Judaism of the Future: My Response to Klal Perspectives Spring 2012

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A few weeks ago, the Spring issue of the Klal Perspectives Journal was released. I noted the excellent article written by Moishe Bane and recommended that everyone read it. (See: Klal Perspectives Spring 2012: One Excellent Article Stands Out From the Rest)

I mentioned in passing that I had my own response to some of the issues that were discussed in the journal.

Writers were asked to address three questions. They are more fully developed on the Klal Perspectives site. These are the questions in general terms:

  1. How accurate is the perception that there is a crisis in the degree of religious fulfillment experienced by observant Jews?
  2. What is the source of this alienation and what can be done to cure it?
  3.  Are there proven methods to inspire observant Jews experiencing a gap in religious enthusiasm?

I begin with three short answers. 1. Fairly accurate. 2. Modernity and a fresh approach. 3. No.

Judaism of the Future

In my personal experience, I have come across a lot of people that would somewhat fit into this broad category. All of them know others in the same situation as well. So I would say the numbers are higher than just the number of people I know of personally. Of those people, there is a general feeling of malaise about religion. Some are apathetic to their plight and others are anguished by it. The apathetic ones are resigned to a marginalized relationship with God and their religion. The ones in anguish wish they could turn back the clock to their yeshiva days when they felt something special or they dream of living up to the lofty goals of dveykus and spiritual nirvana.

I think there is a need to discuss this issue. It is a legitimate problem and is definitely causing discomfort among many orthodox Jews. Would I call it a crisis? I don’t know. What is of greater concern is that the issue is framed as an issue of perception. The question implies that happy, fulfilled orthodox Jews are looking at others and are concerned that others are not feeling fulfilled. That is what perception means. I would prefer if the question focused on the actual people who are feeling burnt out of religion and not the assumptions or judgments of others. So I would rather adjust the question to: Is there a significant group of orthodox Jews who feel under-fulfilled by their Judaism?

The answer to that question is undoubtedly, yes.

The more interesting question is the second question. Where does this spiritual melancholy come from?

It was hard to pinpoint a consensus among the journal writers on this point. Most of the writers attributed the problem to a flaw or misstep in Avodas Hashem (religious observance). As I remarked in a previous post, Moishe Bane pointed more toward phenomena outside Mitzvah observance that affect one’s spiritual psyche. While I agree in form, I have a different twist on the substance. I think there is something that is being overlooked in these discussions and that is the historical context of orthodox Judaism’s rise and its place in the modern world.

Taking a big step back and looking at orthodox Judaism from a bird’s eye view gives one an interesting perspective of theology in orthodox Judaism. We have the canonized books of Tanach. The stories in Tanach are replete with miracles, Divine communications with people, complex heroes and villains, struggles with idol worship, violence and war, and stories of high drama. The lens with which these stories are viewed in orthodox Judaism is through the lens of Chazal and then through the eyes of the Rishonim who elucidate the teachings of Chazal.

Then we have the Mishnah, Talmud, various midrashic sources, and their numerous commentaries. The world of Chazal was also a fantastic world that talks of miracles brought about through acts of the saintly Tannaim and Amoraim, an awareness of angels and demons, a hybrid of folk medicine, real medicine, and faith healing, and many other ideas and expressions that were appropriate for Ancient Greece and the medieval era.

More recently, we have the writings of the Arizal and his students. Somewhat related, we have the works of the baalei mussar and the Chassidus which paralleled it. These teachings focus on a transcendental version of Judaism. Their focus on perfection of character and mind, hearkens the typology of a superJew. The person who is complete control of his life, thoughts, and actions. All of it with cosmic proportions. One misstep and worlds are affected. The ultimate goal of these works is to elevate the Jew from man to [almost] angel. But the payoffs are lofty. Ruach HaKodesh, understanding dreams, granting blessings that come true, and practical mystic powers are part and parcel of this genre.

Throughout the last 2000 years, various codes of halacha have been codified as well. The primary sources used today are the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Brurah on Orach Chaim. The status of halacha has been cemented for several hundred years. To be lenient, based on a rishon or gaon not quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is considered unacceptable. Removing statutes that were based on mistakes or assumptions that have been shown to be incorrect is not really permissible. Historical social norms that helped establish halacha are not considered when analyzing halacha today.

I believe this is a fair overview of the basic corpus of Torah that is studied today by orthodox Jews. I also believe that the descriptions of those general bases of knowledge are accurate and I do not mean them in a disrespectful or cynical way. At all.

But herein lies the problem, I think.

