Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger

Orthodoxy can win only by demonstrating its ethical and intellectual superiority.

A generation ago, most “experts” agreed that American Orthodoxy was on the verge of extinction.  At that time, the bulk of Orthodox Jewry consisted of socially and economically disadvantaged immigrants, who were looked upon as the “last of the Mohicans.”  It was taken for granted that Orthodox Judaism could not survive, let alone flourish, in the free and open American environment.

This prediction reflected the widely held opinion that the rigidity and “dogmatism” of Orthodoxy was suited only for the insular atmosphere of the ghetto, but was completely out of place in a modern, progressive society.  I recall that when I asked a professor to guide me in directed study of ethics, he replied, “How could I? You are ‘rabbinating.’”  When I demurred, “But this should not prevent me from doing serious work in philosophy,” he questioned whether I was suffering from schizophrenia.

Notwithstanding the gloomy assessment of our prospects, reports of our premature death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, were somewhat exaggerated.  Contrary to all forecasts, we have not only have survived, but experienced an amazing resurgence.  Nowadays, far from being perceived as moribund, Orthodoxy, for all its relatively small numerical strength, is widely acknowledged as constituting the most vibrant and dynamic force within American Jewry.

These gratifying facts must not, however, lull us into a sense of complacency.  The bulk of American Jewry is inundated by the tidal waves of intermarriage and assimilation.  Although we are relatively immune to these perils, we must not become smug in the face of the failure of non-Orthodox movements to hold their members within the Jewish community.  Our fellow Jews abandon the “deviant” movements not because they join our ranks seeking more Torah, but because they are utterly indifferent to their Jewishness.

This is a terrible tragedy.  For all their shortcomings, these less-demanding movements provide their adherents with Jewish identification of sorts and some of them progress to greater Torah learning and practice.  But once they become totally alienated from the Jewish community, it becomes far more difficult to draw them into the orbit of authentic Torah values.

Unfortunately, we, too, share responsibility for what has been described as the “spiritual Holocaust” of American Jewry, which, paradoxically, occurs at a time when conditions are so conducive to a spiritual awakening.  Disillusionment with the values of modernity engulfs large segments of contemporary society.  The Holocaust, the upheavals of the post-World War period, the drug epidemic, the disintegration of the family, the disrespect for authority and law and the resulting criminal behavior have shattered our hopes that scientific and technological progress will usher in an era of contentment and happiness.  The moral vacuum created by a hedonistic, materialistic and narcissistic culture has given rise to a search for truly meaningful spirituality in various directions.

Regrettably, the Orthodox community has not been able to take full advantage of these opportunities.  Although our outreach efforts have had considerable success on an individual basis, they have not succeeded in reaching the masses of disaffected Jews.  We are appalled that so many turn for spiritual satisfaction to Jews for Jesus, Eastern mystery cults or other fads.  Moreover, even some who return to our fold do so only temporarily and continue their search for greener pastures.

I suspect that one of the major reasons why we have not made greater inroads into a potentially receptive group relates to our failure to stress the ethical dimension of Judaism.  Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, always emphasized that Orthodoxy can win only by demonstrating its ethical and intellectual superiority.  The wisdom of this insight was demonstrated to me by a bitter personal experience.  A friend of mine, who had returned to his Jewish roots after many years of active participation in the Episcopalian Church and who was well on his way towards increased observance of  halachah, requested my assistance in persuading some prominent Orthodox Jews, with whom he had business contacts, to desist from unethical conduct.  When we spoke again, I had to admit failure of my mission.  He then told me, “I really had wanted to make my home kosher.  But when I observe the outrageous conduct of some Orthodox Jews, I lose my desire for it.”

From a logical point of view, the reaction of my friend could not be justified.  The significance of kashrut does not depend upon the degree of ethical propriety exhibited by those who observe it.  But psychologically it is a different story.  Lack of ethical sensitivity on the part of halachically committed Jews represents a Chillul Hashem, which turns off many non-believers from Orthodoxy.  Meticulous observance of ritual requirements does not compensate for laxity in matters pertaining to interpersonal relations (bein adam lechavero), just as maintaining high ethical standards does not displace observance of ritual laws.

