Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Question! For Orthopraxers

Image: Emes VE Emunah blog
So, after hanging around the skeptic J-blogosphere a little, it seems to me that there may be enough of all y'all here to make a minyan*. And, ever since I was introduced to the term, when I drive down Bathurst, and see Orthodox Jewish people, I can't help but wondering which of the Jews are  (to paraphrase my dad) "my people" (i.e. fellow Jewish atheists). Now, I know not all Orthoprax Jews are atheist, some are agnostic etc., but I wonder if it turned out that the majority of a congregation could openly admit that they were not believers, what would the implications be for Orthodoxy? In other words, do people have to pretend to believe in order for Orthodoxy to thrive/survive, or do you think an Orthodox culture could survive among open skeptics who appreciate the culture?  (There's already a rabbi for you!). How would the implications differ in a Modern Orthodox vs. Ultra Orthodox context?

*minyan:   minyan (Hebrewמִנְיָן‎ lit. to count, number; pl. מִניָנִים minyanim) in Judaism refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. According to many non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, adult females count in the minyan.  See Wikipedia.

20 comments:

  1. Where's XGH when you need him?

    CL, if you're not familiar, XGH was one of the original skeptic bloggers... he has a history of deleting his blogs, though. He did attempt to tackle this topic; maybe some other commenters recall some of his approaches.

    My personal feeling is no, the religion won't thrive without at least some strict beliefs. But look at LWMO - it's thriving in many places, and beliefs are pretty flexible. But I think a congregation of orthoprax atheists would not survive very long. Even LWMO has some lines you can't cross.

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    1. Yeah - though I have heard a bit about the famous XGH, he was before my time. The first Orthoprax blog I read referenced XGH quite a bit but - from what i remember - usually in more technical Torah analysis discussions which were over my head.

      >the religion won't thrive without at least some strict beliefs

      Do you think it could evolve into something different but meaningful . . or once you're not *obligated* to do mitzvot the rest disintegrates?

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  2. The problem is that no one wants their children to suffer. If one were to be an open skeptic among the orthodox, orthodoxy would not be hurt, but the children of the skeptic would be, through social isolation for example. :(

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    1. Very good point. I naively hadn't thought of that . . . I always feel somewhat of a connection to OPers because I share in the skepticism, but my social stakes are very different. So - would you be going on the hope that they remain believers? Otherwise, what if they become skeptics? Isn't it setting them up for a potentially different social isolation as adults?

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    2. CL, if I knew when I was 18 what I know now, my whole life would be different, and I certainly wouldn't be raising any children Orthodox. So any explanation I have for why it's OK to raise my kids in the Orthodox world has to be a rationalization.

      On that note, I would say that I am giving my kids enough exposure to the world of skepticism that they can make a choice to live an Orthodox / Orthoprax life, or not. I seem to remember meeting people who were raised completely secularly but wish their parents had given them more exposure to their culture and religion, so maybe there is a happy medium somewhere. Or possibly that was "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret".

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    3. > I seem to remember meeting people who were raised completely secularly but wish their parents had given them more exposure to their culture and religion,

      I'm one of these people :). It's not just Judy Blume . . . For me there's something of the hppy medium in what i imagine as an orthoprax-in-spirit education . . . Jewish literate, but not indoctrnate - i.e. with no in=sostence on supernatural existence. . but I guess it becomes difficult to say what aspects of being "literate"/knowledgeable are essential when the underlying belief fades . . .

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  3. I agree with Tesyaa. My hope is that my children will have enough information to choose what is right for them in an informed way. However, it would make me sad if they committed to a life of orthopraxy. It's not healthy or fulfilling to live a double life.

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    1. Would it be sad for you if they abandoned Orthodxy for secularism? Thank you both for sharing. I know this is a touchy subject.

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  4. Not touchy at all! I would not be sad at all!!!! I hope they end up like my parents actually. They aren't religious, but they have friends who are, respect everybody, they care deeply about the Jewish people and all people and put their money where their mouth is, they are moral and honest, humble, etc. But they eat bacon. Nobody's perfect, lol.

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    1. It's great that your kids have them as role models! One of the benefits of being a BT :). I like that in our family our kids will also be exposed to a variety of ways to be Jewish.

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  5. I'm sorry to be catching this conversation a bit late, but better late than never...

    CL, your question is precisely the one I have. I'm not yet sure whether or how Orthodox Jews who reject the dogma can meaningfully organize or form a community (outside of the online venue of course).

