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This column is anti-Orthodox

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I admit it. I am anti-Orthodox, albeit not in the way some readers believe.

I may question the use of “Jew” and “Jewish” as identifiers (see my Sept. 30 column “Mistaken Identity”), but in recent weeks I have come to loathe the words “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” (and I deliberately lower-cased both). That is because — as I have noted in the past — there is no such thing as “the Orthodox” and there is no such stream as “Orthodox Judaism.”

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The notion that “Orthodox” exists as an individual stream in Judaism is ludicrous. Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale lives in a different religious universe from Rabbi Avi Shafran, the chief spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America. The responsa of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein often conflict with those of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. The non-chasidic Orthodox world is alien to a chasid and a Satmar chasid bears little resemblance, say, to a Chabad adherent.

Yet, as our communities during the last few weeks faced off on the question of what a Jewish newspaper should publish, many acrimonious comments were heaved at “the Orthodox,” every last one of whom was declared guilty of a score of infractions against good taste and political correctness.

Get over it, people. “The Orthodox” does not exist. If anything, it is an umbrella term under which there is tolerated perhaps a score or more of chasidic movements, and various non-chasidic shades ranging from the most liberal interpretations of law and ritual to the most conservative. Then there are the Sephardim, among whom there also exist some huge differences in legal interpretation and ritual. In fact, not all Sephardim are Sephardim. To be sure, many are legitimate Sephardim (meaning descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews), but many others are Mizrachi (“eastern,” Jews who come mainly from the Arab world).

It is fashionable at times to blame the victim (especially if that victim is Jewish), so it must be said that “the Orthodox” in part are to blame for the mislabeling. There is a conscious effort to convey the image of a monolith because there is strength in numbers. Orthodox Jews in America, for example, represent somewhere between 11 percent and 20 percent of Jewry here — but that is true only if you count the Sephardi and modern-minded Rabbi Marc Angel, say, in the same category as the Bobover rebbe.

Umbrellas need some unifier, and such is found under this umbrella: “Orthodox” Jews ostensibly maintain a belief that the entire Torah — written and oral — came from God. Innovations not included in the chain of tradition leading from Moses to modernity are inauthentic (“innovation is forbidden by the Torah,” according to the early 19th century’s Rabbi Moses Sofer, a/k/a the Chatam Sofer).

If that sounds monolithic, it is not. In many ways, what we call “Orthodox Judaism” came into being only in response to the “enlightened innovations” of the early Reform movement. These reforms are what prompted the Chatam Sofer to utter his famous remark (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view). In so doing, he drew a line in the sand that very quickly began to shift depending on who was standing in front of it. By the late 19th century, for example, several of the condemned innovations became part of the “neo-Orthodox” movement in Germany led by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

To attack “the Orthodox” for one position or another requires identifying who speaks for “the Orthodox.” It is a question that defies answering, as a look at the spectrum of spokespeople demonstrates.

On the farthest right, there is the Agudas Harabonim (literally, the union of rabbis). Known also as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis of the United States and Canada, this group is mitnagid (non-chasidic) in orientation and its opinions represent the strictest forms of mitnagid religious practice.

Also on the far right are the chasidic movements. Rabbis belonging to the Agudas Harabonim have been known to reject meat slaughtered under chasidic guidelines because they consider such meat of questionable kashrut. (It is to alert such people that the certification statements in many kosher meat restaurants include the phrase “chadishe shechitah.”) Chasidic communities usually follow the dictates of a single leader — “the rebbe.” Each rebbe has his own set of opinions and precedents, and no two rebbes agree on everything.

Even within chasidic movements, it is not always easy to identify a single spokesperson. The Satmar are divided into two camps, as is Chabad. In the case of the Satmar, the division is over who is the legitimate heir to the previous rebbe’s mantle. In Chabad, it is over whether to publicly proclaim the messiahship of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Moving along the spectrum, there are the Agudath Israel of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada (neither of which has formal ties to the Agudas Harabonim). At this point on the spectrum, too, is the National Council of Young Israels — a movement that was formed by those seeking a more liberal Orthodoxy, but whose leadership over the years moved to the right of center.

At the center is the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA is no more a monolith than is the Orthodoxy it claims to represent; some of its members are off to the right and others are way out on a limb to the left.

As for the Orthodox left, there really is no serious organization yet, although there have been efforts to create one.

Several years ago, the Agudas Harabonim took out ads in newspapers proclaiming that it was better to stay home on Yom Kippur than to pray in a non-Orthodox synagogue. “The Orthodox,” however, had nothing to do with that ad. Chabad groups over the years have presented huge billboards proclaiming that the late Chabad leader continues to be the messiah (assuming that he ever was). “The Orthodox” had nothing to do with that, either.

We need to stop blaming “the Orthodox” for everything “the Orthodox” do. While we are at it, we need to dump all of the labels and come up with just one that will describe us all despite our differences.

I propose “klal yisrael.”

Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University.
The views in opinion pieces and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Standard. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed.
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