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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Adversarial System and the Torah Ethic of Justice

The Common Law -- which originated in England and then became the basis for the legal structures of many countries including Canada and the United States -- is built upon what is termed "The Adversarial System". The argument is that the most effective method by which to uncover the truth and reach a proper conclusion is through the parties in conflict battling the issue out, to the best of their abilities, in the presence of an unbiased and objective court. In the give and take which will occur as the parties attempt to present their positions, arguments and responses to challenges from the other side(s) and the court, the perception is that, to the extent humanly possible, the full truth will undoubtedly emerge. The proper and just resolution of the matter should then become clearer for the court to render the most proper decision possible. In that many countries apply this system, there must be some basis for this perspective. It must have some record of, indeed, achieving justice. We may wonder, though, how Torah thought views such a system.

To begin such an investigation, we may first wish to gain a broader perspective of the matter by also considering accompanying critiques of this system as generally voiced in the world. A major one that is often articulated in connection to any review of this system, reminds us that the underlying basic theory is based upon the assumption that it is actually deemed to be a battle of thought between two equal antagonists that is projected as the best way of bringing out the truth. A critique of the system thus often emerges in the reality that in many cases, if not most, the two sides are not really equal in ability and/or resources. As such, given such a situation, there is basis to contend that an achieved result will often not reflect true justice but such strengths of the one side over the other. This, obviously, would be a challenge to the pursuit of truth.

As this is, however, a recognized potential weakness of the system, many emendations exist and are undertaken within the system -- both formally and informally -- to obviate this problem or, at least, lessen its negative effects. These alterations, though, are attempts to correct the system while still maintaining its inherent basic principles. What is then significant to us is to recognize how this reality about the Adversarial System in itself actually reflects an essential flaw in the system from the perspective of Torah. While there can be value in promoting a clash between opposing thoughts, in the basic structure of the Adversarial System, there is still also a powerful, natural potential for negative consequences. The very possibility for a presentation of opposing views is, in itself, obviously, not necessarily positive. Opposing battles of this nature can also simply yield extremely negative results. How such confrontations in thought are structured and formed would seem to thus be of major significance. It is with this issue in mind that we may best explore the Torah perspective in regard to this system.

There is clearly much evidence within Torah thought to support a basic idea that confrontation over ideas can play a vital role in reaching the best solution and greatest recognition of the truth possible for humanity. What immediately comes to mind is the famous story presented in T.B. Baba Metzia 84a regarding Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish which articulates how the former most valued the challenges in thought that the latter would present to him. The overriding Torah message of these great Tannaim is that it is indeed in such confrontations that the truth can be best attained. This would seem to imply, indeed, that the Torah would possess a positive perception of the Adversarial System. What is notably different, however, about the case of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish is that they, both, absolutely still desired the truth. Their goal was not to personally win. Victory was only in the attainment, to the extent humanly possible, of the truth. They powerfully argued for their positions simply because they felt that their views were correct. If they were proven wrong, they, however, also celebrated for, most importantly, was that the truth was made known. They themselves wanted strong challenges in debate because they themselves wanted to attain the proper result in truth. Within the realm of Torah, the overriding motivation of all involved in such a process, even the adversaries, would still, above all else, be truth and justice. 

In contrast, the desired motivation in the confrontation, within the Adversarial System is, specifically, self-interest. The argument is that the two parties, greatly motivated by their own self-interest, will present their positions to the best of their abilities specifically because of this motivation. It is then that the objective court -- with its goal of justice -- will be able to reach the best conclusion possible because the information which the court will have before it will be maximized by the debate resultant of such personal desire and effort of the parties. There is then the recognition that there could be a problem if the two sides are not equal in ability as one would be able to present its side better. It is with this in mind that certain emendations may be introduced. to lesson this problem. Pursuant to this system, though, the self-interest of the parties is still seen as a fundamental necessity that must be maintained -- and no emendation which would challenge this would be acceptable. It is on this point that we would find the Torah's essential problem with the Adversarial System. The standard of the Torah would be that it is still obviously correct and necessary that all involved in any process that involves the pursuit of truth and justice should have truth and justice as their absolute goal. Self-interest in such matters is deemed to be an inherent problem which, furthermore, can almost inherently always potentially yield negative results.

