Thursday, February 09, 2012

There are several myths about Orthodox Judaism in America that I’d like to debunk in this composition. Most are posited and propagated by the Orthodox themselves; alas, however, nobody seems to bother to challenge those presuppositions – perhaps for lack of expertise in the subject—so, here I go:

Myth 1: Orthodox Judaism is the oldest of the major Jewish denominations in America.

Truth: Between organized Jewish socio-philosophical movements others are older. For example, the reform movement in America began in 1824 with the foundation of the Reform Society of Israelites in Charleston, South Carolina. Other reform-minded congregations later united under the guidance and leadership of Isaac Mayer Wise and subsequently established Hebrew Union College (HUC) for the training of a new generation of American rabbis in 1875.

When at a gala event non-kosher food was flagrantly served, some participants grumbled and eventually seceded to found Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) as a more traditional alternative to Reform.

When Solomon Schechter took over the helm of leadership of JTS and officially coined the term Conservative to define the movement as more traditional than Reform but not quite bound by halakha, those who sought to preserve rabbinical Judaism completely unaltered were prompted to once again secede from JTS and establish the “Jewish Jews”, which took the name Orthodoxy after its umbrella organization the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, also known as the “Orthodox Union”.
In short Orthodoxy was the last to organize itself in America and it did so reactively because it was unsatisfied with the state of affairs in the other, more progressive denominations.

Myth 2: Orthodox people observe halakha exactly as specified by the accepted middle-ages authorities such as R. Joseph Cairo, author of the shulhan arukh, without any modifications or negligence.

Fact: None of the factions within contemporary Orthodoxy stick to halakha 100%.

Hasidim, for example, habitually pray minha after sunset and frequently miss the deadline for reciting the morning shema and/or the morning amidah prayer. Other commonly violated laws are the proscriptions on slander (lashon hara) and gossip (rekhiluth).

Modern Orthodox folks – on the other hand—have their own divergences from halakha. For example, they often engage in unacceptable physical contact with women. The Early Orthodox folks of the interwar years – such as Young Israel – even organized co-ed dances in order to encourage social and conjugal interaction within the community. Another questionable practice highly prevalent among the MO is the clean-shaving of the beard, which is prima facie unacceptable.

Myth 3: Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism available; other denominations being tainted by their eagerness to adapt to their surrounding and thus open to compromise with traditional belief and practice.

Fact: “Traditional” Judaism has not been static over the years. It’s only traditional at a given point in time and space, relative to others who wish to modernize. Ultimately, however, any serious student of Jewish history knows that even the most fundamentalist of contemporary Orthodoxy has learned to adapt in many ways to its particular milieu.

For example:

1) In old Europe there was no such thing as kashrut certification. While this may seem a humra (stringency), it also constitutes permission to eat from commercial establishments who are bound by the laws of the open market to be honest and diligent in its practice of kashrut, as opposed to exhibiting genuine integrity.

2) Eruv in America. The Eruv in America in large cities is clearly not kosher due to the “600,000 people traversing the road” rule; the Talmud and Halakha make it very clear that such does not qualify for Eruv. Accordingly, no eruv would be valid anywhere within a city such as New York.

3) Beth din. The beth din system in America is a travesty. It commands no respect from members of the Orthodox community. The law forbidding adjudication of disputes in secular courts (arkaut) is habitually violated by the most devout Jews.

4) Among many Hasidic sects, adherents’ blind attachment and fanatic dedication to their leaders surpasses halakhic bounds. Adherents often commit acts of aggression and harm in the name of their Rebbe. Even in their personal life, their Rebbe’s advice trumps the strict rule of Halakha and moral responsibility.

Myth 4: Orthodox Judaism will continue indefinitely. All other Jewish movements fizzle out in the end. Strict adherence to tradition is the only permanent safeguard against dissolution of the Jewish faith.

Fact: As explained earlier Orthodoxy itself is a relatively recent, reactionary movement, and so there is no a priori expectation for its continuation any longer into the future than, say, Reform Judaism.
In fact, if history can teach us something in this regard it is precisely the contrary. The Sadducee movement vanished because it was TOO conservative. Because it concentrated all its focus on temple worship, it was unsustainable once the temple was destroyed in 70 c.e. whereas the Pharisee movement with its “reformist” and populist approach to Judaism --enabling commoners to partake of the cult through the studying of Torah and meticulous observance of commandments—thereby laid a solid foundation for the continuity of Judaism through the Middle Ages.