President's Message

The Power and Perils of Orthodox Lite

Multiple approaches to Orthodox life have always existed. Sometimes the distinctions reflect different environments, other times competing philosophies. Occasionally, however, an approach to observant Judaism, though not ideal, is introduced to ensure the preservation of Torah observance. For example, some scholars suggest that Rav Yosef Kapach, zt”l, the great twentieth-century Yemenite Torah leader, introduced Yemenite Jewry to an intensely rational form of halachic Judaism, dismissive of Kabbalah, to counter his community’s preoccupation with superstition. Understanding the underpinnings and objectives of each approach is necessary in order to assess its appropriateness for the times, and whether or not the approach should be emulated by other communities.

A rather curious phenomenon, described as “Orthodox Lite,” emerged during the second half of the twentieth century, and continues today. Orthodox Lite families and communities do not seek to reject Torah and halachah but, at the same time, they take a relatively lax approach to religious observance. Orthodox Lite promotes a more casual relationship to religion, with lowered expectations and aspirations. Religion is viewed as a source of comfort and the provider of a more meaningful lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, some within the Orthodox community frown upon the community’s embrace of those practicing Orthodox Lite, arguing that anything less than a full commitment to religious growth is a corruption of Orthodox Judaism. Others maintain that the Orthodox Lite approach is selling its participants short by encouraging a shallow religious experience that is unlikely to be sustained through future generations. The most vociferous criticism, however, is this—a watered-down approach to Torah inevitably introduces into mainstream Orthodoxy compromising attitudes and possibly lowered standards of observance.

To be sure, these critics acknowledge that the Orthodox Lite approach was crucial in keeping many mid-twentieth-century Jews connected to religion, and likely prevented numerous intermarriages. But, they contend, this approach was effective only decades ago, when committing to a Torah life was a daunting challenge. With its less religiously demanding lifestyle, Orthodox Lite Judaism enabled those whose commitment to observance was tenuous to more readily stay the course. Contemporary American Orthodoxy is quite different. Even mid-sized Orthodox communities enjoy expansive availability of kosher food, Shabbos-accommodating jobs, and an abundance of shuls, schools and mikvaos. Since leading an Orthodox life in this country is so much less formidable than it was decades ago, its critics maintain that every one of us should be leading a serious and committed religious life.

And yet, one could argue that while many of the technical aspects of halachah are now easier to observe, there are new and equally daunting challenges that threaten our commitment to Orthodox Judaism. Tragically, this is evidenced by the many in the Orthodox world who continue to abandon halachic observance. Can we be confident that the value and effectiveness of Orthodox Lite Judaism have run their course?

The Origins of Orthodox Lite

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, reportedly commented that the widespread abandonment of Judaism in twentieth-century America was at least partially caused by children hearing parents bemoan the difficulty of being a Jew. “S’iz shver tzu zayn a Yid. Whether alerted to the hardships of Judaism through their parents’ krechtzen (moans), or simply by noting current events and conditions, the mid-twentieth-century Jew certainly had reason to be wary of religious observance and affiliation.

The religiosity of European Jewry had suffered centuries of tumultuous assault. This included the eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and the early twentieth century’s massive geographic displacement and family disruptions caused by the First World War and the Communist Revolution. Through the 1930s, massive portions of European Jewry, and those who had immigrated to North America, shed all semblance of religious observance. Having already endured crippling religious decline, the Jewish people then experienced the Holocaust, an unfathomable and unprecedented shock to their faith-system.

Religiosity was also threatened by the exceptionally alluring alternatives offered by late twentieth-century America. With the war’s reversal of the economic blight of the Great Depression, Jewish ingenuity and industriousness were paying healthy dividends. Social barriers to Jews were also dissipating, presenting avenues of social entry for Jews, whether into corporate suites or country clubs. Many viewed commitment to halachah and to Orthodoxy’s ideological distinctiveness as a barrier to these opportunities.

At the same time, however, a renewed interest in Jewish identity emerged. While many rued being Jewish in the aftermath of the Holocaust, others became passionately committed to Judaism. The declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 introduced an entirely new dimension of Jewish pride, which was greatly magnified in 1967 by the spectacular miracles of the Six-Day War.

Critics acknowledge that the Orthodox Lite approach was crucial in keeping many mid-twentieth-century Jews connected to religion, and likely prevented numerous intermarriages.

Also pivotal to twentieth-century Orthodox affiliation was the renaissance in Jewish education. What had been a mere handful of North American day schools and yeshivas blossomed to more than 600.  These schools worked on a very different model from the European cheder, and attracted a student body from a broader spectrum of Jewish homes. Due to parental concerns regarding issues ranging from assimilation to drugs and street gangs, Orthodox day schools attracted legions of children from non-observant or marginally observant homes. Even when not raised in a traditional observant home, many quasi-observant students who had attended an Orthodox day school entered adulthood enjoying a familiarity and comfort level with Orthodox Judaism. Similarly, Orthodox synagogues were filled with members who did not observe significant aspects of halachah, but whose identity as Jews was expressed through their Orthodox synagogue affiliation.

This confluence of factors presented American Orthodox leadership with an extraordinary opportunity to engage Jews who were only tentatively connected to Judaism, but who affiliated as Orthodox. Orthodox leaders also cringed while observing many children from devoutly religious homes abandoning a Torah lifestyle in favor of the American dream. It seemed clear, however, that many from both of these groups might remain within the Orthodox fold if doing so did not entail the social limitations and religious rigor associated with strict Orthodoxy.

