Why We Need To Redefine ‘Orthodoxy’


Never let the competition define you. Never peg your own identity to a rival. Never allow the other side to dictate your character and never abdicate your own individuality and uniqueness.

What I have articulated above are key marketing principles that I share with clients who start to lose confidence in their own distinctiveness. It happens. They feel inauthentic, old, tired maybe … their self-esteem drops and they peg their existence to others and hope that it rubs off.

The bankruptcy files are full of once powerful entities, public and private, that just couldn’t maintain their own distinctiveness and became homogenized in a category. Often, they were taken over and disappeared.

Seems to me we are facing that same issue in the so-called Orthodox world as the pendulum of identity swings ever further to the right.

The problem, in my estimation, is that at a point in time Modern Orthodox defined a particular world view that was represented by rabbis well known in New York like Haskel Lookstein, Yitz Greenberg, my late father, Jack Sable, Shlomo Riskin, Arthur Schneier, and others. They were traditional in their observance while valuing the benefits of Western culture.

Today, Modern Orthodox has become neo-charedi, and charedi has become ultra-Orthodox. Sadly, the institutions that once represented the vibrancy of post-war traditional Judaism are drifting further and further to the religious right.

One needn’t look further for proof than the synagogues that once proudly accepted only Yeshiva University-ordained rabbis to lead their communities because those rabbis represented an accessible and democratized Judaism. Many of those synagogues now have extended their search for religious leaders to Lakewood and other more fundamentalist yeshivas, refusing even to interview rabbinic candidates from Chovevei Torah (which represents the ordination of Rabbi Avi Weiss).

Back to definitions. The real problem is that those who are still in the center,  and left of the center, are at a loss. They desperately want to be seen as Orthodox. They continue to peg their legitimacy to others and go so far as to demand continued access to a club that doesn’t want them, has no use for them, mocks them and in the end will not accept them. They are rejected as individuals and as representing a valid expression of authentic Judaism.

Let me be clear: I love davening in a shteibel. I am comfortable in chasidic company. Further, I enjoy it, having seen the great chesed of the Satamar Bikur Cholim and the amazing grace of Chai Lifeline and Ohel.

Yet as much as I respect and appreciate their world, as much as I can move back and forth, it’s not my world. And just as I don’t try to impose on them, I resent the growing sense of religious coercion. Even worse is the sad need for some of those who represent a different expression of halachic Judaism to peg their legitimacy on the very system they are supposedly rejecting.

The question is: What is represented by what was once the center of Orthodoxy and is now perceived as the left?

One label being used is Open Orthodox. I reject it, wondering if it means that all others are closed. Or does it mean that we can be loose in our religious observance? Both are inaccurate.

I think it’s time to seek a new classification, not for the sake of controversy but rather for the sake of clarity.

The new niche is already carved out. It is dynamic, accessible and democratic. It values Jewish ethics and morality as an integral expression of religiosity and doesn’t denigrate them to a place below ritual observance. It welcomes the participation of women. It encourages questions and questioning. It rejects the entire notion of Dat Torah, the papal-like infallibility of some rabbinic leaders. It is steeped in and based on halacha, but its view of Jewish law is that it is an evolving system that needs to be sensitive to time and place. (Many would insist that has always been how halacha is defined.) It is the Orthodoxy I grew up with and sadly have a hard time finding today.

We need a clear and transparent articulation so that we can go our way and others can go theirs, without acrimony and the need to compare.

Frankly we need clarity so that our children don’t get confused by so-called Modern Orthodox rabbis who don’t represent a world view that is consistent with the values that we believe in. I want clarity so that our children will stay inspired and involved without the need to “flip,” embracing a fundamentalist religious lifestyle.

Bottom line, it’s time to leave the term Orthodox to others and coalesce around what I believe is real “Jewdaism,” a religion about individual Jews that in its day was big enough to accommodate all but has somehow grown smaller.

So start working on a word …

David Sable is a leader in the field of global marketing strategy and a member of the board of The Jewish Week.