The kind of life a Jew expects his religion to provide for him is completely unrealistic in modern terms. We are not going to debate or discuss the veracity or meaning of the fantastic claims made in each of these genres of Torah study. But we are going to assume that this is the world the average orthodox Jew associates with his religion. Years of studying about open miracles, direct communication with God, demons, angels, mystical universes affected by man’s acts, practical kabbalistic feats, and the like, has an effect on the one doing the studying. Its effect is that the person associates the religion with these things.

We hear about stories of great Jewish leaders who made incredible things happen. Whether it is Choni HaMa’agel (drawing a circle and demanding rain – and it worked), Reb Yochanan (turning people into bags of bones with his eyes), Rashi (born after his father tossed a diamond to the sea), Reb Yehuda HaChassid (the wall that moved to save his life), the Baal Shem Tov (flying around Europe), The Arizal (locating ancient graves by “sense”), my great-great-grandfather Reb Elya Lopian (meeting Eliyahu HaNavi), or the Chazon Ish (knowing how to do brain surgery) all these stories reinforce the idea that Jews can do supernatural things if we could just get to that level.

Orthodox Jews are generally smart, well educated (at least in comparison with the majority of the rest of the world), come from good, balanced homes, and are generally part of the middle to upper class of society. In my experience, most people who believe the type of legends, stories, and anecdotes that are taught in yeshivos are less advanced in every other way.

Allow me to explain. In ancient times everybody believed the kinds of things that are described in the Talmud. In medieval times everyone believed in the kinds of things the rishonim speak of. In early modern times almost everybody believed in the same kinds of things we find in mussar seforim and chassidus. The folk cures and superstitions that have crept into halacha were common for the people of their time. Today, the only people who still believe such things are looked at as backward or relics of the past.

I am not using this analysis to judge whether these things are true or whether they are essential to our religion. I am only making the following point: Many of the very basic assumptions of orthodox Jews were prevalent in the rest of the world, each in their time, but they have been discarded by smart, successful, happy people in the non-orthodox Jewish world. They used to believe in similar ideas and stories, but they no longer believe in them.

In other words, it used to be normal to believe in these fantastic abilities and tales. Everyone did it. This was their way of  life. It could be explained by pointing to all the unanswered questions that are prevalent in their understanding of the universe. They had no better explanation for various phenomena. Rather they had to believe in the supernatural on a regular basis. God was responsible for everything because they had no other explanation. But now, it is only religious fanatics, naive people, those who live in undeveloped countries and other indigenous groups that still have maintain these kinds of fundamentalist beliefs because for the most part, they are either wrong or unnecessary.

At this point, the orthodox Jew, is confronted with two basic options. Either the beliefs of orthodox Judaism that go against modern sensibilities are true and the beliefs that everyone who was not an orthodox Jew, which were nearly identical in substance and identical in form, were not true in the first place, so it is still reasonable to believe and this is an example of the people of the world “not getting it”. Or, orthodox Jews and everyone else believed in the same kinds of things a long time ago, the fact that society as a whole has moved on is indicative that the beliefs are flawed and perhaps many of them are untrue.

Again, I am only pointing to the options, and not to the validity of either position. I am merely stating what I believe are the reasonable options available to a modern Jew when considering traditional orthodox Jewish beliefs in our modern times.

To me, this is the underlying, unexpressed issue that lies beneath the surface and causes the most internal angst and frustration with regard to spiritual success. The goals are impossible to achieve. None of my friends from yeshiva have ruach hakodesh. None of my rebbeim from yeshiva perform miracles. The universe of our heroes simply does not exist anymore. None of us has experienced or witnessed the kinds of things that are such an integral part of our lore.

Yet, the majority of what we learn today was borne out of that universe. The kind of relationship they had with the Almighty is not able to be reproduced in a modern society. Whereas, every nook and cranny of life was a connection to something Greater, due to a lack of sophistication or flawed understanding of science or a general mood of superstition, the world in which they lived was a world where God was found in everything at all times. It was so easy. In those days, it was stupid to not see God in everything. But in our modern times, where we have answers to many questions, we have reasonable explanations for many things that were mysterious in the past, where we know that superstition is bunk, all that seems so distant, so impossible, and so different from our world.

This causes one of two things to happen. For some people, the ideals become too lofty. “Oy, I’ll never find the supernatural in my life.” If all your life you’ve been striving for something that simply does not happen anymore, the frustration is going to be overwhelming. The result is apathy toward religion.

But for others, the skeptics among us, it can cause people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It all goes down the drain. “If Chazal were wrong about some things, maybe they were wrong about everything.” If our religion has similar characteristics to ancient pagan cults, to other religions, and to medieval folklore, which parts are “real”? These people will by and large either leave orthodoxy, become orthoprax, or live in the agony of what they believe to be two mutually exclusive truths.

