Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Orthopraxy: Problems and Solutions

A Guest Post By E. Fink

(This post originally appeared on my home blog)

Ami Magazine has an article about orthoprax Jews. I'm not one to complain about tone, so I won't complain. I will just note for the record that the tone of the article is incredibly demeaning to anyone who has ever contemplated the limits of religious belief and the article sounds more like a scathing editorial than a piece of journalism.

In order to understand this blog post it is necessary that you read the Ami Magazine article which is available here: The Impostors Among Us. Come back here when you are done.

The concept of orthopraxy is a simple one. Act like an orthodox Jew but reject some or all of the beliefs of orthodox Judaism. To the author of this article, these people are impostors and the biggest threat to orthodox Judaism that exists.

The biggest problem I have with the article is the approach taken with regard to orthopraxy in general.
In the eyes of the author, one who questions their core beliefs as an Orthodox Jew is literally sick. Either emotionally scarred or intellectually weak describes the types of people who are orthoprax. The assumption is that any sane, intelligent person would obviously conclude that the core beliefs of orthodox Judaism are correct. Further, those beliefs are to believed in their most absolute fundamental form.

However, the article does not, in any way shape or form, actually address the complaints that orthoprax Jews raise against those beliefs. It just assumes that those beliefs are reasonable. To me, this is representative of the flaws that created this problem and the incomptence within the fold in dealing with these issues.

Orthodox Judaism requires certain beliefs. The article, and most orthodox Jews I know, assume that these beliefs are obvious, logical, reasoned conclusions. They possess this belief because they have not been presented any evidence to the contrary. And if they have been presented evidence to the contrary it has been tainted and manipulated by apologists who spin the evidence as non-compelling while only presenting half-truths. Thus, when the soon-to-be-orthopraxer actually is presented with real evidence or questions that poke holes in the once so compelling logic of the orthodox Jewish beliefs, the house of cards comes crashing down.

The primary defense against the destructive nature of this information has been seclusion. This defense (as the article calls it, I wouldn't call it a defense) is not a defense at all. It is avoiding the problems. When someone avoids a problem or skirts an issue the natural reaction is to believe that there is no real answer, there is no solution, the questions are too powerful and the previously held beliefs are not defensible. The next reasonable step is to lose faith in the system.

It is not an illness. It is not the result of emotionally damaged psychosis. It is normal.

If we believe that we possess some sort of truth, then we can't be afraid of other truths. If we are hiding from other truths, it betrays our lack of confidence in our truth. This kind of hypocrisy and closed-mindedness is what causes people to drop their beliefs. Not disease.

The trick is to realize that this is the problem. Once this is established the beginnings of some solutions are not too far out of reach.

The article suggests attending "emunah workshops". There cannot be a worse idea. First of all, emunah is entirely inappropriate a word for these workshops. They are not teaching emunah, faith. They teach quasi-intellectual proofs (which mostly have counter proofs or flaws) in order to prove the divinity of the Torah or the existence of God. These are the very "proofs" that lead to orthopraxy. They wreak of chicanery and feel like mind games. If you ask a question that derails the flow, again, the whole house of cards comes crashing down. If one tries to prove something and the proof fails miserably, one is worse off than if one had not tried to prove it at all. It makes the one trying to do the proving look like a snake oil salesman. No one intelligent is going to buy snake oil.

Instead, I think, the solution should be an expanded, more liberal interpretation of Torah M'Sinai and God. The system needs to give leeway for the varied opinions throughout our tradition that take less of a hard line approach. Don't build that massive house of cards. Try to reintroduce the valid opinions of our great sages that are more compatible with evidence that we now have. That's not to say that those who had opinions that don't comport with what we know today were wrong. They were doing the best they could with the information they had. We should strive to do the same.

Further, there is nothing wrong and there is no reason to attach a stigma to those who have questions. Orthodox Jewish beliefs are not necessarily logical conclusions. Assuming they are and assuming that one who does not reach those same conclusions is a handicapped person, fosters an environment where orthopraxy is sometimes the only choice. But if allowing ourselves to have unresolved questions would be an acceptable place within orthodox Judaism, fewer people would feel the need to jump ship.

The article implies that these impostors must be rooted out and exposed. This is offensive to me. I am sure plenty of great people throughout our storied history have questioned their beliefs. After all, the Rambam wrote a "Guide for the Perplexed". Some people must have been perplexed! I am even more certain that many great people had a parent or two who may have questioned their beliefs. It is also likely that some who questioned, eventually rejected. But I am sure many others either resigned to not knowing or found some satisfaction in the answers they discovered. By exposing, stigmatizing and rooting out anyone who questions their beliefs we are playing with fire. People change their ideas throughout their lives and many who don't can still raise children who can sustain their own beliefs and be successful orthodox Jews. Ruining lives and shunning people who don't think the same way others think is a witch hunt of the worst kind. How can others measure the thoughts of a peer? Thoughts are not measurable by man. Only actions are. (On the importance of action versus thought I recommend Rabbi Slifkin's post: Ominous, Treacherous Infiltrators?)

I believe there is one more area of contemporary orthodox Judaism that significantly contributes to orthopraxy. That is the abundance of mysticism within our community. There are people who are skeptics. It is their nature. These people are not intrigued or impressed with mysticism. If it is not logical or scientific it simply doesn't appeal to them. However, the Judaism of Rambam or R' Hirsch would be very appealing to them. Judaism of 2011 may not. Mysticism requires suspension of disbelief. It is easy to see how one can conflate the unnecessary belief in mysticism with the necessary beliefs of orthodox Judaism. Stop believing (or never believing) in one leads to the other. Making mysticism such an integral part of orthodox Judaism will have a negative affect on those who are skeptics and unnecessarily so. The Judaism of Rambam and R' Hirsch was passionate and deep without many of the things that would turn a skeptic away from Judaism. I believe that part of the problem is that too much suspension of disbelief can turn some of our best and brightest into sacrifices burned at the altar of mysticism.

Finally, we come to the Internet. The article suggests that the Internet is to blame for orthopraxy. While this might be partially true, it does not exonerate the community for pushing these people out. The lack of preparation for discovering new information, the level of misinformation that is taught and the expectation that no one will ever find anything that contradicts the party line are all just as much to blame, if not more, than the actual information that bursts these bubbles.

--------

There are many other ways to approach this article. I believe there are other flaws in the article as well. I have chosen to highlight some of the issues I feel need addressing and may not be addressed by others. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feelings on the article and my musings in the comments.

The article has at least succeeded in providing food for thought. It is an article that has spawned many more articles and conversations. That is a credit to the writer. Hopefully, together, we can work these problems through in a sensible and pleasant manner that will benefit the greater good.

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