This, of course, does not mean that the Torah does not recognize a value in divergent opinions. It obviously does. It is this very reality of powerful divergence in thought which yields the clash in ideas which results in the eventual greater perception of the truth. And this is even as Torah recognizes that such divergence in thought may result from the distinctions in self of individuals. Yes, there is, in fact, a reality of self-interest as created by God. This exists and even has its place. The challenge is in how we are to respond to this reality of self. The call of Torah demands of us that our overriding goal must still be truth. This call of truth must then demand of us that we also be concerned about this self-interest as it may lead us away from what must be our true and objective goal.  As such, we must always challenge the necessity of self-interest. And this cannot solely be, as per the Adversarial System, the task of the judge(s) for this commitment to truth must continuously be a value of all in all our endeavours. The Adversarial system wishes to bring forth all the possible divergent opinions through the promotion of the parties advocating in their best interest. Torah simply cannot accept such a promotion of self-interest as the greater goals of truth and justice are thereby set aside to some extent. Truth and justice must be part of our very consciousness at all times. The goal of all must always be truth and justice.

This issue becomes even more problematic when the call of such confrontation occurs outside the parameters of the court. The model of the Adversarial System, with its encouragement of debate arising from personal, emotional perceptions, actually also permeates our society's promotion of ideas in general. As people take sides in almost any endeavour, they then place the advancement of their positions -- winning -- as their ultimate objective. All around us is the call to be motivated to promote our views, ourselves. Individuals have thus incorporated a rigid attitude of “I'm right and you're wrong." In the court setting, the court enters the fray to evaluate the battle to arrive at what is hoped will be the proper objective conclusion. The problem in society is that there is no similar referee to undertake this role. We are left with the perception: 'Let the best man win -- and that's me." We learn how to fight for a pre-conceived victory. We do not learn to go beyond this fight to reach the truly soundest conclusion which will serve us all in the best manner.

While Torah advocates for individuals to think, take positions and promote their ideas most adamantly, it strongly demands that the goal can never be to win -- solely self-interest and self-advancement -- but always the greater Divine ideal. We must, as such, never lose sight of the value of truth and justice in all our endeavours. We must apply all our strengths in promoting our views but not because they are our views but because we believe they are right. In the same way, we must also apply all our strengths to search and hear challenges to such views in the same manner that Rabbi Yochanan lived for the critiques of Reish Lakish. It was truth he sought! This emerges in substantial dialogue and debate in the evaluation, discussion and honest critique of the variant opinions. We must, as such, not just work to develop our opinions but similarly work to search for critiques of our opinions, hear other viewpoints and find the more correct answer as a result of all these undertakings. This is why the value of truth and justice must always be in the consciousness of everyone. To truly win, we must always recognize the ultimate goal of reaching the Divine ideal. The ideal of truth and justice cannot be just the province of the judges of a court. It must be a fundamental standard of all in every step we take.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Jewish Identity: The Tension of Definition, Unity and Choice

