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Thou shalt not separate thyself from the collective

(or: There is strength in numbers)

By Alexander Eterman

Posted September 9, 2004

Judaism is by definition a collective game. To be sure, this does not apply to Judaism alone -- take soccer, for example -- so that much of what I am about to say holds equally true for other phenomena. In this instance, the collective is the alpha and omega of the entire system. Nor can it be otherwise: what distinguishes a tribal religion from a universal one is that the former is predicated on an actively existing tribe, or in other words, on an all-embracing and closely knit collective.

Due to the relative simplicity of the basic premise, I will not dwell too much on Orthodox collectivism as such. Anthropologists have done it long ago and in great detail. Naturally, their inquiry leaves out the distinctly Jewish elements. I will point out from the outset that the prime tenet of real Judaism is the injunction against "separating from the collective" (lifrosh min ha'tzibur). There is a good reason why the Talmud stresses that when the Jews live in unity, even if they are scoundrels and idolaters to the last man, nether their enemies nor the Almighty himself can vanquish them; yet when they squabble and drift apart, no amount of virtue will save them. This extremely insightful statement reveals something like the physical core of Orthodoxy: it rests on more than simple uniformity, but rather on unanimity (lit. being of one anima!). Moreover, the self-definition of Orthodox Judaism testifies to the same fact: it declares collective social (including religious, though to a minor extent) functioning. To be an Orthodox individual means to be a part of something greater and more exalted than yourself. This refers, of course, to the earthly human collective rather than the Weltgeist. In Orthodox reality, the religious, God-oriented aspect of life is marginal and almost totally eclipsed by the social aspect with which it becomes intertwined. The Jews (similar to most kinds of Christian fundamentalists) are not even supposed to pray alone -- they must go to the synagogue and assemble the necessary quorum of ten coreligionists. One can hardly assume that God will not hear their prayers otherwise -- it is, rather, that their cherished collective will feel abandoned, even if it is for the sake of God.  Interestingly, in many languages the term "denomination" is practically interchangeable with the word "church", which refers above all to a house of worship, be it a synagogue, a mosque or a Buddhist temple -- i.e. a place designated for collective prayer. Therefore being part of a distinct confession means -- among other things, or perhaps above all -- belonging to a prayer group. The fact that it is difficult to properly focus on prayer in a synagogue or an Evangelical communal hall (true prayer requires concentration, a meditative state, which essentially means solitude, no matter whether physical or mental -- both are forbidden in the Orthodox scheme of things) -- makes no real difference: the object in those places of worship is not prayer to God but collective self-expression as sanctioned by the collective leadership. Genuine and intense praying is not done by the congregation in temples but by hermit monks of various denominations, who seek solitude for that very reason. On the other hand, Orthodox believers of every ilk huddle together in collectives, replacing meditation with an effectively collective act.

In the case of the Jews, the clustering herd instinct is extremely powerful, having long ago become deeply entrenched. A Jew must not only pray but also study in a collective -- both in a small collective (the chevruta [1]) and a larger one (the yeshiva -- preferably a noisy hall packed tight with colleagues), and definitely out loud. [2] He must rejoice, mourn, or simply spend time in that collective. An Orthodox person who shuns the collective is certainly a heretic, if not an outright subversive. Thus a devout Jew must find himself a rabbi who will then serve as his leader, mentor, and confessor (see the commandment aseh lechah rav -- choose yourself a rabbi), guiding him along the true path, i.e. showing him the one, divinely decreed way of cooking a chicken, tying shoelaces, blowing the nose, where to pasture a goat, and whether the earth is flat or round. What is more, his very raison d'etre consists of achieving the goals of the collective, which are constantly defined and redefined by the ubiquitous leaders (the ­gedolim), erecting a tower of Babel that is collective in its essence. In any Orthodox framework, the voluntary existence of a Jew outside the collective and the collective consensus is theoretically impossible. That is precisely why throughout the eighteen centuries of the rigid rule of rabbinical Orthodoxy, there have not been any solitary Orthodox Jews. An Orthodox person can be physically removed from the collective by being imprisoned, yet in his mentality he remains part of his compact tribe, suffering from his enforced isolation more than from all other prison hardships, making no attempt whatsoever to arrange a different, individual religious life. Orthodox aloneness is inconceivable; it has no feasible prototype, no precedent. It is unrealizable, a perfect oxymoron. Thus a voluntary withdrawal from the collective cannot be innocuous in principle -- it spells a departure from Orthodox Judaism, or even from Judaism itself. Otherwise why withdraw?  After all, Jewish Orthodox collectives are sacred communities led by sanctified leaders! It is only within its framework that the truly exalted objectives can be achieved. A departure cannot be seen as anything less than an expression of dissent -- and thus it is an insult and a heresy. Therefore a withdrawal from the collective is an apostasy.

