Monday, February 14, 2011

Orthodox Judaism vs. Rationalist Judaism

A while ago I heard of two people who were told about this website, and who assumed from its title - Rationalist Judaism - that it was an alternate movement in Judaism, opposed to Orthodox Judaism. In other words, just as people broke away from traditional, Torah-true Orthodoxy with the Reform and Conservative movements, it was assumed that this website represents a similar such break. Note that this assumption was not reached based on what these people had read on this website - for they hadn't read any of it - but based on the title alone. As such, a friend of mine was concerned and suggested that I change the name of this website to "Rationalist Orthodox Judaism."

After I had finished laughing, it occurred to me that, in a way, they had a point.

The term "Orthodox," as applied to Judaism, has two meanings - the colloquial meaning, and the academic definition. Colloquially, "Orthodox" simply refers to people who are committed to halachah and are part of the Orthodox community. But in the academic study of Judaism, "Orthodox" refers to a particular approach to Judaism which began with the Chasam Sofer as a reaction to Reform. There have been several proposed features of Orthodox society which were a novelty, including its practice of segregation from the larger Jewish community, its approach to halachic stricture, its opposition to secular studies, its new role for the yeshivah, and most of all its traditionalism - its fervent opposition to any change perceived as coming from the outside. (I recently wrote a paper on this topic, which I will be e-publishing on this website at some point.) The approach to Judaism practiced before that is referred to as "traditional Judaism."

Now, there is a question raised in academic circles as to whether "Orthodox" is an appropriate label for various forms of Judaism today. For example, if Orthodoxy is defined by its opposition to secular studies, can Modern Orthodoxy be defined as Orthodox? The same question could be raised with regard to Rationalist Judaism - whether one is referring to the Rationalist Judaism of Rambam and other medieval figures, or to the Rationalist Judaism that we are exploring on this website. Rambam was not an Orthodox Jew - but was he a traditional Jew, or a rationalist Jew? Is rationalism such a distinct approach that it can be considered a category separate from "traditional" and "Orthodox"? Or does it function on a different plane from such categories, which have more to do with practice and social features than intellectual differences?

Of course, there are no absolute answers to such questions. Still, it is interesting to ponder upon. In the meanwhile, I am not changing the title of this website!


  1. "Rationalist Orthodox Judaism."

    Bluntly: there's no such thing. I reeeealy like being Orthodox/frum, but I'm under no illusions about the rationality thereof. It is simply impossible to hold 100% completely Orthodox positions and claim strict rationality. Something has to give; I chose rationality.

  2. You're using a different definition of "Orthodox" then either of the two that I discussed in this post (the colloquial definition, and the academic definition). Beliefs are not part of either. NOTE: I am not saying that Judaism does not require any beliefs - but rather that the term "Orthodox" just doesn't refer to them. The term "Orthodox" was originally borrowed from Christianity and isn't really accurate in either colloquial or academic contexts. (I recall that someone suggested that "Orthonomy" would be more accurate, but the common term is not going to change.)

    I know that there are people who will want to go off-topic and discuss whether Torah beliefs are or are not rational, but that is not the topic of this post.

  3. Fine. But to reduce confusion, you should use "Frum" or "Observant," not "Orthodox." Yes, Orthodox is often used to mean the former, but it's also used for other meanings for which the former are not. Using less ambiguous words would improve communication and lessen confusion. you would say, "I'm not changing my blog title to 'Rationalist Frum Judaism'."

  4. Great topic! The problem with "frum" is that is literally means "pious," which implies a type of exalted manner of behavior that few Jews (let alone "frum" Jews) possess. "Observant" is also problematic, because it implies that non-Orthodox Jews cannot be "observant", whatever that means.

    Rabbi - "Orthodox" means "right belief." I have heard some Jews prefer to describe their religious attitudes and behavior as "Orthoprax" = "right behavior," which focuses on acting Jewishly (observing Shabbat and holidays, keeping kosher, wearing a kippah, praying three times per day, tefillin, etc.) but makes no claims about the "beliefs" of Judaism, which can often appear to be non-rational.

    Also, "traditional Judaism," which existed pre-Mendelson and pre-Reform, is not considered to be a self-conscious way of looking at Judaism, unlike Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc., which self-consciously define themselves vis-a-vis modernity. It may sound simplistic, but "traditional Judaism" just was.

    Michael Singer

  5. "Or does it function on a different plane from such categories, which have more to do with practice and social features than intellectual differences?"

    Compare it to the Mussar Movement or to Chasidus; these are intellectual/emotional paths in Divine service, and would not modify "Orthodoxy" or a Jew("a mussarist-Orthodox Jew).

    Similarly, when hyphenating the word Orthodox, I prefer "traditionally-Orthodox" or "classically-Orthodox"(as in Coke Classic :) ) for haredim, and "contemporary-Orthodox" for modern Orthodox, because "haredi"(or "fervently-Orthodox") seems to have the same meaning as "yerei Shomayim", and is therefore not good as a sociological and ideological marker(though the author of "One Below and Seven Above" would indeed expand the "haredi" label, IIRC).

    Similarly, "Contemporary-Orthodox", has a better ring for those who value modernity in a greater degree than others. Of course, both groups can have elements of tradition and contemporariness, it's just a matter of balance on the same scale.

