Thoughts on Ami Magazine’s Orthoprax Article: The Impostors Among Us

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Ami Magazine has an article about orthoprax Jews. I’m not one to complain about tone, so I won’t complain. I will just note for the record that the tone of the article is incredibly demeaning to anyone who has ever contemplated the limits of religious belief and the article sounds more like a scathing editorial than a piece of journalism.

In order to understand this blog post it is necessary that you read the Ami Magazine article which is available here: The Impostors Among Us. Come back here when you are done.

The concept of orthopraxy is a simple one. Act like an orthodox Jew but reject some or all of the beliefs of orthodox Judaism. To the author of this article, these people are impostors and the biggest threat to orthodox Judaism that exists.

The biggest problem I have with the article is the approach taken with regard to orthopraxy in general.
In the eyes of the author, one who questions their core beliefs as an Orthodox Jew is literally sick. Either emotionally scarred or intellectually weak describes the types of people who are orthoprax. The assumption is that any sane, intelligent person would obviously conclude that the core beliefs of orthodox Judaism are correct. Further, those beliefs are to believed in their most absolute fundamental form.

However, the article does not, in any way shape or form, actually address the complaints that orthoprax Jews raise against those beliefs. It just assumes that those beliefs are reasonable. To me, this is representative of the flaws that created this problem and the incomptence within the fold in dealing with these issues.

Orthodox Judaism requires certain beliefs. The article, and most orthodox Jews I know, assume that these beliefs are obvious, logical, reasoned conclusions. They possess this belief because they have not been presented any evidence to the contrary. And if they have been presented evidence to the contrary it has been tainted and manipulated by apologists who spin the evidence as non-compelling while only presenting half-truths. Thus, when the soon-to-be-orthopraxer actually is presented with real evidence or questions that poke holes in the once so compelling logic of the orthodox Jewish beliefs, the house of cards comes crashing down.

The primary defense against the destructive nature of this information has been seclusion. This defense (as the article calls it, I wouldn’t call it a defense) is not a defense at all. It is avoiding the problems. When someone avoids a problem or skirts an issue the natural reaction is to believe that there is no real answer, there is no solution, the questions are too powerful and the previously held beliefs are not defensible. The next reasonable step is to lose faith in the system.

It is not an illness. It is not the result of emotionally damaged psychosis. It is normal.

If we believe that we possess some sort of truth, then we can’t be afraid of other truths. If we are hiding from other truths, it betrays our lack of confidence in our truth. This kind of hypocrisy and closed-mindedness is what causes people to drop their beliefs. Not disease.

The trick is to realize that this is the problem. Once this is established the beginnings of some solutions are not too far out of reach.

The article suggests attending “emunah workshops”. There cannot be a worse idea. First of all, emunah is entirely inappropriate a word for these workshops. They are not teaching emunah, faith. They teach quasi-intellectual proofs (which mostly have counter proofs or flaws) in order to prove the divinity of the Torah or the existence of God. These are the very “proofs” that lead to orthopraxy. They reek of chicanery and feel like mind games. If you ask a question that derails the flow, again, the whole house of cards comes crashing down. If one tries to prove something and the proof fails miserably, one is worse off than if one had not tried to prove it at all. It makes the one trying to do the proving look like a snake oil salesman. No one intelligent is going to buy snake oil.

Instead, I think, the solution should be an expanded, more liberal interpretation of Torah M’Sinai and God. The system needs to give leeway for the varied opinions throughout our tradition that take less of a hard line approach. Don’t build that massive house of cards. Try to reintroduce the valid opinions of our great sages that are more compatible with evidence that we now have. That’s not to say that those who had opinions that don’t comport with what we know today were wrong. They were doing the best they could with the information they had. We should strive to do the same.

Further, there is nothing wrong and there is no reason to attach a stigma to those who have questions. Orthodox Jewish beliefs are not necessarily logical conclusions. Assuming they are and assuming that one who does not reach those same conclusions is a handicapped person, fosters an environment where orthopraxy is sometimes the only choice. But if allowing ourselves to have unresolved questions would be an acceptable place within orthodox Judaism, fewer people would feel the need to jump ship.

