7/07/2010

The Orthoprax Rabbi – Revisited

I’ve changed my mind about the Orthoprax Rabbi. I think that what he’s doing (let’s assume that he is what he says he is, a fact that is never truly verifiable while the blog remains anonymous) is a vile offense against those who pay his salary. Even if he is a rabbinic superstar and an absolute gem of a human being, it would be inexcusable. I predict that he will be outed within a few months by some clever baalebos, and then I hope they terminate his contract. At that point, he will learn, like I learned, that even though going through a career change can be hell, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and life will go on.

I do not have a problem with doubt. I have struggled with doubt in its various forms myself (and continue to, though as a baalebos and not as a rabbi). If you look at the comments on that old post, though, you will see that they are very different from the reactions to the Orthoprax Rabbi. This is because the Orthoprax Rabbi does not have doubts. He has it all figured out. The transformation is complete. He is not giving us a window into his inner conflicts, past and present, but is presenting us with a fait accompli of atheist belief and, perhaps more obnoxiously, complete lack of any sort of guilt about pulling the wool over the eyes of his flock.

Said rabbi compares himself with R. Leon di Modena, arguing that the former was a closet atheist. This sounds an awful lot like the maskilim (starting with Spinoza, in fact) who saw Ibn Ezra as a sort of closet Bible critic. I mean, if he wants to play games, why doesn’t he simply accept the Straussian reading of the Moreh Nevukhim and claim that the Rambam was a closet atheist. I mean, if the midget wishes to stand on the shoulder of giants, why not pick the tallest giant?

In fact, though, I think that he can be compared with other more contemporary rabbis. I recall that about 14 years ago PBS ran a series on Genesis, and the “star” of the series was Rabbi Burt Visotzky. He made headlines by calling God a “mean son of a bitch.” Rabbi Shalom Carmy recounted to me that when a major news magazine (I believe it was Time or Newsweek) called him for a response, he told them, “I would not want him leading ne’ila at my shul.” He then started acting it out for me: “Psach lanu sha’ar, You mean S.O.B.” [As an aside, I like R. Carmy’s idea that humor is often the best response when asked a question for which there is no good ‘sound-byte’ answer. I put that lesson into practice, somewhat, here.] R. Carmy’s point was that one cannot fulfill the role of shaliah tzibbur, representing the community before God and vice versa, if one feels antipathy or apathy toward either of the parties. Similarly, a kohen, who stands between Israel and God, may not duchen if he has experienced some kind of rupture with man – i.e., he is a shofekh damim – or with God – i.e., a heretic.

Another example would be David Gruber. He was a rabbi and Orthodox Torah educator in several small communities in the US (ironically, he succeeded my wife as Jewish Studies Coordinator at Yavneh Academy in Dallas - but he got the title "Rav Beit Sefer" while my wife did not) before he decided to officially leave the fold. There may have been some point where he had stopped living the life of an Orthodox Jew but still held the job of an Orthodox rabbi, but that overlap was short-lived. Though I’m no fan of his brand of self-promotion, and I’m certainly no fan of what he’s doing, at least he no longer identifies as an Orthodox rabbi and instead exploits his familiarity with Jewish ritual to make a living without pretending to be what he’s not. Rabbi Orthoprax can go do interfaith weddings, too, or if he doesn’t want to infringe, he can do interfaith funerals. As Rav Lichtenstein said about Motti Elon (not comparing what Rabbi Orthoprax is doing with what Motti Elon did), “she-ya’asok be-plada” – “let him get a job in a steel mill.” Just get out of the Orthodox rabbinate.

On the other side of the ledger is Mordechai Kaplan, who began expressing misgivings about Orthodoxy in 1904 and only finally broke with Orthodoxy in 1922 (this is an excellent book on the subject). There are several differences, though. Kaplan did not make any bones about his belief and was writing and publishing criticisms of Orthodoxy – under his own name – starting in 1909. Furthermore, he also was trying to reform Orthodoxy, and therefore actually had an agenda of staying in the Orthodox community. When he was hired to be the rabbi of the (Orthodox) Jewish Center, he no longer identified as Orthodox. But the decision to hire him remained with the congregants, who were certainly not subjected to a mekah ta’ut.
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