Orthodoxy's Power

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

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Of course most everything that I have written above is a gross oversimplification and more than a little Romantic, or maybe even worse. Of course, what we call "Orthodox Judaism," as a self-conscious ideology in opposition to principled change in Jewish life, is in many ways a very modern phenomenon, as the great historian Jacob Katz and his many disciples have shown. "Orthodoxy" in and of itself describes a style of thinking and acting, and is itself devoid of content.

The term "Orthodox Judaism" arose at the same time as the term "religion" came into use in the modern sense--in the late 18th and early 19th centuries--to stand for a broad range of different and sometimes contradictory beliefs and traditions in a time when spiritual, metaphysical, and ritual traditions ceased to make evident sense and tradition became traditionalism, one of the many ideologies to emerge from the collapse of traditional society. Orthodoxy as we know it was born as the tradition became aware of its own contingency and fragility, of the ways in which it is dependent on historical circumstances, and how a change in those circumstances may sweep that tradition away.

When in Western and Central Europe, modernizing governments sought to create national religious bodies to represent the Jewish community, the question of "who would represent the Jews?" became a crucial arena of combat, and formal Orthodox separatism was born. Indeed, one can think of "Orthodoxing," as a verb, a line-drawing demarcating insiders and outsiders in a severe way, rarely seen in Jewish history (early Christians and Karaites aside).

It is unclear whether we can speak of "Orthodoxy" in Eastern Europe, as opposed to the continuation of tradition--accompanied by change, of course, though not necessarily, and certainly not entirely, reactive and ideologically-driven change.

Indeed, the respective advents of Hasidism and yeshiva culture were themselves, as Katz first noted, themselves significant departures from traditional structures. And it's not at all clear that the historical experience of 19th and 20th century Mizrahi and Ottoman-Turkish Jews can be called "Orthodox," at all.

Today, the differences between Religious Zionism, American Modern Orthodoxy, Shas and other, different, forms of Mizrahi practice, Chabad, Lithuanian yeshivot, Breslov, more traditional Hasidic dynasties, the substantial differences between American and Israeli Haredi life, Orthodox Feminism in its various stripes--and the list goes on--lead one to think less of one "Orthodoxy" than of multiple "Orthodoxies," a cluster of groups, sharing some basic perspectives along the lines of the three questions and their fundamental answers, each processing them in their own way, by the lights of their own histories, doctrines, theologies.

Even so, the Orthodoxies of Jewish life today do offer an historical authenticity and lived intensity of Jewish practice that has few competitors. In contemporary Jewish life, Orthodoxy is the only group which seems to be growing with robust self-confidence, in part because it is operating from a different set of premises than those which inform much organized Jewish life. (Not long ago I heard a major Jewish communal leader say that any Jews who are optimistic about their community's future are either Orthodox or crazy.)

This is because its will to survive is grounded in something other than its own will to survive. Its strong and commanding sense of Jewish peoplehood is grounded in something other than peoplehood. (Is peoplehood even intelligible, let alone defensible, without reference to some sort of principles, or, failing those, values? Moreover, does the idea of peoplehood, which was developed as a means of salvaging Jewish identity work in the end, paradoxically enough, to undermine that identity insofar as peoplehood with no other anchorage is meaningless at best, dangerously chauvinistic at worst?) , Rather, Orthodoxy is grounded in the forms of knowledge, action, and hope outlined above.

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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.