Friday, June 01, 2007

two versions of what orthodoxy is all about

I think one of the keys questions that affect a person’s religious practice can be summed up with a chakira: is a jew someone who is like everyone else except where restricted by ritual laws have to be obeyed, or is a jew someone with a unique set of values, attitudes, and behaviors which happen to coincide under some circumstances with Western values? The teenagers who get together for a pick-up basketball game in shorts and T-shirts on Shabbos or the adults who will vacation at a beach or a Las Vegas casino while making sure to eat kosher food I think view their religiosity based on the first tzad of the chakira. What determines whether an action is acceptable is whether one can point to a specific se’if in shulchan aruch that prohibits something (and even so, apparently some people think not all dinim in shulchan aruch are created equal), and if not, what is OK in secular society is by default OK for the Jew. The second tzad looks at things very differently. It’s not about whether there is a specific prohibition against something, but about whether a particular action or desire is for the sake of avodas Hashem or not. Halacha is not a collection of technical restrictions that impinge on a “normal” lifestyle, but halacha becomes a guide to a mindset that has completely different goals, values, and aspirations than what passes for “normal” in our society. One of the problems I have encountered in dealing with coreligionists who fall into tzad #1 of the chakira or who are non-religious is that they simply do not understand that those of us who aspire or try to live our lives by the tzad #2 approach. Decisions about what is permitted or prohibited are viewed through a completely different mindset (and again, this issue is especially hard to deal with when the other people are family members). When asked “Where does it say X is prohibited” or confronted with the observation “…But I see lots of frum people with yalmukahs there” how is one supposed to respond? There is no short and simple answer because the question presupposes a different framework of religious. Has anyone else confronted this problem?


  1. Anonymous12:42 PM

    I think you are way oversimplifying. Anyone who is part of the Jewish community, even Reform people, will naturally pick up Jewish habits, opinions, POVs etc. Same is true of any sociological group. I have met plenty of Reform Jews who are very 'distinctly' Jewish in all aspects of their lives. What you are really talking about here is attitudes towards Halachah specifically. Some people are always looking for the most kuladick approach, some are always looking for the most chumradick approach, and many like a balance, or prefer to stick with what they were used to when they were young. Of course MO in general is more kuladick than UO, but there are plenty of UOs in the casinos in Vegas, and plenty of MOs who are quite strict about what they do. I think a lot of it comes down to personality - some people are naturally 'rule followers', in fact they prefer to be told what to do all the time. Other people are more like 'free spirits', they have a problem with authority and can't stand following rules.

  2. >>>What you are really talking about here is attitudes towards Halachah specifically.

    Yes. I am not talking about whether you eat chicken soup or like Jackie Mason.

    As for the rest of what you wrote, the entire point is that these labels like MO, UO, etc. that focus entirely on external criteria are worthless. Your application of the label UO to someone in a Vegas casino to me is an oximoron, as I cannot see someone who dedicates their life to avodas Hashem sitting in those circumstances. I doubt very many people call it quits at the poker table because it is time for their seder in Shav Shamytza - it is a different world.

  3. I doubt many people have a seder in Shuv Shmaytsa, in fact, I'm sure most people in the blogging world don't even know what shuv shmaytsa is. Although, it is a very important sefer, and I actually happen to have a seder in shuv shmaytsa.

  4. I think most people, including myself, have had to confront this issue, but not necessarily on a conscience level where they can articulate what the issue is.
    Specifically on a high-school level, it is hard to explain to, or educate children that Torah is a mindset, as opposed to just restrictions and laws that need to be obeyed.

    Also, just to point out, that even within the Torah Mindset, there is an idea of being balanced, "normal", and about having individual self-control when necessary.

    I hate when people use the 'I know frum people who..." but I know some very "religious/frum" people who go on beaches. These are people that live in the mindset that you speak of, where Avodas Hashem is their ultimate goal and aspiration. I think even in situations of a casino or beach can be acceptable as long as they are done in an acceptable and moderated way.

  5. R' Chaim, nice to see you back. Just so happens last week I saw in the local seforim store a paperback pocket size shmaytza and was wondering who carries a shamytza in their pocket to learn in spare moments!

    Ezra, maybe I should have left out the specific examples, but I hope the point of looking at halacha as a mindset rather than a set of ritual laws was clear. Although it is a hard idea to convey, I think it is an essential idea.

  6. Mike S.11:13 PM

    I am not sure the dichotomy you propose is entirely valid. I know that there are people who seem entirely on one side or the other, but I am not sure that normative Judaism agrees with either. it seems to me that Chazal teach us to live in a state of tension between the two ends you pose. To quote two famous statemnts, we are told not to be a "Naval b'reshus hatorah" and we are also told that we will be required to give an accounting to HKB"H for the good things in His world from which we abstained despite their being permitted.

  7. ideally and paradoxically, the jew should be both:

  8. >>>we will be required to give an accounting to HKB"H for the good things in His world from which we abstained

    The question is when we partake of that emjoyment is it done for the sake of enjoying olam hazeh, or for the sake of a higher purpose. The meimra itself does not relate to life's purpose, only to its content.

  9. adderabbi,
    your first mareh makom got cut off, but I looked at the second. i agree that the sacred must impact the mundane aspects of everyday life, but that is not the dichtomy I am drawing. putting on the t-shirt and sweats for a pickup game on shabbos is not embracing the sanctity of the day within mundane activity - it is fleeing the sanctity for an escape into something else. i don't mean to deny the need for a break or the capability of sanctifying the secular, but that is not the same as a secular life where torah otr ritual is a break or intrusion on the normal routine.

  10. ok. then the former. but i do think that there's a fundamental paradox between being 'mamleshet cohanim' and being 'goy kadosh'. and i also think that (especially as teachers - see my post 'ball playing rabbis') we can sometimes accomplish more on the basketball court than we can in the classroom.
    when you formulate it in these terms, though, it's hard to be sympathetic to 'frum-lite'.

  11. Anonymous12:03 PM

    I think the point is: do I build my life around what I can get away with?