A misplaced ‘not’; a missing ‘for’
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A misplaced ‘not’; a missing ‘for’

Color me careless.

I was amused, as always, by accusations that I hate “the Orthodox” and “their” beliefs. I was furious, however, at what I saw as a deliberate misrepresentation of what I said in my column two weeks ago: that I would eat meat during the Nine Days.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day Then I read the column. To my horror, I did say that. The last paragraph read:

“I shaved this week. I will shave during the Three Weeks. I will take showers during the Nine Days and I will do the laundry. I will not avoid meat when Tammuz turns to Av. I have no interest in adding to the moral imperfections of my soul.” (Italics added.)

The “not” was misplaced. The last two sentences were meant to be one sentence, to wit: “I will avoid meat when Tammuz turns to Av, for I have no interest in adding to the moral imperfections of my soul.”

Originally, what followed was an explanation of this double standard – meat no, shaving and laundry yes.

Carelessness was responsible for the error. My original draft of a column that is supposed to fit into a 1,100-word space was well over 2,000 words long. Delicate and intense surgery is required to slice off more than half of what someone writes, yet still maintain the author’s intent. Before the process is over, the editor’s eyes and mind glaze over all sorts of textual anomalies. Editors up the line catch most of these, but they cannot catch all of them.

I regret the error, but not the column. And I strongly resent charges that I routinely disparage halachic practice. My brief is with what I call “the chumrah of the month club,” those who at every opportunity pile on wholly unnecessary and counterproductive stringencies that serve no purpose and themselves may violate Jewish law.

Look at how many people who identify as Jewish reject keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, avoiding leaven during Pesach, and so forth. They see Judaism as archaic, and at times, even silly (for example, putting a string around it turns Route 80 into a private domain and makes it okay to carry a crate of soon-to-be-eaten watermelons across it on Shabbat, but do not try to push a baby carriage outside the eruv). The Avot d’Rabi Natan warns against the dangers of putting fences around the law. It is a warning honored exclusively in the breach.

My weekly column seeks to demonstrate just how vital halachah continues to be in the 21st century. How do you get more relevant than, say, the Babylonian tractate Shabbat, which nearly 2,000 years ago argued that Torah law forbids burning fossil fuels with abandon? I want people to see the importance of living halachic lives, not abandoning them.

True, I loathe “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” (I deliberately lower-cased both words), as I wrote in a column in 2010. That is because – as I so often note here – there is no such thing as “the Orthodox” and there is no such stream as “Orthodox Judaism.”

It is absurd to pretend otherwise. Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale lives in a different religious universe than Rabbi Avi Shafran, the chief spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America. The responsa of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein often conflict with those of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. The non-chasidic Orthodox world, even the charedi end of the spectrum, is alien to a chasid, and a Satmar chasid bears little resemblance to, say, a Chabad-Lubavitch adherent.

The phrase “the Orthodox” is nothing more than an umbrella term under which is tolerated many scores of chasidic and mitnagid movements, with beliefs and practices ranging from the most liberal interpretations of law and ritual to the most conservative. Then there are the Sephardim and the Mizrachi, among whom is also found huge differences in legal interpretation and ritual. Yemenite Torah scrolls, by the way, differ in several places from the established text – the scrolls nevertheless are considered valid.

What ostensibly unifies “Orthodox” Jews is a belief that the entire Torah – written and oral – came from God. I say “ostensibly” because even this is breaking down. (See, for example, Lawrence Grossman’s online article in Jewish Ideas Daily.)

Consider the spectrum of organizations calling themselves Orthodox.

On the farthest right, there is the Agudas Harabonim. Known also as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis of the United States and Canada, this group is mitnagid (non-chasidic) in orientation, and its opinions represent the strictest forms of mitnagid religious practice.

Also on the far right are the chasidic movements. Rabbis belonging to the Agudas Harabonim have been known to reject meat slaughtered under chasidic guidelines because they consider such meat to be of questionable kashrut; so much for unity even among allies on the right. Chasidic communities, meanwhile, usually follow the dictates of a single leader – “the rebbe.” Each rebbe has his own set of opinions and precedents, and no two rebbes agree on everything. Divisions exist even within some groups. The Satmar are divided into two camps, for example, as are the Chabad-Lubavitch.

Moving along the spectrum, there is the Agudath Israel of America (which has no formal ties to the Agudas Harabonim). Here, too, is the National Council of Young Israels – once a bastion of a more liberal Orthodoxy, but whose leadership over the years moved to the right of center, religiously and politically.

At the center are the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada and its clergy counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA is no more a monolith than the Orthodoxy it claims to represent. When Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah assumed the RCA presidency last year, it was heralded as a sea change for the organization, a start of a move back to the center.

As for the Orthodox left, there really is no serious organization yet, although there have been efforts to create one. There are, however, some important new institutions emerging from this sector, such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

I am not anti-halachic. I do not hate “the Orthodox.” I seek to promote the intelligent acceptance of halachah among all Jews. As I have always seen it, the halachic way is the only true path to the survival of Judaism in the modern world. Unnecessary and ill-considered stringencies are roadblocks along that path. Wake up, and look at the numbers.

We may disagree, but this is a debate for the sake of heaven. It is time for my critics to stop attacking me and start addressing the issues I raise.

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