(Belated) Devar Torah Parshas KiSavo

Guest post by Dale Rosenbach

While Moses was preparing to give up leadership, the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land and participate in a “new commitment” (as ArtScroll puts it) to the Torah at Mount Eival. Moses commands the Israelites (Deut. 27:1) with the use of the terminology “Shamor es kol hamitzvah…” (Safekeep the entirety of the commandments) — that’s odd, because many people today like to play Jeopardy-style Judaism.

Jeopardy-style Judaism is the newest alliteration to reflect the growing popularity of those who speak into the proverbial microphone and say, “I’ll take this mitzvah for $200, Alex,” with the implication, of course, that they wouldn’t ever think of fulfilling the obligations listed in other, less desirable categories. Much like “Wars of the 1600s” and “French Foreign Diplomats,” there are many categories of biblical and rabbinical precepts that people like to pretend aren’t there, hoping that someone else will deal with them so they can move on and not be bothered.

But Moses makes it clear that his boss requires complete compliance — “kol hamitzvah,” or in plain English “everything.” At first this might seem to be at odds with Jeopardy-style Judaism, but after some keen investigation, it’s clear that Judaism completely rejects the Jeopardy method of precept selection. It’s like my great-great-great grandfather always said: “Judaism is like a summating neuron…it’s all or none, baby.” (n.b. I used to be a baby).

Now, kiruv organizations will have you believe that this is not the case. They preach slow and steady accumulation of greater and greater “adherence” points until such time as the kiruvee has reached the level at which he or she needs to put everything together. This is, of course, because it cannot be expected that some recent returnee does everything all at once — ’cause, yeah, there’s a lot! But this is a kiruv method — not a prototype for life. For someone who knows how, choosing A and disregarding B is insubordination.

I’m certainly not here on this planet to judge anyone, but there sure seems to be a group of people that have taken two important things out of context and use them to make a mockery of Judaism by pushing Jeopardy-style Judaism.

The first thing this group of people have done is misunderstood a line from Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers). R’ Akiva taught (3:19) that “ha’reshus nisuna” — “permission is granted.” This is meant to existentially assert that humans have free will to decide if they shall proceed on the path of righteousness and abide by the rules. What this does not mean to do is provide support for those contestants of Jeopardy-style Judaism by declaring that “permission is granted” to choose things from category A and ignore category B, as it suits them.

The second thing this group of people have done is to hijack the term “Modern Orthodox,” much like elements of Conservative Judaism have hijacked that term over the past few decades. Contrary to what many believe to be true, subscribing to Modern Orthodoxy does not permit one to violate halacha or promote wayward hashkafa. As R’ Norman Lamm puts it, “being Modern Orthodox doesn’t mean that you can talk in shul.” But, surprisingly, people think it does! Well, perhaps it’s not that surprising, because people also thought it would be a good idea to elect Obama.

This group of people, and they exist over time and space and are perhaps unified merely by a collective ideology, insists that various halachic legislation doesn’t apply to them and that’s criminal…literally. R’ David Pahmer, a prominent student of R’ Schachter (YU) explained to me that Modern Orthodoxy was a change in Orthodoxy that, basically, evolved to embrace four things: secular education, education for females, a lack of narrow focus on the teachings of one’s singular halachic authority, and finally, a place in the religious person’s life for the modern establishment of the State of Israel. Those who desire to perpetuate an 18th century manifestation of Jewish life and culture despite it being 2010 would thus maintain Orthodoxy as their label, so to speak, and if they consistently promote a exceedingly pious lifestyle of abundant care and regard for Torah and halacha, would then merit the prefix “ultra-” placed beforehand. But just because someone wears a long coat while he waits in line at the Medicaid office to deceive the counterman or strokes his very long beard while recklessly filling out his tax return doesn’t mean someone gets that prefix. Not that I know anyone who does this — but I’m just stating it for the record.

So yes, I’m Modern Orthodox. And when I talked with R’ Mordechai Becher last night a little bit about this, he told me that he’s also Modern Orthodox. Although I am a dentist and I’m married to a dentist, I do not talk during chazaras ha’shatz. There are many other precepts that can be used as examples, but to keep focus, I’d rather not make this into a tznius issue, although it certainly is one. But it’s an issue for all areas — all categories — of Judaism. Those who maintain their idle and errant lifestyle under the assumed or actual excuse of, “yeah, but I’m Modern Orthodox, so that doesn’t apply to me” should think twice before they continue “Tarnishing Reputations” for $200 and “Deluding Themselves” for $1000.