Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s letter to the editor in the most recent Jewish Review of Books (which was published before the Social Orthodoxy brouhaha) is terrific. He responded to Daniel Gordis’ infamous Requiem for the Conservative Movement. The letter is what I consider the right approach toward dealing with those whose intellectual misgivings lead them to shy away from Orthodoxy. It’s a strong statement of valuing social orthodoxy as a way-station.
On the other hand, I just finished Moshe Halbertal’s book on the Rambam. What an exhilarating read. When considering the Rambam’s thought it is striking how much he places apprehension of God at the center of Judaism. It’s interesting to contrast the ways that the Rambam begins the Yad Hachazaka and the Mechaber begins the shulchan aruch. Yesodei Hatorah points us in the direction of apprehending God. Hashkamat Adam Baboker points us in the direction of orthoprax.
Having served as an Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years, I witnessed Conservative Judaism both at its heyday and its descent. Although I was an ideological opponent of the Conservatives—albeit with friendly personal relationships with the Conservative community and its rabbis—I felt myself sympathizing with Daniel Gordis’ brutally honest and poignant requiem at the impending demise of the movement. (“Conservative Judaism: A Requiem,” Winter 2014) It is a genuine cry from the heart, coming from a very sincere belief in what he, the scion of one of the landmark families of the movement, once hoped was the potential of Conservatism. He decries the triviality within the movement that set out to conserve authentic Judaism and on which he had placed so much hope for the revival of Judaism in America.
Gordis registers a litany of errors, failures, and miscalculations on the part of Conservative Judaism: They did not teach the “rigors of Jewish living,” did not “speak with spiritual seriousness” or deal with “the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address,” ignored the fact that “meaningful life is about demands and duties and the call of God, otherwise we are trivial,” failed to “make demands that root people in the cosmos,” and “ignored content and Jewish substance.” He adds that all these were offered by the Orthodox “and the results are clear.” But though he admires Orthodox rigor and its demands, he is not yet ready to toss his yarmulke into the Orthodox ring, apparently because he prefers a Judaism “committed to the rigors of Jewish living without a literal (read Orthodox) notion of Revelation at its core.” Thus, Orthodoxy is “intellectually untenable for many.” At the same time, he would never consider “a liberal Judaism incapable of transmitting content and substance.” He yearns for a religious address for America Jewry, a movement that realizes that “human beings do not run from demands.”
Beyond the question of labels, it is unclear why the concept of Sinaitic revelation (Gordis does not use this term explicitly, but clearly implies it) is intellectually untenable, while “demands that will root people in the cosmos” are intellectually tenable. Can one be rooted in the cosmos without demands that are similarly rooted in the cosmos? Once, observing the Sabbath and the dietary laws and mitzvot brought meaning and substance to life. But today, the argument would go, I get my meaning and substance from playing golf on Saturday morning, eating bagels and lox on Sunday morning, and playing poker on Wednesday nights. Who is anyone today to tell me differently? Rabbi Gordis would surely agree that such activities are trivial only when held up alongside the marker of what genuine Torah really is. And genuine Torah, I suspect that he would further agree, is not simply a collection of tribal rules and practices concocted by my ancient bubbes and zeiddes, but contains echoes and reverberations of the Divine within it.
But Gordis is enmeshed in a snare of his own making. For if he is suggesting that the intellect is our final arbiter, and that before I commit my life to something, it must be intellectually tenable, then how is a divine Torah intellectually tenable? For that matter, how is a belief in a God Who listens and Who sees and to Whom one prays (what Gordis himself calls “the call of God”) intellectually tenable? Intellectual tenability is at bottom an untenable construct on which to build a religious way of life.
Gordis’ dilemma is palpable. In addition to the anguish he experiences at the implosion (his word) of his Conservative movement, he is caught in an even more painful vise. He longs for the rigors and transcendence of Orthodoxy, but without the transcendent authority that gives Orthodoxy its legitimacy and its power. I would respectfully suggest a way out for Rabbi Gordis. Let him put aside theology for now; stop taking the pulse of intellectuality and toss aside the thermometer of tenability. Let him eschew all labels entirely and instead offer a lifestyle under any nomenclature he chooses, a life that stresses mitzvot, insists on solid Torah study, makes rigorous demands, is relentless in its pursuit of Godliness and spirituality in daily life, and that spurns trivialities. Let not notions of revelation or Torah min ha-shamayim, literal or not, stand in the way of living a complete Jewish life (which I am sure he is in any case already doing).
In a remarkable and mysterious rabbinic insight, Jerusalem Talmud (Hagiga 1:7) posits that at the sin of the Golden Calf, God Himself said, Halevai oti azavu ve-torati shamaru . . . “Would that even though they abandon Me, they would observe My Torah—for the divine light within the Torah will bring them back to the Good.” The key to Judaism today is not so much what we believe as what we do, not our theology but our daily practice.
As Rabbi Gordis writes, millions of American Jews will respond to a message that is serious and speaks to their neshamot, their souls. Later on, many miles down the road, we can discuss theology.
Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem