Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Essential Orthoprax

Every now and again Jewish skeptics of various stripes respond with some surprise when I tell them that I am observant of Jewish rituals, traditions and the like. Sure, they can understand wearing a yarmulkah for social reasons, playing along while in public and eating Thursday night chulent, but observance in private for its own sake seems like a bewildering concept. So I'd like to go over here my reasons for observance in no particular order.

First off there's the basic essential of Jewish identity. Of course many Jews are not observant and especially not of all the minutiae of Halacha and yet still consider their self-identification as Jews to be very strong, but I find that if I'm not cognizant of the likes of Shabbos and our annual pageant of holidays then I'm missing a big part of the Jewish experience. I'm set apart from core Jewry if I don't know where the local synagogue is or what time candles are supposed to be lit. I'd feel out of sync and adrift if I'm not fasting on Tisha B'av or attending a seder for Pesach or even keeping kosher in inconvenient places. There's nothing immoral about eating meat during the nine days, but you're breaking with a shared Jewish experience if you do so. To be Jewish is to DO Jewish and identity absent these core activities may be fragile.

And this leads into the related reason of demographics. I care about the Jewish people and our fate as a group - but demographically we are suffering deeply from the likes of assimilation and intermarriage. And who are most likely to marry out or otherwise be lost from Jewry? These are the people who are least observant. Reform Jews have an astounding intermarriage rate and low retention over generations. If Reform Judaism was the only brand of Judaism available today I would have grave doubts about the survival of Jews as an identifiable group for even just a few generations down the line. Observance is correlated with significant knowledge of Jewish texts and general heritage and is correlated with intramarriage and strong Jewish identities over generations. Commitment to an observant life is a vote of confidence in the livelihood of the Jewish people.

Another important reason is that doing frank religious acts is a way of bringing the sacred into everyday life. Modern man is overly concerned about what he can get out of an activity. Shaking a bush and a lemon seems like a silly (and costly) thing to do without any benefit to anyone - and materially that's true. But what it does, through our history of investing in the act a sense of the divine, it brings the divine into what is otherwise a very secular existence. Now, as is well known by most who read my blog (I think), my conceptions of God are rather different from the popular views and even from what much of tradition suggests, but nevertheless, raising our minds to the transcendent of existence by using Jewish rituals as vehicles is something I consider a worthwhile effort.

This is also related to another criticism I've heard from a friend of mind who stated that he didn't particularly believe in God because once it was understood that God wasn't a doorway for on high reward or punishment and that intercessionary prayer is ineffective then he didn't really care about the metaphysics of the matter as it doesn't really effect him either way. The philosophical abstractions I tend to conceive of don't interest him, even while he may recognize them as plausible. This is a fair criticism if you are seeking religiosity as a means to an end in the way modern man approaches virtually everything - What's in it for me? But if the goal is simply truth-seeking then it is simply that life choices follow convictions. The point is not to choose convictions for the mere sake of making your life easier. So it is from my conviction of basic philosophical positions that observant life follows.

Now, here's a bunch of potluck ideas that are not full justifications on their own but do string through my mind: There's the sense of continuity and history with thousands year old practices. Pride in being a Jew and in being a Jew and a man in the street and at home. A sense of irony that Jews should give up their cultural and religious vocation at a unique time in history when Jews can choose whether to be Jewish or not. A sense of duty to past generations that have suffered and sacrificed on behalf of being Jewish and doing Jewish. Ethical improvement that can be accomplished through correctly applying various traditional experiences and measures. And of course for various acts there is the simple fact that I enjoy performing them.

So is it still so surprising why I remain Orthoprax?


Anonymous said...

You're on a business trip. You are starving. There's no kosher food, or any other type of food except for a McDonalds. You generally keep kosher for all the reasons you described above. However this is a one off situation and you really need to eat. Do you eat a burger or not? And if not, why not?

Bruce said...

Good post.

I'm less observant than you, but come at the problem with essentially the same approach. I would simply add that Jews have been leading happy, meaningful, and productive lives with this approach for thousands of years. Plug in a little Burkean conservativism, and your argument is even stronger.

I diverge from an Orthoprax approach because the "costs" of some practices are simply too high. The McDonalds question above might be one example. The role of women might be another. I'm willing to allow more change to traditional practices. That puts me more in the Conservative camp. But I think this disagreement is more of degree than kind.

Orthoprax said...


Before answering your question of what I would do I would like to point out the gulf that stands between an unusal hardship leading to a single incident vs habitual ahalachic behavior. I do not believe that unusual exceptions to the rules is the same as wholesale dismissal of the rules.

A pregnant woman who drinks one alcoholic beverage during pregnancy performs an essentially harmless act whereas habitual drinking is unconscionable, but we still do not pardon the unnecessary single drink. I think litering is wrong, but that one piece of trash which misses the receptacle doesn't ruin the commons. So I don't think it is a huge deal to have a small break with the rules now and again.

