Orthodoxy's Power

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

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What is Holding Orthodoxy Back?

So what's the problem here? Why can't we all just embrace Orthodoxy in one form or another, win eternal life, and ensure Jewish survival while we're at it?

In the Amidah for Shabbat and Chagim (holidays) we pray "ve-taher libenu le-avdekhah be-emet." O Purify our hearts, that we can serve You in truth. Our sense of truth, the truths of history (such as we can reconstruct it), of metaphysics (such as it remains), of ethics (such as we cannot live without it)--are for many of us regularly at variance with the answers of conventional Orthodoxy.

Each of these elements of contemporary thought undercut Orthodoxy's suasion. In the feminist challenge they all converge, as Orthodoxy's commitment to an ahistoric halakhah leads it to positions regarding women grounded in a metaphysic of hierarchy and power running deeply counter to many contemporary ethical ideals, learned at the cost of great human suffering.

And yet our own sense of truth in its various forms must be the vehicles of serving God if we are truly to serve Him at all. But how?

In modern times the two movements which, to my mind, arose as genuine alternatives to Orthodoxy were Zionism and, at least for several decades, Jewish socialism. Those movements did away with the familiar mizvot but created new ones in their place, obligations of such presence and power that people were literally willing to die for them.

Zionism as an organizing and commanding principle of Jewish life, including in Israel, has in many ways run aground, both because of its steady drift away from the tides of Jewish history, and its steadily becoming the property of one particular group, possessing noble intentions and a terrible blind spot.

Jewish socialism has gone the way of other socialisms, undone by its inability to match the prosaic contours of human experience, at least for now. Moreover, while ethics are the necessary condition of a Jewish life worth living, they are not sufficient.

The philosopher Michael Wyschogrod has written, with, I think, some deliberate but powerful overstatement: "Ethics is the Judaism of the assimilated." It has in modern times, he writes, become "a strategy for Jewish self-alienation," a substitution of the part for the whole, which "is the existence of the Jewish people as the earthly abode of Hashem."

Recent years have seen a surge of projects in social justice, humanitarianism, ecology, and similar endeavors, aiming both to bolster Jewish identity and enhance Jews' standing with other communities, and expressed in terms of Tikkun Olam. This traditional term, literally meaning "repair and restoration of the world," has come to signify a Jewish commitment to ethically charged social activism, and well beyond the parameters of Jewish communities as such.


rav abraham isaac kookTikkun Olam work does indeed justifiably compel our attention, because of our moral obligations as human beings as Jews, the good ways in which this work can integrate Jews into the emerging networks of global civil society, and because it has the potential to become a stirring vehicle for Jewish identity; as Rav Kook noted nearly a century ago, modernity has served to uncouple from one another Jewish ethics, spirituality, and peoplehood, leaving each in the hands of one party or other, and to the extent to which a humane and self-critical effort at Tiikun Olam can heal that fracture it will be a blessing for us. But only if it there are meaningful forms of peoplehood and spirituality to which it can connect, equally persuasive and powerful.

What then are we to do, those of us who cannot follow contemporary Orthodoxy all the way down the road, even for love, who know the blandishments of bourgeois liberal religion for the thin gruel that it is even as we appreciate the civic peace it can bring, who refuse to see Hazal and their successors as merely another set of jailers in the great Foucauldian prison that postmodernists call home?

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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.