In my recent Nishmablog post, Thoughts on the video "Acheinu”, I dealt with the issue of Jewish Identity, specifically responding to a challenge I felt was implicit, although not necessarily apparent, in the presentation of this video. Applying ideas of ‘shared fate’ and ‘shared destiny’ developed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, I essentially raised the question of how we are to respond to issues of Jewish Identity when fate and destiny are at odds with each other. What the video was voicing was the importance of recognizing shared fate even in the absence of shared destiny. This is not a stand with which I would necessarily disagree. Beyond the parameters of the video, though, what I then raised was the possibility of a case where a certain lack of shared destiny could even contest such an argument of shared fate. To further complicate this model, there may also be opposing views on the possible effect on shared fate of a problematic view of shared destiny.
What Rabbi Soloveitchik effectively identified is that there may be different types of bonds involved in the formation of a group. As such, it would be important in the process of investigating, analyzing and understanding a group’s identity to clearly recognize the role of these variant factors. To understand the nature of the group, we must thus know how these bonds may interact with each other and what effect these distinctions in definition may have on the group in totum. In specific terms, he maintains that the Jewish group is built upon two definite bonds, that of ‘shared fate’ – that we are grouped together by the way others act towards us – and that of ‘shared destiny’ – that we are grouped together in the goal we seek for our grouping.
What Rabbi Soloveitchik then specifically addressed was the case where a sense of shared fate permeates the group albeit that there is no similar sense of a shared destiny. The issue is not that some have one perception of what the destiny of the group is or should be and that others have an emphatically different one.  What he seems to be describing is a situation whereby, while a strong sense of shared fate permeates throughout the entire group, a similarly strong, clearly defined sense of shared destiny is only felt by a part of the group. while the other part of the group is really not focused on any such sense of shared destiny. It was really such a situation that was also presented in the video – and can explain how shared fate can simply suffice.
What I was thus raising was the issue whereby, while there may be shared fate, a certain distinction in shared destiny could be of such a nature that it actually challenges the bonding of the group only through fate. The example I presented was the case of Edith Stein, the Catholic nun, born Jewish and recognized before her conversion as a leading Jewish philosopher in Germany (important note – Jewish philosopher but not philosopher of Judaism or Jewish thought). As she died in Auschwitz because she was Jewish, she would similarly reflect shared fate as did the elderly man in the video. The problem is that her conversion obviously reflects a view of destiny that most Jews would see as having taken her outside the pale of Jewishness. The famous Brother Daniel case in Israel, in which a Christian monk born Jewish was not granted citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return, would reflect a similar issue in the realm of shared destiny. The video would seem to contend that shared fate is enough to triumph issues in shared destiny, but this is simply not always the case. There are times where we declare that a lack of shared destiny presents a powerful problem even if there is shared fate.
The challenge is then in defining such a yardstick. What we often do is ignore issues of shared destiny in order to avoid the problem. For example, why is a theological belief in Jesus enough to challenge the bond of shared destiny while other deviations in theology, from classical Jewish thought, are not deemed to be a problem? To many, the answer is perceived to be obvious -- that, of course, a belief in Jesus would take one out of the category of Jewish shared destiny while other theological deviations would not – but why would this be so? A resultant conclusion is that atheism – a total lack of belief in God -- is, as such, not a theological problem of the same magnitude. Why, though, would this be so? If the realm of shared destiny involves a commitment to God and Torah -- as Rabbi Soloveitchik, indeed, essentially defines shared destiny – why would atheism not be seen as a challenge to a Jewish bond even fostered mostly by shared fate while a belief in Jesus would? Answers may abound within the colloquial expression of the Jewish People but this does not mean that the underlying issue has truly been confronted and analyzed. What this question is really demanding of us to truly consider the very nature of Jewishness. It is difficult to just declare that being Jewish has, as a major component in the realm of theology, the sole fact that it does not include a belief in Jesus. Think about it: in the theology of broad, generic Judaism you don’t have to believe in God but if you do have some belief, it can’t include Jesus?
The point is that we do have to confront the question of what it means to define oneself as a Jew and, while it is important to recognize that we must include the fact that ‘shared fate’ is a critical factor, we do also have to consider ‘shared destiny’. The challenge is, though, that as we progress in our world in developing positive expressions of Jewish identity – reflections of destiny – we must also confront a reality that these various expressions may, if not fully at odds with each other, raise questions in regard to how these different views are then shared within the greater group. Take Israel as an example. There are many who would describe a commitment to the State of Israel as a modern reflection of ‘shared destiny’. How are we then to relate to Jews who strongly identify as Jews who have a negative attitude to this State? Our attitude may be based on how strong this negative feeling towards the State may be – obviously more of a problem exists with those who directly act contrary to the interests of the State – but the further issue concerns how we look at Jewish Identity. As different understandings of our ‘shared destiny’ emerge, the question of what bonds us becomes more and more of an issue.
To fully understand the nature of this problem, it then becomes important to recognize that the substituted perception of Jewish destiny which may take the place of commitment to Israel may also have easily identifiable Jewish roots. The simplest example of this is obviously the Orthodox individuals who have such perspectives. It is hard to define such an individual as outside the parameters of Jewishness when so much of his/her behaviour and attitude clearly reflects another Jewish perspective which is within the general definition ‘shared destiny’. How does one relate to the Shomer Shabbos individual who is anti the State of Israel? The further question is – how do you define Jewishness?
This becomes an even more difficult question in the present milieu in which we find more individuals on the left, not truly observant of Jewish Law, who nonetheless maintain that their views regarding Israel also reflect the values of Jewish destiny. The fact is that many of the values which they are describing as reflecting the ‘shared destiny’ of Jewishness may actually reflect such values to some extent. In many ways, of course, their conclusions in regard to Israel and the promotion of these values may be the result of mistakes in fact and reason, which reflects a different type of problem. But a challenge may also be that this difficulty actually reflects a misunderstanding of the shared destiny of Jewishness in the first place. Subtly, different perceptions of the destiny-values of Jewishness have developed over the years, in many ways in a vacuum without consideration of the full picture of what the overall destiny of Jewishness may be. What occurred was that rather than dealing with the complexity of this aspect of Jewish Identity – the question of how these different values come together in a whole – we started to define each particular perspective as the solitary reflection of Jewishness as perceived by the individual. The result is that one can perceive himself/herself as sharing the destiny of the Jewish group through a choice of one perspective without consideration of the whole.
Think in terms of the various perspectives on shared destiny just mentioned. One is Israel and Jewish nationalism. Another is Torah and observance of Halacha. Another is classic liberal values in that the Jew cares for others. The traditional view of Jewish ‘shared destiny’ would clearly involve a process of understanding how these different elements come together to create the shared destiny of the group. What is now occurring, though, is that these different elements are no longer seen as part of the whole but are now being defined independently (to different extents) as the essence of Jewish Identity. This is becoming more and more of a problem on many levels.
It is true, though, that as these different elements may become more and more clarified, there may be a reaction that actually fosters Jewish unity and the development of a stronger gestalt in our understanding of Jewish destiny. This is reflected, for example, in the further development of appreciation and gratitude in the Charedi community towards the IDF. In directly confronting what the actions of the IDF have reflected in regard to ‘shared destiny’, there has been pressure to include this perspective within the gestalt of this concept. Yet, as we confront these variant elements as reflections of independent and even perhaps as all-inclusive perspectives of shared destiny, there is also the possibility of other problems.
An example of this may be the effect of all this within what is described as the ‘Off the Derech Movement’. It may be that as the perception of Torah is presented as an element of Jewish destiny and the perception of Israel and nationalism is presented as another element of Jewish destiny, what a person may conclude is that to be a part of the Jewish collective one need only choose one element and not necessarily determine how to combine them. In a certain way, while letting one with a singular element of ‘shared destiny’ into the collective fosters Jewish unity, it also allows for a choice of this singular element. This is an extension of the problem whereby shared fate is accepted solo in the interest of Jewish unity. A concentration of the issue of ‘shared destiny’ can be ignored.
The purpose of this post is not to answer all these questions. It is to raise the issues, hopefully bringing you the reader into the discussion as we intend in future posts to investigate them further. ‘Definition, Unity Choice’ In our world today, one really must choose to be Jewish; the banner of Jewish identity is truly a matter of free choice. Our call of Jewish Identity is really for one to choose to identify as a Jew – and this can only be accomplished if one sees value, dignity and pride is such a choice. The challenge is that such a choice truly demands intense thought. It demands an understanding of what this choice actually means. As the allegiance to Jewish Identity must thus demand a thoughtful choice, it is truly important for us to recognize the depth of investigation necessary in positively making such a choice. Such an undertaking is one of the ongoing policy projects within Nishma and we look forward to your participation in this endeavour through your comments, responses, declarations and inquiries.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Confronting the Universal and the Distinctive

