‘social’ followers of the Social Orthodox.  Rothstein has difficulty in admitting someone of ‘questionable faith’ into the Orthodox camp, and poignantly compares it to omitting the ’I am the L-rd your G-d’ from the Ten Commandments. He believes we may have over stepped the mark by creating welcoming religious communities, which tolerate and allow for such deviation. He writes; ‘The Talmudic view (adhered to for hundreds of years) was that we could not pray with nonbelievers[4]...Only over time, and especially after the rise of Reform...did rabbis find ways to justify treating deviant Jews with less than the full opprobrium (disgrace) halachic practice until then required...A person who does not subscribe to the faith-claims of the religion...cannot claim to be practicing Orthodoxy.’[5]

I do acknowledge that Social Orthodoxy may have become a little too social. (Although that’s probably not the worst crises to befall the Jewish People, and sometimes I wish our communities would be even more welcoming). But I have to disagree with the notion of us excluding someone who appears to ‘lack faith’. Actually, Lefkowitz never said he lacks faith, he said he is ‘rooted more in Jewish culture than in faith’.  In Kotzker philosophy, Doubt is part of the very fabric of Faith. And even if he did say outright that he lacked faith, that honesty itself would be an act of faith.[6] How, in practice, can we ever be so arrogant as to sit in judgement of another’s faith? Even if someone says they have no faith, it does not necessarily mean they have no faith. They might not use the same definition of faith as we do, and unlike halachic observance which can be readily evaluated, we have no way of evaluating faith.  While two people can keep the ‘same Shabbos’, no two people can believe in the ‘same G-d’. Each person’s faith is coloured by an infinite number of other worldly nuances that even they, never mind us, could never accurately articulate.

I too do not believe in the G-d an atheist doesn’t believe in. His perception of G-d is not the same as mine. The Kotzker Rebbe once said that he ‘does not want to believe in the same G-d any dirty old man believes in’. I too do not want to believe in the same G-d, some people I know, believe in.
If bad weather, for example, prevents you from travelling somewhere, and your companion turns around and says that it’s just as well because maybe something bad would have happened – that’s not an act of faith. It’s an act of irrational belief in random causality.

Many people believe in a G-d of their own creation, spawned by their own fears and superstitions. The astonishing thing is that they tell everyone they believe in G-d - and everyone is happy -  and they are permitted to enter the camp. Yet why do we want to punish someone who because of his honesty, has intellectual difficulty in believing in their G-d?[7]

Halachic observance can be observed. Maybe that’s why it’s called observance. But how can we subject another person to observation and inspection of their faith component?
When we do, we become Faith Stalkers.

[1] A senior policy adviser to the George W. Bush administration. Served as Special Envoy For Human Rights in North Korea, and currently a lawyer in private practice in New York City.
[2] Commentary Magazine January 2014.
[3] As quoted in: Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy, by Alan Brill.   2014/08/13
[4] It’s interesting to see that Kol Nidrei night, when we are permitted to pray with ‘sinners’, is an exception to this rule.
[5] See ‘Torah Musings. If the Social Orthodox had been in Egypt, would they have been redeemed?’
[6] This is because the foundation of faith has to be honesty. Emet VeEmunah – Honesty then Faith.
[7] The Ten Commandments say: ‘I am Your (not The) G-d’ - leaving room for different perceptions of G-d.

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