The article implies that these impostors must be rooted out and exposed. This is offensive to me. I am sure plenty of great people throughout our storied history have questioned their beliefs. After all, the Rambam wrote a “Guide for the Perplexed”. Some people must have been perplexed! I am even more certain that many great people had a parent or two who may have questioned their beliefs. It is also likely that some who questioned, eventually rejected. But I am sure many others either resigned to not knowing or found some satisfaction in the answers they discovered. By exposing, stigmatizing and rooting out anyone who questions their beliefs we are playing with fire. People change their ideas throughout their lives and many who don’t can still raise children who can sustain their own beliefs and be successful orthodox Jews. Ruining lives and shunning people who don’t think the same way others think is a witch hunt of the worst kind. How can others measure the thoughts of a peer? Thoughts are not measurable by man. Only actions are. (On the importance of action versus thought I recommend Rabbi Slifkin’s post: Ominous, Treacherous Infiltrators?)

I believe there is one more area of contemporary orthodox Judaism that significantly contributes to orthopraxy. That is the abundance of mysticism within our community. There are people who are skeptics. It is their nature. These people are not intrigued or impressed with mysticism. If it is not logical or scientific it simply doesn’t appeal to them. However, the Judaism of Rambam or R’ Hirsch would be very appealing to them. Judaism of 2011 may not. Mysticism requires suspension of disbelief. It is easy to see how one can conflate the unnecessary belief in mysticism with the necessary beliefs of orthodox Judaism. Stop believing (or never believing) in one leads to the other. Making mysticism such an integral part of orthodox Judaism will have a negative affect on those who are skeptics and unnecessarily so. The Judaism of Rambam and R’ Hirsch was passionate and deep without many of the things that would turn a skeptic away from Judaism. I believe that part of the problem is that too much suspension of disbelief can turn some of our best and brightest into sacrifices burned at the altar of mysticism.

Finally, we come to the Internet. The article suggests that the Internet is to blame for orthopraxy. While this might be partially true, it does not exonerate the community for pushing these people out. The lack of preparation for discovering new information, the level of misinformation that is taught and the expectation that no one will ever find anything that contradicts the party line are all just as much to blame, if not more, than the actual information that bursts these bubbles.

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There are many other ways to approach this article. I believe there are other flaws in the article as well. I have chosen to highlight some of the issues I feel need addressing and may not be addressed by others. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feelings on the article and my musings in the comments.

The article has at least succeeded in providing food for thought. It is an article that has spawned many more articles and conversations. That is a credit to the writer. Hopefully, together, we can work these problems through in a sensible and pleasant manner that will benefit the greater good.

  • Azi

    Good essay R. Fink.

    “Instead, I think, the solution should be an expanded, more liberal interpretation of Torah M’Sinai and God.” – I think that they rely on the more fanciful explanations to begin with in order to catch you. Grade school rebbeim only teach the most elaborate magical explanation they can find; kids who love Harry Potter will also fall in love with Jacob’s neck that turns to marble.

    “That is the abundance of mysticism within our community.” – Today, I don’t think you can question all the mystical attributes associated with Hassidic Rabbis without being thought of as a Heretic. A concept that was invented two centuries ago, that a Hassidic Rabbi can look at you and know your sins, can affect the outcome of certain events out of his control, etc… is now dogma, even amongst non Hassidic Jews. You have Lithuanian style Jews tripping over themselves to look at some rebbes face and shake his hand, or to have the rebbe read their palms. (FYI, RYP of YFR has often spoken about the problem of modern mysticism, as you may know.)

    “The article suggests that the Internet is to blame for orthopraxy.” – What 80 years ago was blamed on books and pamphlets is now blamed on another form of writing, a computer screen. There isnt anything special about the internet, other than ease of access, which I suppose can make it “worse” for these people, but the concept of people finding information isn’t a new concept. It’s an easy scapegoat; people have been doing what has been happening for millennia probably, sometimes by word of mouth, or books, but it’s the internet’s fault? Nobody questioned belief’s or found new ideas before 1993?

    In the end, I suspect that the only people the leaders care about are those who are found in Lakewood style communities. Those communities evolved out of the existing system so it isn’t to be changed. What people in other areas do or think isn’t of concern because ‘they’re already living false lives, etc..’ I’m sure you know that mentality.