I was recently shown an article by a Protestant clergyman which contended that contemporary reports of a fall in church attendance in Canada are only presenting one side of the story. Indeed, these reports are accurate in regard to attendance at the majority of mainline churches, that is, churches that have modernized their theology, adopting more liberal, and more universally accepted, interpretations of Christianity’s beliefs. In regard to other churches, though, that have maintained or returned to more traditional, conservative teachings, the opposite is actually happening. Their attendance is increasing. Looking at this demographic, rather than religion being in a process of dying, there is actually a rejuvenation occurring.

This should not be surprising. If one considers the modernization of theology, on a certain plane, what one is really describing is the integration of modern perspectives into traditional theology. If this is so, then the distinction between this integrated theological grouping and other modern social groupings would naturally become less apparent or clear as this integration takes place. Why, then, would one identify with such a specific theological group when what this group offers may not be that different than the standards and practices of general society? If the mores of those within the Church are basically similar to the mores of others outside the Church, why the need to specifically connect with those within this Church? There is, simply, less reason for this distinct identity.
In that a more traditional religious teaching reflects a distinction in thought and/or attitude from the modern, general populace, it makes sense that those sharing these beliefs would wish to identify with a group of like-minded individuals apart from the general public. The more pronounced a group’s distinctiveness is, the more those attracted to this viewpoint will specifically take action to identify with this group. There is, therefore, a good reason why church attendance would increase within such a sub-group within society. Similarly, the less distinct a specific group is, the less people will be motivated to carve out a separate identity from the larger, general population. A drop-in church attendance would be understandable among this population, for what need do they have to specifically connect with this particular group, as they have the option of identifying or participating in a range of other similar groupings within society. They would be content with simply being seen as a member of the general populace.

In a similar vein, but from the opposite direction, if individuals initially wish to build or strengthen a certain Church identity, there is also greater impetus for them to adopt more traditional leanings in order to foster their social distinctiveness and, hence, spur the identity. In other words, wishing to be perceived as dissimilar via a certain group identity, fosters the promotion of differences between the standards and behaviour of the group and those of the dominant society. Even if members of this group have a general affinity for modern mores, they may choose to foster distinction through the maintenance of at least some traditional perspectives. If you want to promote group identity, your group has to stand out! What the trend in Canadian church attendance is really showing us is that, if you want people to come to your church, your church has to be unlike other options – other churches and other social institutions. Otherwise, why would someone connect with this church when what that person is desiring can be met in many other places and perhaps more easily?

The application of these observations to the Jewish world would seem to be obvious. More traditionalism within the realm of Jewish identity would also foster distinctiveness from the general populace, a necessity for the enduring strength of a sub-grouping within a broader society – and, indeed, this seems to have occurred. Connection to Jewish identity has reflected, in recent years, a correlation between distinctiveness and tradition. The percentage of Jews who define themselves as Orthodox has clearly increased over the last few decades. This means that those who identify as Jewish are also becoming more likely to identify as Orthodox. This suggests that, in correlation with a desire for stronger Jewish identity, a move to traditionalism has also occurred in the Jewish world.

