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Is Social Orthodoxy Gaining on Modern Orthodoxy?

Written by Scott A. Shay




A few years ago I sat with five young Modern Orthodox millennials in a restaurant. All of them had attended day schools from kindergarten to high school and all were observant. Yet not a single one of them could tell me why a rational modern person should believe in God or why believing in God of Abraham was in any way different than all sorts of other beliefs. That one experience is just the tip of the iceberg. I have spoken to more than a few observant Jews who are fully participating members of Orthodox communities but are skeptical or just plain uncertain of the Bible's authorship and don't dismiss the possibility that we worship an invented God. Jay Lefkowitz dubbed this phenomenon as "Social Orthodoxy." These socially Orthodox folks, unlike Chareidi or secular Jews both love Judaism and secular studies, they just don't see a link between them. Many, influenced by secular critiques of religion, even see them as incompatible. The problem is even deeper in the wider Jewish community.


Speaking as a diaspora Jew, we American Jews as a whole suffer from a distinct lack of supply of faith. Survey after survey indicates that fewer Jews believe in God in the US than virtually every other category except self-described non-believers! At the same time, American Jews are extremely curious and engaged with all forms of global spirituality from Buddhism to Native American traditions. These trends require us to rethink how we approach both modern Orthodox and Jewish education generally.


In my view it is time for the modern Orthodox community and modern Orthodox educational institutions to face the challenges of this modern, scientific, and multicultural world head on. It is not enough to teach Torah and Maada. We must address the assertions and questions of today's atheist and recognize both our commonalities and differences with other monotheistic and even polytheistic religious communities head on. To do so we must reemphasize the most basic teaching of faith namely the prohibition against idolatry. This central teaching that will give our community the tools to understand the relationship between our lived experience, other religions, rationality, and Torah.


Today few modern Orthodox, let alone secular Jews, in America, understand the concept of idolatry. They, like many secular folks, think it is just an outdated prohibition against bowing down to statues. In fact we must teach our students that the prohibition against idolatry is the most important philosophical and moral contribution of the Torah to the world. Idolatry is best defined as a set of lies about power. It is the false attribution of supernatural power and authority to natural or finite things. It is inherently irrational and provides the basis for all forms of immoral abuse. In contrast, both to idolatry and to atheist claims about monotheism, belief in the God of Abraham is not a logical contradiction. For God is by definition above nature and is infinite. It is a rational form of belief, that one may reasonably accept or reject. The belief that only God is divine and therefore that all humans are equally human provides the basis for all justice. If idolatry led to the deification of kings and the abuses of the priestly class, who decreed the law to their benefit, monotheism led to equality before the law for everyone, limits on the power of kings, and even economic equality, through the remittance of slaves on the sabbatical and the Jubilee. If idolatry lead to the proliferation of magic, divination, and secret power, monotheism opened the door to science. Unlike atheist characterizations, monotheism created an intellectual, political, social, and economic revolution that lead to modernity.


Today few modern orthodox students, let alone secular Jews appreciate how radical the break of monotheism was from the polytheistic ancient world or how Christianity and Islam spread knowledge of the God of Abraham and transformed societies. This is both a historical reality and one that our Sages wrote about. Too many students know about the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Enlightenment. Too few students understand that prior to Christianity Scandinavia was a society based on economy of plunder and slavery as well as royal or chiefly decrees and where human sacrifice was the norm not the exception or know that the Bible influenced most of the modern progressive movements. While the excesses of monotheism must be denounced, this is no reason to idealize traditional or ancient societies.


In fact the encounter of traditional polytheistic religions with monotheism over the last two millennia, has led to general rejection of their most problematic idolatrous practices. You can see this process clearly with the Maori, who retain pride in their culture but have all but rejected the warfare, cannibalism, and deities of their past. But more to the point we must seek to explain the ambiguity of the history of monotheism. In fact the third commandment deals with this very issue. The prohibition against taking God's name in vain, can be read as a prohibition ascribing false teachings to God, the form of idolatry most common to self- proclaimed atheists. The negative examples in the history of monotheism are examples of this phenomenon. Understanding the prohibition against idolatry and of taking God's name in vain and knowing this history is the key to having a meaningful dialogue with other monotheistic and polytheistic religions as well as atheists.