From the beginning of the Orthodox era, being Orthodox essentially means living inside an artificial crystal structure, a homogenous collective that views itself as Orthodox. The degree of an individual's Orthodoxy is effectively equivalent to the degree of his rejection of individual ideology, individual choice, and individual perception of the world. Only in this sense and in this context can we understand the Jewish propensity for orthopraxy (or rather the not unreasonable tendency to replace orthodoxy with orthopraxy) - for life within a collective is more practical than theoretical. Anyone who joins an Orthodox collective leaves theory behind, like the hope abandoned upon entering Dante's inferno. [3] This is the only way to account for the enormous, disproportionate, seemingly exaggerated role of minhagim (customs) both in theoretical halacha and in the real life of Jewish communities (to the extent that is was decreed that "the minhag of Israel is the Torah itself") -- for distinct and more or less unique customs are a remarkably effective means of isolating and consolidating a collective, transforming it into a crystal, a homogenous autarky, much more successful than universal commandments. To precisely the same extent the cause of Orthodoxy is facilitated by xenophobia, as natural as breath, expressly directed against all those who place themselves outside the collective, regardless of how close or remote from it they are. Thus it would be worthwhile to redefine Jewish Orthodoxy as a life of loyalty -- to the extent of annihilating the individual position both theoretical and practical -- to the ideologically organized Jewish collective. This definition has added usefulness due to the fact that other, non-Jewish orthodoxies evidently function in a completely analogous manner.

Essentially, it is all but irrelevant what exactly constitutes the worldview of an Orthodox collective or whether it is consistent -- the only important requirement is that it be sufficiently extensive, rigid and binding as a whole, and not too complicated in individual cases. It is no wonder, therefore, that Orthodox Jewish collectives are fairly numerous, with some of them as similar as two peas in a pod, while others are strikingly different -- the distinct structural similarity of closed societies does not at all preclude their profusion. It is a tempting idea to design an Orthodox algebra whose aim would be to provide a formal expression to the mutations undergone by these collectives. There is no doubt that in this instance similarity clearly eclipses the differences.

On the other hand, we should keep in mind that an Orthodox collective does not spring up from just any social and ideological ground. On the contrary, certain fairly simple concepts and realities effectively preclude Orthodoxy, possessing immunity against it. Indeed, an Orthodox collective is essentially a community, a tribe. Yet the very idea of a community (any community, not just an Orthodox one) is fundamentally incompatible with real liberalism, functioning democracy, pluralism -- in fact, with any form of social organization predicated on multiple patterns of behavior and the possibility of individual choice. Thus by their very definition there cannot be any pluralistic Orthodox collectives.