Yet, while a swing towards tradition may be further fostering Jewish identity, the drive to identify with the broad Jewish sub-group still also exists outside of an interest in tradition. While tradition may foster Jewish group identity it still does not define it. The desire to identify with other Jews extends beyond the sharing of a positive perspective on traditional values.

As such, in the Jewish world, even one feeling an aversion to traditional religious teachings may still feel a great desire to identify distinctly as Jewish and connect with the Jewish group. While tradition may foster Jewishness, as indicated by the growth in Orthodoxy, attraction to Jewishness still also exists outside of an attraction to traditionalism and traditional values, as personified by these individuals adverse to tradition yet still wishing to express themselves as Jewish. In a similar vein, even the vast majority of those attracted to tradition still would include those uninterested in tradition in their definition of the broader Jewish group to which they belong. The group extends beyond an interest in traditional values and, as such, the group’s identity still exists outside this move to tradition.

As, a further indication of this issue within Jewish identity, we should also note how many Jews not only wish to connect with the perspectives of mainstream society but also take special pride that, in our present world, they, furthermore, can do so as Jews. There are many stories of individuals who specifically wanted to join a certain club because they could now do so as Jews. As such, even as these individuals may share the mores of the present society, they would still clearly not be “content with simply being seen as a member of the general populace.” They also want, as they integrate into society, to identify as Jews. For such individuals, there is a desire for a distinct Jewish identity but with this identity’s distinctiveness not being greatly at odds with the mores of the general society. Simply, these individuals wish to identify as Jews but also wish to maintain the universal values of the general society. In fact, these individuals, furthermore, often see this integration of universal values, especially liberal ones, as a reflection of their very Jewishness. (There may even be the argument that modern liberal values came from Jewish values.) There is, thus, a further factor in the breadth of modern Jewish identity in that, for some Jews, this very drive to identify as a Jew may demand, simultaneously, distinctiveness in concert with a strong universal connection.

One of the challenges of modern Jewish identity has actually always been how to maximize both sides of this equation – to maintain a distinctiveness while ensuring that this distinctiveness does not necessarily challenge the acceptance of Jews into the general community and, to varying degrees, their acceptance, as Jews, of general communal mores. This is an almost contradictory requirement of modern Jewishness. This is a further tension and challenge in the Jewish world that even the Orthodox would take into consideration, namely how Jewish distinctiveness may impact on the acceptance of Jews within the general society. For all Jews, the question is always how to be distinct yet also accepted; the issue being the degree of this balance.

When Western society opened up to its Jewish populations, there were three responses. There were those who chose to assimilate and forego their Jewish identity in response to their desire to integrate with the general population. There were those who chose to barricade themselves from any outside influence, choosing to protect their Jewish identity from any possibility of being affected by the new tolerance of their non-Jewish neighbours. Then, there were the ones who wished to have both, to maintain their Jewish identity while integrating as best they could with the outside society. Different paths were formed to achieve the desired objective, each one reflecting differing theological as well as other considerations. One important dynamic in this environment, though, was that there was no need to reinforce the distinctiveness of Jewishness in the face of the welcoming nature of the general society. Once one declared oneself as Jewish, the distinction was already powerfully enunciated, for, despite the existence of a more welcoming outside culture, there was still a strong, general recognition of the Jew as different, with a resulting desire for at least some separation. As such, Reform Jews, for example, could undertake to strongly integrate many aspects of the general society into their Jewish practice – and even have limited desire to adopt much distinctive Jewish practice – as the very presentation of themselves as Jews established their distinctiveness as Jews in regard to others. These individuals thus needed to be solely concerned with how to integrate into the general community. This is not the situation today. The Jew today also has to be concerned with how to enunciate his/her distinctiveness, for the simple statement that one is Jewish no longer has this force.

This is the challenge we are identifying. How one balances distinctiveness and integration in our modern world has to be proactive, regardless of how one may determine the desired balance that he/she wishes to achieve. As such, there are many Jews who want to be different and connect with their Jewish distinctiveness but also do not want to be too different to the extent that they also wish to strongly connect with universal humanity – and, furthermore, to do so as Jews. The option of simply melting away into the general, universal population is not such an attractive one to such individuals. They are not interested in full assimilation. Many individuals, even as they are attracted to the overall values of the general society, still wish to maintain a recognizable Jewish identity that somehow allows for a dual possibility – to be distinctly Jewish but also almost fully integrated with the external society.