If I were asked to point at what I believed to be causing spiritual malaise among Klal Yisrael, I would point to this. The idea that our religion has so many characteristics that are similar to clearly false beliefs and that the world of our religious heroes is a world that for the most part, no longer exists.

So what is the cure?

It’s not simple nor is it something that I see happening anytime soon. But I think that R’ Soleveitchik was on the right path in this regard. A new, modern understanding of Judaism and our culture needs to be cultivated. We cannot base our theology on ancient Greek methodologies, or Muslim and Christian approaches from the Middle Ages. If we are confident that we have the truth, and I believe we do, we must believe that it is can be reconciled with modernity with absolute fealty to the words of Chazal which are binding and the halacha that flows from those words. I am not advocating that we abandon halachic Judaism, chas v’shalom. I am advocating for a new approach to Torah that uses modern ideas much in the same way Chazal used ideas from their time and all the great Jewish thinkers over the last 2000 years up until recently.

It can start with our education system and approach to the non-orthodox and to the non-Jews in our world. We have transplanted a model from a time of blood libels, of pogroms, and of Jew hatred, that led to the Holocaust in Europe and are trying to implement it in a free, safe, and friendly United States of America. It’s just more of the same. We can’t expect those models to work anymore. It’s a brave new world. It’s a different world. And just as we can’t expect that style of chinuch (education) to work on these shores, we can’t expect that what inspired and fascinated a water carrier or a farmer in Europe circa 1730 would inspire and fascinate an accountant or an attorney today.

On an individual level, I strongly recommend that people trying to find their place in orthodox Judaism by finding the things that they like. Exploit them. Enjoy them. Focus on what makes you feel good religiously and what inspires you. All the while, maintaining strict adherence to halacha and conforming to the standards of one’s community. But don’t expect the kinds of returns that our great-great-grandparents had. It was a different world with different challenges. What you should expect is that you can have a 2012 type of relationship with God and Judaism. Set that kind of realistic goal and a lot of disappointment and apathy can be avoided.

I really believe that this is not only possible, but necessary. I think we can do it and that we must do it. Each era of Judaism had its challenges and configured a form of orthodox, halachic Judaism to meet those challenges all while remaining strictly adherent to the daled amos shel halacha. We can do the same for the future of our Judaism. We can move past the model of early modern history based on the romanticization of European pre-war shtetl life and forge our own beautiful, successful, passionate orthodox Judaism of the future.

To answer the third question, this method is not proved to work. It is a suggestion that I am confident has some merit. I hope that we can make the adjustments that we need to ensure that our children and grandchildren feel a similar, yet different passion, as our parents and grandparents did before us. I think we can.

PDF version of this article: Judaism of the Future

  • Baruch Pelta

    I think the genius of Soloveitchik is his refusal 
    to ensure Judaism is “reconciled with modernity;” see section 21.02 (“Yeshiva University I”) in Rakeffet’s second volume.

    Soloveitchik wasn’t concerned with challenges to his faith, as he makes most clear in the beginning of Lonely Man. He never developed a systematic theological apologetic. Instead, he attempted to provide a view, rooted in Kierkegaard’s modern existentialism, of the beauty of living Jewish.

    This is probably the most honest approach. Moreover, allowing the contradictions between the dialectic personalities of our modern age — I’d call them Jewish Man and Modern Man — ensures that people can make their own Judaisms while ignoring that which is so uncomfortable (which, not being frum, I would argue includes the religion’s untenability) that if they were in an environment which didn’t acknowledge modern thought, they would either leave altogether or stay in the community but be entirely alienated by all the practices.

    Just my two cents.

    • @google-03d29f30a5abb46931d7037364e1fa15:disqus I am not exactly sure what you mean. I was talking about the Rav as he is portrayed in Halachic Man and the Making of Ethical Man. In those books (which I have not read in full, only excerpts and reviews) it was my impression that the Rav “started over” with theology. That is what I was referring to.

  • Anonymous

    While I think this is a beautiful essay on how many Jews brought the middle (dark)  ages into the modern world, I dont think thats what the Klal Prospective was addressing. The issues you bring up are not so new, they have been tormenting many for the past century. I think the klal is referring to the more recent trend of unfulfilled Jews. There is something different between today’s generation and the previous one. Like one of the writers said, for some reason we thought our kids will grow up wanting to be jewish without telling them why.  IMHO in has mostly to do with the loss of feelings of connection and pride in being religious. 

    • @DovidTeitelbaum:disqus The journal was addressing WHY many orthodox Jews feel spiritually deficient. This article addresses this issue head on.

