Rabbi Lookstein on Social Orthodoxy

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Senior Rabbi of KJ reflected on the article written by his congregant on social Orthodoxy. (Everything below is his words and the sermon is complete w/o editing.)

This past Shabbat morning, I delivered a sermon entitled The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews? The sermon responded to a recently published article in Commentary by KJ Member Jay Lefkowitz, entitled The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account… Jay’s article elicited a great deal of interest and some criticism. I devoted my sermon to the article, to some unjustified criticism which came to my attention, and to my own reactions to Jay’s excellently researched and analytic description of a very important phenomenon in Orthodox Jewish life.
Haskel Lookstein

The Rise of ‘Social Orthodoxy:’ Is it Good or Bad for the Jews?
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Parashat Kedoshim
April 26, 2014

The Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, owes a debt of gratitude to our member, Jay Lefkowitz, for opening a conversation on a phenomenon that has existed for quite some time and that is growing in numbers and influence in America and, perhaps, in Israel as well. Jay calls it “Social Orthodoxy.” It could be described as “cultural Orthodoxy” or “communal Orthodoxy.” He describes a committed Jewish life that doesn’t rely on God or a divinely authored, authoritative Halakha for inspiration or obligation. No one is being obligated to do anything. Social Orthodox Jews are developing what might be described as a voluntary commitment to behave in a religious way as a manifestation of their commitment to the Jewish people, to a 4,000 year old history, to Zionism, and to Jewish culture. All of this is expressed through serious, religious practice including Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer, tefillin, kashrut and other forms of observance. As he writes: “And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity. This way of life makes the social Orthodox Jew part of the Jewish people and the sweep of Jewish history in a very powerful and fulfilling way.”

Jay freely admits in this article that he – and, no doubt, many other social Orthodox Jews – who act like religious people, who speak like religious people and who look like religious people, do not really relate to God or to the divine authority that lies behind a life of mitzvot.

He graphically describes this phenomenon in a conversation about religion which he had with a devout Catholic friend as a young adult. He writes: “When I explained (to my friend) that I was an observant Jew and began each day by reciting the morning prayers, but wasn’t really sure how God fit into my life, he was perplexed. When I admitted that these theological questions didn’t really occupy much of my attention and certainly weren’t particularly germane to my life as an observant Jew, he became agitated. And when I told him that I certainly wasn’t sure if Jewish law was divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations, he threw up his hands and said: ‘How can you do everything you do, and live a life with so many restrictions and so many obligations, if you don’t even believe in God?'”

When I read this exchange I had a déjà vu experience. It was about sixty years ago that I had an extended debate with Jay’s father, my tennis opponent of almost seventy years (we have played about 500 sets over these years and Jerry Lefkowitz is narrowly ahead of me by something like 251 to 249).

The debate took place in my parents’ living room on a Shabbat afternoon. Jerry was explaining exactly the kind of life that his son and daughter-in-law and their children live today, a life to which he subscribed: observant, deeply engaged in Jewish culture and Zionism, committed to Hebrew literacy, but without a firm belief in God or Halakha.

I remember saying to him that I couldn’t understand why he accepted upon himself so many restrictions and rules if there was no divine authority behind them. I said that if I didn’t believe in God and a divinely based Halakha, then I would go inside to my bedroom in the middle of Shabbat and take out my pack of cigarettes and light up a cigarette. Why should I deprive myself of such pleasure if there are really no compelling rules about Shabbat? Jerry’s answer was that he keeps Shabbat because that’s part of being a Jew and uniting with Jewish culture and history over thousands of years. I found that position perplexing.

I have to admit that over the years I have come to feel that Jerry and his wife, Myrna, had a point. Part of the proof of the validity of that point is their children and grandchildren, specifically, Jay and Elena and their three children and the life that they lead.

So, clearly, what Jay describes as Social Orthodoxy is good for the Jews. It keeps many Jews together and on the derech, so to speak.