To your hypothetical though, it's basic Halacha that we are supposed to live by these rules and not die by them, if I was truly starving to the point that my health was in danger then I would eat the cheeseburger without a hint of hesitancy.

That said, I'm not sure if that health-related scenario is what you are asking. If you're question is a scenario where I was simply very hungry then I would decline to eat at McDonalds. Why do I "need" to eat? If we concern ourselves to live by certain standards then it should take more than mere discomfort to derail us.


"The role of women might be another. I'm willing to allow more change to traditional practices. That puts me more in the Conservative camp. But I think this disagreement is more of degree than kind."

I'm not averse to political changes like that. The "role of women" has little to do with the daily and seasonal activities of Jews but is just social construct. I have no ideological bent towards what official role women should have, whether they should lead prayers or rank as clergy. That matters to me in similar degrees to what the 'correct' nusach is. Some shuls use Sephard, others Ashkenaz, etc. The practices of different shuls can vary and if you're a visitor then you play nice.

Anonymous said...

Great post, although im not sure the reasons above can survive a person in the long term without having some divine meaning attached to the ritual and observants.
Also, are these really the reasons why you remain observant or are they an approach to staying observant. If your family and community that you affiliate yourself with, together decide due to overwhelming evidence of a man made Torah and lack of historical evidence of Sinai, that
jewish observance is unnecessary and arbitrary. Would you still be observant?
Point being these are not reasons to observe they are an approach to
stay observant in a manageable way.

Orthoprax said...


"although im not sure the reasons above can survive a person in the long term without having some divine meaning attached to the ritual and observants."

But as I said in the post, I do attach divine meaning to the acts. They are man-made acts designed for the goal of orienting one's attention to the divine. Maybe this isn't quite as compelling as the idea of divine commands but it is still sufficiently meaningful.

"If your family and community that you affiliate yourself with, together decide due to overwhelming evidence of a man made Torah and lack of historical evidence of Sinai, that
jewish observance is unnecessary and arbitrary. Would you still be observant?"

If my entire community unmade itself by deciding to no longer be observant then I doubt I would maintain observance alone. But a big part of the reason why these acts are meaningful is because of the historical and communal sense of Judaism they foment. Nonobservant people become observant all the time when they accept some of these ideas.

"Point being these are not reasons to observe they are an approach to
stay observant in a manageable way."

I disagree - they are reasons to observe. They are reasons built largely on history and community but they are still reasons in themselves.

alex said...

I thought this might interest you, even though it touches only slightly on the theme of your post:

A conversation with H. G. Wells:
The (Jewish) man asked what he (Wells) thought would
happen to the Jews of Europe. Wells told the man
that he would rather be asked "What is going to
happen to mankind?"
"But my people. . . ."
"That," he interrupted, "is exactly what's the
matter with them." (Coren p. 217)

Orthoprax said...


HG Wells was a world statist, opposed democracy and favored wholesale cultural assimilation - a convenient position to take when you have good reason to believe your favored european cultures would be among the ruling classes of said state.

It's also worth noting that that quote from Wells comes from a work he published in 1939. Wells indicates some pure mistaken notions about lack of assimilation being the source of antisemitism when Hitler's brand came from a country where the Jews were more assimilated than virtually anywhere else.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Here's a thought: one of the damages that modern religious Jews have done to our people as a whole is to co-opt timeless rituals and behaviours and brand them as "religious". In other words, once upon a time most Jews put on tefillin in the morning because they were Jews. Now it's something only the "religious" do.
What you are describing is a more basic Judaism - you don't do things because it's the religious thing to do but because it's the Jewish thing. This takes a lot of the pressure out of it, doesn't it.

alex said...

Garnel, can you give an example of how modern religious Jews did this co-opting? When I see those mitzvah tanks driving by (just an example), it's impossible for me to tell whether they believe putting on tefillin is a "religious" thing to do or a "Jewish" thing to do. So, how can you tell?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually, that's a great example. Within the Lubavitch system, there is no difference between "religious" and "Jewish". In their minds, it's not a religious Jew who puts on tefillin. It's any Jew. The statement "He doesn't wear tefillin because he's not religiou" evokes the response: "What does being religious have to do with it?"
On the other hand, other Orthodox groups make a differentiation, such as: frum Yidden do X, frei Yidden don't. It's the attitude I was speaking about.

alex said...

I think you meant "that's a great exception," not "that's a great example."

Garnel, you've said two different things. First, you said "modern religious Jews have done to our people as a whole is to co-opt timeless rituals and behaviours and brand them as "religious"." And then you said, "Orthodox groups make a differentiation, such as: 'frum Yidden do X, frei Yidden don't.'" In the first, you're categorizing mitzvot, and in the second, you're categorizing people.