      • DG

         I think there are two vastly different types of disenchantment with Jewish observance. One is what this post addresses: the intellectual disenchantment. The other is what DT is talking about: kids who see no reason to deprive themselves of fun because they’ve never been taught a reason. They’re related to a certain extent, because type 1 people are likely to raise type 2 kids. But I think one very big barrier to any Jewish fulfillment for type 1 people is the general denunciation (on grounds of apikorsus) of anyone who doesn’t believe in absolutely everything that any rabbi ever said (even if they contradict each other).

        Incidentally, regarding your comment that “we know that superstition is bunk,” that’s only true because we define as superstition only those things that we are convinced are bunk.

        • Fair point about the two types of disenchantment. The purpose of the KP issue was to address adults who feel this way.

          • Anonymous

            I was going to say the same thing. I think I interact mostly with teens and Rabbi Fink deals more with grown ups and so we see it differently. Where did you get the idea that it was addressing adults?

          • @DovidTeitelbaum:disqus 
            Here is what KP said:

            That lack of connection is reflected most dramatically in the growing numbers of so-called “adults at risk,” i.e., those who, at some point in adulthood, realize that they do not know why they have been performing mitzvos all their lives, or why they should continue to do so. Among younger people, the symbol of that lack of connection has become teenagers who text on Shabbos.”

            It seems that the ikker is the adults and the kids are the tuffel.

  • Well written. What you suggest above is an enormous task, though. But I do think it hits the nail on the head.

    @google-03d29f30a5abb46931d7037364e1fa15:disqus  What you say might indeed be true, but in the end we do need to address the above as well, for these that require a working theology.

  • If I had a hat, I would tip it off to you.

    • Wow. I may have to rethink this entire post. You liked it!?

  • Anonymous

    thoughtful and well-written.

  • S.

    It already exists. Left wing Orthodoxy is your solution.

    • Anonymous

      Left wing orthodoxy has its own major problem, which is no soul. If you had two Hachnasos Sefer Torah’s to go to, one at HAFTR and one at CHAIM BERLIN, you would forsure go to the CB one, it would make you feel happier, the joy, real or not, would be more palpable, etc….

      basically, LWO is very dry and that is a major problem.

      • I think this a stereotype that is fair but there are exceptions. I’ve seen pictures of the YCT end of year party and it looks like as much “fun” as a simchas beis hashoeva, if you are into that kind of thing.

        • Anonymous

          Well not just fun, a Yom Kipper in the Mir will be more emotional and likely fulfilling than in the Young Israel of Cheryy Hill.

          Now I’m not saying that the emotion or fulfillment is real or imagined, but its there and people will confuse or associate it with a deeper spiritual connection and more meaning.

          • Anonymous

            @azigrae:disqus I think you may be assigning value to things based on what you may like, and based on what makes you feel “more”. Some of us, like me, can’t stand those “spiritual” moments of people crying aloud on Yom Kippur, or shokeling fervently, or getting tipsy and dancing at a simchas beis hashoeva, or crazy dancing at a hachnosos sefer Torah. Some of us, like me, find almost all of that “emotion” to be contrived and superfluous. And even annoying in some cases, for example, I can’t stand being pulled into a dancing circle on Simchas Torah.

          • DG

             I doubt it would be more fulfilling for everyone. I once spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening in a yeshiva that everyone said I had to go to because it was so wonderful, an experience not to be missed. The kavannah was supposed to be amazing. Well, maybe it was, but I can’t actually tell what anyone else’s kavannah is like. It wasn’t for me. It was long. Slow. I finished Shemoneh Esrei half an hour before the start of Chazarat ha-Shatz. The second day I brought a book to read. Maybe everyone else there had a deep spiritual connection, but that was between them and Hashem. I couldn’t tell.

            On the other hand, some MO shuls attract serious daveners, have inspiring derashos, etc.

          • Anonymous

            As far as spirituality, I feel it 1000 times more when alone (or in a very small group) in a quiet forest with a small stream gurgling nearby. And I feel it 1000 times more when on a hike with a few friends and stopping in a canyon or on a mountain ledge to daven mincha. And I feel it 1000 times more when learning the daf yomi by myself at 2 in the morning and suddenly “getting it” than if I were with a group bleary eyed at 6:30 in the morning. Everyone is different, some people get their spirituality alone, or from nature, some from large groups and organized events, some from learning alone, some from learning with groups, etc.

          • Anonymous

            @MarkSoFla:disqus @c057154fd302f905d4249b838f2495f5:disqus dont get me wrong, I wasnt making any assumptions about what you would feel at a different sort of jewish functions. However, you cant argue with the facts that “Heimish”style Judaism is winning and its for the reasons I’ve stated. 

            also, @marksofla:disqus do you think I’d like the sweaty dancing of a Chaim Berlin function? 🙂 I thought you knew me better. 

