The Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind.

Another way that we are unnecessarily making Orthodoxy unappealing to folks is by tolerating the perception that Orthodox Jews are bound by a set of religious dogmas, many of which strike the modern mind as being highly implausible and/or deeply offensive. I’m referring to the alleged Orthodox dogmas which our children too often pick up in day school, and which become further propagated and entrenched with every ArtScroll publication that hits the shelves. When we fail to respectfully but vigorously assert that these are not Orthodox dogmas, we become complicit not only in a form of Chilul Hashem, but also in reinforcing the impression that Orthodoxy does best by the narrow-minded. (In truth, the consequences of our silence are more grievous still as these “dogmas” also seem to grant some of their adherents the license to engage in terrible behavior.) 

Here are just a few examples of damaging “dogmas”, each of which is in reality only one opinion among other dissenting opinions that have been expressed in classical (= Orthodox ) sources. Your local Morethodox rabbi will surely be ale to point you to the sources that dispute the notions that: 

(1)   Jewish souls have a superior innate quality relative to non-Jewish souls. And only the former enjoy the benefits of eternal life. 

(2)   Every calamity that occurs on Earth is the result of an express Divine decision as to how and when it should unfold, and that God directly decides who shall survive it, and who shall not. 

(3)   When tragedy strikes, this is invariably the fault of somebody having sinned. 

(4)    Our biblical ancestors, most especially our patriarchs and matriarchs, never erred or sinned. Any act that they performed – including those which would horrify us if our spouses or our children did them – is righteous.

 (5)   It is prohibited to return lost objects to non-Jews, and one ought not extend tzedaka to non-Jewish individuals or causes as long as Jewish need exists. And that it goes without saying that there are no circumstances that under which parts of  Eretz Yisrael could be ceded for the creation of a non-Jewish state.

 (6)   The Midrash and the Aggada are comprised of narratives that were passed down to our Sages from Sinai, to be regarded as possessing the same truth as the biblical narratives themselves, even when they thus compel us to negatively stereotype whole peoples (e.g. Ishmaelites), or require us to morally justify exploiting your twin brother’s weakness for lentils, for your own financial benefit.. 

(7)   It is possible, utilizing mathematics and physics, to prove the scientific authenticity of the Torah’s account of Creation, and that to regard the opening chapters of Genesis as being anything other than literally true, is heresy. 

(8)   Jews who are not Orthodox would be better off not davening at all than davening in a non-Orthodox shul. Cause we know how God thinks about these things. 

(9)   [“Damaging” in the sense that our intellectual honesty is shot by this one..] The book of Tehillim, including the Psalms describing events surrounding the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem, were nonetheless somehow authored by King David. And the books of Mishlai and Kohellet were authored by King Solomon –  despite the fact that they are written in a Hebrew that belongs to the Second Temple period. And the issues surrounding Isaiah etc, etc. 

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’ve been troubled by all of these “dogmas” before. But don’t take them lying down. I believe that if we speak our piece, we can reshape what “Orthodoxy believes”. Artscroll did it. Why can’t we?

28 Responses to The Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind.

  1. Suggestion says:

    It would be helpful if you could add sources to these points, so that we could look up the various views and become more educated about how to properly defend our Modern viewpoint in authentic Torah sources.

    I know that would be a lot of work, but perhaps assembling some sort of online Morethodox Source Book (in a wiki format, perhaps?) would be a useful endeavor to build on your post.

  2. Binyamin says:

    Who is th author of this piece?

  3. Michael Stein says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Kanefsky, for articulating so well the frustration I feel about Orthodox philosophical backwardness. The Orthodox world’s inability to free itself from the web of dogmas you describe does, indeed, create a hillul Hashem, by virtue of their widespread adoption in the Orthodox world, and by their simultaneous assault on truly modern sensibilities.

    I would divide your list of problematic pseudo-dogmas into several categories: metaphysical and historical would be one form of division. I have lately been focused on the web of historical beliefs (numbers 4,6,7 and 9 in your list) that I think pull many Orthodox minds back into the swamp of the dark ages. As you point out, each of these beliefs is subject to disagreement in our own tradition — for example, the sugya of “kol ha’omer Reuven chatah, eino elah toeh” in Masechet Shabat, shows that each episode ends with various rabbis disagreeing with Rabbi Yonatan’s premise.

