Permissible criticism, or O-bashing part II
Second in an intermittent series of friendly, well-meant criticism.

What do we talk about when we talk about what's wrong with Orthodoxy? A commenter on my previous post suggested that what I'm trying to do here is a "tit-for-tat" in response to Avi Shafran's Moment article "The Conservative Lie." I hope not. Shafran's argument can be summarized as follows: Conservative Judaism claims that it adheres to halachah. However, Conservative Jews and their leaders are predictably lenient, lax in observance; and cavalier about the importance of halachah to their movement. These facts show, says Shafran, that Conservative Judaism is a failure.

I doubt Shafran's interpretation of the evidence. But even taking these claims at face value, Shafran is only applying Orthodox criteria to the Conservative movement, finding the two don't match, and exclaiming, "See! Conservative Judaism is a failure!" It is a failure in Orthodox terms, but these terms are not the only valid ones. Conservative Judaism's approach to halachah is multi-faceted, and Conservative Torah scholars do not speak with one voice -- that very fact makes it very difficult to say how halachah plays a role in Conservative Judaism. (The same could be said about Orthodox or Reform Judaism, as far as that goes.) That Conservative Jews are lax in their observance, or even that they do not recognize the importance of halachah, is a problem to be solved, not an indictment of Conservative Judaism. Laxness of observance and halachic ignorance have afflicted Judaism forever. They might even be the status quo.

Shafran understands halachah according to its ultra-Orthodox interpretation: strict constructionism. But Conservative Judaism can be (and, I think, tries to be) both halachic and lenient. This dichotomy is unfathomable to Shafran, but does not make it any the less true.

The reason I'm rehashing Shafran's old essay is to try and make a stab at what I have to do to criticize Orthodoxy in useful ways. A commenter on my last post suggested that I should not judge Orthodoxy by Conservative standards. Certainly not. But, on the other hand, I can't judge Orthodoxy by Orthodox standards, for two obvious reasons: first, I'm not Orthodox; and second, because Orthodoxy might be too various to define usefully. A possible way out is sociological. Clearly, Orthodoxy plays a necessary role in Jewish society. (Not the only necessary role, or the most authentic role, but a necessary role. I make this claim because it's defensible.) If we can figure out what makes Orthodoxy necessary, and (further) point out where Orthodoxy is departing from this necessary role, this might be a useful beginning for outside criticism of Orthodoxy. In short: not to criticize Orthodoxy for what can't be by its very nature, but for what it should be and is departing from.

Maybe I've set myself too hard a task, because there's not just one necessary function which Orthodoxy performs. Let's try anyway. One definite function of Orthodoxy is to present itself as a uniquely authentic, traditional Jewish religious culture. I'm using the term "present itself" not to be snide, but to recognize that Orthodoxy is mythic (in the positive sense of myth popularized among Conservative Jews by Neil Gillman), fervently believing in its own authenticity. Whether or not that authenticity is unique is not germane to our present discussion. What matters is that Orthodoxy itself is unique by its belief in that authenticity. It's a self-creation through mythogenesis.

Call this the Myth of Religious-Cultural Authenticity. The hyphenate is important, because it's the subject of my first criticism -- which, like much else I'm saying here, is not original. Today's Orthodox Judaism is in danger of ignoring the "cultural" half of its motivating authenticity myth, and focusing exclusively on the "halachic." Not that Orthodoxy should (God forbid) change its fervent adherence to its own halachic standards (though what those standards are, how they're articulated, and how they're actually observed, is a fascinating, fraught, and ultimately very confusing terrain). But halachah to the exclusion of culture can drain Orthodoxy of what makes it convincing and meaningful not just to its followers but to its non-Orthodox observers: a central myth of traditional living as carried through the generations. (Alan Brill wrote about this in scholarly fashion in an article in Edah, which I discussed here. Also here, here, and here.)

I'd like to suggest that the sector of Orthodoxy which is managing to preserve both ends of the authenticity myth is the Charedi (and in particular the Chasidic) sector, and that modern Orthodoxy, though it is well-nigh tangent at times to my own Conservative Judaism, is most susceptible to this over-halachization I'm criticizing here.

Obviously, this is all a footnote to Rupture and Reconstruction.

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