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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

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Who’s Orthodox now?

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Rabbi Joe Kanofsky

The truth is that, for better or worse, pretty much all of us are orthodox these days. I know that comes as disappointing news to many, if not most. Still, that’s the way it is.

My Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “orthodox” as “right in opinion,” and gives a derivation of the word from two Greek roots: orthos, meaning “straight or right” (think of “orthodontia”) and doxos, meaning “belief or opinion.”

So stop thinking for a moment about black hats, beards and protests in Israel. The truth is that, in all probability, you and most everyone you know are in fact orthodox. I find that if I talk long enough with almost any Jew, with very few exceptions, he or she will eventually admit that he or she feels that they’re really in the right, and mostly everyone else is missing the boat. Each Jew thinks that he or she has the “straight or right belief or opinion,” and that’s called “orthodox,” according to my OED.

I know what you’re thinking. Orthodox really means those deeply pious, fervently observant, very religious Jews (usually defined as the entire spectrum to the right of me). Yet if you listen closely to the way people name themselves, most Jews you might call “Orthodox” don’t self-identify as such. “Frum,” “shomer Shabbos,” “haimish,” “Torah-true,” “dati,” and “ehrlich” are more common internal identifiers, much more so than “Orthodox,” which was originally invented as a derogatory epithet by 19th-century German Reformers. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here.

Nor are we talking about the phenomenon of “open Orthodoxy,” which has garnered a lot of press recently. Never mind the subtle yet clearly implicit dismissal of the rest of the Orthodox world as “closed,” which is a classic straw man argument and a common feint in Jewish polemics. Never mind that most of the rest of the Orthodox world is uncomfortable with “OO” – that deserves a column all its own, if there’s anything left to say after the blogosphere has taken up all the oxygen in the room. However, I once saw a shul that self-identified as “open haredi” – now that is an interesting proposition.

One of the plagues of contemporary Judaism is our orthodoxy – not big-O Orthodoxy, the common shorthand for Torah-observant Judaism. To the contrary, that, in all probability, is our link to the Jewish future as surely as it’s our link to the Jewish past (read the demographic studies if you don’t believe me).

No, I’m talking about the triumphalism of each of our own little orthodoxies, the notion that only I have it right, and thus have nothing to learn from the experience or insight of others.

It’s very tempting to wrap ourselves in a cloak of self-righteous confidence in the “rightness” of our convictions and our views. I know you think that I’m talking about everybody else – if only that were the case. I know people of just about every denominational and institutional affiliation who are afflicted to some degree or another. Paradoxically, it’s quite often those who profess the most “openness” and pluralism who are in fact the most closed to any view but their own.

The talmudic tradition gives us ample evidence of how to hold fast to one’s own views and at the same time be able to hear someone else’s argument, and as a result emerge a wiser, more fully human, and perhaps even more well-informed person and Jew. It’s a model from which we can learn a great deal.


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