There is no such thing as Orthodox Judaism; there are Orthodox Judaisms--just as there are Reform and Conservative Judaisms.
The great religious movements in the Jewish world are complicated and diverse, and each encompasses a variety of approaches to Jewish learning and life.
A few thoughts about Orthodoxy in the wake of the siyum ceremonies held recently in New Jersey, Israel, and throughout the Jewish world:
First, the ceremonies marking the completion of a 7-and-a-half year cycle of Torah study are an impressive, awe-inspiring accomplishment. The idea for daf yomi came from Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in 1923, and its success—which was not immediate—is a tribute to the devotion of the Haredi world to Talmud and text. While I have my reservations, my first response to the siyum phenomenon is always admiration and respect.
Second, Rabbi Shapiro’s intention was to encourage Jews in Poland and elsewhere to set aside time for study every morning before turning to the everyday concerns of making a living and supporting their families. Only a tiny percentage of Polish Jews engaged in full-time study; Jews there, in all of Eastern Europe, and throughout the Jewish world went off to work each morning. Shapiro hoped to provide a framework that would enable them to meet both their personal obligations and their obligations to God—and in that way to combine the practical and the sacred, the holy and the profane.
Third, the realities that prevailed at that time still prevail—everywhere other than Israel. Jews in New York, for example, including the overwhelming majority of Haredi Jews, support themselves by honest labor. They do so because that is what Torah teaches (Avot 2:2: “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin.) And they do so because that is what is required by the practical necessities of life. But in Israel, the norm for the Haredi world has become full-time study for all young men in their twenties; for the first time in Jewish history, the responsibilities of work (and of army service) for this age group have been set aside not just for the talented few but for all, in favor of study at the expense of resentful taxpayers. In short, what we have in Israel today is far from what Rabbi Shapiro intended or imagined.
Fourth, the Orthodox Zionist world has always provided enthusiastic endorsement for the principle that religious Jews both work and study Torah. Hapoel Hamizrachi, the intellectual and spiritual forebear of the National Religious Party and of what is now called the National Religious camp, adopted as its slogan “Torah va’Avodah” (Torah and work). This was not a mere turn of phrase but an expression of fundamental values; a commitment to a life of Torah and a life of action in all realms of worldly endeavor was the defining characteristic of the Mizrachi movement. Members of the B’nei Akiva youth movement sung songs about Torah va’Avodah, discussed the meaning of the words, and ultimately created a reality that reflected their embrace of both realms.
Fifth, what I find to be interesting and puzzling is this: Now that Israel is debating the justice and wisdom of the system that leaves young Haredi men in yeshivot, forsaking work, army, and family obligations, where is the voice of the National Religious Camp? Individual voices have been heard, but the voices of leaders have not. Where are rabbis and teachers who have taught the values of “Torah va’Avodah”? Where are the scientists, professors, doctors, Hesder yeshiva students and others who imbibed these values and shaped their lives according to these principles? Have they abandoned these principles, developing a new foundation for their religious thinking? Or have they chosen, for political and other reasons, to be silent?
The place of Jewish religion in the Jewish state will be determined for many years to come by the outcome of this debate. Israel needs to know, and the Jews of the world need to know, where the National Religious Camp stands.
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