Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why are we Orthodox Jews?

A rare flash of brilliance from David Brooks:
We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control. We’re thrust into social conditions that we detest. Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.

But unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.

Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves.

The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.
The rest of this editorial is quite bad, and unworthy of discussion but the part I've shared with you is a powerful description of the contingent forces that shape our subjective view of reality and, thus, a powerful argument for pluralism.

Elsewhere, I've been discussing "significance" with one of the trolls. Born irreligious, he found the holy Charedi light in late adolescence, and now can't understand why someone like me would consent to live the "restrictive" life of Orthodox Judaism without thinking every last bit of it, down to the tiniest details, is Capital T "True."

I tried to explain: I do think its true, but only in the sense that rabbis were given the authority to interpret the Torah and, over time, their interpretations produced the set of laws Orthodox Jews today believe themselves obligated to follow. There was nothing inevitable about their conclusions, and much of what you consider essential to Orthodox Judaism was unknown to our ancestors.

He countered: Then what's wrong with Reform or Conservative Judaism? They're also the product of interpretations. If the mesorah is interpretations, and not a passed on tradition dating back to Sinai, what's illegitimate about Reform or Conservative interpretation?

I was forced to admit: Perhaps nothing. (Though I suppose we could get into a long discussion about what, exactly, gives one Jew the authority to interpret and not another.)

Sensing blood, he threw what he must have considered a hay maker: So why aren't you a Reform Jew?

That's simple, I answered: I'm not Reform because I'm not Reform. Its not how I was raised. It isn't where my friends are. I don't have any memories of reform rituals or services. In short I'm Orthodox and not Reform for the same reason all OJs are OJ and not Reform: One carries significance for us. The other does not.

As I expected, he grabbed only half the stick: You're denying yourself a secular Saturday and BBQ pork ribs because your friends would look down on you? Don't you realize how silly that sounds?

Well, yes, I concede, that might sound silly, only its not the whole story. Like most of us who were raised Orthodox, I have no appetite for pork, and no desire to exchange the joys of the Orthodox Shabbos for the errands and bustle of a secular Sunday. And though I do think peer pressure can be a perfectly legitimate reason to do something healthy and enriching, I don't think peer pressure tells the whole story here.

In short, I'm Orthodox because the Orthodox life carries significance for me, and, what's more:
every self-aware OJ would give the same answer. Oh, to be sure, one OJ might say he finds significance in the honest belief that the Creator of heaven and earth desires strange diets and 19th century dress, while another OJ might see significance in the honest pleasure he derives from old tunes, and ancient rituals. Each of us finds our own significance, and that significance -whatever it may be- is subjective, personal and therefore indisputable.

For some, the significance is intellectual; for others it may be emotional, psychological or something else. But it doesn't matter. We're all entitled to our stories, and to find in these lives we didn't choose whatever meaning and coherence we can.

Search for more information about pluralism and signifcance at

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