    The whole yeshiva system is based on that concept, sacrifice the thousands for the few. Allow thousands of young men and women be wholly unprepared for their lives in order to get maybe three or four out of a class into Beis Medrash Gavoah.

  • Kol HaKavod. Beautifully written. There were 2 main things that attracted me to Orthodox to begin with: 1) the ability to ask questions; and 2) the lack of stress on emunah. As a Jew who grew up in a Christian household, being told regularly to ‘just have faith’ was a complete turn-off. Obviously, if it were that easy, I would have done it. Emunah, IMO, does not come from not asking questions, but from pushing the limits of what you know and what is acceptable. It is a shame that now that I’ve been observant for 15+ years my questions are no longer tolerated by many in the community. Thank G-d these were not the people I first met when I was becoming baalah teshuvah!

  • I think you mean ‘reek of chicanery’ instead of ‘wreak’

  • Hide the women and children! The Orthoprax are here!

    If this “scare” piece is what passes for journalism in our frum communities, then we shouldn’t be in that business at all.

    Anyone who can use the sentence “adults who are duplicitous, heretical infiltrators within the ranks of our communities” to describe these people is so ridiculously clueless that it made it very hard to read the remainder of the article. He makes them sound like a foreign “fifth column” or sleeper agents, who invade our communities waiting for the right time to strike. Ummm, no.

    These folks are our brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, friends, classmates – people who have grown up alongside us, gone to school with us, learned as we did, etc. Why not be more concerned with WHY they believe the way they do, than with calling them names (disturbed, sick, emotionally unstable, etc.)? Most professionals in the psychology field would disagree with these pronouncements, I believe.

    Does “outing” them and/or kicking them out of the community help them more than, say, helping them work through what they believe and why, and helping try to steer them back to emunah? If the only help you can offer them is to say “You need to have emunah, and if you don’t, then you’re a kofer” is no help at all – in fact, that attitude is more than likely a major reason why they are in their current states. If Eli showed up at my door to take out my daughter, I’d like to think that the values and beliefs that have been instilled in my daughter would cause her to try and help him, rather than slam the door in his face.

    Also, Orthopraxy has been around for a while – a lot longer than the Internet has. So the Internet is an easy scapegoat here – yes, the Internet makes it easier, but the REAL cause of Orthopraxy is a combination of INFORMATION and A FAILURE ON THE PART OF OUR COMMUNITIES LEADERS OF KNOWING HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS SITUATION. Specifically, information from the outside world that the insularity of Chareidi communities keep out. And then, the response of community leaders to debase, defrock and ban, rather than outreach, teach and accept.

    That is MY Yahadut; I can see what THEIRS is…

  • R’ Fink, I agree wholeheartedly. However, I think that the point of this article was more to show how evil the Internet is than to truly address the “problem” of Orthopraxy…

  • The AMI article really sounded like something straight out of Stalin’s Pravda.

  • saramaimon

    You don’t want impostors? Then how about creating a climate where people are allowed to speak about their beliefs without fear of repercussion, and without being made like there’s something wrong with them dating in the community?

  • I posted this comment on dovbear as well, but then realized the post originated here.

    I rather liked this insightful look into the issues facing orthoprax (what an awful name. Sounds like a villain from captain planet) Jews. Clearly, the definitions of Jewish identity continue to stretch in many direction. But I can also understand the problems people have with people who practice orthodox judaism, yet fail to believe in many of its fundamental tennets.

    Personally, I could never adhere to a system of rituals and commandments when I wasn’t even relatively confident in their origin. Of course, every religion has components of faith, occasionally blind, but if one is unable to make these leaps, partaking in the physical components seems to be at least moderately dishonest, intellectually. What is seems these people need to do is reevaluate what they believe in and allow their actions to follow those thoughts. The reasons people avoid this range from ignorance to apathy to fear to societal pressure, but none of them are really an adequate excuse for avoiding the simple mature act of making up your mind.