In other words, it is by no means every social entity -- let alone every living worldview -- that has the capacity to suppress the individual's unique, non-collective core to a sufficient extent. Moreover, many concepts, once assimilated, carry the germ of individualistic rebellion. Such are the liberal political ideas and notions of individual freedom, the individual's right  (not to mention duty) to rely on logic and empirical reason, the refusal to confer on anyone the mantle of absolute truth, and finally the conviction that man is entitled to personal, unconstrained views whose nature he is not obliged to divulge to anyone -- or simply the right to genuine privacy. To some extent, even the efficient system of secret balloting is anti-Orthodox in its nature -- for any Orthodoxy has a single candidate for any given post, and supporting this candidate is a sacred duty. On the other hand, the countless collective responsibilities, the opposition of the collective to both the world and the individual, the anticipation of an impending miraculous redemption, the transcendental commandments, the collective rituals, the traditional Halacha -- these are exactly what Orthodoxy needs. I have deliberately left out of the discussion yet another Orthodox effect: the almost ubiquitous, albeit not quite mandatory, tendency to sanctify the community's leaders, often resulting in a cult of personality. In fact, we are all acquainted with communities formed around charismatic religious leaders who redefined collective customs or the nature of their observance in their own fashion. In the case of the Jews, a wonderful example of such communities is the Hassidic courts, but the Hasidim have no monopoly on charismatic leadership. No Orthodox entity is immune to sects and sectarianism.

It should be kept in mind that the deeply entrenched psychological and social rigidity that marks the Orthodox society does not in any way prevent schisms and the involuntary splintering of Orthodox sects and communities. Quite the contrary: the Orthodox collective, having sworn an unwavering oath of loyalty to itself, has no functional reason not to split in half, and then into four parts, amoeba-like. One Orthodox amoeba or four -- it makes no difference. They will prove vital and resilient in any case. After all, within the system, in other words from the standpoint of a member of the Orthodox collective, this revealing homomorphism changes nothing -- he continues to live in the only righteous world. To be sure, the absence of an functional ban on division turns the definition of Orthodox ideological unity from pathetic to a parody.

Be it as it may, the Orthodox system -- like an amoeba -- looks rather dull when considered from a bird's eye view. It has designed such an efficient system of biological survival that the digestive organs now take up most of its body. It is so simple and perfect that it is quite capable of self-propagation through division, without resorting to outside help as required by more advanced species. That is precisely why, counter to all ideology yet in full keeping with functional logic, Orthodox collectives divide and propagate with such a robust and single-minded zeal. The history of Hassidic courts and Lithuanian yeshivas, the same as of Protestant churches, provides ample testimony of this phenomenon.

This being the case, the question that begs to be asked is how to classify, first, the Modern Orthodox(MO) groups, and second, those sundry individuals who, having left Orthodox communities, still appear to remain Orthodox.

As for the MO, we should first of all note the resolute hostility with which they are regarded by the authentic Orthodox circles, Zionist and anti-Zionist alike. They blame the MO for capitulating to the forces of liberalism and universalism -- the most terrible charge that can be made from their standpoint as defenders of the closed society. Yet what is actually behind this charge? To answer this question, bare philology is not enough. The reason behind this Orthodox antagonism towards the MO -- though it is rather transparent -- not only bears out the above theory but also illustrates it in a highly instructive manner.

Indeed, what it is that prevents authentic Orthodoxy from displaying a tolerant attitude to the MO? Definitely not the fact that virtually all the MO receive a secular education along with the communal Jewish one. True, this decadence in itself may not be to the liking of the true Orthodox, yet they frequently tolerate the presence of secularly educated Jews in their midst, and sometimes even regard them as intellectual Shabbes goyim. Among the true Orthodox one may find doctoral graduates from Princeton -- but never an MO.

Similarly, the watershed between the MO and the Orthodox does not run along the issue of acceptance or rejection of Zionism and the State of Israel -- nor, in fact, along any formal political touchstones. Several decades ago this hypothesis, mistaken though it may be, could have had at least some merit; today, however, following the emergence of numerous Zionist Orthodox entities that bear an uncanny resemblance to the classical anti-Zionist Hassidic courts in many of their aspects, this hypothesis is simply inapplicable to anything.

Certainly this has nothing to do with any kind of external or technical attribute of religious conduct or with the attitude to rituals. Among the MO there are people who wear fur hats and black gabardine coats, while some of the Orthodox don jeans. As a matter of fact, a careful study of the chardal (Haredi Zionist) Orthodox collectives leads to instructive and often unexpected conclusions. It is also important to remember that where the techniques of religious observance are concerned, many MO act exactly like the most zealous pedants, while quite a few of the Orthodox have a fairly lax attitude to the technical aspects of the Halacha.

