Category: Personal Hashkafa Series

The Ideology of Shomer Torah

“The very powerful and very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views…which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” –Doctor Who: Face of Evil

It should be obvious by now that my take on Judaism is a little bit different than most other people’s. Sometimes I appear to be mahmir (strict), other times meikil (lenient), and other times completely ambivalent. I’m inconsistent to some, mechanical to others. I’ve had people try to throw every possible label at me trying to peg me down into an ideology with which they could identify. Even when I give my typical short answer of read Rambam’s Introduction to Mishnah Torah, I typically get blank stares or people just don’t understand the point.

In truth, I’ve never tried try to fit into most of the religious boxes that people set. I suppose I would be considered “Modern Orthodox,” but there are so many opinions as to what that term means that I do not believe it is terribly useful. I would also avoid using the varying degrees of “frum,” as well as the currently fashionable qualifications of “orthopraxis” or “heterodox.” Rather than rely on the social categorizations of other people, I will try to explain as best as I can what I believe and why. You’re free to call it whatever you’d like.

Personally, I prefer simply, “Shomer Torah.”

Understanding Orthodox Judaism


As mentioned previously (and obvious to many readers), Orthodox Judaism is considered to be religious, traditional, and/or authentic, but there are several gradations and sub-categories within Orthodoxy. There are countless customs, world views, and interpretations such that adequately defining what Orthodox Jews do or believe is nearly impossible.

Of course, this never stopped people from trying.

So in today’s installment of the “Personal Hashkafa” series, I’d like to present my take on the worlds of Orthodox Judaism, with a theory I believe accounts for most if not all phenomenon found in Orthodoxy. Let me just restate that this is my thinking and how it plays into my overall hashkafa. This is not an academic paper – though it could be a fun one if/when I’d ever have the opportunity.

Popular Practice And The Process Of Pesak

The Role of Custom In Jewish Law

Today’s installment is a write-up of my Mahshevet Hazal shiur on Minhagim. The reason why I’m focusing specifically on customs is that most halakhic arguments are based, either implicitly or explicitly on communal practices and preferences. Still working under our assumption that for Orthodox Jews the Oral Law is authoritative, it would make sense to first see how the Torah Shebe’al Peh defines the role of communal norms in the halakhic system.

Fractured Frumkeit

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Jews and Judaism should be well aware of the fractured nature of the religion. Some may be able to identify a denomination or two, and the differences between them. Certainly most would recognize the superficial differences between Orthodox, “ultra-Orthodox,” and everyone else.

There are of course many more nuances within each denomination, with a seemingly endless supply of labels to classify each of them. Some Orthodox are “modern” others “yeshivish” and varying shades of “frum.” Not surprisingly, the definitions for these terms are elusive and will vary depending on your background and biases.

There is however one common theme to these distinctions; the labels, camps, and denominations, all reflect differing religious practices and/or ideologies. This of course is not surprising considering that we are discussing sub-groups within a religion. What is notable however, is that within the Orthodox camp, there are fundamentals to which all people allegedly adhere. Specifically, Orthodox Jews tend to believe in the religious authority of the written and oral laws.

Here is where everything breaks down, and again, not surprisingly, the problem is one of conflicting definitions. What is considered part of these canons of Jewish law? Furthermore, assuming one can define these canons, what are the correct, legitimate, and plausible interpretations of these sources? The answers to these questions will most likely determine your religious practice and thus your place in the Orthodox spectrum.

Despite the importance of simply defining halakha, there are few if any coherent and descriptions for how halakha works. There are numerous codes, collections, and letters, but each author is usually working with a different set of assumptions or perspectives – not all of which will be articulated, or even written as an objective model applicable to all Jews at all times.1

The consequence of such ambiguity is that effectively how Halakha is interpreted does change from time to time.2

Furthermore, resolving such issues will inevitably lead one back to the questions of canon and authority. Some would argue that the Halakhic system allows for changes to be made to Jewish law. However, if changes are not regulated somehow, the result could easily be anarchy. Others prefer to restrict any changes by creating a myth of an uninterrupted chain of authentic tradition dating from Moses to contemporary times, ignoring or suppressing any uncomfortable historical data.

