Mission of Orthodoxy Project, #24: Where Does the Mission Take Us?

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, WebYeshiva

Last time, we took the first step of figuring out how Orthodoxy should be experienced differently than currently, noting that Orthodox Jews are supposed to continually attempt to shape their characters to be more God-like. Our observance of mitzvot and our ordinary human activities are, ideally, supposed to be expressions of our continuing attempts to become closer to God, to develop our love and fear of God, and to mold ourselves ever-more similarly to the characteristics of God described in Scripture.

The Mission and a View of History

Another example of how Orthodoxy seeks to shape Jews is in the view of history it gives us, a history saturated with purpose. From the moment of Creation, through the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Law at Sinai, the Jew sees history as moving– slowly, with many detours and perhaps steps in the wrong direction, but inexorably– to a time when the entire world will recognize the Kingdom of God and act in ways that reflect that awareness. The belief in the Messiah is not just a backup plan for whenever human history gets too benighted, it is an ever-present awareness of the direction of human history, that we know the end of this movie, although not how we will get there.

That does not free us of the need to worry about the political future and its consequences. The guarantee of a Messiah does not preclude horrific suffering for the Jewish people, as the Holocaust proved, and we certainly want to do all we can to minimize suffering wherever and whenever we can, for all Jews, all people, and all creatures—another expression of our search for greater Godliness. But knowing that certain scenarios of history are impossible because God has promised they will never occur puts Jews across a conceptual abyss from those who do not accept that perspective.

How most of these truths play themselves out in the day to day life of Jews can be highly personal, so specific statements would likely ensnare me in debatable positions. What I can say is that the God-centered focus of the mission tells us to look at history with questions in mind, such as whether God is intervening in x or y historical event, and, if so, to try to understand the message of that intervention. Most importantly, our constant awareness of God’s role in history reminds us to always wonder how my (and my community/nation’s) actions can bring us closer to the time when God’s kingdom is recognized throughout the world.

The Mission and a Jew’s Perspective of Work

Moving from character and history to what might seem more mundane parts of life, we come to work. Faced with a moral dilemma at work, for example, I cannot say whether a particular Jew will feel comfortable articulating to coworkers how faith in God is shaping his or her handling of the incident, but I know that each Jew should be experiencing the dilemma that way. The question is not only what is right or wrong, it is what is right or wrong as God defined it, and phrasing issues that way is itself part of fulfilling Judaism’s goals in the world. The same form of question should arise for choices about profession, place of residence, lifestyle, and family structure, with the mission-concerned Jew informing those with his or her experience of God and what God would want, as revealed through Torah, through mitzvot and halacha, and through the world God created.

I write those words fearing they sound fluffy or inexact. To avoid that, I turn now to the center of Jewish life, halacha and the observance of mitzvot, to show in more exact terms how these underlying ideals would influence the life of a person dedicated to the mission we have gone to such length to uncover. I stress at the outset that the view of halacha I propose is not currently true for many Orthodox Jews.

Not Just Pots and Mikveh

In earlier posts, I noted that people experience halacha as limited to the well-defined areas of Jewish practice, such as kashrut, the kosher dietary laws, nidda (often known in English as Family Purity laws), Shabbat and holidays. Less well-defined obligations, such as the one to shape a Godly character, can get sloughed off into the realm of hashkafa, Jewish thought.

The understandable aspect of this is that when Judaism has not articulated a definite answer to a question, it can feel less obligatory. We know of the obligation to love and fear God, perhaps, but the lack of cut and dried defining practices of that mitzva may signal to some that there is no specific way to observe it.

This is not necessarily a flaw in halacha itself so much as our awareness of the full richness of the system. Many well-known halachic works draw the connection between technical halacha and service of God, although not often enough or pointedly enough to insure that the reader is forced to absorb the point. For one striking example, Mishna Berura 156; 4 pauses in his explanations of the Shulchan Aruch to note, at length, mitzvot important to Jewish experience not addressed by Shulchan Aruch.

Mishna Berura is a popular work of halacha, often referred to, and yet I do not recall ever hearing that note discussed in public, let alone repeatedly referred to as central to a proper Jewish experience. This might be understandable within yeshivot, where the curriculum strives to cover the entire range of Torah, so that students will be exposed to all the ideas of the religion, including those raised here. In the community at large, this is less true.

This becomes a problem because, as I once heard Mary T. Grasso– the director of Harvard’s Principals’ Center and a former high school principal herself—put it, behavior is belief, and that applies to halacha as well. When Jews fill their speech about halacha with only the areas where tradition has ruled definitively, they tend to concern themselves only or mostly with those issues, neglecting ones that are more fundamental to the character and persona of a Jew.

Remembering the Catastrophe of Wrongful Sexuality

To use examples that we have seen: While no Orthodox leaders promote wrongful sexuality, Jewish agendas seem to me to forget that fostering a world in which sexuality is properly engaged is more mission-shaping than keeping the kosher laws or even, possibly, than guaranteeing the political future of the State of Israel, though the latter two receive much more attention.

Aside from our too-minimal awareness of the role of proper sexuality in Jewish life, we have also come to mistake that concern as primarily focused on homosexuality. Bombarded by the homosexual rights’ movement, Jews respond in a range of ways, from the more compassionate to the more strict. What is often lost is the articulated recognition that homosexuality is, for Jews, one kind of wrongful sexuality among many.