While I understand the traditional reluctance within the Orthodox Jewish community toward interfaith dialogue, for modern Jews (and even Jews resisting modernity) interfaith encounters and dialogue are part of the Zeitgeist. For more than a millennium Jews have existed in parts of the world where the question was whether to be Jew or to be absorbed into the larger Christian or Muslim community. During that period Jews rightly emphasized the differences between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. But we live in a different world now. Modern Orthodox people encounter peoples of all faiths all the time, among whom are mostly upstanding individuals whose own faith traditions can enrich our own. We all know people whose relationship to prayer or even Judaism generally has been transformed after a visit to India or Tibet or even a chat with a nun. Therefore the old model of either ignoring or simply criticizing other monotheistic and polytheistic religious lacks the kind of discernment required today. Instead it is essential to understand where we monotheists agree and disagree with others. We can only do this through the prism of the prohibition against idolatry. Personally, I found the dialogues that I had with a Cardinal, an Imam, various priests, and ministers to be eye opening and pregnant with possibilities. So too have been my conversations with Maori elders, Hindu swamis, and spiritual but not religious people. One of the frequent areas of commonality has been our mutual appreciation of the Golden Rule, or as Hillel expressed, do not do unto others what you wouldn't want them to do to you." While most Jews comprehend this rule, they have no clue as to how it relates to idolatry. Yet the two are totally entwined.


Today too few modern Orthodox students comprehend the relationship between idolatry and ethics, particularly the Golden Rule. Idolatry is the act of attributing supernatural power and authority to finite things. No finite thing can be God or reflect God. The Golden Rule in contrast is based on a fundamental equality between humans. We do not apply the Golden rule to plants and mosquitoes for a reason. However a person, who views him or herself as above others in some way will not apply the Golden Rule. Idolatrous societies all function in this way. Whether it be through an ideology of a God King or a priestly class, or a special race of people, idolatry through its deification separates peoples into categories. Those who view themselves as divine often denigrate and even demonize others. In contrast, the monotheistic teaching that only God is worth worshipping and that all humans are created in God's image unites people. Everyone is called to view themselves as equal and respect others. This teaching not only bares on how we deal with other religions, but also on how we deal with secular morality. Secular moral teachings or ideologies that do not presuppose this axiomatic human equality are not compatible with monotheism. In face even more to the point, they often veer towards idolatry.


A person who does not follow the Golden Rule because he views him or herself as more powerful as others is doing the equivalent of deifying himself. Not only Machiavellian people, who use others as a means to an end, but even utilitarians transgress the Golden Rule. Thus, if killing sick infants and seniors will mean more people will be treated with better medical care, then why not do it? Without the understanding of the relationship between idolatry and the Golden Rule our students have too often fallen into hapless moral relativism, while defining themselves as modern Orthodox. This is a shame especially since it is precisely in this time of moral relativism and superficiality that we most need to understand idolatry's relationship to morality.


Too few modern Orthodox students understand how the prohibition against idolatry remains relevant today. While most modern Orthodox students study world history, few understand how the dictators of the last century are textbook idolaters. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, all erected statues to themselves, and had their followers write songs, lead parades and worship them in all manner of ways familiar to an ancient Babylonian or Assyrian. Nor do our youngsters understand the psychology of idolatry. The subtle ways we lie to ourselves or allow others to lie to us distorting their power. There is a direct link between idolatry and racism, for racism is none other than the belief that your race is somehow inherently better is a kind of deification.


Or how failing to stand up to idolatrous power is in fact acquiescing to it. Nor do they understand how magical thinking prevents not only psychological growth but scientific development, yet how deeply embedded it is in human cultures and personalities.

In short we must not only teach the meaning of the prohibition against idolatry in classes on Tanakh, Gamara, and Jewish thought. It is a concept that can be integrated into curricula in history, social studies, and even the sciences. If we don't do so and continue on our current path we simply reinforce the common atheist trope that religious people are dishonest: that they live bifurcated lives. And even more disturbingly we allow the atheist defamation of monotheism go unchallenged.


The time to make this change is past due, for we are losing many of our young people to our outdated curricula and approaches. The world has already changed and we must adapt.

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