You wrote how a Lubavitcher (which I'm not) would say, "it's not a religious Jew who puts on tefillin. It's any Jew." But how do they describe Jews who /don't/ put on tefillin? They'd say "because he's ignorant." (Well, they'd be way more diplomatic about it.) But frankly, of all the non-Lubavitch orthodox Jews I know, they'd say the exact same thing. I'm afraid I've never seen any evidence that any Orthodox Jew would answer, "because he's not religious."

There was one young teen I overheard at a bar mitzvah who explained why she didn't keep kosher. Her answer was that she was not religious. (My jaw dropped somewhat.) Garnel, whereas you might wish to pin the blame on "modern religious Jews," I don't believe that this girl has anyone to blame but her own twisted logic.

Not to say that modern religious Jews are faultless, but I think you get my point.

Lady-Light said...

I am sitting here reading your post, and crying.

Orthoprax said...


Alright. But you'll have to forgive me because I don't understand why.

Lady-Light said...

It is because the religion that I loved and believed in now has serious cracks in it. I am grieving for when I had complete and unquestioning emunah.
I guess I am just too emotional...

alex said...

Hi Lady-Light.
Though the following comment sounds critical, I'm really writing it out of sense of caring, trying to see if we can reframe the problem. Could it be that the serious cracks you found were on secondary issues that you had originally thought were of primary importance?
For example, some people put so much focus into emunas chachamim (I'm not saying emunas chachamim is a bad thing), that when there's a scandal involving rabbis (as there was recently), their overall faith is shaken. But perhaps they forgot that emunas Hashem was supposed to come first, and really need not be affected by the scandal.

Lady-Light said...

Thanks. The serious cracks on not only on the 'secondary issues,' but on 'primary ones.' Therein lies the rub.
There is a creator, but He is a generic one. I also fear that there is no hashgachah pratit, only randomness.
Talk me out of it (before I shuffle off this mortal coil).

E-Man said...

I don't think it is surprising at all. It seems to me like u believe in a G-D but are just unconvinced of any of the religions. U are part of the Jewish religion and even though u think it is man made, u still think it has value in regards to relating to a higher power and community.

So I guess if u were born Christian u would come to the same conclusion, but u would be following the beliefs of Christianity, no?

It seems like u think there is no inherent value in Judaism other than to keep the Jewish culture alive and it provides some form of connection to a diety that may or may not exist.

alex said...

@E-man:"form of connection to a diety that may or may not exist"
Lady-Light just said there is a creator, so I suppose you were referring to "connection" and not "deity," right?

@Lady-light: "I also fear that there is no hashgachah pratit, only randomness."
I've read hundreds of uninspiring of stories about human tragedy that try to argue for randomness, but I think that every one is just coincidence. (That was said tongue-in-cheek.)

E-Man said...

I was responding to orthoprax's post. Sorry if that was not clear.

Orthoprax said...


I don't know what to tell you. Reality is what it is.


It's surprising for many skeptics because once the connection between Jewish practices and divine commands is severed many of them see no point at all in continuing to practice and in fact consider it a huge personal cost.

Lady-Light said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lady-Light said...

Ortho, what does that mean, "reality is what it is?" That's like saying 'the bear is unbearable' in someone's Gemara; it has multiple meanings-what 'reality' are you referring to?

1)Our perceived reality of what is written in the Torah?

2)The physical day-to-day reality of our 3-dimensional world w/o spirituality?

3)The reality of following ritual in an 'Orthoprax' way (without Divine meaning)just to fit in with the community?

I am confused...

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...


I don't see the "ignorant" vs "non-religious" divide that way.

Years ago there was a debate in Toronto in the Conservative synagogues over whether or not to count women in minyans. Someone wrote into the Canadian Jew News that he couldn't understand why there was a debate when the Shulchan Aruch clearly defined who can and cannot be counted to a minyan. A week later there was a response from a self-identified Conservative who wrote that only the Orthodox have to hold by the Shulchan Aruch and the Oral Law because that's their choice, not because it's mandatory on every Jew.
Perhaps that's why I can see someone saying "Well, I don't keep kosher because I'm not Orthodox". I've met lots of folks along the way who sincerely believe that halacha is a lifestyle choice, not an obligation.

alex said...

I'm a little confused Garnel with your last paragraph. Why? Because I agree with it! But in it, you blamed the Conservative, but above, you blamed modern religious Jews. (And I thought you generally meant Orthodox Jews.) When you said they "co-opted" the religious rituals and behaviors, I assumed you meant that they were the ones who followed them, not the ones who don't follow them. Maybe you can better define who you were trying to cast blame on?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Okay, I guess I should define my terms better.