    There are two questions really: 1) Would such a community by viable in theory? 2) If so, how do we get there?

    Ah, and I suppose there's also: 3) Why bother? If there is no deity breathing down our neck, why conform with a set of ancient norms and rituals?

    Very briefly, my take...

    1) Yes, it could be viable. There is plenty to believe in and be inspired by (kindness, compassion, justice, truth, courage, peace, alleviation of suffering, etc.) which do not require unreasonable leaps of faith. And the fact that such observance does not rest on faith makes it even stronger.

    2) We get there very, very slowly. There will be immense hostility toward non-belief, particularly among right-wing communities. The way to start then will probably be in more left-wing circles, by having a few prominent individuals (possibly even a rabbi or two) "come out" as not accepting the beliefs. Those with enough grace, who can be open about what they do or don't believe without being abrasive or condescending, who radiate a love and respect for the Jewish people and tradition, and who can come up with plenty of positive content - these people will develop a following. And eventually it will start to gain some mainstream acceptance. But we're talking many decades.

    3) The reason to bother is that traditional observance typically offers a strong sense of community, of Jewish identity, of connection with traditional texts/teachings - and ultimately it's what keeps us from assimilating into oblivion. So despite the fact that it's the more "universal" values which we hold in highest esteem, we also need the "weirdness" of traditional observance/identity to keep us distinct as a people, so that we can continue pursuing our higher vision for humanity in a distinctively Jewish way.

    There's so much more to say on the topic, but that's my take in a nutshell.

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    1. Not late at all! I expected this week to be kinda quiet round here :). Really great comments . . In short, what you are describing is kind of a Humanist Modern Orthodoxy . . . I think it would be a nice thing . . . The hardest/most crucial part would be for the right leader(s?) to emerge . .

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    2. I've been thinking more re: your comments/ my response, and I'm sorry if I put words in your mouth with the "Humanist" label. I realize that though humanist is my default God-optional ethical system, it may not necessarily be what you meant. In any case, re:
      > we also need the "weirdness" of traditional observance/identity to keep us distinct as a people

      I'm interested in which of the elements of the "weirdness" you think are worth keeping, and which MUST go. I guess if the goals are strong sense of community and connection to traditional texts then those practices that serve those goals would fall in. On an academic level, I'm curious as to how this would play out. E.g. where does davening fit in? Would davening "look" different if the purpose was to connect to/learn text rather than God? What about prohibitions on electricity on Shabbat? As a secular non-believer I think these are the ones that I'd find a pain in my own life, but I do think the prohibitions on electricity + travel on shabbat are a HUGE contributing factor to the sense of community within the MO community (I wrote about this in my Feb 15th post: Frum Envy).

      >There's so much more to say on the topic, but that's my take in a nutshell.

      I'd be thrilled to take a guest post if you are interested!

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    3. Would davening "look" different if the purpose was to connect to/learn text rather than God?

      Depends on what you mean. If you mean, would people look different while davening - well I suppose among atheists you probably wouldn't find the same kind of fervent shuckling, hands in the air, other "devotional" expressions. If you mean, would the actual tefillah change (altering the text, conducting the service differently, making it more egalitarian, etc.), I'd say it's open.

      In a non-theistic framework, there are no "mitzvot" in the sense of being "commanded" from on high. So in theory we're free to do whatever we want. In practice though, we're creatures of habit. It's like chickens who are technically "free range" but prefer to just stay in their coops because that's what they know - it's what they're comfortable with.

      The familiarity of tradition gives comfort to people. So for instance I'm not sure how many atheists would adopt an "atheist's siddur" - see: humanistprayer.com by Tzemah Yoreh. It's a fantastic, creative piece and no doubt more in line with a non-God approach, but I think most atheists would sooner stick with what they know, even if it's theistic, or simply drop davening altogether, rather than adopt a new set of recitations. I could be wrong, but that's my hunch.

      That said, where it comes to involving women in davening, I think it's vital that women be able to participate at the level of a man, should they want to. It could be in some communities they won't want to, but there should be no official "law" against it - God forbid!

      What about prohibitions on electricity on Shabbat?

      Again, it becomes a "rishut" (matter of personal preference), not a "mitzvah" (God-command). And although I can appreciate the argument that this effectively means kissing goodbye to Shabbat observance (or any observance for that matter), I hope that eventually we can be mature enough that if a tradition has value and meaning, we can prioritize it as a community even without the "fear of Divine punishment" weighing upon us.

