Monday, August 27, 2007

Little boxes

Over the past year, I've noticed that Jews (both Orthodox and not) often use "Orthodox" as a synonym for "frum" (that is, ritually observant). So Jews who aren't 100% frum are, by definition, not Orthodox.

At one level, this makes sense. In America in 2007, Jews do sort themselves out into little boxes based on ritual observance: usually, the most observant are Orthodox, the least observant Reform, and so on. And as more observant non-Orthodox and less observant Orthodox die off, the overlap between denominations may be getting smaller over time. (Much as in national politics, there are fewer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats than there used to be).

But I wonder whether this is a good thing for Judaism and, in particular, for Orthodoxy. On the one hand, Orthodox Jews occasionally (in my experience) define "Orthodox" as a synonym for frum. On the other hand, Orthodox Jews sometimes think of Orthodoxy as the heir to the traditional Judaism of the past 2000 years, a Judaism that, though defined by observance, nevertheless included everybody until the rise of Reform in the 19th century. Is there an inconsistency here?

Or to put it another way, is it better to have Jews sorting themselves out into ideologically distinctive little boxes? Or is it better for our congregations to be "Big Boxes" embracing a broad variety of Jews?

The latter option seems (based on my limited knowledge) to be the norm outside of American Ashkenazi Judaism. When I lived in another city, I went to a Sephardic shul; my sense is that there was a wider range of people there than in a typical Orthodox shul. And similarly, in most of the world, there isn't the kind of ideological differentiation you find in America. In Israel and most of Europe, the non-Orthodox movements are weaker, and the frum and the not-so-frum often go to the same Orthodox shuls.

Is this a better system? Discuss among yourselves.


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