With all our pride in the magnificent achievements of the day school movement and of the yeshivot, we must attribute part of the blame to our educational system.  Emphasis is placed upon the unique and distinctive components of halachah such as Shabbat and kashrut  rather than upon its numerous universal ethical teachings, which, because even non-Jews may subscribe to them, are not regarded as distinguishing characteristics of Orthodoxy.

Viewed from a historic perspective, this tendency is fully understandable.  Since the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, Orthodoxy has suffered from a siege mentality.  Those who wanted to reduce Judaism to “ethical monotheism” branded halachic Judaism as incompatible with “the spirit of the time.”  In reaction many assigned pre-eminence to the distinctive and particularistic practices of Judaism.  Since the American melting pot provided such easy opportunities for total assimilation, our concern for our very survival as Jews conscious of our identity tended to downplay the importance of the universalistic dimension.

This siege mentality also frequently manifests itself in the summary rejection of the entire outside world.  Such an attitude is becoming increasingly popular in many circles of Orthodoxy.  Some maintain that total insulation from outside cultures is indispensable to the survival of authentic Judaism.  Others do not share this pessimism and argue that on a selective basis some secular values may be integrated within Judaism.

As is well known, nowadays, the Orthodox community experiences a growing rift between the two camps.  One of the major challenges facing Orthodoxy is to realize that both approaches are needed.  We must develop individuals who are totally immersed in our own tradition.  At the same time, we require individuals who are at home in the modern world and contribute to its well-being because of their commitment to Torah’s directives.  We need not agree with each other as to which is the preferable option.  But we must not allow our differences of opinion to delegitimize each other.  Only by developing an inclusive pluralistic Orthodoxy which mandates respect for all points of view within the broad spectrum of halachic opinion can we can halt the growing polarization within our ranks.  In the words of Chazal, “Eilu ve’eilu divrei Elokim Chaim; Both are the words of the Living God.”

I have previously referred to the pride we take in pioneering the day school movement.  By now, a large proportion of Orthodox Jews are products of yeshivot.  But this gives rise to another problem.  We are developing a religious elite, which seeks ever more stringent standards of religious conduct.  At the same time, however, we make it ever more difficult for those who are less exacting to find spiritual satisfaction within our ranks.  Thus the spiritually rich get richer, while the spiritually poor get poorer.  We must resist the temptation of adopting more and more chumrot [stringencies] as normative, lest we make halachic observance unnecessarily more difficult.  We should return to the classical pattern governing religious life.  Chumrot were voluntarily adopted by the spiritual elite, but not imposed upon the general community.

This approach is especially vital as we face the feminist issue, which cannot be dismissed simply as the intrusion of the surrounding environment.  We should find ways and means to accommodate as much as halachically possible the demands of numerous Orthodox women who frequently are motivated, not by current fads, but by genuine religious and ethical concerns.  When the Bais Yaakov movement was launched, it represented a daring innovation.  It marked a revolutionary departure from traditional practice.  But it saved many thousands of Jewish women for Torah Judaism.  We, too, must muster similar courage to come to grips with an issue that by all indications will not go away.  Ours is truly an eit laasaot l’Hashem [a time to act for God], lest we needlessly alienate large numbers of spiritually sensitive Jewish women.

It is precisely our conviction that we are entrusted with a timeless Torat chaim [a Torah addressed to the totality of life] that should inspire us to fearlessly develop bold strategies.  The spiritual vacuum of contemporary society demands that we replace the siege mentality with self-confidence and optimism.  We must not write off as irretrievably lost the bulk of Jewry and circle the wagons.  Instead, we are challenged to take full advantage of the unprecedented opportunities for Torah Judaism which beckon us at this time.

A past president of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Synagogue Council of America, Rabbi Wurzburger is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shaaray Tefila, in Lawrence, New York, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University.  He is the author of Ethics and Responsibility; Pluralistic Approaches to Covenantal Ethics.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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