Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yeshiveshe Orthopraxy


I just got off a long phone call with a new acquaintance, who feels surrounded by chaverim who went to yeshivas of the what-is-now-called "Charedi" variety (including one of my almae matres, the Mir in Brooklyn), who are now Orthoprax - religious in facade, and atheistic or agnostic at core.

To his mind, two separate individuals serve as inspirational beacons for these fellows: Baruch Pelta and James Kugel, and that one of the major prooftexts of their derech is a 1987 Supreme Court decision.

The fellow who called me essentially asserted that I have a moral obligation to publicly throw down the gauntlet. I will do so, but only in a modified manner, on account of time constraints - viz., should anyone like to question me or engage me in conversation on perspectives they have gleaned from these - and other -authorities and sources, I am happy to make myself available privately and/or publicly to respond - so long as I myself can remain not-committed to put my points and/or counterpoints to paper, whether real or virtual. At the acknowledged risk of misrepresentation or distortion, others may do - for now, I personally have not the time to take on such a commitment.



  1. I wonder how new the orthoprax phenomenon is. Something like it might explain in part what happened with many immigrant Jews in America. Granted that there were special pressures here like the six-day work week, it seems as if many traditional-looking Jews were not Jewishly committed in the old country and only followed the path of least resistance both there and here.

  2. Funny, isn't is, how you are unwilling to put your responses in writing. You don't seem worried about "distortions" etc in any other of your posts. Maybe you're just worried your defenses will not hold water?

  3. Bonito:

    You don't really know me, do you? Lack of self confidence is not one of my vices [Schochet family genetic defect].

    As I just wrote to someone offline:

    Way too time consuming. I will do it on a personal basis. This is a call I get pretty often - Charedi raised, no educational grounding in Machashava, discovering RSRH, Rav Dessler et al, finds me, want to connect and be validated. The calls can last well over an hour, but that's still way easier - and important - than blogging. I think we're at the cusp of the movement, and its both reassuring and exciting.

    As I said to the fellow who called me, no one who has learned Reb Tzadok is becoming an atheist. Too much emes to allow one to confidently reject emunah.

  4. That being said, however, I currently am holding down three jobs and moonlighting on the side as well. For, say, $100k a year I might consider giving up two or more of those jobs and devoting myself to writing on and for the Orthoprax... :-)

  5. how do I unsubscribe from this unwanted and offensive blog

  6. Orthopraxis has always been with us. (Okay, maybe not at maamad har Sinai, so "always" here means since some days after.) Many people simply don't care enough to develop a personal philosophy, and just run on culture.

    This is something different. People who have a personal philosophy based on scientism (the belief that all real questions are those science can address), and still just run on culture.

  7. "No one who has learned Reb Tzadok is becoming an atheist"

    This is an awesome quote! After having gone through Tzidkas HaTzadik, I can see how it would be true.

  8. Reb Micha's comment deserves a separate post. Immediately, IY"H.

  9. Please refer all atheists my way. Been through enough personal problems to know that unless belief in a creator was compelling enough, would not be worth the bother.

    Proving whether G-d exists is a big project. Easier to prove to someone that he has a soul. From there it follows that G-d exists.

    Proof of soul: Have you ever felt pain? Please define concept. To an atheist, we are all a collection of molecules. Do molecules feel pain? Does Neon have feelings, what about Chlorine? What if I hit a house really hard. Does it get hurt? Of course, answer is that it has no nerve cells. Hmmm, well what goes on in a nerve cell. Electrical impulses get conducted. In Museum of Science in Boston, there is a 1,000,000 volt Van de Graaf generator. It creates sparks that look like lightning to the fascinated crowd. Does it feel pain? A lot of electricity there.

    Doesn't have enough intelligence. What about a supercomputer? If you smash it with a hammer, will it feel pain? Not advanced enough. What about in the next 10 years? Will they develop a computer smart enough to feel pain? I personally doubt it. BTW, how many transistors does it take to feel pain? Don't we have enough of them already?

    I assert that pain is felt in the soul, and one needs one to feel pain. Since probably all of us have felt pain at some point in our lives, we have souls.

    BTW, for those who prefer to tackle the G-d issue directly, note that an atheist believes that if one takes mud, and heats it and sparks it and pressurizes it and waits 15 billion years, a 747 will emerge. I have always found this a stretch, not that it couldn't happen. Again, all you need is mud, and some heat, electricity, and pressure; wait for a while, and you can obtain a 747. Literally, they believe this has already happened. This is how 747's are made.


