Here's what I see as the fundamental difference between the Orthodox and the non-orthodox.The Orthodox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Let me open up the halacha books and find out.The Heterdox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Well, my values include X, Y, and Z so I'll say that those values are Jewish values and be a good Jew.
Now obviously this is not about conscious statements but when you hear heterodox people talking about how supporting gay marriage or unrestricted abortion is a Jewish value then you get the impression that heterodox Judaism is defined as "Here are my values, and I'll call them Jewish". And then an adjective in front appears.
In addition, there's a branding disagreement. For the Orthodox there's a clear definition of Judaism - matan Torah, one God, supremacy of halacha, etc. Now within Orthodoxy there is a battle being wages over a bunch of peripherals, stuff you identify in your post like the rationalists vs the irrationalists (eg. Slifkin controversy) but the basics are what define Judaism.
So when someone comes along and says "Well I'm a Reform Jew so I practice Judaism even though I don't believe in Matan Torah" we look over and say "Well that's like saying that Sprite you're holding is really a Coke because you want to have Coke but not to actually buy it.My response:
Thanks for your comment, Garnel. It's nice to be able to discuss topics like this without things getting too heated.
I think that your description of heterodox Jews is true in some cases. However just like there's a range among Orthodoxy, there's a wide range of what makes someone a heterodox Jew (for the purposes of this discussion I'm separating secular Jews from heterodox Jews, whom I define as people that attend a synagogue at least once a year and/or have membership in a synagogue), ranging from minimally engaged 2-times a year Jews all the way up to heterodox rabbis, and I think most intellectually honest people would be hard-pressed to claim that children can spend eight or twelve years in heterodox Jewish day schools and come out of that not knowing anything about Judaism. You may question the prism through which the information or the message is diffused, and you may be correct that the areas emphasized may not be the same as in an Orthodox school, but you have to at least concede that some heterodox Jews have a basic, even fairly detailed, knowledge of Judaism-- though their interpretations of what "Jewish values" are may differ from many Orthodox perspectives. (I realize plenty of heterodox Jews don't send their kids to day schools, but for this discussion I'd like to talk about them a little bit to at least establish that committed/educated Jews exist outside of Orthodoxy.)
Furthermore, I think it's not unreasonable for people to integrate their Jewish values with other values or causes that are important to them, particularly since there are plenty of areas where modern and Jewish values/principles overlap. Tikkun olam gets a bad rap as being overused, but part of being a good Jew is being a good person, and many mitzvot can legitimately be thought of as "good deeds." We may disagree over the specifics of mitzvot ben adam l'makom, but everyone agrees, at least on paper, that mitzvot ben adam l'chaveiro are important. Visiting the sick, giving to charity, not humiliating others, being stewards of the environment, etc... These are all modern values as well as Jewish ones and I don't see why people interpreting their actions as least partially through a Jewish filter is such a bad thing.
Yes, some people may just take their contemporary values and call them Jewish. On the other hand, people who are more educated and thoughtful about Judaism and its values may be better able to articulate where their modern values and some Jewish values differ. My guess is that any day school graduate who's taken even quasi-serious Talmud classes (which are required among most of them) would be able to give you a list of issues they've encountered in their studies that they find problematic. In some cases people may be opting out of some Jewish practices out of apathy or disinterest or assigning other values Jewish status or significance out of ignorance, but the mere fact of choosing does not indicate ignorance. It can just as easily be the result of informed choice, of learning about Jewish values, finding some in conflict with modern values they sincerely believe in (one major one being egalitarianism), and making a thoughtful decision best aligned with their personal conscience. You can personally disagree with that approach, but it's not fair to dismiss it as just being a case of liberal Jews not knowing what they're talking about.
Now, if someone takes a reductive approach to their Judaism and says that Judaism is solely defined by working at soup kitchens, planting trees or marching for Darfur, then I think that's unfortunate and I disagree with that view as being shortsighted and misinformed-- however I think you can make the same error in the other direction by spending all of your time checking for bugs in your lettuce, exercising your OCD, or studying Talmud to the exclusion of everything else, a-la Rav Elyashiv/Yoel Teitelbaum/Rav Scheinberg. That's part of the reason why though I have a different relationship to halacha, I have a lot of respect for the Modern Orthodox world because they really do attempt to strike a serious balance between two worlds, and I think that balance, to one degree or another, is quite important: The stereotype of Orthodox Jews is that they're overly legalistic and insular, while heterodox Jews are all supposedly super granola hippy types who don't know their Hillel from a ham sandwich. The reason these stereotypes exist is because they illustrate some uncomfortable realities, but that doesn't mean that the stereotypes are reality.
In my case, I fully realize that I do not live a fully halachic lifestyle and have no problem saying so-- part of this is because there are parts of halacha I disagree with, and part of it is that I don't accept halacha as being a fully binding system. By that same token, I also have no problem admitting that there are parts of traditional Judaism I don't follow. The issue, as I see it, is that so many people, particularly institutional leaders (but also laypeople) are so personally invested in their branding that no one is willing to admit that there is not a single Judaism, there are multiple ones. It's a spectrum, and not just a horizontal spectrum, but a vertical one, as well:
|Something like this, for the sake of having a visual model.|
Do you focus on ritual mitzvot or ethical mitzvot, or do you try to cover all of them to the best of your ability? My firm belief is that people select their priorities and the rest follows suit. Most people do simply not have enough mental, financial, or temporal resources to apply themselves equally in all aspects of Judaism, and if some folks are going to attack Jews who spend their time engaging in activism but don't put a lot of effort into, say, text study, they should have the honesty to focus their next criticism on textually literate Jews who ignore the principles of justice that those same texts spend so much time talking about.
The point is that everybody chooses. People choose what theology they actually believe in, what stuff they pretend to believe in for appearance's sake, and what stuff they just plain ignore. So honestly, part of the issue with branding is not that Reform Jews are maintaining "I'm practicing Judaism;" it's that Orthodox Jews will never admit that Orthodox Judaism is not synonymous with Judaism (TM). That meta-brand, if you will, is bigger than any one movement, even Orthodoxy. I see "Judaism" as being the collective output and worship of klal israel, and so I have no problem acknowledging my Judaism is not Orthodox Judaism-- I've never claimed anything to the contrary-- but I'd never be willing to say "my Judaism is not real Judaism," which seems to be the subtext of what you're saying when you use the example of a Reform Jew saying "I practice Judaism." The reality is all of us are practicing forms of Judaism. The Judaism you have is different from what Abraham had, from what Moses had, from what the Maccabees had, and in some ways, even from what Rashi or Rambam had. Claiming otherwise because you need to believe in an infallible, perfect chain of Torah is the kind of thinking that leads to people saying Moses wore a streimel or that Ever's tent was actually a yeshiva.
I don't believe we're talking about Coke versus Sprite here (which would be something like comparing Judaism and Hinduism). The better model is Coke and Pepsi. Are they both colas? Well the ingredients vary and there are clear differences (at least according to my soda-drinking friends), but even the most rabid Coke/Pepsi partisans have to agree that yes, they're both the same kind of soda. And while I have no problem admitting I'm a Coke and not a Pepsi, I will get annoyed if I start being told that the only true cola is Pepsi and that it's been that way for time immemorial.
(Hmm, for some reason I'm now craving something fizzy...)