When I said "modern religious Jews" I really meant: religious Jews in modern times, as opposed to religious Jews living a few centuries or millenia ago.

I hope that clears it up?

Alex said...

Well, I'm not sure if you consider that girl I talked about, and that "self-identified" Conservative you talked about, to be "religious Jews."

Nusach said...

eman - Christianity is idolatry. Numbers 23:19 says that God is not a man. Most Jews are here today because their ancestors, religious or not, did not want to buy into the lies of the Christians and Muslims. The majority of modern-day Christians and Muslims are probably the result of forced conversions (convert or die).

lady-light - hashgacha and hashgacha pratis is in everything. I do not think you have to be a believer in Torah to see that there is a Creator that wills our existence every second and has a direct "hand" in everything we do.

orthoprax - Nice blog. There are many people out there that are in a similar situation as you. The problem is, when you throw out the shulchan aruch, it takes about 3 generations for all your offspring to be fully assimilated. Daven to Hashem for emuna and to protect your "personal holiness". Yiddishkeit is an avodah. This is not Christianity where all you have to do is believe in idolatry (i.e. a Man deity) to be saved.

E-Man said...

Nusach, I am not sure what your point is to me. Also, the Meiri says christianity is not idolatry.

Anonymous said...


This is a hilarious chain of comments.

So I get doing cultural stuff. I don't get doing religious stuff. I don't get doing things privately (still - despite reading your explenations) according to strict halacha, as opposed to fulfilling things in the spirit of the law and among society only.

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Mr. Cohen said...


Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 18, Paragraph 40:

Blessed be the Omnipresent who chose Israel from among 70 languages, and gave them wisdom and understanding and knowledge and intelligence to trust in Him at all times.


Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, chapter 9:

When Israel trusts in the protection [literally, shade] of their Creator, they are blessed and sweet and benefit the world. But when they turn away from their Creator and trust in the laws of the nation, they are cursed and unhappy and do not bring benefit to the world.


Midrash Rabah, Seder Mishpatim, Parshah 30, Paragraph 8:

Rabbi Yosi explained:
G_d loves orphans and widows because they hope to no one except Him.

To receive quick quotes from Jewish holy books and short true inspirational stories of Orthodox Rabbis, go to:

batyah said...

Hi Orthoprax, I think your blog is what I've been looking for. Thanks. I converted to OJ as a true believer, and then proceeded to lose my faith after a series of personal tragedies. Now everything I once believed seems pretty silly, yet I'm committed to a family and community (frum) that I am not willing to abandon. It has been difficult to justify to myself observing all these rituals when I no longer believe in any Divine being who commands it. What to teach the children? This is the next big dilemma. Anyway, I find myself having similar thoughts and feelings to yours and now I don't feel so alone.

Orthoprax said...


I'm sorry to hear about your tragedies and doubly so about the trauma that is losing faith, but I am glad to hear that I may have helped you balance your interests in remaining observant while being intellectually skeptical.

What to teach to children? It's a tricky problem but I can see a balance there too between a traditional Modern Orthodox yeshivah education at school while pushing critical thought at home. Stories don't need to be understood literally and theology need not be accepted simply, but you don't want your kids to be Jewishly illiterate. I believe that a child with a critical mind will be able to come to some comfortable balance on their own.

Daniel said...


I enjoyed this post. I am too have been having my doubts as well. My main issues are what to teach my children as they grow older. Do I tell them what I truly feel about the Torah inauthenticity or do I pretend I believe it so they can grow up frum? I also do one-on-one learning with non-observant Jews. What do I tell them? This is the most unsettling part about all of this. I find value in Yiddishkeit and I think most Jews will as well, I just don't believe that the theology of Judaism is convincing.

Anonymous said...

Shaking the Lulav is the easy part.
How about having any feeling for Tefillah?

Anonymous said...

Who cares if generations of Jews practiced a lie, following a bunch of rituals whose only effect was placebo? Why on earth should that be a reason for you to do the same?

If Judaism isn't true I'm not understanding why there's any point in being proud of or identifying with it's long, glorious, tragic and misguided history.

Wouldn't the world have been a better place if they had converted to Christianity instead of getting themselves killed? It made no difference what they believed if both beliefs were false, but at the very least we believe in the value of human life, right? If so, belief in Judaism and refusing to give that up was what led to their deaths. Why would you want to commemorate, continue, honor that tradition?

Anonymous said...


Who says the effects of practice are "placebo"? I believe they have real effects and in part explain the continued existence and success of the Jewish people.

That our ancestors were misguided is true of every person alive today. That doesn't mean our ancestors' lives were without worth or honor. There is much to laud without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And, no, I deeply suspect that the world would not be better off if the Jews had ceased to exist as a unique people. That my ancestors stood against persecution, sometimes with their lives, is a credit to their honor not their foolishness.