If being a Jew ultimately just means that I am just like everyone else, then there is really little force in this identify as a Jew. If, however, being a Jew means you are different in ways that you really do not favour, there is also little motivation to identify as a Jew. I am reminded of an article I once read in response to the argument that involvement in Orthodoxy is a strong force against assimilation. The author maintained that if this was the price for the continuation of Jewishness, he would rather assimilate. The strength of Jewish identity absolutely demands a distinction in this identity but, for this form of distinctiveness to be accepted, it must be one which the individual finds positive or, at least acceptable in some manner. As much as these Jews may wish to maintain a distinctiveness as Jews, a return to traditional values may be too high a cost – especially if they feel that, as Jews, they should be integrating, to some extent, with a society that has embraced them. To them, though, simple integration into the general society is still also not a desired alternative for they still want to be recognized as Jews embracing this society.

A possible different answer for Jews, though, may be found in the distinctiveness of what we may term Jewish ritual behaviour, which is basically seen by many, simply, as behaviour marking Jewishness. A Jew, through such behaviour, can have, thereby, a strong means of enunciating a distinction in identity while still maintaining the general ethical standards of the society.

Ritual and Ethic

The attempt to distinguish mitzvot through the categorization of Ritual and Ethical is one that, for many reasons, must always be approached with caution. In general, the term Ethical reflects certain moral and ethical constructs with a focus on human interpersonal relations; commands, for example, reflecting on the treatment of the poor. The term Ritual is then employed to refer to mitzvot that reflect on the human relationship with the Divine; commands, for example, such as kashrut and/or Shabbat. The challenge in applying these terms is that it is often very difficult to neatly apply these categorizations, as a thorough investigation of many mitzvot in all their details can reveal a multi-dimensional nature that overlaps these boundaries. At the same time, though, this distinction may also have instructive significance in regard to the mitzvah and, as such, cannot be simply disregarded. There is value in this classification and there is concern – yielding a complexity which should cause one to approach this issue with caution. Within the context of this discussion, though, the issue is not really the actual nature of the mitzvah but, rather, what it portrays in regard to identity. The term Ritual is simply employed herein to refer to certain behaviour that can be seen as uniquely associated with Jewishness. The issue before us is the use of such behaviour in enunciating identity.

In the Ritual mitzvot we thus find behaviour that essentially can be seen as distinctly Jewish without necessarily challenging general societal mores. Furthermore, while it may be that some may still define this ritual behaviour as challenging certain communal standards, this also does not necessarily have to be the case – especially if the observance of ritual mitzvot is done selectively as individuals chose which ritual action they may wish to perform. The result is that through such behaviour, one can thus find a method of strongly identifying with the Jewish group while not necessarily, at the same time, being at odds with the general mores of society. It must further be recognized that such observance of ritual mitzvot need not be necessarily identified with Orthodoxy. Think of the Israeli team, all wearing kippot during the playing of the national anthems, at the recent World Baseball Classic. Such behaviour, simply as expressions of Jewishness, can play an interesting role in responding to the above noted challenge of Jewish identity.

In a certain way, this very idea was reflected in the relatively recent promotion by the Reform movement of the observance of more ritual by its membership. This was not the only reason why Reform Judaism began advocating for the observance, to some extent, of more ritual mitzvot; these other, theological reasons, though, need not be addressed in the context of this presentation. For our purposes, we can note that such observance still did have the effect of providing for a distinction in Jewish identity while allowing for the promotion of a liberal moral agenda in line with certain elements within the general society and even contrary to traditional Jewish values. In a broader sense, what has occurred is that individuals, through choosing to perform ritual mitzvot as they wish, become able to mark a distinctiveness in Jewish identity without infringing upon the person’s universal viewpoints. From the perspective of Reform Judaism, in that, furthermore, one chooses the extent and nature of this observance, the effect on one’s relationship with the general community can be personally monitored.

In that the present general community also welcomes cultural diversity, observance of ritual in this manner can even be perceived as ‘cool’ and, thereby, even foster connections. In terms of a Jew’s acceptance within the general community, ritual thus can serve a further purpose in allowing for distinction while not, in any manner, challenging one’s acceptance by the general populace. The populace, in general, is even happy to see individuals expressing their ‘cultural’ distinction. As an example of this, one can look at the Vogue article, How to Host a Shabbat Dinner and Why You Should—Even if You Aren’t Celebrating. Ritual simply seen as distinctive Jewish behaviour, especially if selectively chosen, can provide for distinction without challenging even extensive integration of communal values – an answer for many Jews.