But I am still troubled by some of the concerns that I had sixty years ago. Those concerns were highlighted in an analysis of the Haggadah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he published recently in YU’s publication “Passover to Go.” Focusing on the question of the rasha – the skeptic son – in the Haggadah, “What is this avoda,” Rabbi Sacks identified the question of the skeptic son as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains it, when it translates the word avoda as tircha – hard work or bother. The Talmud says that the rasha is asking a question about the Passover sacrifice. Why all this bother and effort? Why this plethora of rules about a festival sacrifice? The Ritva (a medieval commentator who never experienced the Passover sacrifice) focuses on the seder itself and suggests that the rasha is asking: “Why is it necessary to go through this whole tedious Haggadah before getting to the meal? Why can’t we just sit down and eat? Why go through the whole effort of telling the story in so many ways about the exodus from Egypt and the progress of the Jewish people from idol worshipping to the service of one God? Let’s just eat!”

In truth, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, Judaism does require tremendous effort. It is a system of detailed attention to religious practice in Shabbat, kashrut, nidah and mikveh and a myriad of other responsibilities. Who needs all this, asks the rasha!

In fact, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders tried to keep Jews close to Judaism by easing the requirements and giving Jews the opportunity to be less restricted and restrained in Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha and other ritual performances. What happened was that, rather than keeping Jews closer to tradition, the lessening of demands led Jews to move further and further away from Judaism, the opposite of what was the intention of the leaders.

Interestingly, what are the holidays that non-Orthodox Jews celebrate in the largest numbers? They are the holidays that require the biggest effort: fasting on Yom Kippur and celebrating the seder and Pesach. Apparently, Rabbi Saks suggest, Jews find meaning in the effort which the rasha rejects. This should not be surprising. Anything worthwhile is achieved through effort and struggle: becoming an artist, a musician, a scholar, a doctor, lawyer or financier. Why should religion not require tircha – effort?

The real question that Jay raises for the Orthodox Jew is the question of sustainability. Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? How is Jewish history, Jewish culture and commitment to Jewish people-hood going to demand of me and my descendants the kind of avoda – effort and consistency – that is required of a committed Jew? Doesn’t such effort and consistency rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored Halakha and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals? If it is the latter, why not allow driving to shul on Shabbat; why does one need a blech on the stove for Shabbat? Can’t one have a meaningful Shabbat without a blech? And why require a mechitza during worship? Can’t one have an inspirational davening without separating men from women?

These are serious questions which are not easily answered by reason and logic and a desire to be part of the Jewish people and 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Orthodox or Halakhic Jew – answers them by saying: all of these are required by Jewish law. They may or may not enhance our religious experience, but they are obligations which are part of the Halakhic system to which we subscribe.

It isn’t that we fear a thunderbolt hurled by God at us if we fail to perform a mitzvah or if we commit a sin. But there is something compelling about a life of Torah and mitzvot when one feels that such a life is based upon a divinely ordained system.

Many of today’s Social Orthodox Jews have sustained their commitment beyond a first generation. Jay and Elena Lefkowitz and their children are a case in point. They lead a highly committed Jewish life in our community, impelled by deeply ingrained cultural, historical and social forces. And yet: will those forces, divorced from a divine, Halakhic imperative, have a lasting power for the Orthodox community as a whole? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox be able to answer the Haggadah’s question: Why exert all this effort and all this expense and this whole avoda and undertake this detailed, comprehensive and demanding way of life?

That troubling question remains. On the answer to it depends the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Jay Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.

11 responses to “Rabbi Lookstein on Social Orthodoxy

  1. I expected that the counter would be laden with Halakhic intertextualism which so permeates (respectable) Orthodox Rabbinic literature. But, unfortunately, I am disappointed. There are numerous Halakhic, Hashkafic, and philosophic counters to Jay’s essay; but none are contained in this article. This article merely transforms Jay’s statements into questions: “That troubling question remains. On the answer to it depends the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Jay Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.” I hope readers know to look elsewhere for a good, reasoned rebuttal.

