A Response to “Practice Doesn’t Always Make A Perfect Jew” by Naomi Kadish

To the Editor:

Naomi Kadish’s article raises a number of important arguments against Social Orthodoxy, especially that empty practice for the sole purpose of social acceptance leads to the abandonment of Jewish [Orthodox] practice altogether upon exiting the Jewish social bubble. During the few years that I have spent outside of the Jewish social bubble, I have observed this phenomenon all too often. Kadish resorts to examples such as Jay Lefkowitz’s “lack of belief in fundamental Orthodox Jewish principles (such as the divine origin of the Bible),” as well as the lack of a desire to understand the “why” behind Orthodox Jewish practices (such as separation from non-Jewish society as the reason behind the laws of kashrut). However, she fails to distinguish between the two primary aspects of that which underlies Orthodox Jewish practice: beliefs and the “why.”
Rambam distinguishes between these two by treating the first in his fundamental principles of faith, and the second as an important but not critical component of Jewish thought. Core Jewish beliefs–those that many socially-Orthodox Jews may lack–are mandated by Rambam in his Thirteen Principles of Faith; he labels any Jew who does not possess these beliefs a heretic. On the other hand, while a desire to understand the “why” (i.e. meaning) behind the mitzvot is not critical to one who seeks to maintain his membership among the Jewish people, it is important for any thinking and practicing Jew. The article begins by discussing the ramifications of a Judaism empty of beliefs, but subsequently moves to a discussion of Judaism empty of meaning. While practice may not make a perfect Jew, what does make a perfect Orthodox Jew is not understanding the meaning behind one’s practice; it is possessing the necessary and proper beliefs through which to bolster and maintain one’s practice.

Evan Risch
Yale University

The original article can be found in our print edition, Vol. 1 No. 1.
You can find a copy of it below:

PRACTICE DOESN’T ALWAYS MAKE A PERFECT JEW 

Naomi Kadish, University of Pennsylvania

PODCASTS fill the hours I’ve spent driving between Philadelphia and New York this summer. Last Friday I happened across “Good Muslim Bad Muslim,” a show in which co-hosts Zahra Noorbakhsh and Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed discussed a phenomenon I found sur- prisingly relatable. To their non-Muslim friends, a “Good Muslim” is one who drinks, smokes weed, doesn’t wear a hijab, and has premari- tal sex. By contrast, the Muslim community la- bels these “Bad Muslim” practices. Both groups judge ‘Muslim-ness’ based solely on practice, rather than values. A similar phenomenon ex- ists in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community.

In the Modern Orthodox community, Halakhah, Jewish law, is part of every aspect of our lives. Young children learn Halakhah before any- thing else. They know the blessings for life’s daily rituals before they are taught about the sanctity of the practice or its importance. Maybe most pedagogical models are organized this way in early childhood, but even as children mature, the “why” – the values underlying a Jewish practice – continue to be left out of the conversation, while the way the practice itself is performed the “how” receives the most attention.

The “whys” underlying certain laws are eventually addressed. Students in yeshiva high schools with serious Judaic Studies programs are, after a certain age, encouraged to analyze critically the values and practices they’ve inherited. No question or concept is taboo, and intellectual challenges are welcomed.

However, there are limits to these questions. In 2014, Commentary published Jay Lefkowitz’s “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account.”1 Lefkowitz was brutally honest about his person- al position on the values perpetuated in the day school system, admitting his lack of belief in foundational Orthodox Jewish principles (such as the divine origin of the Bible). However, by adhering to strict orthodox practice – observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher laws, engaging in communal prayer, etc. – he remains an active member of the Orthodox community. According to Lefkowitz, practice – not personal ideology- constitutes the membership fee: “[m]uch more important to [Social Orthodox Jews] than theology, however, is maintaining the continuity of the Jewish people [through practice].”2 Though Lefkowitz had analyzed Modern Orthodox doctrine and values, the way most Modern Orthodox Jews are encouraged to do, his conclusions were received as hypocritical, or even heretical.