Given this perception and application of ritual mitzvot as basically reflecting identity, we must now, though, also re-consider our discussion of the swing to tradition in the Jewish world. We presented the idea that the force of traditionalism which spurred greater Church identification of this nature in the Christian world had similar effects in the Jewish world. The inference was that this furtherance of conservative ethics tied to traditionalism was also a factor in the advancement of Jewish identity, specifically leading people to Orthodoxy. This move to traditionalism within the Jewish world, however, may not have necessarily been associated with ethics but simply reflected a desire for traditional Jewish behaviour. If one perceives the strength of one’s identification as a Jew to be exhibited by distinctive Jewish ritual behaviour, and Orthodox practice is deemed to be the most powerful demonstration of this commitment through ritual, the result may be an attraction to traditional behaviour, not necessarily traditional ethics. In that ritual mitzvot are inherently associated with Orthodoxy and tradition, there would also be a natural merging of this drive for strong identity through behaviour with Orthodoxy and tradition. The Jewish move to traditionalism could, thus, be vastly different than the move to traditionalism within the Christian world expressed in the above noted article. The specific dynamics of ritual as an expression of identity tied to tradition could yield ethical results vastly different than the move to tradition described in the Christian model presented in that article. The move to tradition in the Jewish world may not correspond with the move to more traditional, conservative values in the Christian world which the article described as the basis for increased attendance in more Conservative churches.

This would explain the acceptance of more liberal trends also within Orthodoxy as individuals may abide by a strong commitment to Orthodox ritual while maintaining many ethical perspectives that reflect the thought of modern society. Even within the Orthodox world, ritual can provide for a distinction in Jewish identity while still allowing for the acceptance of certain elements from the universal moral agenda of the general society. In fact, it should be noted that this more positive attitude towards some of the general society’s ethical viewpoints may also not necessarily be outside the inherent purview of Orthodoxy. There has always been legitimate disagreements within Orthodoxy on variant ethical issues just as such disagreements have existed in regard to ritual matters. Simply, even as Orthodoxy may be defined as the more conservative and traditional branch of generic Judaism, it is not necessarily similar to the more conservative and traditional branches of Christianity.

Nevertheless, unlike the Reform movement where one will find a greater association with the universal, liberal perspective, there could still be more of a commitment to conservative ethical viewpoints within Orthodoxy – which is, in fact, the case. Traditionalism in this regard can still clearly be a motivating factor of Orthodox identity and, in many ways, Orthodoxy’s greater connection to what would be termed traditional values is obvious to most and can be a motivating factor in Orthodox commitment. Still, the legitimate breadth of Orthodox thought does recognize a wider spectrum of acceptable ethical viewpoints than what would be accepted within conservative Churches. Ethical stances within Orthodoxy can be flexible. The growth of Orthodoxy, which may be seen as reflective of the influence of traditionalism within the Jewish world, may indeed still also be primarily an interest in traditional ritual behaviour. Orthodox identity may, thus, also be chiefly defined through behaviour, specifically ritual behaviour. Traditionalism within a Jewish context may indeed primarily reflect a focus on traditional behaviour.

Such an overarching concern with ritual can, in fact, also allow for the presence within Orthodoxy – even if only self-defined by such individuals – of people who describe themselves as Orthodox while maintaining ethical perspectives even clearly outside the parameters of Orthodoxy – and this can be at both ends of the spectrum. In addition, the adoption of more conservative ethical perspectives by segments of the population may not be a result of a commitment to Orthodoxy per se but rather simply reflect their own personal perspectives. This may again reflect that the force of Jewishness may thus truly be, in many ways, overridingly ritual. It is such behaviour that may also tie one to Orthodoxy; in fact, the terms used to reflect Orthodox identity – such as Shomer Shabbat [Sabbath Observer] – would seem to be tied to such behaviour. This commitment to such behaviour is not just as a means of public demonstration of one’s identity. Even in private, it serves to reinforce one’s perception of self-identity. The Shomer Shabbat person does not just observe Shabbat in public. He/she does so in private because it is a reflection of self-identity. The point is that this identity is specifically expressed in ritual action.

What may also occur through such a focus on ritual, however, is a consideration for ritual almost to the exclusion of a consideration of the Orthodox ethical perspective; Orthodox identity, in fact, becoming so strongly defined by ritual behaviour with a result, to some extent, of limited concern for ethical perspective. The result would thus be an allowance for greater variance in ethical perspective, within the identified Orthodox world of practice, than may actually exist within Orthodox halachic parameters even given the possible breadth of spectrum in this regard. The move to tradition within the Jewish world may really just mean a move towards traditional ritual behaviour.