    Great post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Mark
    thetribevibe.net

    • I disagree. This suggests we aren’t allowed to change our mind, since we must make up our mind. On the contrary, practicing even while in a “crisis” of faith shows a strong commitment to the religion and to the community, and a faith in the system even if this faith lacks belief. While I’m sure that some have “made up their minds” and simply just don’t believe, for most people it is more complicated than that, and may vary day-by-day.

      Forcing people to “make up their minds” stagnates the possibility for growth.

  • I personally don’t care how many people want to leave frumkeit. Those coming and those going tend to balance each other out. I’m much more interested in quality of people than quantity.

    I just wish that these people from frum homes would have the guts to actually leave. Deny thy father, refuse thy name. Become another John Smith in atheist America. I respect individuals who have enough backbone to follow their convictions and switch societies, as well as clothing.

    I can only describe these Orthoprax types as pathetic. I’m glad that the article called these people what they are – frauds. They must be exposed. Then, they can make an honest choice between the hard path of tshuvah or the easy road to hedonism.

    • Your comments are appreciated but betray a deep misunderstanding of Judaism and Orthoprax Jews. Not everyone who doesn’t believe in God is a hedonist. I know that sounds crazy, but really it’s true. Atheists have morals and sometimes, believe it or not, believers ARE hedonists and DO NOT have morals. Crazy right?

      Also, belief in God is on aspect of a very detailed and beautiful lifestyle. One can enjoy it, believe in its importance and still not believe in God.

      They are only frauds because people like you call them frauds and couch Judaism and morality in terms that may or may not be as clearly defined as you think.

      • If a person believes in living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, without admitting that Hashem exists, fine. To each his own. I think that was Mordechai Kaplan’s idea originally.

        However, if that person does not share his views openly, and continues to pass himself off as a believer, then he is a fraud.

        If a frum woman is marrying such a man, on condition that he believes in Hashem, then the marriage is void, according to halacha.

        The question is, is that an implied condition when two frum-looking, frum-acting people get married? I would say yes.

  • Rabbi Fink,

    I’ve never followed your blog before, but I caught this piece, and I thought it was one of the most beautifully elucidated articles that I’ve read in some time.

    I think that, if more people read your post here instead of that dreck in “AMI Magazine”, we might have lot more people who felt accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community, instead of being pushed away. Or, at least, felt more comfortable about their faith and how to approach Judaism, whichever movement they might choose to follow.

    As a bit of a “reject” from the frum community, I feel deep disappointment over the failure of the Orthodox community to come to grips with its internal issues, especially in regard to those who are confused about emunah and observance. I hope that one day, people like the author of the AMI article might realize that: many of these “heretics” are lost and alone, and many of them wish that they could believe. And it hurts.

    Kudos.

  • Excellent article. I read the Orthopraxy article a few weeks ago and was horrified by its poor excuse for balanced journalism.

  • Best line in that article is the disclaimer at the very end: Since the writing of this article, appropriate

    steps have been taken to protect the public from this posek.

  • @efink:disqus I agree with your analysis of the witch hunt atmosphere that exists. It’s made so apparent by all the steps the author takes to distance himself from the evil orthopraxers, like saying ‘I have nothing in common with this witch’ at the end. By even bringing up the issue, even to knock it, he sees himself as suspect.

    However, your analysis is lacking a major point. You say, “There are people who are skeptics. It is their nature.” That leaves it at a very superficial level. I think Dr. Sorotzkin has a much more informed take in his article “On the role of parents” drsorotzkin.com/role_of_parents.html. Some people see Judaism as comfort food, like Rav Moshe Weinberger of Aish kodesh here: youtube.com/watch?v=uKl9oOqDKZQ To people like this, speaking about the truth or untruth of Judaism is very theoretical. He likes it, and he wants to stay.

    To other people, Judaism is another form of oppression, foisted on them by their parents and authority to manipulate them. Fear/hatred of authority is what makes many people skeptics. Regardless of the “truth”, if they were forced to do it, they are resistant.

    In the end, I believe that logic has little to do with 99% of people’s choice to accept or reject a particular faith. I wrote apost on this a while back here: jewishdepression.blogspot.com/2010/11/13-thanksgiving.html

  • anon

    If you have not yet seen it, you may want to read R’ Aharon Feldman’s essay regarding R’ Slifkin, which is printed in “Eye of the Storm”.