    (On that note, R. Norman Lamm was quoted in the February 2010 Commentator that “I now try very much to discourage the use of the word "Centrist," because it has been misunderstood and has absolutely no noetic content, in contradistinction to "Modern Orthodoxy," which does”).

  6. ḥareidi = isolationist Orthodox
    modern = integrationist Orthodox

  7. Rav Hirsch and his followers were called Orthodox Jews and they certainly did not oppose secular studies.

  8. >Rav Hirsch and his followers were called Orthodox Jews

    Actually, they were generally known as Neo-Orthodox.

  9. Maybe you are focusing on the wrong part of the phrase. Once you use the noun "Judaism", you are indeed labeling and differentiating it with the "Rationalist" from the other streams that use this term.

    My suggestions: "Rationalist Torah" or "Rationalist Hashkafah"

  10. Halacha is the sine qua non. Hashkafa is both the shul to which you go; and, the shul you won't go near (borrowing the old Jewish Robinson Crusoe joke).

    So, Halachic Rationalist would make the point, I think.

  11. SQ...
    The confusion comes from people who look at the word Orthodox litterally, instead of the actual meaning of the word in the context of Judaism (Which is Orthodox standards of halacha and hashkafa) Just as Conservative Judaism, is not infact the most conservative of Jewish movements.

    Shimon S....
    I agree, I think that is the best POV yet.

  12. My Israeli tin of OU sardines reads in Hebrew (something like):
    בהכשר הקהילות *החרדיות* של אה"ב

  13. Interesting topic. First of all, I think all Jews, or at least those who consider themselves obligated to perform commandments, want to think that their approach/hashkafa is a direct linear outcome of the intent of God and the authors of the Talmud(with the Rishonim thrown in, but perhaps not or not all of the Acharonim). The question then becomes how to identify this fact, as well as perhaps distinguish your approach from those who you feel are perhaps not in such a direct line. There is also the consideration not only of how the group identifies itself, but how others understand the label. What started as a pejorative, Orthodox, is now a title that many groups are fighting over, to the point where the term Orthodox is now fragmented into 'ultra', 'modern', 'centrist', 'open', etc. There is even a breakdown of modern orthodox into right and left wing. There are also groups like the UTJ(full disclosure, Rabbi David Novak, one of the founders and a prominent voice is my father in law) which would be identified as orthodox in practice and belief, but for a variety of reasons dont label themselves as such.

    Ultimately, you want to choose a description that not only conveys what you believe in, but produces what you feel should be the proper public perception. Since all the labels now have 'baggage' attached to them, ideally it would be useful to have one group identified as 'shomrei Torah and Mitzvot'(of course everyone is going to fight over exactly what that means, but I can dream). Within that group you could then divide into those who have a more rationalist bent, those who are more mystical, etc.

    Interestingly, the Chief Rabbi, Rav Metzger spoke at our local YU-Kollel Torah Mitziyon dinner this past sunday, and has final remark was to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to stop using the term 'Modern Orthodox'. He said that we are all orthodox, and we dont need to make further distinctions.

  14. As Michael Singer correctly notes, "orthodox" in general refers to correctness in belief or doctrine. How is it that that sense got disconnected from "orthodox" as applied to Judaism?

    Also, as it turns out, the very word "Orthodox" is, conceptually (in the sense of self-awareness) if not chronologically, modern having been coined in the 16th century CE.

    Rabbi Slifkin, please correct me if I'm wrong here. It seems to me that you think that "Orthodox" Judaism as conceptualized by the academics is a Procrustean bed that requires living aka "traditional" Judaism to be mutilated to fit into it. Do I assume correctly that you also hold (in keeping with Rambam's precedent) that Rationalism as an intellectual approach is, if not coterminous with traditional Judaism, well within its camp?

  15. S.,

    Academics call them neo-Orthodox. I don't believe that's what they were called at the time.

  16. >Academics call them neo-Orthodox. I don't believe that's what they were called at the time.

    They certainly were called that in the 19th century; and it was precisely to distinguish them from the so-called old Orthodox. It wasn't like only we discovered that a Rabbi Hirsch was very different from a Rabbi Akiva Eger.

  17. >Interestingly, the Chief Rabbi, Rav Metzger spoke at our local YU-Kollel Torah Mitziyon dinner this past sunday, and has final remark was to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to stop using the term 'Modern Orthodox'. He said that we are all orthodox, and we dont need to make further distinctions.

    Chareidi imperialism. Don't fall for it. This would just canonize the "fact" that not dressing black and the like is second class Orthodox.

  18. Not meaning to complicate, but it seems that there is a tendency to conflate social traditions, Torah, and even political leanings. Some of the difficulty in trying to decide whether Orthodoxy is rational comes down to this sort of confusion. A Rational Judaism needn't be for or against a particular sect in theory, because it seems that a Rational approach to interpreting the Tanach in light of the Tanach, and Traditions in light of history and social dynamics can be quite rational. But when Rational starts grow a philosophy and a CAPITAL 'R'; to mean something other than a rational, reasoned approach to interpretation--doesn't it by definition become a new splinter sect?

    Granted my definition means dividing Halakhic traditions into those that are Torah and those that are Social. But it seems that such an approach can encourage unity without quashing deeply treasured community standards. It promotes wearing black to first class Judaism without threatening the believer who wears Levis and a kippah, or only wears a Kippah Friday night.


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