  2. I’m always skeptical of Orthodox Jews who say “if I didn’t believe the Torah was divine I wouldn’t bother.” I know plenty of Orthodox Jews who don’t believe that the Torah is divine, but still observe the mitzvot. The Pew Report said that 19% of MO Jews don’t are unsure of God’s existence and 3% are outright deniers. Why are they still identifying with MO? Also, think of the theologies of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Howard Wettstein, Norman Solomon, Avi Sagi, and Tamar Ross. These people expend a lot of energy justifying Halachah in the absence of the conventional idea of divine origin.

    I think it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Orthodoxy is a huge commitment. If suddenly you realize you don’t believe its central tenets, it is often easier to buy into something like the value of “Jewish people-hood” or
    develop some system in which Halachah has value despite its human origins. It is easier to adjust your beliefs, to find a new way of rationalizing what you are doing, than it is to change your practices.

    This is a side point, but when I think of “Social Orthodoxy,” I don’t think of the description that Jay Lefkowitz gives. That seems more like a conservative Mordecai Kaplan. I think there is also a segment of Orthodoxy (I know it exists,but don’t have numbers on its extent) that affiliates with Orthodoxy for primarily social reasons. Its members might invoke “Jewish People-hood” if you push them, but it is more of a rationalization of their practice then an actual explanation of its motivation. They stay Orthodox (though maybe not strictly observant) because their family and friends are all Orthodox. Because they understand the Modern Orthodox world, having grown up in its comfortably bourgeois bosom. For them, it is simply more comfortable to stay and any ideological justifications are redundant.

    • “observing the commandments” in many circumstances requires someone to recite a Birkas HaMitzvah that acknowledges” HaShem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam Asher Kidshanu Bmitzvosav” -if someone lacks emunah why go through what is to him or her is nothing more than “doing Shabbos” and the like? How can you expect to transmit Torah to thye next generation with such a perspective?

  3. Belief is a very individual thing. So I don’t think it’s really correct to think of multiple generations of Social Orthodox Jews, or of Social Orthodox communities. In any given family, or community, there are often going to be people who are observant but don’t believe (or who aren’t sure if they believe). If they keep their doubts to themselves (and perhaps even work on improving their faith through reading and prayer and conversation with those with more emuna), rather than trying to spread their disbelief, and raise their children in Orthodox schools and teach their children the importance of remaining observant, then they won’t negatively impact their children and the wider community.

    However, one implication of social orthodoxy is that it teaches us that when we are convincing people to stay or become Orthodox, it may be a bad idea to focus too much or exclusively on belief. If we instead emphasize the fact that only Orthodoxy (which is after all the only real continuation of traditional Judaism) has been able to inspire even a minimal level of Jewish knowledge and commitment (marrying Jewish, raising kids to be observant), and the benefits of having a tight-knit neighborhood-based Jewish community (which only Orthodoxy provides), that may be more effective.

    On the other hand, Social Orthodoxy may teach us the opposite — that we should try different ways of strengthening people’s belief. How many Shabbos morning drashas are focused on trying to explain *why* we should believe?

  4. Rabbi Lookstein’s answer is correct:Social Orthodoxy is dysfunctional in terms of its inability to transmit commitment to another generation. Consider the death of Yiddishism in America (see Samuel G. Freedman’s Jew Vs. Jew) Ahad Ha-Am’s daughter inter-married, Herzl’s children were not Zionists, Ben Gurion’s son intermarried, – Mendelssohn’s children converted (except for one son) all Jewish ideologies not rooted in a belief in God, disappeared- Sholom Aleichem’s childen were Russian speaking (not Yiddish) speaking etc. “Zionism” among Israel’s left is a derogatory term. But the most significant proof is in the dramatic decline of “Social Judaism” e.g. Conservative and Reform in the United States. Modern Orthodoxy despite its “sociability” is still rooted in a Divine source -prayer and mitzvoth -and is the only Jewish ideology to be effective after one generation. (
    see. Samuel G. Freedman’s excellent conclusion) Rabbi (Dr.) Charles H. Freundlich

  5. It seems to many commenters that the highest value in a stream of Jewish tradition is its ability to self-perpetuate through the generations. If so, I think Rabbi Lookstein is pointing out that “Social Orthodoxy” (SO, for the sake of abbreviation) may not be failing. His congregant is SO, and apparently the congregant’s children are SO too.