Nor would it be correct to draw the line at the "neophyte's" attitude to Jewish eschatology, even though today it could be validated from the purely empirical point of view (exactly as once happened with the political attitude to Zionism). I personally know of one MO who is passionately awaiting the Messiah and preparing for the war between Gog and Magog, as well as some Orthodox Jews who do not give the Messiah a passing thought. It should be admitted, however, that the majority of the Orthodox have always been entangled in eschatology in one way or another. Nevertheless, the point of Orthodoxy does not at all lie in eschatological tendencies; on the contrary, the latter should be regarded as a traditional sauce to the gander of Orthodoxy. Today's mass fascination with eschatology, though certainly fateful, is nevertheless marginal and transient. For example, the eagerness of the Chabad movement to see their late Rebbe as the Messiah (if not the Almighty himself) is still so strong that quite a large number of the sect's followers ignore the fact of his demise, and yet there is not the least doubt that the situation in Chabad will go back to normal with time. In other words, this vigorous and vital movement will not disappear because of its own eschatological escapades. What is more, if need be it will elect a new rabbi without a second's hesitation, thereby disavowing the previous one. When eschatology is confronted by the communal survival instinct, mysticism does not stand a chance.

As I have already noted above, the essence of orthodoxy is the declared domination of the collective force over the individual, the individual's renunciation of the right to set his own priorities and construct his own picture of the world -- in a word, a virtually total dispersion in a clearly defined collective. To an orthodox person, the collective cannot be wrong; what is more, value categories such as truth and virtue cannot even exist outside the collective area. For that reason orthodoxy may and should be compared to a beehive and an anthill. The life of an orthodox person is akin to that of a bee or an ant; practically all of his activity is circumscribed by collective rules, which may be intended to attain collective objectives, to strengthen the inner harmony (or discipline), or perhaps merely to demonstrate the collective essence of the anthill or the beehive. Outside the collective life either does not exist at all (a mere illusion, a chimera) or it is wretched and rotten. The bee and the ant, in everything they do, invariably carry out the collective's policy, which does not preclude them from spending a large part of the day outside the beehive or anthill.

For the orthodox bee/ant, there is no right to, or even an idea of, free choice in any personal sense of the word.  If I am permitted to repeat the analogy of political elections, they always vote -- exactly as was once done in the former USSR -- for a single candidate with a hundred-percent majority. Any deviation from the rule is an act of sedition. Essentially, the orthodox member of a collective entity invariably votes for himself. The aforementioned single Soviet candidate was also elected or appointed by someone -- the collective, in fact -- for the sole purpose of basking in popular adulation. Any deviation from the unanimous majority, hinting at individual opposition, was viewed as a transgression, a heresy, an offence against orthodoxy.

Basically, a refusal to see oneself as an ant or a bee is in effect a rejection of orthodoxy. We daily encounter this fascinating phenomenon on the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Quite a few of our black-coated contemporaries make an attempt to assume a prerogative that is completely forbidden to the Orthodox -- the prerogative of forming their own idea of the world around them, the right to a personal opinion. This is the worst halachic transgression imaginable. These people -- once caught in the act -- cease to be members of Orthodox collectives; if never caught, they continue to function as such only in the technical sense, and even then temporarily, only for as long as they continue to attend their regular synagogue. They no longer accept the collective's injunctions and priorities as irrefutable and automatically binding -- and thereby they distance themselves from the collective. Thus a drop that penetrates deep into solid rock does not behave as its integral part. A critically thinking individual and an orthodox collective operate on different frequencies, and are therefore incompatible.

What we are witnessing today are broadly diverse and distinct Jewish groups merging into sturdy Orthodox collectives on the basis of one Judaic value or another. Their members conduct themselves just like the bees or the ants -- as parts of a single collective whole. The attitude of these collectives to practical Halacha may range widely, from total veneration to relative indifference. Nevertheless, they all perfectly fit into the mosaic of Jewish Orthodoxy.