There is of course an alternative, and conveniently enough, it is found in the oral law itself.
The oral law does not only contain random acts of jurisprudence, but it also outlines the system of how Jewish law ought to work. It describes the nature of rabbinic authority and the rights and limits of personal freedoms within the law itself. Granted, most Orthodox Jews do not follow this system in practice and some reject it outright and we will deal with the reasons in due time.
However, one could assume that as Orthodox Jews, we would first know how the universally canonical Torah Shebe’al Peh defines Halakha, so that we can intelligently apply Jewish law to our ever changing world. For the sake of efficiency, the next post will focus specifically on the role of custom and the role of Jewish society in determining Jewish law. This will help elucidate not only individual practices, but what role a communal consensus plays in determining Jewish Law.

1. One notable exception would be Rambam’s introduction to the Mishnah Torah. However, many disregard that halakhic system saying, “that’s only for Sephardim” and “we don’t pasken like that.” It is also no coincidence that most of Judaism’s socio-religious divisions developed within the Ashkenazi communities.
2. By “Halakha,” I do not refer to the specific interpretations and rulings, but of the rules and system through which such rulings are formed and evaluated.

What Matters To Me And Why

It is never easy for someone to simply compose a document explaining one’s world view. For one, it is difficult to organize one’s thoughts and present them coherently when there are numerous interrelated concepts. On a micro-level each word and phrase must also be carefully analyzed for they too impact how one’s position will be received. Then, regardless of how well (or poorly) one succeeds in writing one’s thoughts, is of course the inevitable criticism which will follow.

Because it is a personal exercise, critiques are more likely to be taken personally. As such, whoever would accept such a challenge must be able to balance between ideological and personal rejection.

Simply put, people don’t like being told that they’re wrong, especially regarding their essential fundamental beliefs.
This is especially true when the topic at hand is religion for one’s opinions often result in serious repercussions.1 In Judaism for example, arguments over kashrut affect who can eat someone’s house. If someone is thought to be a Shabbat violator, then his overall halakhic status is aversely affected.

Furthermore, disputes over the fundamental nature of halakha may lead to someone being branded a heretic and/or be socially excommunicated as being “beyond the pale” of Judaism. In such cases, a person might not be counted in minyan. If the person in question is a Rabbi, this could lead some to question or reject someone’s marriages, or worse, divorces.
Despite all these reservations and potential repercussions, I am finding it more and more necessary to explain my opinions on Judaism, especially regarding halakha. The main reason is simply for clarification. Many people have had isolated conversations with my father, and as such many people have incomplete or incorrect views of what his system is. I have also had similar results from similar limitations; a typical conversation does not allow for a full explication of one’s ideas. Given the potential consequences outlined above, this has led to much confusion as to what we actually believe.2 Rather than rely on other’s labels and assessments, I can let my own words express my opinions.

Secondly, in the process of the next few essays, I hope to redefine and clarify many of the misconceptions people have about halakha. As most Orthodox Jews have found, halakhaic arguments are generally pointless or counter-productive, most likely because people have their own definitions and frequently talk past each other. What I will show is that in many cases people are not necessarily as far apart as their arguments may indicate.

Finally, the opinions set forth here while not necessarily innovative, will probably be unique to most readers. Few if any orthodox Jews have coherent or consistent perceptions of halakha or Judaism as a whole. Some prefer not to think about things, others are just comfortable with whatever inconsistencies they might have. In the forthcoming essays I hope to at least call attention to certain issues. You may agree with my perceptions and conclusions, or you may find them unconvincing. Minimally, I hope that the issues raised will be thought-provoking.

And perhaps realize that maybe I am not as crazy as you’d think.3

1. See Strauss, Leo.
2. Although, based on blog feedback and comments, I have found that putting things into print does not always help matters. Still, having something I wrote in print makes for easier referencing and correcting.
3. Or of course, perhaps more than you ever imagined.