  10. Yasher koach, Barry. Very, very well put. ZZGG [zehr zehr gut gezogt!].

  11. On the highest level, nobody could ever prove the existence of Go-d or lack of it theroff. Any phenomena we observe may be explained, in a very convincing manner either way. It all boils down to belief in one or the other. Sciece theorists are working extensively in the last four centuries to disqualify the theory that G-od exists, only to come to a conclusion that their proofs ar null and void so they have to start anew. On the other hand, any proof of theologists is dismissed at a certain point.

    For those of us who really believe, the posuk "Ha-Shamayim Misaprim Kvod ke-l" is good enough, and we could live with the notion that any proof for the existence of a transcendentic deity would be ambiguous by definition. We just could look in piety on the science theorists who rash to create new theories as they need them. But we could look with the same piety on the Keiruv guys who trivialize their arguments trying to sell them to the masses.

  12. I would say that G-d's existence can be proved, but not in the way the Rambam, Qalam and Scholasticists meant. Transcendentally, as Kant would have put it. In English...

    One keeps Shabbos, learns something beautiful, sees their Truth the same way someone who thinks about 2 +2 = 4 realizes its obvious truth, or that parallel lines (in a flat space) never meet, etc...

    From knowing the reality of the basis of Shabbos, Torah and other mitzvos one learns to trust the mesorah as a source, which in turn leads to accepting HQBH and the historicity of Maamad Har Sinai.

    It's what Kant calls transcendental because rather than keeping Shabbos because I believe in Creation, I believe in Creation because I keep Shabbos. It's like what we say in Qiddush, "beini uvein BY, os hi le'olam..."

  13. But if Scholastic-style proofs or the (misnamed) "Kuzari Proof" work for you, I don't think I should be in the business of arguing with you against it.

  14. Thanks for your kind words, RYGB.

    To further explain the concept of pain, which we had not defined, one needs to draw upon the concept of will. Pain is when one surveys the universe of options available to him, and finds that the preferred state is one which he cannot attain. Pleasure is when the preferred state is attainable; and neutral is when he has no preference in the matter.

    Inanimate objects have no will. Molecules will definitely react, sometimes violently, but whether they are in an unreacted state, reacting, or bound to any other type of molecule, they simply go with the flow. They have no preference. So adding any number of touch sensors to a supercomputer will not help it feel pain, since the sensors will simply send impulses to the machine, which will then execute whatever steps were programmed in software, but the machine has no preference as to whether it is left alone, or hit very hard. In either case it does what it is programmed to do. The concept of will only exists in the soul. Free will is the further ability to act so as to attain the desired state, but is not absolutely necessary for this discussion.

    Suppose, however, that one claims that will does not exist, but is only an illuision; and we, like computers, only react to external stimuli in the way we are evolutionarily programmed, to avoid danger and increase survivability. Pain is actually only an electrochemical reaction, no different than any other laboratory reaction.

    If that is the case, then suppose I develop a new hobby called snip the live cat. Cats are only a collection of molecules and atoms like carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, etc. Is there anything morally wrong with cutting it to pieces, any more than throwing my expensive glass decanter on the ground. An atheist will say that in truth, there is nothing wrong, but because one might then hurt people, which is unacceptable in society, we forbid rearranging the collection of molecules called cat. This is of course completely counterintuitive to the simple notion ingrained in us since childhood, which is that there is an inherently wrong act in causing pain to an animal. Sometimes children know best.

  15. can someone pleas define orthoproxy. i have heard of it before, just not sure of it's official definition. also, who uses that term, only people off the derech or is it a valid form of orthodoxy? also, is it a new label in shidduchim?


  16. How many of us do avairos? How many of us "yeshivish" people do things we shouldn't do and not do things we should be. Maybe there is a little "orthopraxy" in all of us c'v

  17. The two posts above this one make it clear the discussion is hampered by the assumption that everyone knows what orthopraxy is. SO, I'll define:

    Orthodox = ortho + dox. Ortho is Greek for "right, true or straight." Like in the word "orthogonal". Dox means teaching, from which we get "doctor". Orthodox -- people of correct beliefs.

    Playing with Greek, if we slip out the dox and replace it with prax... Prax means a deed, act, or action. Orthopraxy -- people of correct actions.

    Someone in the Orthodox community who lacks emunah is not themselves Orthodox -- correct-believing. But they still adhere to the culture of our community and strive (if imperfectly) to perform the mitzvos maasios correctly -- Orthoprax.