That is why -- to sum it up -- there is no such thing as "free-roaming" orthodox individuals, forming their own personal philosophies by gleaning them from the countless texts written by people who lived in different times and different collectives as well as from their own experience. To exactly the same extent, the term "orthodox" does not apply to MO groups made up of people who remember their collectives and rabbis only on Saturdays, and one another on high holidays, and whose main link boils down to mutually specified donations. "Where is your beehive, your anthill?" the God of Jewish Orthodoxy will demand of the MO in the other world -- provided, of course, that such a meeting takes place. The MO will answer in a hurt voice that he is not an insect. And he will be right.

This begs the question: if the MO have neither a beehive nor an anthill, then what do they have in common? Are there any shared features that justify supplying them with a meaningful label? Even more importantly, what exactly creates, if not the collective unity of the MO, then at least the illusion of unity that many of them enthusiastically embrace?

The answer to these questions, though fairly simple, is at the same time logical and instructive. In addition, it serves as a mute testimony to the patent contemporaneousness of the MO phenomenon itself.

Indeed, it is only the modern age with its lost ideological innocence that could have given rise to the serious idea of finding a replacement for the discarded set of orthodox collective concepts -- replacing one collective pattern with another. This plan, insane and post-modernist in its core, could have succeeded everywhere except in the orthodox world, which requires total collective submission rather than mere collective consent.

At its very inception (as early as the 19th century), the MO quite consciously cast aside the Orthodox form of Jewish collective existence, while retaining its formal content -- Halacha proper. All in all, this was a rather naïve idea. To paraphrase a classical source, it is not the observance of Shabbat as such that ensured the survival of the Orthodox Jew, but rather its mystically collective nature; not kashrut it itself, but rather its place in collective culture. Having become a matter of individual choice for the MO, Halacha was transformed from the center of existence into a voluntarily carried burden. This transformation was the natural and inevitable result of the broad individual autonomy assumed by a MO person, of his critical view of the world independent of collective concerns. Those who are capable of peering through a telescope with an unbiased scientific eye or of classifying Japanese paintings no longer regard their lives as an assortment of meaningful collective rituals. At the most, they may remember those rituals at specially designated moments, only to forget them with a sigh of relief afterwards. They may be quite conscientious and even zealous in the performance of the rituals themselves -- but those rituals no longer play a central -- let alone absolute -- role in their existence.

The relative emptiness of the MO's religious life and the corrupted nature of his collective Jewish games did not pass unnoticed by others, or in fact by himself. Since the MO only mimicked the Orthodox in their ritual activity, their rituals' derivative nature was also quite noticeable. The relative inadequacy of the MO ideology called for compensation -- and of course it was not long in coming.

The authentic, unadulterated collective Orthodox ideology was replaced by the MO with Jewish nationalism -- which they had all but invented for that very purpose -- followed by the national undertaking of building Zionism, or its alternative: Jewish culture. Thus the MO finally came to possess something new that the Orthodox never had; moreover, this innovation too had a collective, national character, clearly meant to compensate for the lost collective absolutism that was left behind with the community.

In principle, an objective observer should have endorsed this gradual social transition. The MO, having left the community, gained a nation -- albeit a somewhat vague one -- along with a new form of social existence that was far more in step with the times. However, we are equally interested in learning about the price they have had to pay for all these innovations. Essentially, it boils down to one thing only: the loss of collective unity, of the Jewish "solid" body, and the departure from orthodoxy.