      • S.

        Everything has its own problems. In fact, one problem which Rabbi Fink didn’t address is: why religion at all? Along with modernity, we can be good, happy, kind, wonderful people and turn lights on and off all day every shabbos. So why shouldn’t we?

        But putting that aside, he was talking about a solution that sees modern ways of thinking as part of the solution and incorporates it into Judaism. That’s already being done. If this floats your boat, read Chief Rabbi Sacks and a whole host of LW Orthodox rabbis (lav davka ‘official’ LW Orthodoxy, whatever that is). LW Orthodox Judaism already does what Rabbi Fink says it the solution.

        As for the idea that the yeshivish are soulful, that will be contested by pretty much anyone, including many yeshivish people, who themselves gravitate toward Chassidishe events for the soul. I never heard of anyone inspired by singing and dancing at – your example – Chaim Berlin. Soul? Are you sure? 

        • Anonymous

          @S. i did mean hassidic functions, not yeshiva one. 

        • >why religion at all? Along with modernity, we can be good, happy, kind, wonderful people and turn lights on and off all day every shabbos. So why shouldn’t we?

          I’m waiting for your answer 🙂

        • Anonymous

          @S:disqus why religion at all? Along with modernity, we can be good, happy, kind, wonderful people and turn lights on and off all day every shabbos. So why shouldn’t we?

          Why not address this? Well, two reasons. First, plenty of people do indeed do this. They don’t follow any particular precepts of religion, and are good, happy, kind, and wonderful people. Second, that wasn’t the point. The point is how can we continue to be orthodox, yet evolve our orthodoxy such that it can coexist with the modern world (the only world that we have).

        • @MarkSoFla:disqus is correct. Religious observance and a willingness to be religious are presumed. The issue is dealing with a seemingly critical onset of malaise.

      • Joseph Nerenberg

         I’ll never forget the Purim I was at Chaim Berlin: Actual vomit was in front of the Aron Kodesh.

  • Ezra Goldschmiedt

    Would you agree or disagree that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch moved things in this direction? I think he did, but many Jewish leaders from the past until today have refused to accept his worldview.

    • I agree 100%.

      • curious george

        I believe we need a cadre of leaders to teach and model TIDE to the masses in a way this is relevant for this generation. We really need this asap!

  • ksil

    i like the way you defined the problem, however how to fix it is a head scratcher.

    you say “finding the things that they like. Exploit them. Enjoy them….” this is an important point, becasue so many of our youth are not really allowed to find things they like.  there is not much in the way of extra-ciricular activities, music, sports, etc.  We will never know what some of these kids are skilled at, what their passions may be,,,,,never.

    this leads me to the next point, which is that your recommendation is to bring modernity into religious life.  Ala YU, etc.  embrace the modern world so that, presumably, we are not left behind and looked at like an old irrelavant fundamentalist cult.  This seems like something impossible (and why many have been saying the modern orthos will never grow) – modernity is at complete odss with the way orthodoxy is practiced in 95% of the world – so to say embrace modernity, seems like trying to mix oil and water – it will never be done, and is completely untenable.

    finally, i am surprised you did not mention the obsession with women’s dress and separation of the sexes….

    • Ksil: You just stated that it is impossible without explaining why you think that is the case… Go on…

      And this is a foundational article. It could be spun off into many different directions. Gender issues is one of them. I’ve dealt with that similarly on this blog before: http://finkorswim.com/2011/06/13/the-future-of-women-in-orthodox-judaism/

      • ksil

        it kind of dovetails off of Dovbear’s recent post.  so many of the mitzvos, so much of the hsakafa and so much of the machshava is driectly tied towards (what Bray calls) havdalah.  90% of everything we do has foundation in some sort of seperating from the goyim, from secular life, from avodah zara.  how can we, withe the same voice, say lets embrace it and bring it in.  together. tie it up in a nice little bow like YU.  In much of the orthodox world, YU is just as bad, if not worse than conservative.  you cant have both.  you cant mix water and oil.  you cant with one hand bring secular life into your home and with the other hand push it out.

        • >In much of the orthodox world, YU is just as bad, if not worse than conservative.  you cant have both.I don’t understand this statement. Sure to charredi Judaism it’s bad….but to MO it’s not. MO Jews HAVE been bringing in the GOOD of secular life into their homes with BOTH hands. So there are things we separate and there are thing we don’t. Are you saying it’s either all or nothing?