Deeply concerned about these religiously vulnerable Jews, Orthodox leadership was in a bind: how to retain this segment of the Orthodox population without compromising the principles of Torah Judaism? For example, halachah cannot be reengineered and foundational tenets of emunah (belief) cannot be altered, not even for the sake of having a greater number of Jews affiliate as Orthodox. Consequently, they sought to identify parameters within which religious flexibility could be exercised to accommodate the needs of those who would otherwise leave the Orthodox fold. With this objective, Orthodox leadership encouraged the growth of Orthodox Lite Judaism—tempering the religious expectations for certain individuals and families, but not compromising communal halachic principles or standards.

The Nature of Orthodox Lite

Orthodox Lite Judaism is not an expression of rejection of halachah or a dismissal of Torah values. Those espousing the Orthodox Lite lifestyle harbor no ill will towards Torah observance, nor have a philosophical or emotional agenda to tinker with traditional Judaism and halachah. These individuals would, however, likely have abandoned Orthodoxy had their sole Orthodox option been rigorous halachic commitment and engagement.

The Orthodox Lite option is found in every sector of American Orthodoxy, whether Chassidic or Centrist, Chabad or Yeshivish, Sephardic, Yemenite or North African. In no community segment can everyone live up to an ideal. The leaders within each sector must therefore decide whether to embrace or alienate those community members who are conceptually committed to halachah and to the basic principles of Torah beliefs, despite being lax in halachic observance and rather unschooled in the nuanced principles of Jewish belief. In almost all instances these individuals and families are welcomed so long as they respect social and institutional community norms and sensitivities.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, over time, certain subtle yet significant characteristics of Orthodox Lite Judaism have seeped into the broader American Orthodox culture, influencing our behaviors as well as our thinking. For example, rather than focus on the responsibilities and commitments that should drive our religious experience, we tend to focus on the upbeat and warm aspects of religious life. We prefer to emphasize the tangible benefits we enjoy by observing mitzvos, rather than focus on how they bring us closer to God. We stress that Shabbos, for example, helps us shed the deafening ruckus of media and technology, as well as our preoccupation with work, thereby allowing us to reconnect to our family, to our community and to our true selves. Tzedakah (charity), bikur cholim (visiting the ill), and attending to the needs of orphans and strangers enhance our sensitivity. And observing the laws of family purity ensures that spouses pay attention to the non-physical dimension of marriage, and also enhances the beauty of intimacy.

Our religious ideology has also been somewhat influenced by the Orthodox Lite approach. We tend to underscore ahavas Hashem (love of God) as a central pedagogical theme, replacing yiras Hashem (fear of God) as the initial, threshold step in relating to God. While sechar v’onesh (reward and punishment) is recognized as an article of faith, we tend to de-emphasize Divine punishment. The notion of Heavenly punishment strikes many of us as harsh and judgmental, and not “politically correct.” Similarly, while traditional Orthodoxy teaches to love the sinner but hate the sin, we increasingly drop the “hate the sin” part. Being critical and judgmental are not socially acceptable, even if the criticism is not leveled at individuals but rather at religiously improper behaviors or ideologies.

Aren’t We All Orthodox Lite?

Concerns surrounding the wisdom and appropriateness of Orthodox Lite Judaism remain as compelling in 2019 as they were in 1960, if not more so. But the arguments in its favor are just as compelling.

Perhaps the strongest resistance to criticizing the Orthodox Lite approach should be the recognition that every one of us is Orthodox Lite, to one degree or another. Everyone experiences both periods of spiritual growth and religious lapses.

We tend to focus on the depth and meaning of certain mitzvos, while performing others by rote. We often neglect to pay attention to our relationship with God, even when praying to Him, and we generally prefer to focus on the joy and warmth in religious life rather than on obligations and responsibilities.

While committed to Torah Judaism, we each find our personal religious comfort zone, fearful perhaps, that if we push ourselves too hard, our commitment might crack. And sometimes we wonder whether we simply use this concern as an excuse. In differing fashions, and to varying degrees, aren’t we each living our own customized, personalized Orthodox Lite lifestyles? And if so, can we reasonably object to others who identify as Orthodox Lite?

Even if we acknowledge that we too are adherents of Orthodox Lite, albeit without wearing that label, there is cause for concern about accepting Orthodox Lite as a legitimate form of Orthodoxy. Every individual is going to fall and falter religiously. That is the nature of life. However, when we falter, or become more lax in our observance, we ultimately acknowledge that we should do better. We do not convince ourselves that our lapses meet our own religious standards, or that the inadequate, faulty way in which we may currently serve God is exactly what is expected of us, and no more. At least on occasion, such as on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we admit that we should aspire for more. To the extent that the Orthodox Lite approach embraces religious complacency and fails as a movement to acknowledge the need for religious growth, in essence relabeling bedieved behavior and attitudes as lechatchila, the institution of Torah Judaism is compromised and damaged.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) encourages us to adopt chumras (religious stringencies) during the High Holiday period despite our reluctance to accept these stringencies during the balance of the year. By doing so we are conveying that our disinclination to practice these stringencies on a regular basis stems from our recognition that we must first get our general halachic observance in order before adding stringencies. By temporarily adopting such stringencies, if only during the days of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, we express our aspiration to eventually reach the religious level at which adopting stringencies would be appropriate.

Most of us are, to one degree or another, Orthodox Lite. We compensate for our religious deficiencies, however, by aspiring to grow, and by committing to improve.  We are encouraged by our understanding that our spiritual status is defined more by the direction in which we are heading than by the spiritual place where we currently stand.

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.

This article was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of Jewish Action.