Sunday, November 9, 2008

For those that are still unfamiliar with the term, Orthopraxy has something to do with not believing in the dogmas or standard doctrines of Orthodoxy, yet, for various reasons, practicing the rituals and standards of Orthodoxy. It's applicable to a number of religions but for the sake of our discussion we will limit it to Orthodox Judaism.

The definition itself is subject to a lot of controversy. According to the illustrious DovBear, pretty much everyone is Orthoprax. I think that's suits Orthodox Judaism well, especially in the light of Marc Shapiro's book, "The Limits of Orthodox Theology." Defining Orthodoxy by the 13 Principles of Faith as Formulated by the Rambam, leaves you with very few ma'aminim (believers) and it's even questionable if the Rambam himself accepted the Principles of Faith the way your average Orthodox Jew believes them today.

Which brings me to my next point... There is, and I suspect there always has been, a difference in belief between the elders and the people. Because religion is typically defined by it's leaders, as opposed to democratically, the followers rarely have the same understanding of the religion that they follow as do or did it's leaders. And this is not just in matters of belief, but also in matters of practice. For example, most of the gedolim since time immemorial have said to learn through shas before you start doing pilpul but nobody does that. And so it is that many of the great thinkers of Judaism are considered heretical by their colleagues past or present. Though the Rambam's Principles of Faith have been accepted as those Doctrines which loosely sum up Orthodoxy, much of his thought is considered heretical today. The Moreh Nevuchim was banned and the book was never really able to lose it's stigma. In many Orthodox Circles the book is frowned upon, or at the very least it's readers are.

Despite all the differences of opinions throughout the ages on even the basics of Orthodox dogmas, or lack thereof (see R. Hirsh), in each time and place there have been beliefs that will render it's adherents heretics, at least in certain circles. Though the Orthodox Community is probably split into more sub-sects then ever in history, there are those, especially in the Hareidi Circles, that feel it necessary to brand certain beliefs as heretical. For recent examples, think of Rav Kook and Noson Slifkin. (I can't believe I just mentioned those two in such close proximity!)

However, if you keep your cards close to your chest, have a seder in learning, go to shul on Shabbos, live in a community that is modern or not-so-nosey, you can believe whatever you like and still be a part of the Orthodox Community. And now we have finally gotten to the point I've been wanting to make.

The label of Orthopraxy is divisive and unnecessary, especially when it's adherents are in the closet. Take James Kugel for example. His beliefs concerning the authorship of the Torah are far from the party line. Yet he has consistently protested those who wish to cut him out of the Orthodox community by giving him the ominous and heretical label of Orthoprax. If he is successful in his protests and insists on being Orthodox he will surely be more successful in expanding the limits of Orthodox Theology and allowing for more pluralism within Orthodoxy itself. That would be absolutely terrific.

The authors of blogs like Orthoprax and Modern Orthoprax feel that there is meaning and value to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Yet they have given their blogs and this "movement" a name which divides them and puts them at odds with the community in which they wish to remain a part. Surely they don't wish to start their own gated communities with "Kofrim Only" signs posted.

I have a few ideas as to why there are those that reject and those that embrace Orthopraxy as a label. Take a liberal like DovBear. He doesn't like the term one bit and I think that's because he's a liberal that is open to a lot of different ideas (despite his snarkiness towards GOP Jews). Pluralism trumps right opinions. XGH on the other hand is a fundmentalist at heart, though he has been showing some huge improvements of late. He recently supported the gedolim's ban on sexy sheitels and Intellifundies used to really bother him. People having right opinions and the Truth have a very high value to this man, and even though he knows that "Truth" has little value to many people, he holds of black and white distinctions between facts and Truth, things of that nature and values and meaning. A guy like this will embrace the label Orthoprax because pluralism isn't such a high value to him. Being right, even if it means being separate, is more important. XGH would likely support set doctrines that would define Orthopraxy even though the movement was birthed out of rejection of other doctrines.

Besides for a few extremists like Jacob Stein, the Orthodox Community is not suggesting witch hunts to discover who amongst them adheres to the party line. And so it is that the label Orthopraxy is counter productive. Slowly, slowly, pluralism can spread even within Orthodox Judaism. There's no need to jump the gun and hang yourself. My advice to those that are satisfied with the Orthodox Lifestyle but dissatisfied with some or all of the 13 principles of faith, is to be patient, talk to your Rabbis, talk to your chavrusas, but there is no need to be confrontational or to rock the boat, especially on silly issues like the authorship of the Torah. And there is certainly no need to label yourself a heretic. It's counterproductive.