          • ksil

            holy, i am assuming this letter is directed to the more run of the mill yeshivish type communities.  this is adivce to that world on how to be “better” more spirutal, more connected whatever….so i am saying that is at odds with the very foundation of that community

    • >it will never be done, Please elaborate. How are you saying it is not being done. It is. Are you really saying that Modern Orthodox Judaism is the same Judaism that Williamsburg Jews practice? Or, are you primarily judging by how egalitarian it is? Sure, orthodox will never AS egalitarian as your local university, but that isn’t the be all and end all of modernity.

  • Kishmirin

    As long as you have a yeshiva system that perpetuates the nonsense of  hundreds of years of ignorance and superstition and passes it off as immutable law, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for making Judaisim a rational religion.  Faith can take you a long way but there’s much that has to be shed.

  • I think that part of the problem *is* the idea that HaShem’s intervention is manifested in supernatural miracles. By not appreciating the amazing things in our daily lives, we cut ourselves off from our creator. Does the fact that we know exactly how it developed make the birth of a child any less miraculous? Can anyone upon visiting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and hearing the recovering alcoholics express thanks to God for keeping them sober remain a skeptic? Should we when we look at a beautiful mountain range or rainbow appreciate its Creator as well as its beauty? 

    But I don’t hear a lot about this in Orthodox Judaism. I have a religious Muslim student from Libya in one of my classes. Yesterday afternoon she gave a presentation and she thanked Allah and her husband for making her success in graduate school possible. Do we really understand that God is the source of all our success in the world? Of all our material prosperity? I rarely hear such talk from Jews, Orthodox or not. 

    • ksil

      if only it were true….

  • Guest

    Rabbi Fink,

    You talked about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I have a question for you.  I can understand how a skeptic can continue to be happily orthodox if it adds good to their life.  But, unless one is FFB and has some sort of emotional attachment to being frum, why on earth would a skeptic continue to be orthodox if a halachic way of life is making his or her life worse? 

    I’ll give you an example.  Not using electricity on shabbos has been very emotionally damaging to me.  Why?  Because I unfortunately experienced such a traumatic event that I develpoed post trauma stress disorder.  For the first six months after the event I would make healing progress during the week and then shabbos would not only undue that, but it intensified the PTSD and solidified it more.  With no distraction like TV I could not fall asleep, I could not call someone for support, and by the middle of shabbos I would already have fantasies of shooting myself in the head, which I did not do out of love for my children and parents.  As a skeptic, one day I decided that I only had one life to live and I wasn’t going to spend one seventh of it in agony because of an opinion of a person who’s opinion was based on others who got a lot of things wrong.  I started using electricity on shabbos and now I’m not in suicidal agony every seven days.  However, now I have to live a doublr life which is horrible so I want out of the whole thing.   My husband, like you, acuses me of using errors in halacha and “feelings” to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But he is not in my shoes and neither are you.  As far as I can tell, for you, an orthodox life has turned out to be beautiful.

    So let me get back to my original question which I am looking for a sincere answer to.  If rabbinical halacha is no more provable than sharia law, why on earth would someone who knows this AND is being hurt by halacha NOT throw out the baby with the bathwater?

    • Ezra Goldschmiedt

      I would argue that in your situation, you would have had a pretty solid halachic argument for being allowed to watch TV on Shabbos – serious threats to life, including those which are psychological in nature, trump the Shabbos laws, certainly if what you needed could be accomplished with little to no compromise on the more serious rules.

      I don’t know about Sharia law, but the body of rabbinic halachah absolutely takes these serious issues into account – anyone who told you otherwise is simply wrong.

      I imagine (as you said) that this is just one among many examples of your concerns. My apologies if this sounds insensitive in any way.

      • guest

        Thanks E 🙂 You were very sensitive. However, I’ve been told time and time again that feelings are not a legitimate reason to break shabbos. Even if in some fantasy world I would get a heter I’m still in a situation where I have to lie to my kids, friends, etc.
        I guess the point I was trying to make is that if you are a skeptic, and you have to take a gamble by choosing between an orthodox and non-orthodox life, it really all comes down to: Is the lifestyle working for you? THAT, in my opinion, skeptic or not actually, is the simple reason why people are “at risk.” Sometimes as much as someone tries, it’s just not working for them. If its not, why would someone choose living a double life over an honest non-orthodox life?

        • DG

           Because some people are skeptical but not atheists. If you think the Torah might be true but might not, it makes sense to keep halachah. You aren’t sure it’s true, but you aren’t sure it isn’t.

          • guest

            Not if it’s worsening the one life you’ve got….

        • Ezra Goldschmiedt

          When those feelings have serious implications for a person’s actions, they are definitely to be taken into consideration. Hesitation in giving permission to violate Shabbos in such situations is due to a tremendous misunderstanding – certain psychological conditions can’t just be attributed to the “yetzer hora,” to be fought off with simple mental effort.