Indeed, nationalism is a rather feeble substitute for tribal kinship, just as a full-fledged nation is a far more diluted phenomenon than a common tribe. [4] Nationalism, even in its zealous form, still leaves a person with a great deal of free time and countless degrees of freedom. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, swallows him whole. A nationalist is perfectly able to watch his neighbors with interest and even envy; for the tribe or the clan, the external world as a comparable phenomenon is virtually non-existent. A nationalist, from the standpoint we are interested in, is no more than a cowboy playing an Indian. A real Indian is an alien mystery to the cowboy; the life of an Indian -- filled with symbols, symbolic in its core, and thus highly meaningful -- makes him livid with envy. The problem is that the cowboy has no intention of moving into a wigwam for the winter, while the Indian would not even think of accepting the cowboy into the tribe. Or here is another simple analogy: a nationalist is like a club member who sews the cherished club emblem on to a regular jacket bought at a Marks and Spenser store. A genuine member of an Orthodox community wears his gabardine coat, stockings and shtreimel (fur hat) on holidays; this is his authentic uniform that cannot be found in shopping centers. He does not need any special distinguishing marks or emblems -- for he is his own emblem.

Be that as it may, nationalism is a far more watery phenomenon than tribal or clannish solidarity, just as the collective qualities of a beehive are much thicker than the mutual assistance of a flock. Since Orthodoxy is impossible without the kind of natural tribal unity that an MO, like any nationalist, can only dream of and hate, it is completely unattainable to him. In principle, he should not feel resentful: social evolution has more than compensated him for the losses incurred. Yet resentment is what he feels -- and for a good reason. Let us call a spade a spade: not only is the MO not Orthodox -- he is the walking antithesis of true orthodoxy with all the implications, including the linguistic ones. After all, Modern Orthodoxy is the strangest term humanity has managed to come up with. Even Postmodern Orthodoxy would have been a better choice!

Now we can proceed to the two eternal "suspended" questions: Does Halacha truly undergo changes? Does an Orthodox Jew have the right to choose his own points of view -- at least out of the ones that bear the stamp of Orthodox approval? Suddenly these questions become quite manageable. From all that has been said above, it is clear that Halacha cannot and must not change within a living Orthodox collective -- or at the very least, it must not appear to change. A hypothetical open and public change, binding on all the members of the collective, will inevitably resemble an Orwellian retroactive rewriting of history. Indeed, a new Halacha is fully as impossible as a new tradition -- precisely because of the universal and simultaneous nature of Orthodox collective. Any Orthodox decree must be anchored in past authority, and thus openly admit its retroactivity! In other words, just like in Carroll's books, any new law must be declared old and time-honored and accepted as such. A "halachic shift" that automatically transforms the community's behavior, with all of its not quite traditional essence, must point at a schematic replacement of halachic concepts rather than at a rearrangement of communal consciousness. At the same time, an Orthodox system must change in a communal, collective fashion. Contrary to the "Kuzari principle" [5], Orthodox social evolution takes place without replacing the concepts -- by psychologically refurbishing the tradition rather than tearing it down. Therefore nothing real and significant in the Orthodox world happens through someone's individual will or choice. Real changes must above all remain unnoticed, unrecognized by the community. Only then can they be realized the way they are realized -- gradually and slowly, one communal square at a time, spreading like a chain reaction and systematically conquering the community. Halacha must first and foremost seem immutable -- a rule that allows evolution but precludes reform. Yet this same Halacha can easily change and even collapse during the remaking -- as well as the splintering -- of the collective itself. This hardly has any major significance for us. What is important is that a person cannot remain Orthodox while choosing his own personal point of view concerning issues of importance to the collective, and the basic theoretical presence of different halachic opinions makes no difference in this matter. Any individual point of view must at the same time be collective! All the rest is of no account.

There is no doubt that some Orthodox collectives permit polemics on a wide range of issues. Polemics, however, is by no means the same as pluralism. Furthermore, it is plainly considered from a narrow practical angle, as a sort of devil's due, confined within rigidly established boundaries, and most importantly, can only be theoretical. [6] Can the Hassidic community be expected to seriously challenge a rebbe's decision, or even to choose the cut of their coats? All in all, Orthodox polemics may be denounced (Maimonides, for example, prohibited the Jews from even thinking¸ let alone arguing, about metaphysical, historical and halachic issues) or it may be allowed -- but always within certain confined areas, and it is never left up to the individual's choice and preferences. There is an interesting view to the effect that a true discussion can only be conducted between collectives -- but even this does not solve all the problems that arise. Since the process of meaningful discussion is indeterminate, largely unpredictable and contains elements of creative spontaneity, a seemingly harmless debate between communities is invariably either devoid of context or dangerous. An argument as to whose caftan is godlier can either reach a dead-end or suddenly escalate into an all-out conflict of a most unexpected nature.