    Certainly that’s an anecdote. But it raises the possibility of a test. What elements of a religious stream actually work most effectively to self-perpetuate the religion? Belief alone? Practice alone? Fervent practice with, or without belief?

    I remember hearing about a mitnagged rabbi whose son left Orthodox practice. He explained his failure that “we didn’t sing zemiros on shabbes.” And I know many believing, non-practicing Jews whose children and grandchildren have little Judaism at all.

    I wonder whether social scientists have gathered data on people in Jewish or other religious traditions that might illuminate which of these elements (belief, practice, fervor) best engender self-perpetuation, and what environments tend to encourage the optimal combinations.

  6. I second Joe Leibs’ sentiments. For a proper demonstration on the problems of so called social orthodoxy, I would encourage people to listen to Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s talk here

    • Neil,
      Can you please transcribe the talk or at least give an full outline of his points? Let me see this demonstration in print. Email me if you want to make it into a full post.

  7. Dear Professor Brill,
    Thank you for your interest. Rav Rosensweig spends the first several minutes discussing how foundational belief is a basic part of Judaism. Quoting from Rambam in pirush hamishnayot and other well known sources. That so called social orthodoxy exists and has been described is one thing. But it is so obviously contrary to torah Judaism. And it is very troubling that Rabbi Lookstein does not point out the many gaping holes in such a ‘jewish lifestyle’ If one gets up in the morning and ‘davens’ but doesn’t believe who he is praying to, then what is that person doing?!
    I am afraid that I don’t have the time to give a full outline of his talk.

  8. I grant that Rabbi Lookstein did not address the issues of God, theology or broader haskafa views.
    But to say that one cannot pray without a firm assent to a halakhic defined God is the sort of answer one finds in FB debates- neither empirical or philosophically true about prayer. It may be Brisker true but that is another matter. Rav Soloveitchik however was clear in several essays about acknowledging the universal human quest for the transcendent.
    And to just say that one need emunah shelamah to be frum, I could have gotten from Rav Elhanan Wasserman.
    I assume that the recording had a better analysis.

  9. i think this is not only a powerful topic, valuable that KJ and R. Lookstein have given it a public airing and important to name the phenomena (as naming gives power and identity)- i think Social Orthodoxy (SO) fits nicely. One could also go with Orthoprax, to be a bit of a word nerd. But ultimately, based on R. Lookstein’s own description, these are basically very frum Reconstructionist Jews. Their ideology is essentially the same, but their practice (or praxis) is more inline with Orthodox halacha, which seems like a sensible alternative to normative Reconstructionism.

    What surprises me about many of these comments is the upset or rejection around SO practice. As if belief is something that can be properly or effectively ‘taught”, or that any faith group in history has ever figured out how to do consistently. Or, more to the point, as if Judaism itself doesnt prize action over belief (mi lo lishma bah lishma). What would these commentators have SOs do? Stop practicing halachic Judaism? I dont see another viable option that would satisfy the dilemma or tension for the commenters. It’s certainly not practical/possible to try the only other alternative for resolution, namely to somehow make SOs believe in God or the divine as a source of mitzvot. So what seems to be more the issue is that SOs are now forming a public identity, making themselves known rather than hiding. They have no doubt existed since the beginning of Judaism. I can understand the tension or discomfort their identity creates for normative, faith-based Orthodox Jews but that tension is theirs to bear, not a reflection or critique of SOs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s