[1] Lefkowitz, Jay. “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account – Commentary Magazine.” Commentary Magazine. N.p., 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 05 July 2016.
[2] Fattal, Joshua R. “The Problem With ‘Social Orthodoxy’ in Judaism.” Tablet Magazine. Tablet Magazine, 7 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 July 2016.

Lefkowitz concluded that Orthodox practice is enough for a person to be called an “Orthodox Jew.” One response, published in Tablet Maga- zine, said that, “his idealization of a hollow reli- gious life, where religious action has no internal meaning whatsoever, is intellectually shallow and functionally unsustainable.” Despite the criticism, Lefkowitz presents a model that is completely functional – if not ful lling – in contemporary Or- thodox communities.

Why are Lefkowitz and his kind still accept- ed in the Modern Orthodox community? For some Modern-Orthodox Jews he is not. But for most of the Modern Orthodox community the tenets be- hind the practices are less important than the prac- tice itself. It seems that since he practices like an Or- thodox Jew, for all intents and purposes, he is one! Big ideas are discussed in Orthodox communities without seriously evaluating any practical appli- cations: though thoughts may shift, behavior sim- ply will not change. An Orthodox Jew can question any abstract idea, but to even entertain the thought

lectual rigor while cling- ing to an anti-intellectual, dogmatic practice.

A great example of this is kashrut (kosher dietary laws). While it is a choq (a law written in the Bible that is supposedly something we can’t understand fully), the value of separating oneself from non-Jewish society through food restrictions is often offered as the reason underlying this prac- tice. Orthodox Jews are told by the Bible and their community to be holy – in Hebrew this reads as “kadosh,” separate – and this separation is main- tained by breaking bread only with people from their religion. Many people ignore or intellectually disagree with this underlying value; it smacks of bigotry on some level. However, I think the Jew- ish value of ‘separate and holy’ is ignored because few value social separation from non-Jews nowa- days. Most Jews nd the value of not eating with non-Jews objectionable. And yet, people still keep kosher without a question. Although the value of staying ‘separate’ and preventing intermingling

has largely lost favor in the modern Orthodox Jew’s eyes, the practice remains unchanged. Even when the values behind the practice have changed, the discrepancy is ignored.

There is a high cost to encouraging both in- tellectual exploration alongside strict adherence to religious practice. When Jewish religious students go off to college and leave their permanent com- munities for experimental, temporary ones, they often opt out. Somehow, it seems nonsensical to boast of critical analysis while adhering to a prac- tice perpetuated largely through social pressure. Once eating with non-Jews is commonplace, why are you keeping kosher? You have thought about the signi cance of the divinity of the Bible, etc., but your own opinions are ignored. Practice is abandoned when there are no substantive reasons to continue. The important conversations that are being fostered in Orthodox high schools are sub- sequently ignored when new ideas come to chal- lenge the “right” ideas. Students and young adults’ newfound conclusions about values in their lives are not as important as the Orthodox tradition.

Is it really worthwhile to preserve a watered down practice to keep people in the community, to save the “real” Judaism? What are we sustaining when we encourage blind practice? Perhaps our communities are afraid of assimilation and so we stress practice above all else. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that this is an unsustainable, awed ideology. Perhaps the rabbis and educators in our communities want to keep their students’ minds open – but not too open. Or is it the Jews in our com- munity who believe that practice is indeed enough?

We cannot claim intellectual rigor while clinging to an anti-intellectual, dogmatic practice. We can’t keep kidding ourselves. It seems the pedagogical model we use to educate our young children is really what the Modern Orthodox community believes: the “how” is the important thing, the “why” is something that our community has decided can be left out. We need to choose: the ideas or the practice. Either way we can’t keep pretending that all of our ideas “fit” into Orthodoxy. In reality, practice does not make a perfect Jew.

 

This piece ran in OR’s September print issue