A collective is not only able but even obligated to rigidly fix any halachic and metaphysical positions it considers crucial. Ideological Orthodoxy is the sum total of the positions it fixes. Anyone who rejects or even questions this fixed pattern ceases to be a loyal member of the collective, as well as an Orthodox Jew.

Known examples of inner-confessional conflicts only go to support this conclusion. For example, Maimonides, in defiance of the Talmud and the views espoused by most of his contemporaries, denied the existence of evil spirits and many other supernatural beings and phenomena. He also maintained that God had no corporeal attributes and that any descriptions of God's body must be viewed as metaphoric -- for which he was subjected to furious criticism, including threats of excommunication. This and similar examples are often cited in support of the possibility of free inner-confessional debate within Judaism. However, any discussion, particularly a free one, requires that two conditions be met. One, at least some of Maimonides' detractors had to belong to the community he headed -- or he had to belong to the community headed by his opponents. Second, the claims being questioned must be part of the tenets rigidly fixed by the given Orthodox community. Alas, if at the time of Maimonides' stringent leadership of Egypt's Jewish community any of his subjects were to declare that he believed in evil spirits, he would have probably been severely punished for heresy. On the other hand, issues such as evil spirits and God's corporeality were clearly beyond the grasp of the overwhelming majority of community members, and thus were not part of the typical list of its fixed tenets. Moreover, Maimonides himself was threatened with excommunicated on several occasions for his metaphysical speculations. Where punishment and excommunication are the order of the day, there cannot be any free discussion.

Today, the main Orthodox paradigm -- the paradigm of communal unity -- enables a broad variety of Orthodox collectives to lead a parallel existence in every sense of the word. Yet it is this paradigm that makes the Orthodox collective expel anyone who tries to shape his own philosophy through the liberal means of choosing bits from a variety of sources. Alas, Orthodoxy begins with total fusion within the collective and ends with adoring loyalty towards it. "Where is thy collective?" was the question God more likely asked of Cain. Since Cain failed to come up with a satisfactory answer, he was punished in the standard Orthodox fashion, by being banished from the collective.

To be sure, the latter-day individualist too can try to find a collective to join. In this endeavor, however, he will be facing two serious hurdles. First, he will eventually be forced to do the last thing he wants -- to disarm himself before the collective. On the other hand, the basic assumption on the part of the now all-knowing individual of the right to make crucial decisions renders meaningless the very search for a collective -- tomorrow will inevitably bring new differences of opinion. Second, both the very idea of such a search and the irritated ideological system that stands behind it -- rejecting thousands of familiar version of collective Orthodoxy and yearning for version one thousand and one -- are reminiscent of the Talmudic story about a typical dissident: the man immerses himself in a ritual bath while grasping an insect in his fist, making the act completely meaningless by definition, above all by the definition of the mikve. In other words, the very idea of escaping Orthodoxy to look for one is so redolent of liberal anti-Orthodox infection that it cannot be rooted out without the use of strong antibiotics.

I will not discuss the exact nature of the social and religious views held by the MO and other emancipated Jewish renegades. Suffice it to say that they bear no relation to Orthodoxy. I will point out, however, that it is precisely the framework of discussing these views that justifies raising the issue of Jewish metaphysics, an issue alien to Orthodoxy -- regardless of whether we consider this phenomenon as positive or negative, original or derivative, living or dead. I will add (by way of example) that the Ovadia Yosef we all know so well, an indisputably authentic Orthodox leader, is an absolutely clean slate in terms of metaphysics. What is more, he treats metaphysics -- whatever its nature -- with alienation and antagonism. He is hardly capable of grasping the subtleties of Platonic, Aristotelian and Kantian philosophy; though he has certainly encountered these subtleties on more than one occasion, he nevertheless rejects them outright. In principle this is a compliment, something like an acknowledgement of Ovadia's sound common sense -- yet it should not be taken too personally. More importantly, Ovadia's collective -- like the present-day rationalists -- has absolutely no use for metaphysics. Sometimes extremes see eye to eye.