          Concerning the bigger issue you’re raising, I won’t pretend to have an answer for you – it’s a tough problem to have, and I wish you only the best in making your life work out in the best way possible.

  • ksil

    i want to hear CA comment on why you call it “Judaism” of the future, when 90% of jews already do all these things (conservative reform), but then again, orthodox barely consider those people jewish, if at all.

    “orthodox” judaism of the future

    • Fair point. But whatever. The next layer of all this is to create more common ground with other denominations. And I was using borrowed terminology from the journal. And throughout the article I was very careful about using “orthodox Judaism” for the same reason.

      • ksil

        i love you man.  but i dont think any orthodox jews want any common ground.  maybe some YU folks, but they are such a tiny sliver minority,,,,the majority do not see common ground and frankly dont want anything to do with them.

        as tesyaa has pointed out many times, there is more common ground with fundamentalist christians and muslims than with other non-orthodox jews.  and the frum WANT it that way

        • I am working on it… Give me some time…

  • I think that part of the problem *is* the idea that HaShem’s intervention is manifested in supernatural miracles. By not appreciating the amazing things in our daily lives, we cut ourselves off from our creator. Does the fact that we know exactly how it developed make the birth of a child any less miraculous? Can anyone upon visiting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and hearing the recovering alcoholics express thanks to God for keeping them sober remain a skeptic? Should we when we look at a beautiful mountain range or rainbow appreciate its Creator as well as its beauty? 

    But I don’t hear a lot about this in Orthodox Judaism. I have a religious Muslim student from Libya in one of my classes. Yesterday afternoon she gave a presentation and she thanked Allah and her husband for making her success in graduate school possible. Do we really understand that God is the source of all our success in the world? Of all our material prosperity? I rarely hear such talk from Jews, Orthodox or not. 

  • Anonymous

    Very nice essay Rabbi.

    I just have one problem I cannot shake, it is bugging me to no end. The photo of the “future” sign you have is pointing North-East, when we all know based on Chazal and the Torah, that the correct direction is always dead right, or EAST as it relates to this photo.

    Please for the sake of Torah and Yidishkeit, fix the photo.

    Askan Azigra

    • Pointer

      Actually NE is spot on because of the orthodrome rule.  NE is a shorter route to Jerusalem than due E.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_circle

      • DG

         It all depends where you’re coming from. For some people Jerusalem is to the south, west, or north.

  • Agouradeb

    Well said, Rabbi Fink!

    As a woman of a certain age, i.e., older than you are, I would not pretend to know what it is like to face the world as it is now as a young Orthodox Jew.  I haven’t ever had a problem reconciling the old world Judaism of open miracles with the modern world.That being said, I have experienced the ‘let down’ from being a young adult frum woman to a woman “living in her car” as she drove numerous car pools across miles of urban landscape in unending traffic.  Modern life absolutely distracts from being able to engage in the aspects of frumkeit that used to give me that ‘wow’ feeling or that ‘aha’ moment.When I found myself  “phoning it in” regarding my involvement in my Jewish life I began to wonder if I could ever get back to feeling passionate about being Jewish. The challenge for me is that the re-telling of the stories of the open miracles are what inspire me.  It has become more difficult to find modern-day connections to these types of events.  However, it is not impossible.What I had to do is re-arrange my priorities to include MORE TIME to learn, to contemplate and to daven.  I’ve had to stop rushing through davening and squeezing in learning after checking emails.  And since tehillim speak to me as a way to connect with what inspires me about being Jewish, I am taking more time to not only recite them, but to contemplate them and to learn about them.Admittedly, there was no time to be able to re-arrange my priorities until my children no longer required a driver.  Perhaps I could have made the changes sooner if we would have all agreed to eat raw foods for Shabbos! Seriously though, I encourage everyone who is wanting to feel more passionate about their religious practice to follow Rabbi Fink’s suggestions. Find what speaks to you, carve out more time in your life and focus there.  The deeper I dig in the areas that appeal to me, the more I am feeling frumkeit’s relevance to my life again.

  • Anonymous

    Do you think that Modern Orthodox Jews experience a greater degree of religious fulfillment then Yeshivish and Chasidic Jews?  Perhaps modernity simply lowers one’s expectations of religious fulfillment or redefines its meaning?  

    • @Henryedelman:disqus  The issue is not so much who has a more fulfilling life as much as it is who has a more disappointing life.

