Dvar Torah: Orthodoxy must join the conversation (response to Orthodox rabbis writing in the JC)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 October 2013

I am deeply deeply ideological in my Judaism.  Yet I tend to be utterly unmoved by proclamations from dayanim about ‘Pseudo Judaism’, ‘Pseudo Jews’ and the danger of pluralism.  They do not anger me, but do make me sad.

Because, there is a conversation going on about Judaism and modernity:
Modern Orthodoxy is (just about) in the conversation
Masorti Judaism – certainly its progressive wing – is in the conversation
Progressive Judaism is in the conversation.
Cultural Jews, reconstructionists, humanists, transdenominationalists are all in the conversation.

But Non-modern Orthodoxy has placed itself outside of the conversation and continues to snipe at the conversation from the side.  Except for where it causes pain – and it does, especially in matters of status – it is eminently shrug-offable.

But, for anyone reading the JC this weekend, or last weekend, or next weekend, I want to give three bits of important information that we sometimes forget.

Number 1
Orthodox Judaism is not the majority Judaism in the world.
The majority of Jews in the world are secular – culturally engaged, if engaged at all.
Of Jews who are religiously engaged – practicing and or attached to synagogues – Orthodoxy is still not the majority.
So, to ask us not to do weddings and conversions – as apparently happened in the mid 90s – is preposterous – our weddings and conversions are recognised by the vast majority of world Jews.
The Percentage of Israeli Jews who are Charedi? 7%; percentage of Israeli Jews who are Reform or Conservative? 8%.  Percentage of Israeli Jews who are secular? 50%!
Percentage of American Jews who are Orthodox?  maybe 15%

Number 2
Orthodoxy is not the natural heir to rabbinic Judaism.  There is no gold standard of Judaism; the idea of there being one form of Judaism that is more authentic than any other is nonsensical – authentic in what way?
As Tony discussed on Yom Kippur, Judaism is by its very essence a religion of dialectic.  Right Wing Orthodoxy by its very essence is anti dialectic.
Judaism was a creative, dynamic force, up until the middle ages – in places it can remain so today.
I’m not saying that we are the natural heirs – there are some very real differences in our theology, ideology and practice to that of the early sages – but we are all heirs to the same literary and religious heritage – it belongs to all of us.

Number 3
It was not always like this.
The rise of the dayanim and of anti-pluralism is a relatively modern phenomenon.  Anglo Orthodoxy has traditionally been significantly more moderate and engaged.  It’s worth remembering that only 80 years ago, the then Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz spoke at West London Synagogue.

And this is the tragedy – the majority of Jews in the world are not religiously engaged – Orthodoxy needs to join the conversation because all we are doing is putting the disengaged off when we bicker instead of engaging in meaningful dialectic.

Hertz explained that he spoke at WLS because of “my conviction that far more calamitous than religious difference in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry”.  He was right then.  This is still true today.