In conclusion: we should keep in mind that the main goal of an Orthodox collective is mutual support. Those who refuse to accept the primacy of the collective and to live by its rules -- be they the peaceful MO or the inveterate loners -- present a direct threat to the Orthodox collective and are immediately expelled (though not necessarily banished) from it.

In any event, the MO are individualists who retain interest in Halacha. Any collective they form cannot be Orthodox, if only because it is not a beehive. The social and national adhesive that has replaced their Orthodox reflex has a much weaker bonding power and it is therefore unable to generate any orthodoxy. A collective of genuine MO is certainly an association of relatively free people held together by the aforementioned pragmatic reasons or by mutual sympathy, yet definitely not to the extent of a full Orthodox symbiosis. That is why the MO do not join the Orthodox system; on the contrary, they exhibit a natural resistance to it. However, this progressive privilege exhorts a steep price. An MO can count on it that his grandson will not stand in the shoes of his grandfather: he will either return to collective Orthodoxy and surrender himself to its mercy or he will stop playing Jewish orthodox games altogether. It is this fact that makes the MO un-Orthodox by definition, for the essence of orthodoxy, its self-declared credo, consists of its ability -- or least hope -- of keeping grandfather and grandson in one collective. Yet to do this one must learn to serve the collective rather than the other way around. And this ability to serve -- naturally and unthinkingly, like the ants and the bees -- is something the MO can never learn. Why? For the sole reason that they have only recently, and with considerable difficulty, unlearned this skill, to their pride. Having once risen up against unthinking servitude they have finally developed immunity against it. From the historical and evolutionary perspective they have made the right choice. It is probably this that spells a Hegelian death sentence to Orthodoxy. Yet the Orthodox God alone knows when and how this sentence will ever be carried out.


[1] Chevruta -- lit. a partner. This refers to the ancient Jewish custom of studying the Talmud and related disciplines in steady pairs, who read the book they study out loud. To this day you will find many such pairs declaiming at the top of their lungs in the study hall of any yeshiva -- naturally, during study hours the place is quite noisy.

[2] I would like to stress that the herd instinct as the cornerstone of a way of life is by no means a Jewish invention or monopoly. The same herd instinct marked all ancient societies. Even in ancient Greece or Rome man's entire life was spent "in public". Meals, cultural activities, leisure, in fact every legitimate pastime took place in the public eye (or at least as part of family rituals). Ancient cities and houses, markets and public squares were all designed to celebrate and perpetuate this collective spirit. Any deviation from the set standards and scope of collective conduct, any attempt to escape into "private life", was vigorously discouraged and sometimes punished. See Prof. G. Knabe's excellent book History, Life and Culture of Ancient Rome.

[3] "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

[4] That is why I fully understand the calls to return to the shtetl (the only social environment where "genuine" Jews can be completely themselves) coming from the right-wing secular Jewish traditionalists. Still, understanding is not the same as acceptance.

[5] The "Kuzari principle" is a set of instructive apologetic arguments that attempt to deduce the validity of assertions made by classical Judaism from the fact that it declares the universality of its epiphanies. Essentially, the Kuzari principle holds communal memory to be infallible, and thus any reform unrealized by society to be impossible. The acceptance of the Kuzari principle as such enables one to prove the eternal nature of virtually any traditional scheme and consequently it is practically useless from the theological standpoint. Nevertheless, it has some merit in that it rejects the possibility of an "involuntary", unmotivated and imperceptible social evolution. I gladly refer the reader to David Yust's work "Kuzari -- the principle and the formalism", accessible on the Internet at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/kuzari.cfm.

[6] We should not be misled by the stormy discussions about the proper times for the start or end of Shabbat or issues related to kashrut. Debate of this sort is never intended to change the customs prevailing in the given community -- they are safely beyond its reach.