    Anonymous 8/23 1:44pm: It's derogatory, so I doubt it will become a shidduch label or an official name for a movement.

    Anonyous 8/24 1:50am: The Orthopractic Jew isn't the one who sometimes sins, it's the seemingly shomer Shabbos Jew who lost or never had his faith r"l.

  18. The most recent anonymous comment brought to mind the following entry from RAEK's diary:

    The sharpest sword placed upon our necks and not allowing us to stretch them out and proudly confront life, the heaviest steel rings, weighing down upon our fingers, and preventing us from clenching them to form a powerful fist to raise up against "arrogant" Europe that does battle with us - are those great reflections concerning the vanity of this world which Mussar has bequeathed to us, without teaching us when to make use of these reflections and when to turn to the other side...4 When we meet with the slightest disturbance in life, with one this-worldly obstacle, we immediately dismiss it as worthless, but, in the same breath, we flee from it, without reflecting at all: How should we respond to it? What claim does it make upon us? And should we concede somewhat to it [this claim], or deny it altogether?... All of our service of the God of Israel stems only from an enfeebled form of "fear" (not the great fear of sin of [Rabbi Moshe Chaim] Luzzato...), only from a nervous anxiety lest we stumble, Heaven forbid, and act improperly... Possessed by a blind anxiety, we grope about and stammer: "Maybe, maybe, maybe it's not so good... perhaps, perhaps, perhaps it's not so proper..." And with this [attitude] we consider ourselves to be yir'ei shamayim. Woe to this shame and disgrace! Where is that vigorous health of the Torah intellect? ... It is on account of this that our power of practical intelligence has been enfeebled, that we have become faultfinders who arouse loathing; and, therefore, we can not discuss matters with anyone, presenting our thoughts clearly in a concise and direct form... We are capable only of mouthing the phrase: "You are far from the Torah, sunk in the mire of life, therefore you do not understand us!..." What does the Torah, however, demand? "Respond to those who have deeply strayed..." Woe, nation of rabbits, how long shall you be rabbits! (ibid., p. 154).


    It is not so bad to have rabbits in the nation, but woe to a nation of rabbits...

  19. I'm the 2nd Anonymous poster. Thank you Micha for the response and clarification and R' Bechhofer I had to read that more than once. Is the point that what is lacking is a real cheshbon hanefesh?

    To Micha: are these orthoprax people really fully keeping halacha e.g. will they not turn on a light when no one is watching or eat traif when no one will know?
    I could understand ppl acting frum in public or even at home to fit in socially. but to say there are a large number of ppl who act the right way (even when no one is looking and it will cause them hardship) but dont believe? why else would they do it? maybe agnostic to cover his bases but an atheist?

  20. Yes, true cheshbon ha'nefesh, which is predicated on boldness, courage and honesty.

  21. Anonymous: Social pressure is a strong force. You have someone who was taught since before his memory began that "this is what we do". He wants to hold his place in O society, maintain his O marriage, allow his kids to fit in, and again -- it was how he was raised. Yes, he keeps on following the rules, even in private, without a rational reason. Might cut more corners than the rest of us, but we all sin in little ways.

    As for whether someone is or isn't "orthoprax" has more to do with how we choose to use the word than anything meaningful. It's not a self-chosen or community label that we can talk about what "they" do. And there are other usages: I have seen it used to describe avant gard philosophers from the observant community whose positions deny various essential beliefs (Hashem's intervening or caring about history, the binding nature of the covenant, the origin of the Torah, etc...) but still give justification for observing halachah on the plane of action.

  22. Is it possible to keep the mitzvot without believing? an interesting exchange of letters with Yeshayahu leibowitz

  23. Leibowitz makes Judaism a very strange religion indeed. Certainly not a particularly attractive one.

  24. Bob Miller wrote:

    " Something like it might explain in part what happened with many immigrant Jews in America."

    Prof. Gurock argues convincingly the opposite: The immigrant Jews had absolutely no trouble with orthodox doctrine, but poverty and the six day work week required them to give up orthodox practice.

  25. "the belief that all real questions are those science can address"

    As a scientist I find this philosophy to be highly offensive.

  26. "I would say that G-d's existence can be proved, but not in the way the Rambam, Qalam and Scholasticists meant. "

    I object to the entire idea of "proof" regarding God. If you accept such a concept you also automatically accept the possibility of disproof, chas v'shalom! How can anyone who has "perfect faith" go anywhere near there?