Forthodoxy?

…What’s in a name?

Even with the catchiest of handles and the most creative of names, there will always be some sort of drawback that causes misconceptions on the part of the onlooker. “Forthodoxy” is meant to be a clever amalgamation of three words: forward, thinking, and orthodoxy, but what these words are meant to imply may not be clear to every reader.

“Forthodoxy” is not a new stream of “orthodoxy.” In fact, it is not a new group at all. Neither myself nor this blog constitute in any way an association, a group, a community, a sect, or an authority of any kind. This is a blog – a place to read about and discuss Jewish ideas – and that is all. The goal of Forthodoxy is to present challenges to the orthodox Jewish world out of a desire for change in the current state of affairs with a view to a brighter and more authentic Jewish future. And it is the position of this site that such a future can only come about through rediscovering and practicing the simple, consistent, and portable rabbinic Judaism of our fathers. The Haredi/Hasidic version of Judaism is ethnocentric, spiritually bankrupt, and lacks luster among a growing number of committed Jews today. Because of this, many orthodox Jews are seeking, not membership in yet another denomination or sect, but a voice that echoes their own inner sentiments and that will encourage them to live the lives they should in the communities that they currently find themselves. Forthodoxy is meant to be a part of that voice.

How Forward?

The greatest fear when Jews begin talking about Judaism “moving forward” is that in a desire for change they will move beyond the Torah itself, leaving it behind or exchanging it for a foreign ideology. On this site there is no such agenda. The “forward” in Forthodoxy refers to the need to move past the stagnated and elitist system found in Haredi/Hasidic circles – a system that is focused on the supposed superiority of European tradition and Hasidic conceptions of spiritual leadership – and return to a place of true esteem for the sources of Hazal, which instruct us in a clear way how to attain to personal service of God, and the ultimate redemption.

Far-flung exilic communities were not an alien reality in the Mishnaic, Talmudic, or Geonic eras, yet never did Hazal begin constraining people from those communities to only and always follow the “minhagim” which they practiced in their host countries. Never at any time did they begin to categorize groups of Jews along such ethnic lines.

This latter-day obsession with regional customs that somehow permanently attach themselves to an individual needs to give way to the directives of the halakhah and the wisdom of our sages (of blessed memory). Trying to recreate some sort of elusive and idyllic “golden era” – whether it be of France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Yemen, Spain, or another galut – is not the way forward. What have we come to when religious Jews actually think it is a halakhic duty to dress in overtly non-Jewish clothing styles, but are emphatic that it is only optional (and even forbidden) to fulfill actual imperatives such as learning to pronounce lashon ha-kodesh correctly, writing sifrei torah according to halakhah, wearing tefillin during Minhah, or actually providing for their own needs and the needs of their families through their own efforts?

Judaism and the Jewish people desperately need to move forward – not despite the truth of the Torah, but in accordance with it; not past the goal, but authentically pointed toward it.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

“Thinking” is meant to be the antonym of “superstitious,” “blindly allegiant,” “illiterate,” “ignorant,” and “idolatrous” while being the synonym of “rational,” “wise,” “even-tempered,” “humble,” “intelligent,” “philosophically astute,” and “purely monotheistic.”

The ideology of so-called “Daas Torah” envisions an elevated class of rabbinic elites who autocratically dictate to the rest of Jewry how they should think, act, dress, and relate to their families. These self-styled nobles act with almost complete impunity and require their followers to obey them without question.

This model of leadership is unfounded within authentic Jewish sources, stemming instead from Catholic and Hasidic literature.

The implementation of such a model has led to the facilitation of child abuse, scandal, racism, theft, corruption, the oppression of women and converts, and an exchange of the beautiful sanity of the halakhah for the obsessive insanity of mystical Judaism.

The pyramid of rabbinic authority that has developed is an epic fail and the growing desire among religious Jews is to relate to rabbis as “lawyers” rather than “lawmakers.” The respect and renown of rabbinic figures should properly be based on their high moral character and competence when applying the sources of Hazal, not some innate privilege or superiority supposedly possessed by him.