There are also people who actually do not even believe that a commitment to Orthodoxy demands an investigation of Halacha in regard to ethical issues as one would undertake in regard to a halachic issue reflecting some ritual law. What can also occur, given this lack of focus on the breadth and depth of Torah ethical study, is that whatever one may consider to be ethically correct would also be self-defined as the Torah perspective. As such, people at either end of the spectrum, to upkeep their identity as Orthodox, may assert that they are abiding by Orthodox ethical perspectives even while these perspectives are actually based on their own considerations rather than a breadth and depth of Torah study. One can almost always find some source in a vacuum to support almost any viewpoint. As ritual becomes even more so the sign of distinctive Jewish identity, and distinctive Orthodox identity, for connection with the group, a greater allowance for variant ideas can become more accepted. This does not mean that the ideas themselves become acceptable but that the effect of such ideas on identity are given less weight. It is simply ritual behaviour that is applied in defining identity.

Seeing ritual behaviour as the expression of Jewish behaviour, furthermore, does not only distinguish a liberal Jew from others who share that opinion but also can distinguish a politically conservative Jew from others who share that opinion. Many politically conservative Jews may, as such, strongly believe that their ethical views are in line with Torah but such views still place them in concert with similar non-Jewish individuals. It is, thus, ritual, that still also distinguishes them as Jews – and, thus, given this greater weight in identity. The further significance of this is that these same individuals may still feel more connected with Jews of all stripes than those who share their ethical/political perspective. This is an indication of the force of ritual identity: it allows for Jewish connection without the potential perceived negativity of a battle over ideas.

This may also explain why, in fostering Orthodoxy’s growth, or Jewish identity in general, we find Orthodox institutions highlighting ritual behaviour to the extent of even ignoring Torah instruction on certain ethical issues. In regard to ethical matters, individuals may already have opinions so why introduce this subject and possibly face disagreement and subsequent disinterest in any aspect of Orthodoxy in particular or, even, Jewishness in general given the possibility of conflict. Ritual, especially if just presented as the mark of Jewishness, is much easier to promote. The advance of Orthodoxy within the Jewish world may, thus, also not really fully parallel the growth of traditional, conservative churches in the general society for another reason. As presented in this article, the growth of conservative churches in the Christian world reflects ethical distinction. Jewish distinctiveness, however, can be achieved through ritual. Even in regard to the Orthodox, ethical distinctiveness may not be a strong element of identity – and if it is, it may not be because of specific Jewish motivations.

The bottom line is that the continuing strength of a sub-group within a society is often dependent on the ability of its members to distinctly express themselves in a manner separate from the general populace. The furtherance of Jewish identity thus demands a reason and motivation for such identity but also a form of expression that gives strength to its continuance. Ritual provides such a possibility without necessarily challenging a person’s overall outlook on life because ritual can be performed without a consideration of underlying value principles. Of course, within Orthodox thought, these actions are intended to convey or reflect certain ideas and values but that does not necessarily mean that the one who may be performing these actions is doing so with these thoughts in mind. This is especially so when these actions are performed by individuals outside of Orthodoxy. The result is an interesting spectrum of possibilities in how one can integrate distinctiveness and universalism – in fact, distinctiveness and almost any underlying ethical/moral perspective -- within a Jewish identity.

And here we get to the further point of this presentation. Our focus so far has been on the expression of Jewish distinctiveness, not on why one may value such distinctiveness. We have thereby avoided the issue of how people actually define the nature of their Jewishness. Our discussion has thus not included a consideration of variant concepts touching upon this issue: such matters as theology, nationalism, anti-Semitism and/or values. What we have shown, though, is the actual strong possibility for people to have variant and, even, contradictory views on the essential nature of Jewishness as ritual behaviour becomes the dominant force for expressing an identity as Jews. Jewish distinctiveness can be, as such, powerfully expressed regardless of how one may wish to define it – and even as one may wish to simultaneously identify with the values of the general population. Jewish ritual seen as, simply, Jewish behaviour in a vacuum, simply, can allow one to express a Jewish identity with the possibility of defining this identity with a great flexibility.

This, indeed, may foster the development of Jewish identity in that it can also sustain one’s self-defined view of Jewishness but it raises further issues in that Jewishness can be, as such, most broadly defined. In the extreme, think of how groups such as Jews for Jesus can try to present themselves as Jewish through the use of traditional Jewish rituals in their gross misrepresentation of such matters as the Pesach Seder. Jewishness, to ultimately have sustaining value, must also present a parameter on ideas and demand of us to face the challenge of drawing the line on the nature of its identity. ‘What is Jewishness?’ – asked in its modern, generic sense -- is truly a most complex question. The answer still cannot be found by ignoring any borders. (This issue also applies within Orthodoxy and the questions of defining Orthodox identity and the Orthodox understanding of generic Jewish identity.) The issue is not just what I think but what I am willing to accept in the other as an expression of Jewishness even as I may disagree with it. This tension is, in fact, heating up in our present Jewish world – and is becoming more pervasive.  This is a matter, though, that I leave for my next presentation on this subject. I conclude this part with a call to think about this most important issue.

Rabbi Ben Hecht