Orthodoxy's Power

What is it about Orthodoxy that has kept it alive in a marketplace of beliefs?

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Explaining the Survival

This leaves us with questions: First, how did this happen? Second, can we answer that first question without falling into the arguments of Dawkins-like atheism (i.e. idiocy dies hard) or Orthodox triumphalism (i.e. just who is the real idiot here?). 

Both sorts of arguments--and many others--fail to reckon with the very real complexities and ambiguities of our lives, argue with straw men, are deeply unforgiving and, each for their own reasons, overlook the ways in which traditional religion, like Orthodoxy, precisely after the Enlightenment and all that has come after that, have much to offer.

One point of entry into this thicket is to be found, I think, in a celebrated passage in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1785). There he writes: "All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?"

Orthodoxy offers powerful and in many ways persuasive answers to all three. Let's take an admittedly brief and incomplete (but still, hopefully, suggestive) look.

What Can I Know?

Secular modernity offered an answer to this question: About natural sciences, a great deal, about metaphysics and ethics, not much (and in the postmodern dispensation, a lot less than that).

The astounding growth in both reach and quantity of knowledge in the natural sciences, and in other fields which were able to organize themselves along the lines of natural sciences has been matched in the past centuries in a steady diminution in the reach and suasion of metaphysical and ethical knowledge--and the terrifying certainties of crushing modern ideologies were in many ways a fevered and desperate response to that deep uncertainty.

Orthodoxy, by contrast, argues that I can know a great deal; I can know, if not God Himself, human that I am, I can at least know His Will, and I can in some way read His mind, when I learn His Torah.

Orthodoxy, like modern epistemology, imposes very real boundaries on human knowledge. But its boundaries derive not, as in modern epistemology, from uncertainty as to the truth's existence but from the truth's own boundlessness. I can't know God, but I can know that He is there, so much there that I cannot begin to comprehend. I recoil in humility, but the ground on which I retreat, is firm.

Modern skepticism treads on shakier ground, at least where my own existence is concerned. Of course, the epistemological asceticism of Hume and Kant was not the last word in modern thought, and, as shown most deeply by Charles Taylor in his magisterial work Sources of the Self and in other works, forms of knowledge drawing on, and reaching outward from, deep inwardness have provided moderns with rich understanding and their very senses of selfhood.
source of the self

Taylor calls this expressivism, by which he means the belief that every person bears a unique truth which arises out of their particular personality and life, and that that individual truth must emerge, not only for the individual to flourish but for the truth embedded in the world to be revealed.

Expressivism, he writes, "has a strongly individualist component, but this will not necessarily mean that the content will be individuating. Many people will find themselves joining extremely powerful religious communities, because that's where many people's sense of the spiritual will lead them."

And so it has--many contemporary baal teshuvah movements drink deeply from the wells of expressivism, fulfillment, and meaning. In part this is because the expressivist impulse has been afoot in Western culture for a long time in various forms, including Jewish forms, such as Hasidism. In part--and in a related vein--this is because numerous thinkers, ranging from Hillel Zeitlin to Rav Kook to Rav Kalonymous Shapira to Rav Soloveitchik successfully integrated a rich inwardness with a deep commitment to tradition, and were able to do so because it was the truth of their lives, and thus a model for others to follow.

Which brings us to Torah study, and the sages who make it come alive. Cliche though it sounds, the sheer richness, depth, and interest of the vast library of traditional Jewish texts in all their permutations, is an astounding collective creation, and, yes, a sea in which one can swim on and on.

The great teachers of Torah are models of both intellectual power and personal piety. "The Crown of Torah is greater than them all," Pirkei Avot says, and perhaps because it is, in Weberian terms, the Triple Crown, combining in one individual the three forms of authority which Weber saw as the foundations of legitimacy--formal-rational, traditional, and charismatic.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.