Forthodoxy adopts the obvious proposition that many Jews today are leaving their religion, not due to a desire to shed religious beliefs or praxis, but due to the many direct challenges to both their intellectual honesty and their moral compass – challenges that seem to be insurmountable.

The fact is that the majority of those who are walking away from Judaism are not converting to other religions, but are becoming secular.

Those who resign from their official affiliations within their synagogue and community while remaining observant are similarly weary of the subtle ultimatum being given to them by the Hasidic/Haredi world: either subvert your intelligence and common sense of right and wrong, or suffer being ostracized as a “sinner” and a “heretic” by the community. What Judaism needs now more than ever is a return to intellectual honesty and thoughtful authenticity – this is the essence of mekoriut.

What kind of “orthodox” are you?

“Orthodox” is a term with a lot of baggage. It never existed before the early 19th century when it was coined as a reaction to the Haskalah and the nascent Reform Movement in Germany. Since that time, such self-definition by Jews against the “other” – whose views were considered potentially dangerous or heretical (and admittedly many times were certainly dangerous and heretical) – has given rise to a series of Jewish denominations: Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative.  In fact, even “Orthodox” itself is a not a monolithic term. There are various “orthodoxies” – e.g. “Modern,” “Haredi,” “Hasidic” – each with its own further set of sub-groups.

The original intention of the word “Orthodox” was to express fidelity to the sources of Hazal and the halakhah, as opposed to other movements that were rejecting them.

Soon after it entered into popular use, “Orthodoxy” became politicized and began a process of self-definition, leading to the eventual emergence of the Haredi world we know today. After this transformation, to be “Orthodox” stood for something else. It became just one European denomination among many possessinh distinctive views on issues such as halakhic jurisprudence, social norms, the nature of rabbinic literature, their relationship to Jewish history, and others.

A startling realization is that such denominations were never formed in Yemenite, Sephardic, and other non-European communities. For these groups there was/is a range of observance and religious education among Jews with everyone being welcomed under the banner of the same community institutions. In other words, each Jew was/is viewed as having an individual level of Jewish participation, but this fact did/does not present a need to draft a charter for a new denomination since no one in these communities ever expected the standards to change.

Judaism is not something we get to [re]define, it is an inheritance from Hazal and their direct expositors.

Word Games

It is nearly impossible to win the politically-motivated word games engaged in by the Orthodox, especially those of the Haredi and Hasidic varieties. For instance, if someone relies on ingredient lists printed on food labels and does not necessarily require a hekhsher to establish the kashrut of a given product, then such a one is viewed as being “Conservative” and not “Orthodox.” Similarly, if, for example, one eats gevinat nokhri (cheese produced by non-Jews without Jewish oversight or involvement), affirms the permissibility of women holding a Torah scroll, or uses electricity on Yomim Tovim, etc. – although there are traditionally “Orthodox” opinions and even great rabbis of the past that explicitly allowed such things – he or she will be seen as “not Orthodox” due to the politics of the Haredi world.

Dr. David Weiss-Halivni, a prolific author and religious Jewish scholar, is a case in point. Rabbi Dr. David Weiss-Halivni was “excommunicated” by the Haredi/Hasidic world for merely espousing the teachings of Hazal with regard to the textual history of the Torah. Citing passages from the Talmud, Avot De-Rabbi Natan, the Midrash Rabbah, and others Dr. Weiss-Halivni formulates a position wherein, due to the neglect of the Torah by the Jewish people during their antiquity (referred to as “Hate’u Yisra’el“), the text became maculate and needed to be reconstructed by Ezra HaSofer upon his return from Babylon. His reconstructive efforts resulted in a complete text with some remaining textual difficulties – a proposition taught openly by Hazal themselves! Although he was admittedly defending a form of the Documentary Hypothesis (something that this site does not affirm), his actual thesis does not necessitate any one particular text-critical theory. His opponents labeled the specific passages of Hazal which he cited as “forgeries” and branded Dr. Weiss-Halivni a heretic, proving yet again that nothing can stand in the way of the Haredi world – not even the facts.

So, is Forthodoxy “Orthodox”? The answer is “yes and no” – “yes” in the general sense and “no” in the political sense.