The “O”-Word

The recent suggestion by the rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox congregation that one of the birchos hashachar (morning blessings) recited each day by Torah-observant Jews be eliminated—he sees it as insufficiently enlightened—is a reminder of an unpleasant but pressing task facing the Jewish community: To define the word “Orthodox.”

Words are mangled with disturbing regularity in the Jewish world. Jewish “observance,” once a clear and descriptive term, has become relegated to relativity. After all, isn’t a Jew who faithfully follows his clergyman’s prescription of social activism as the essential Jewish mandate… observant? He or she would certainly say so.

Adding the word “Torah” before “observance” doesn’t help much either. A Reform leader, after all, once famously proclaimed his movement’s wholehearted embrace of “Torah, Torah, Torah!”—undermining in six syllables more than 3000 years of a word’s synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that Reform theology unabashedly renounces.

“Mitzvah” has been turned on its head too. The Hebrew word for “commandment” has degenerated in many circles to mean “good deed” or even “what any particular person happens to think is a good deed.” The same aforementioned Reform rabbi once advised that every Jew “must examine each mitzvah [in the Torah] and ask the question: ‘do I feel commanded in this instance…?’” Now, feeling commanded and being commanded may not be mutually exclusive, but they are hardly one and the same.

Rounding out the abuse of words are chimeras like Conservative “halacha” and a Reform “Kollel.”

The word “Orthodox” has always been a lexical haven for Jews who affirm the divine origin of Torah and are committed to the entirety of our mesorah—traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices—and the integrity of the halachic process as it has existed for millennia. Although the “O-Word” was originally imposed on believing Jews by others, we have worn the label proudly; it implies faithfulness to the past and willingness to stand against the winds of societal change. And it has allowed us to set ourselves apart from all the contemporary parallels to the Second Temple period’s Sadducean movement—to borrow a comparison from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l.

In recent years, though, even “Orthodox” has been subjected to the Silly Putty treatment. People with ordinations from Orthodox institutions have invoked the imagined power of their pieces of paper to render “kosher” whatever the Zeitgeist or their own overly open minds have inspired them to embrace. Thus we have an “Orthodox rabbi” who prides himself on exemplifying what the Torah forbids as toeiva (“repugnant”); another who deigns to “ordain” women; now one who self-righteously declares that he can no longer “take G-d’s name in the context” of one of the birchos hashachar, and who “suspect[s], at this point in history, that it constitutes a Desecration of the Name.”

There is desecration here, yes, but not where the rabbi sees it.

Many Orthodox Jews, understandably, are reluctant to focus on attention-seeking rabbis seeking to boldly go, so to speak, where no Orthodox rabbi has gone before. But we ignore such things at our peril. Or, better, at the peril of forfeiting the last adjective signifying commitment to the Jewish mesorah.

Laying precise boundaries between unorthodox and unOrthodox is not simple. There have been Jewish innovations that were endorsed, in fact impelled, by Gedolei Yisrael—the Bais Yaakov movement perhaps the most striking one.

But when a contemporary rabbi, particularly one who has not yet garnered the wisdom that comes with many years of living and learning, proposes to reject an element—any element—of the Jewish mandate, there can be no question about his having relinquished the right to call himself Orthodox.

And no question, either, that any Orthodox rabbinic group to which he may belong, and any Orthodox congregational body with which his synagogue is affiliated, has an obligation to defend the word Orthodox, and to summon the courage to do what it has to do.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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