In Orthodox terms, as we have seen, almost all sexual activity other than within a heterosexual marriage is wrong. Granted, they are not all wrong at the same level, and some such activity might be “only” Rabbinically prohibited. I would note, though, that many forms of such inappropriate activity—including bestiality, adultery, and, in times when unmarried women do not immerse themselves in the Mikveh, nonmarital sexuality—rival such well-recognized problems as murder, idolatry, and violating the Sabbath in their severity.

Further, though, nitpicking on sources in this case misses the larger point that Judaism understands God to reject wrongful sexuality more forcefully than other wrongs. This is clear, first, in the notion of אביזרייהו (see Sanhedrin 74b), where halacha assumes that the extensions of sexual prohibitions might also require allowing oneself to die rather than transgress them.

More clearly, we can look at tradition’s view of the Biblical story of the Jews’ sinning with the Moabite women, Bamidbar 25. Sanhedrin 106a sees the incident as having been initiated by the Moabites as a result of Bilam’s advice, based on his understanding that God hates sexual immorality. Second, here as elsewhere, the Torah is clear that sexual impropriety is not only inherently problematic, but leads to accepting other wrongful values, such as idolatry.

Critical Openness, Not Wide-Openness

The topic of sexuality leads almost ineluctably to noting that the mission-shaping prohibition against following our eyes and minds also fails to define a practical continuing reality for many Jews. In what are called more “right-wing” circles, the prohibition is taken expansively, prohibiting all or almost all movies, treating college classes and most non-Torah literature with suspicion, etc. Other segments of Orthodoxy, at least by their practice, define the mitzva more narrowly, but –again, judging only from their practice—might be neglecting it altogether.

I could take each of the propositions in the earlier chapters and expand upon them, but there is no need to be repetitive. The clear point is that current halachic practice often focuses on real and yet lesser issues, allowing us not only to lose the forest, but to pay attention to the smaller trees while neglecting the biggest ones. It is not that we are too halachic and not theological or hashkafic enough (although we may be), it is that even our halacha neglects issues of central importance.


Improving the Situation: First Steps

Opportunities to alter this reality abound. For rabbis, congregants’ questions present frequent chances to reorient their thinking. Imagine a congregant who appears at public worship only on Saturdays and holidays, never (to the best of the rabbi’s knowledge) studies Torah, and, perhaps, is employed in an occupation where complete honesty seems rare. This congregant is in mourning for a relative, and calls the rabbi to ask a question about the conduct of that mourning.

As background, remember that the laws of mourning, beyond the first day (and possibly only when that first day is both the day of passing and of burial) are Rabbinically ordained. Further, many questions regarding mourning, particularly after the first thirty-day period, are guided only by post-Talmudic custom. We need not in any way detract from the importance of adhering to those customs to yet notice that such a person has more pressing religious failings that might be addressed.

Not that the rabbi could ever be so straightforward in that assessment, but thinking in those terms seems to be a part of recalibrating our understanding of halacha. For the example at hand, the rabbi might work to engage the questioner so that he or she walks away understanding that mourning is not about particular practices, but about absorbing a loss in a God-focused and Jewishly faithful way. While refraining from buying new clothing might be an expression of that path, turning to God, studying both more Torah and doing so more deeply, dedicating oneself further to mitzvot, and giving more charity are all also part of that picture, perhaps a more important part.

One question and answer will not change that person’s life, nor a community’s, but repeated and conscious consideration of where we place our religious and halachic efforts and priorities, the kinds of topics on which we present public lectures, host speakers, and recommend Jewishly-themed books, would be a first step to bringing our halachic practice in closer line with what the system itself commands and commends.

If we find ourselves, as individuals or communities, spending the bulk of our religious efforts insuring that we can eat animals, birds, and fish; that we avoid violating the prohibitions of the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and holidays without caring about the positive content of those days; that we have what to eat on Passover without considering what freedom it means to inculcate in us; if this characterizes our practice, we need to rethink the extent to which those lives are succeeding at the basic point of Orthodoxy, let alone its ideal expression.

Even if we spend our time studying Torah, praying, and visiting the sick, we might still need to check that we are doing so out of a sense of obligation to and connection with God. People can become accustomed to any sequence of actions and make them an end of their own, forgetting the larger framework into which they were to be integrated.

Precedent for a More Mission-Focused Halachic Practice

We can never discard one area of halacha for another, but we might question which practices we spend our time and effort expounding. Much as R. Yisrael Salanter slaved to rejuvenate awareness of character issues in Judaism, and the Chafetz Chaim focused on matters of slanderous speech, I am suggesting we expand their model to insure that all the central parts of Judaism are at the top of the Orthodox agenda.

Such a shift in the communal and rabbinic agenda would yield another dividend that leads us to the next topic. Since many of the areas of halacha I discuss here have yet to be as exactly codified as others, and perhaps are immune to such exact codification, the experience of the inexactness of the answer to questions in these areas would remind Jews of another important aspect of Orthodoxy, its balance of pluralism, tolerance, and absolutism, the topic we turn to next time.

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Tags: Torah, WebYeshiva, shiurim

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