    The problem is not merely that large segments of the Orthodox world, including the ostensibly “modern” orthodox world, accept Rabbi Yonatan’s premise. The bigger problem is that this view, and the other objectional views you mention in your list, are undeniably present in our tradition, and articulated by many rabbis, both in antiquity, in the Middle Ages and in modern times.

    I believe a modern, observant Jew, in order to deserve the intellectual pedigree of being “modern” must not only opt for the more modern approach, but must vociferously assert that the other approach is simply not appropriate and should not be held. It is not a matter of “elu v’elu divrei Elokim hayim,” but rather a matter of “et la’asot l’Hashem” and we need to speak out against the very visible streams of thought in our own tradition that constantly threaten to pull our best minds back in time, and into obscurantism and irrelevance.

    This is hard to do, particularly when it seems to me most of the Chareidi world and huge portions of the ostensibly modern orthodox world buy into them. For example, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman’s assertion in Kovetz Ma’amarim that chazal “in their tens of thousands” achieved a unique level of insight into truth by virtue of their unparalleled ability to free themselves of material and worldly concerns, is so ludicrous as to be laughable. But it is a widely held belief in orthodox circles, and many who disagree still go to great length to remain respectful of such opinions, out of reference to Rabbi Wasserman’s reputation as a saintly individual who perished in the Holocaust. I have not doubt about Rabbi Wasserman’s guaranteed place in olam haba, but his ideas on philosophy must be refuted forcefully, and respectfully. (I have no doubt that the right wing wants to refute forcefully many of my beliefs, and I can only hope that it maintains a reasonable level of personal respect, and a willingness to acknowledge that all of our places in olam haba are better guaranteed by upright behavior than adherence to politically correct, or for that matter truly correct, views.

    I draw comfort from Rambam’s description of various groups’ attitudes towards chazal in Perek Chelek. I believe his elite third group has many more adherents today than it did in his time, but it is still unfortunately a small minority, a minority I hope that I have some insight into and affinity with, even as a follower and not a leader. We still must cope with the fact that the two dominant mindsets in the Jewish people are (1) rejection (his second group) and (2) backwardness that makes us look foolish to the rest of the world (his first group).

    But hearing you articulate these ideas forthrightly and bravely is encouraging to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  4. Hyim Shafner says:

    Maybe as Rav Yosef says we should begin to write a Morethodox chumash commentary to replace the Art Scroll in use in almost all Modern Orthodox shuls today? guess all we need is a sponsor!

    • Lisa says:

      Actually, there’s already one out there:

      I think that most people upset with the “dogmas” referred to in this article would feel quite at home with this.

      Granted, some of those “dogmas” are actually a matter of haredi culture, and not anything that Judaism really requires. But #9 certainly sounds like the author is horribly embarrassed by the idea that Tanach may be historically accurate. After all, “everyone” says it isn’t.

      Do you recall why Avraham Avini was called “Ivri”?

      • Gedalia Walls says:

        I don’t believe that book is the type of work R. Shafner meant. Perhaps a work like Torah L’daat in English is in line with his thinking. I would caution that you engage in a potentially similar problem as many of the views expressed in the article when you begin to claim your movement is more authentic than the other guys. How about just learning another commentary that was already written?

    • Justin says:

      I’m game for creating an online collaborative work.

  5. David Sher says:

    Absolutely. A Morethodox Chumash Commentary would be great, as well as Morethodox Batei Din and Morethodox Kashrut. That said, I do have a number of Artscroll volumes and love the production quality.

    • Justin says:

      Your last comment isn’t surprising, after all if we look at the name of the publisher we’d recognize that they focus on having beautiful typography.

  6. Gedalia Walls says:

    I don’t really see this as a problem with Orthodoxy as much as it is with poor study of Jewish philosophy. Most, if not all, of these claims come from kabbalistic sources or from other obscure source material, and are not built out of the thousand years worth of work that has been preserved. I think the most unfortunate problem is the reciting of different approaches in Medrash and Chazal without explaining how each approach began and came to its “logical” conclusion. We aren’t lacking anything “modern” per se, just lacking good scholarship and critical thinking. A good way to replace the artscroll commentary is to simply put the chumashim away and bring back Mikraos Gedolos or Mossad Ha Rav Kook Chumashim that feature multiple commentaries, along with many super-commentaries (such as Gur Aryeh, comes to mind) would help to solve the “dogmatic” trend that has trapped many brilliant minds into a “nutshell.”