      • Anonymous

        A fulfilling life is an extension of desire, a disappointing life of expectation.  Either way, I am suspicious of the question.  If Jews a thousand years ago did not think in terms of spiritual fulfillment or religious disappointment, their lives were no less circumscribed by desire.  What they lacked was opportunity.  Opportunity is the burden modernity has conferred on Orthodoxy and those Jews searching for a deeper religious experience should be cautious about seeking the cure for their malaise from the source of their problem.  What the contemporary Jew needs is not to be more modern but to be more Medieval.  Have you hugged a Chassid today?

  • mevaseretzion

    You raise some good points. I would suggest reading Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (REB) (especially God, Man and History and Not in Heaven for a fresh view of a Jewish philosophy that answers well to the need for an updated, while still faithful, Judaism (including Halachik issues with which REB concerned himself deeply).

    >In those days, it was stupid to not see God in everything. But in our modern times, where we have answers to many questions, we have reasonable explanations for many things that were mysterious in the past, where we know that superstition is bunk, all that seems so distant, so impossible, and so different from our world.

    RYBS and REB would not agree with this. Philosophically, science does not answer the same questions as faith, and while in the past people created mythologies to explain natural phenomena, that is not to be confused with religion. In fact, mythology was steadily replaced by science even by Plato. The explanations offered by medieval theories gave intermediary explanations that led back to God, but the same type of divine cause is still possible and (arguably) needed using scientific explanations. It would be wrong for a teacher to tell students that because we understand the biological and chemical processes of photosynthesis, we therefore and by virtue of that understanding are able to lay claim to the cause of this process. Science, similar in this to mythological accounts, can explain how but not the why or the who, the cosmological cause, of the process. Understanding a process scientifically does not mean we do not see God in them.

    >Halachic Man and the Making of Ethical Man. In those books (which I have not read in full, only excerpts and reviews)

    These are valuable books to be read in their own right, and not to develop an impression from second- or third-hand sources. The Rav was not an easy mark, and it is not possible to encapsulate his world-view in one or two sentences (no matter how pithy). For example, reading Emergence of Ethical Man, it may be possible (as Hazony has done) to glean from that a break with traditional sources. However, seeing this as a denial of transcendence, miracles or mystical telos does not, in my opinion, do the book, or the Rav, justice. The book itself has elements which deny an explanation derived solely from naturalistic sources (see the footnote on page 101 for an example). The Rav, even more so, must be read in light of all his works, and certainly with more weight given to books he published while alive. Halachik Man, Halachik Mind and Lonely Man of Faith present a far more explicitly nuanced view of mankind.  Works in which a religious, metaphysical and transcendent aspect to man’s existence cannot be discounted merely because Emergence does not focus on these.

    That being said, I do not deny that RYBS was innovative. However, this innovation must be articulated correctly, not by projecting a “naturalistic-only” view on the Rav.

    • @c80d67899695aab5ceb4f770d973d810:disqus  I did not mean to ascribe a particular view to the Rav. I am the last person to claim expertise in his thinking. I only meant that he was unafraid to confront modernity and create a new theology for the modern Jew based on modern thinking and not based on ancient or medieval thinking.

    • mevaseretzion

      I realize upon re-reading your post that I may have been projecting too much of what Hazony wrote into your passing remarks on RYBS. My critique probably applies more to his article than yours. My apologies.

  • GarnelIronheart

    Judaism works when the emphasis is on helping one’s fellow, on making the world a better place a priority in life.
    In the society we live in, the opposite attitude reigns. What’s in it for me?  What am I entitled to?  And screw you if you get in my way.
    We are no different that the gentiles in this way.  Our Judaism is about “what’s in it for me” and “where’s my spiritual high”? All the other claims about why Judaism is not reaching the Jews are a distraction.

    • ksil

      i know, right!  those horrible horrible selfish GENTILES.  jesus

      • GarnelIronheart1

        Take your meds ksil.  I didn’t blame it on the Gentiles.  I say that we’re no different from them.  Big difference but you may be too addled to realize it.

  • ksil

    In short, you are advocating the yeshivish charedi orthodox (whatever) embrace modern orthodoxy, yet continue to wear their hats.

  • Guest

    I used to agree with what you wrote.  But then I saw http://www.machonshilo.org
    It really is the future.

  • Anonymous

    just read this; great job pinpointing the issue in an honest way, but i fear that it gets really hard to follow some of the illogical hokus pokus (yet officially binding) halachos once someone gets to the state of malaise you refer to. i think someone needs to get up and defrag the hard drive for our current generation, possibly on a broader scale than what has been done many times in our history (changes by Josiah, Hillel, Chasidism, R Hirsch). wash your hands well with soap before hamotze and after using the restroom, etc. as an officially religious jew, i still try to keep all these rules, but i’m definitely more lax about them. why can’t someone get up with some cajones and close the breach.

    • Rabbi Angel has mentioned some of these things.