The Black Hat and the Wig Do Not Make the Ortho­dox Jew

Forward Magazine - - Forward Forum - By AVI SHAFRAN Avi Shafran blogs at rab­bi­av­ and serves as Agu­dath Is­rael of Amer­ica’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic af­fairs.

Sev­eral years ago, when I was pen­ning a weekly col­umn for a Haredi magazine, the pe­ri­od­i­cal de­clined to pub­lish one of my sub­mis­sions. It was about “Cul­tural Ortho­dox Jews,” a phrase I coined for peo­ple who eat only rab­bini­cally su­per­vised foods, wear black hats (or wigs), pray in syn­a­gogue daily and send their kids to yeshivas — but all, and only be­cause, that’s what ev­ery­one in their com­mu­nity does. Such “COJs” may or may not be­lieve in the Cre­ator, but if they do, they don’t give Him much thought — even while liv­ing seem­ingly in­tense Jewish lives.

The ed­i­tor told me that he feared alien­at­ing his read­ers.

I hoped, and still hope, that that judg­ment was over­wrought, but it con­firmed at least the per­ceived preva­lence of the sort of “Ortho­dox mimicry” I had sought to ad­dress, where Jewish ob­ser­vance is a “Fid­dler on the Roof” sort of “Tra­di­tion” — miles wide, but mere mil­lime­ters deep. I pub­lished the es­say else­where, and to my re­lief it was well re­ceived by read­ers, in­clud­ing peo­ple I greatly re­spect.

The OTD, or “off the derech [path],” phe­nom­e­non — erst­while-Ortho­dox Jews who leave their com­mu­ni­ties and ob­ser­vance — re­ceives much fan­fare in many me­dia. But the greater con­tem­po­rary chal­lenge to the Ortho­dox world, I think, lies in the COJ phe­nom­e­non.

It’s not a new one; the dan­ger of ob­ser­vance-by-rote has been de­cried by Jewish re­li­gious lead­ers over the ages, from the an­cient prophets to, in more re­cent times, the Mus­sar move­ment, the study and liv­ing ap­proach that stresses eth­i­cal and God-con­scious val­ues. The move­ment de­vel­oped in the 19th cen­tury and re­mains cul­ti­vated by many yeshivas and sem­i­nar­ies today. But the for­mi­da­ble growth of the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in re­cent decades has made the prob­lem more press­ing.

Rab­binic lu­mi­nar­ies Aharon Feld­man and J. David Ble­ich fo­cused on this mat­ter in the Fall 2013 is­sue of Di­a­logue, an oc­ca­sional book-length Ortho­dox pub­li­ca­tion.

In an es­say ti­tled “Ob­ser­vant but Not Re­li­gious,” Feld­man, rosh yeshiva, a se­nior fac­ulty mem­ber, of Ner Is­rael Rab­bini­cal Col­lege, in Bal­ti­more (where I stud­ied in the 1970s), writes that de­spite the “re­ju­ve­na­tion of To­rah ob­ser­vance among Jews… some­thing so ut­terly cen­tral to our ex­is­tence as Jews con­tin­ues to go want­ing in the lives of many: the emo­tion of the heart, the fo­cus and fore­thought of the mind, the com­mit­ment of the spirit.”

Ble­ich, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Univer­sity’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and pro­fes­sor of Jewish law and ethics at the

Those who fol­low the rit­u­als without liv­ing the be­liefs.

Ben­jamin N. Car­dozo School of Law, writes in a sim­i­lar vein, be­moan­ing the “dif­fer­ent form of Ju­daism” that has as­serted it­self, an “Ortho­praxy” that is “based upon prac­tice rather than be­lief.”

The Cul­tural Ortho­dox Jew phe­nom­e­non goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing how an os­ten­si­ble Ortho­dox Jew can en­gage in un­eth­i­cal busi­ness prac­tices, cheat, steal or abuse oth­ers. Or, more mun­danely, how he can cut off oth­ers in traf­fic, act rudely or blog ma­li­ciously. Or, for that mat­ter, how he can ad­dress his Cre­ator in prayer with words so gar­bled and hur­ried that were he speak­ing to an­other mor­tal, the speed of his speech would elicit laugh­ter.

Now, of course, all Jews who en­deavor to be ob­ser­vant lapse at times into rote be­hav­ior. We don’t al­ways con­cen­trate on what we’re say­ing when we pray or re­cite a bless­ing, nor do we al­ways weigh our ac­tions and in­ter­ac­tions on the care­fully cal­i­brated scales of Jewish pro­pri­ety. But we don’t live our daily lives obliv­i­ous to the Jewish ideal; we know when we’ve lapsed, and en­deavor to be bet­ter. COJs seem not to care.

I re­cently coun­seled a young woman who thought I might be able to help her off the horns of a dilemma. Raised nonob­ser­vant, she has spent sev­eral years ex­plor­ing Ju­daism, and wants des­per­ately to em­brace ob­ser­vance. But she is an hon­est and heart­felt per­son, and she finds one realm of ob­ser­vance (which one it is isn’t per­ti­nent here) to be very daunt­ing.

Hear­ing the woman out, I re­al­ized that she re­ally needed to speak with some­one who had faced the same ob­sta­cle to ob­ser­vance that she was fac­ing and had over­come it. (I didn’t fit that bill.) And I told her so.

I added some­thing, though: that lis­ten­ing to her had re­minded me of the “Cul­tural Ortho­dox Jew” phe­nom­e­non. She, I ex­plained, rep­re­sented its po­lar op­po­site. Whereas a Cul­tural Ortho­dox Jew finds it fairly easy to live “ob­ser­vantly” but is largely obliv­i­ous to his re­la­tion­ship with the Divine, my coun­se­lee was keenly, painfully aware of the Cre­ator but was, as a re­sult of her up­bring­ing, find­ing it hard to un­der­take a realm of ob­ser­vance she re­al­ized was Jewishly re­quired of her.

I wished her well, and I hope that she finds the right per­son to speak with and over­comes her per­sonal chal­lenge. But one thing I know is that, de­spite her cur­rent nonob­ser­vant life­style, she is, on the spir­i­tual scale, light years be­yond those who go through the mo­tions of ob­ser­vance but without ever giv­ing much thought to what they’re do­ing.

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