  7. Lisa says:

    I know, right? And that pesky idea of Torah miSinai, when the Torah was clearly put together from J, E, D and P sources.

    I wonder if most of your readers are aware that “the issues surrounding Isaiah” refers to the modern idea that part of Isaiah was written by an unnamed later author. The source of that idea is the unspoken belief that telling the future is obviously impossible, so that anything in Isaiah that is describing events which took place centuries after he lives must have been added by a later writer.

    So… where do you stop with this “rejection of dogma”? You’re troubled by people who insist that Isaiah actually foretold the future. You’re troubled by people who insist that King David could have done the same. If prophecy is fake, why is the Torah to be accepted as authentic? Or are you suggesting that prophets were only people with a moral agenda, somewhat like the old Reform view?

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      I think you’ve missed the point. All the points are actually discussed and debated within Orthodox sources.

  8. Ben Katz says:

    I agree with the comments above and the article. While Orthodoxy today in my opinion is the best representation of rabbinic judaism, it is much too narrow. Ibn Ezra, Rav Yehudah HaChasid, Rashbam, Rambam, many Spanish grammarians and Ralbag would be in danger of being thrown out of yeshivah today for writing what they did in their commentaries and books. Rambam especially allows you to deal with modernity. We don’t believe anymore that the sun revolves around the Earth, or in spontaneous generation as Rambam did, but his approach of studying astronomy and rejecting superstition shows us how to deal with new information in a religious context.

  9. robert says:

    Are you referring specifically to these dogmas?

    Are we as orthodox jews bound to any dogmas?

    Can one claim to be an orthodox jew, while not believing in all of the RAMBAM’s 13 ikarim?

  10. jaded topaz says:

    I think “rabbinic judaism” needs a new classification system.
    For instance which modern orthodox denomination is primarily based on Ashkenazic sources ?
    Mixing and matching sources, philosophies,feelings,emotions will just create messier systems that make less sense logically.

    Different personalities will be drawn to different denominations.
    But each denomination should be pure and unadulterated and not diluted in any way.

  11. Alan Kerman says:


    Just a small suggestion: Perhaps you might consider consistently placing the author’s name on the top of all articles. For example, this article does not have R. Kanefsky’s name at the top, while some of R. Shafner’s articles have his name in the header. It is useful to the reader to know the identity of the author.

  12. RyanP says:

    Yesher koach. This is the Orthodoxy which I also would like to see and be a part of.

    However, empirical observation leads me to question to what extent such issues are the reason why Orthodoxy is not more popular. Chabad’s success would appear to demonstrate that many people are willing to overlook inconvenient theological stances in exchange for other elements which the Chabad business model offers: lower dues, high level of intimacy, perception of the genuineness of the product (a.k.a. the “zayde” factor).

    Orthodoxy is already gaining market share through the higher birth rates and demographics. Combined with the growth in Chabad, and the shrinkage within the ranks of Conservative Judaism, Orthodox appears to be on the ascendancy.

  13. Yosef Kanefsky says:

    I am inspired by and appreciative of the numerous comments that this post has elicited (both here and on our Jewish Journal site, and in shul too.) I hope to gather some of my thoughts about your thoughts,and post a follow-up in a couple of days.

  14. Robert Brooks says:

    As a physician, there are always differences of opinion regarding treatments. However, the normatve approach to treat a disease becomes that way by its sheer acceptance throughout the medical community. A sensible patient would never reject an accepted medical treatment for their condition in place of a radical approach that is espoused by a minority opinion, unless left with no other option. Yet, when it comes to religion, it appears that you are willing to reject accepted approach to Halacha and Jewish philosophy for a minority opinion because it meets your definition of “inclusivness.” The treament should be tailored to the disease, not the other way around. Your approach is both methodically illogical and naive.

