Piety and Unintended Consequences

The purpose of this blog is to explore the Breadth, Depth and Passion of Orthodox Judaism.

What I have on my mind speaks to all three of these concerns. I look forward to your feedback and thoughts on this post.

American Judaism seems to experience swings in terms of what we focus on. 

In the 1950’s and 1960’s American Judaism was focused on communal and organizational survival.  Individual commitment was not a focus of the Jewish community. Sensing this imbalance, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshchel noted that: “If the individual is lost to Judaism in his privacy, the people are in danger of becoming a phantom.  

Someone was listening because the next phase, at least within the orthodox community, was the tremendous growth in terms of individual commitment. This positive development is due to a number of factors including the growth of Jewish day schools as well as the explosion of numbers of young American Jewish High School graduates spending a year immersed in yeshivot in Israel before attending college.

I see three consequences, each important from the perspective of Modern Orthodoxy that emerge from this positive trend.

It is often the case that concern for personal piety has resulted in less focus and understanding of communal issues. One manifestation of this has been the proliferation of Orthodox day schools to fit every hashkafa. Even in small Jewish communities, it is often the case that there are multiple Orthodox day schools. Such a set up is a drain on local resources and creates separation and disunity within the orthodox community. Lines are drawn in the sand and hashkafic positions become barriers to religious and social interaction. Sometimes decisions to create more schools come at the expense of the overall health of the community – personal piety trumping communal considerations.

One of the core principals of Modern Orthodoxy is commitment to engaging with all sectors of the Jewish community. Factionalism and turf wars make that very hard.

Further, the growth is the personal piety of large chunks of the orthodox community has an unintended consequence – the creation homogeneous shuls and communities. Almost totally gone are the days of “the shul I do not go to is orthodox”. Simply put, people who are not fully observant are uncomfortable in shuls where everyone else is. 

Of course, orthodox shuls should be proud of religious growth. It is also important that orthodox shuls create a welcoming atmosphere for all Jews. I am reminded of the comment made to me when I mentioned that my shul was starting a branch to teach Torah to Jews who were not observant, the person I was talking with, a pious and God fearing Jew said: “why are you doing that, you are not Chabad.” It is ironic that there are some who are refuse to give up on even a single details of Jewish law, but are ready to give up on many Jews.

Finally, an outcome of the focus on observance is the neglect of Jewish thought. While focusing on the details of halacha – the externals of Jewish life – should always be a communal and educational priority, we need to also concern ourselves with the inner life of the Jew.  Words like introspection and reflection need to be given their place of prominence along with muktzah and zmanei tefilla.

We must wrestle with the big questions like: How we can stand before God? What does it mean that God revealed himself to humanity? What is the relevance of Torah to the modern person who has achieved so much?

It is crucial that the Modern Orthodox community pay more attention to Jewish thought for at least four reasons:

  1. The assumption that one can fulfill their religious obligations on diet of halacha alone is a faulty one. Judaism comes to answer questions of the spirit as well as questions of the flesh.
  2. Our observance of Mitzvot can be qualitatively improved by studying Jewish thought. Think about the rote nature of much observance.
  3. If we wish to engage Jews who are not committed to halachik observance (and those who are as well…like out high school students) we must be ready and able to face up to serious theological questions and challenges.
  4. We look foolish and religiously unsophisticated when we are unable to participate in discussions on even the most basic religious questions. Judaism in general and Modern Orthodox Judaism in particular will not gain traction this way.

One of the programs of Modern Orthodoxy should be to confront each of these challenges.

The fracturing of Jewish communities and even the orthodox communities is a serious issue. Especially considering the down economy and that Jewish philanthropy will never be the same, the current individualistic model is facing a serious test. Our strength may soon lead to our weakness.

The challenge of the homogenous nature of our orthodox shuls requires a change of attitude and focus. A new direction in community priorities may be necessary. Perhaps funding needs to be redirected.

Finally, our religious and spiritual life depends on creating an atmosphere open to discussing and confronting serious religious issues.

Modern Orthodoxy  is uniquely suited to face up to these issues. With our commitment to Halacha, communal involvement and an honesty about the challenges confronting religious faith, we are in position to articulate the current challenges and begin to apply solutions.

 There is much more to write and I am hopeful that people will use the comments section to clarify the questions and to suggest solutions.

Rabbi Barry Gelman

2 Responses to Piety and Unintended Consequences

  1. Asher Lopatin says:

    Rav Barry,

    Excellent analysis. One approach and question might be: Maybe a diverse religious environment, with people on different levels of observance and with different ideas about what observance is, leads to more observance, even a better handle on halacha and what it means? So that if we really want to be halachic Jews, we should strive for that diversity, rather than shirk from it. True there are dangers to diversity, but greater opportunities even when our primary value may be Torah and Mitzvot.


  2. Hyim Shafner says:

    I think what Barry is saying is true, that focus solely on piety with out an open mind can lead to dry observance of mitzvot. On the other hand, though I personally think diversity is important for the Jewish people, that does not mean that within homogeneous communities there can not be depth of philosophical thought. It requires only a willingness to entertain ideas beyond one ’s self. I think even from a place of personal piety if we looked closely enough at Hazal to realize how wide thinking they were willing to be (such as much of agadah) this would lead to integration of the deeper sides of Judaism.

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