      Traditions are often inconvenient, but either we see their value as being worth the inconvenience - or not, or we maintain them because that's simply what the community "does" - it's how we remain distinct. Like I mentioned, there's a "weirdness" factor which I believe to be key in all this.

      I'd be thrilled to take a guest post if you are interested!

      Very nice of you to offer. Would you be open to something like we're doing right now, interview style? Ask away on any subject! Feel free to be in touch with me at atheodox@gmail.com.

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    4. > Would you be open to something like we're doing right now, interview style? Ask away on any subject! Feel free to be in touch with me at atheodox@gmail.com.

      Thank you!! I ALWAYS have questions!

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  6. I'm sorry if I put words in your mouth with the "Humanist" label.

    Not at all! I'm unabashedly humanistic.

    I'm interested in which of the elements of the "weirdness" you think are worth keeping, and which MUST go

    As a general rule I'd say that if something goes against one's ethical sensibilities (and that can, and often does, include the ethics of modern, free, enlightened society), it should be abandoned, repudiated or altered in some way. To me, a clear example of this would be any notion of institutionalized bias against women, insofar as putting women at a halachic disadvantage, limiting what women are "allowed" to do, etc. It wasn't long ago that it was acceptable in free societies for women to hold an inferior status. But now that this is no longer the case, Orthodoxy has a problem.

    where does davening fit in?

    A great question. Davening is a bit tricky, since ostensibly it's a God-focused activity. That said, there are many approaches to traditional davening which are completely NON-theistic:

    1) Social/communal - coming to davening to connect with people. It's a cohesive activity, solidifying friendships, self-identification as part of a community.

    2) Intellectual - connecting with (or bumping up against) the themes/concepts of tefillah, Torah readings, divrei Torah. (Or sometimes just a space to bring a sefer and do a little learning.)

    3) Contemplative - time for self-reflection, awareness of self, needs of others, focus one's own breathing, etc.

    4) Comfort/familiarity - allowing the davening to carry you, singing familiar tunes, letting your lips/tongue do what they know how to do, etc. People decry "going through the motions" of davening, but in fact it's quite powerful and centering!

    5) Interpersonal - an opportunity to practice sensitivity and graciousness, e.g., having patience for a Baal Tefillah who davens too fast/slow/sings off key etc., being attentive/respectful when someone's speaking, knowing when it's one's place to correct the Baal Koreh (Torah reader), and doing so gently, giving "kavod" to others, saying "yishar koach" to them, expressing joy for their joy, sadness for their sadness, etc. (There's overlap here with #1, but this is more about developing positive middot/character traits.)

    And if davening is not your thing, that's also fine - it just means missing out on certain opportunities, connections.

    To be continued...

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    1. To be continued...

      Oops - This comment was meant to appear above, before the other.

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  7. ehhhhh difficult question. i would say it's feasible in the MO world but not at all in the UO world. The UO world has barely come to terms with internet or tv i can't see them being cool with kfira. You have to be REALLY quiet about your disbelief, I would think, to fit into that world, and it's part of why I don't fit in (I identify with the community in many ways but I almost never go to shul or socialize there. I mean, once in a while I'll go to a simcha but for the most part I feel kind of detached.)

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    1. Thanks for commenting OTD!

      >I identify with the community in many ways but I almost never go to shul or socialize there.

      Are the ways that you identify with the UO community irreplaceable in the MO community? i.e. Could an UO disbeliever, slide into MOxy* in order to still have the communal identification benefits, but not have to be as secretive about his/her beliefs?

      *I am saying this in reference to your suggestion that a "kfira community" is more feasible in MO . . .I realize such an entity does not "officially" exist.

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  8. Could an UO disbeliever, slide into MOxy* in order to still have the communal identification benefits, but not have to be as secretive about his/her beliefs?

    Most probably. I personally feel weird joining because I was never part of that crowd in the past, so it feels weird to join the group just because my old one no longer works for me. It was so unsettling for me to lose my "world" at the time, I didn't see it as much of a relief to join. I figured once I'm OTD I may as well go all the way and forget it. But I still regret this slightly and think I probably would have benefited personAlly from finding a strong community at the time that would have been a little more tolerant and might have possibly helped me with some life decisions and goals (school, work, etc.). If I ever go back to Orthodoxy it would probably be an MO kind and the only frum people I still really keep in touch with are MO.

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