Orthodoxy's Power

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

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The Future of Orthodoxy

I have no real answers here, but perhaps the makings of a way of thinking.

Jewish life proceeds through a vocabulary of ideas and practices. When we think of terms such as yirat shamayim (fear of heaven), bat Torah or ben Torah (dedicated to Torah), kedushah (holiness), mitzvah (commandment), shemirat Shabbat (keeping the Sabbath), or Ahavat Hashem (love of God), shemirat halashon (guarding one's tongue), tikkun middot (making oneself better), Torah Li-Shmah (Torah for Torah's sake), gemilut hassadim (good deeds), hovot halevavot (duties of the heart) or Tsu zayn a heilige Yid (being a good Jew), we immediately grasp that we have here a vocabulary that more accurately captures the texture of our religious lives and etches our religious horizons more than do any statements of doctrine, halakhic ideology, or denominational affiliation.

Compared to them the word "Orthodoxy" is leaden, flattening, even frightening. For now, it's the term to describe a world and the term much of that world uses to describe itself. I think it would be good for all of us--the Orthodox included--to move beyond that specific term and back to that earlier vocabulary.

Aside from "Orthodoxy" and beyond a certain point, the bloodless terms we use to capture modern Jewish life such as 'identity' and 'ethnicity' simply don't work, they break on its specificity and complexity. "Jewish identity," increasingly seems to me less a meaningful term than a kind of linguistic ghost; with the death of metaphysics and ethics their residual meanings drain into this amorphous thing we call "Jewish identity," a grab-bag for everything from Steinsaltz to Seinfeld.

Even the more full-blooded terms such as 'nation,' 'people' or even civilization don't quite do it (though it may, in its semi-transcendence, come close), and neither does 'faith;' though 'faithfulness' might. Because while the faith I have in something stays with me, I am faithful to something or someone, and my faithfulness must find expression or it isn't faithful at all.

How to shape our lives around kedushah, or Yirat Shamayim, Torah li-Shema, or Kiddush Ha-Shem--and that last term even in its most extreme meanings--after Enlightenment, after Holocaust, after Zionism, and after Orthodoxy? How to learn and live Torah after and through all our shatterings?

Can we reshape these terms into a new constellation balancing freedom and faithfulness, autonomy and authority, one that is neither radically tribal nor exclusivist, yet still with a beating heart? Can Torah be what Taylor calls the "inescapable framework," which makes sense of our lives?

Among a number of modern Jewish thinkers we find, at times explicitly at others between the lines, calls for a new halakhah, one with the commanding power of the old, persuasive to we who have come after, who see ourselves as coming after.

I increasingly think that if there will be a new halakhah it will not be formulated by a committee, or even a new Sanhedrin. Rather it will emerge from below in myriad practices and reflections on practices, in the mix of study and practice that is one of Judaism's most distinctive features relative to other traditions. The batei midrash of the new halakhah will come in many forms; some of them will have bookshelves, others will be hospitals, workplaces, public spaces, the laboratories of the new halakhah for democratic societies. Can the new truths, as Tehillim hopes (85:12), grow up from the ground as justice looks down from Heaven?

The only way to know is to try. I have hope.

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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.