  15. Igor says:

    What is interesting about most of these dogmas is that they have very close parallels to evangelical Xnity. For instance, hyper-literalism, the idea of a deeply personal G, the notion of superiority of one’s own religion to the exclusion of others, a simplistic conception of theodicy, messianic fervor, a warped idea of creationism and a sense of victimization and persecution that is almost always unwarranted, emphasis on the supernatural/superstitious coupled with rejection of the scientific–these are all to be found in popular American evangelical religion.

    The trend in contemporary Orthodoxy is for the lowest common denominator, unfortunately. Simplistic notions and sound-bites are passed off as authoritative. Religious ideas that command a large following are given respect regardless of whether they hold true or not. Zionism, particularly in mod. Orth. shuls, is given a place that, frankly, suggests idolatry. Clear-headed discussion and criticism of the state of Israel is not countenanced.

    Yes, people join religious communities for all sorts of reasons and theological reasons are often not at the top of that list. Sadly, they then go on to raise children who in an atmosphere that encourages one to become either an apikoros or a fanatic, with only a faint possibility of a middle ground that you have to go on to find on your own. It’s no wonder that so many Jews who are willing to be shomer mitsvot are unable to to find a place for themselves in a Torah community, whether because they think independently or because of intolerance–single people (especially women) gays, intellectuals, childless couples, people of color…

    To Robert Brooks comment above, I’d counter that medicine and the medical community have been wrong many, many times, as he surely knows. I wonder if what he means by “accepted approach” is really “status quo.”

  16. anobserver says:

    I guess g-d stopped deciding who will live and who will die on rosh hashana and yom kippur. Maybe a siddur without unetaneh tokef will go well with your new chumash.

  17. Lady-Light says:

    You have a very interesting site; worth perusing…the mere fact that there are Orthodox Jews questioning the accepted dogmas of Orthodoxy and the way it is practiced today is telling.

  18. Yosef Kanefsky says:

    Thank you all for your thouightful comments. It’s important fopr me to reiterate that I’m not suggesting whatsoever that all Orthodox Jews need to think alike (i.e. “like me”). Exactly the opposite in fact. Namely that there is a variety of classically recognized views, and that is wrong on every level to enshrinwe one’s own beliefs as “dogma”.
    I also do believe that the “dogmas” I have singled out cause us harm, often laying the foundations for the kind of Orthodox behavior that sends Grand Rebbes to jail, and allows us to blame Katrina on homosexuals.

  19. Rentsy says:

    I don’t understand. If you acknowledge the conclusions of academic scholarship on Tehillim, Mishlei, Kohelet, and Isaiah… why not acknowledge the overwhelming academic consensus about other books in Tanach?

    But no. You instinctively shy away from that. It isn’t your goal to question the foundations of Orthodox Judaism.

    But you want intellectual honesty. Intellectually, what’s the difference between acknowledging that “it looks like” starting with “Nachamu”, 2nd Isaiah begins, a stylistically distinct section that can be dated to after the destruction of the first Temple, maybe even by a different prophet also named Isaiah

    (pause for breath)

    and the fact that “it looks like” Devarim, as the Deuteromistic Code, is stylistically distinct from the rest of the Torah, which is comprised of E, J, and P?

    What’s the difference between blind dogma that the Torah is a unity, and similarly dogmatic assertions that bad things are punishments for sins?

    • Lisa says:

      I think Rentsy has a valid point. That’s the fundamental problem here. The “Morethodox” crowd is basically labeling everything in Orthodoxy that makes them feel embarrassed, or “too religious” as dogma and keeping everything that they, personally, feel comfortable with. It’s incredibly subjective, and while I can see someone doing this on an individual level, the idea that they think it’s a basis for any kind of group identification makes me question their grasp on reality.

    • Chaim Ferin says:

      Very insightful. Dealing with Rentsy’s point is absolutely CRUCIAL to the whole enterprise. If you don’t have a very solid answer, you might as well not bother.

  20. Dovid K says:

    Is there a ‘dissenting opinion’ in classical/orthodox Judaism to the concept that a leaf does not fall unless directed by Hashem? (I know Reform Rabbi L. Kushner doesn’t agree.)

    If not, why is the author’s #2 statement included?

    As far as #3 goes, that sounds like the position of Job’s friends.

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