The World of the Orthopract, Part I

I’ve come to the realization that a lot of people don’t really understand what Orthopraxy is. They might think they do, but they have it all wrong. The misconceptions bother me, both as someone who lives as an Orthopract and as someone who hates inaccuracy. Although the entire point of Orthopraxy is to blend in with the Orthodox and not draw attention to one’s unsanctioned beliefs, I feel a need to tell people what it’s like living this way, even if I can’t do it openly. But before I talk of my personal experiences as an Orthopract, I’d like to clear up what Orthopraxy is and what it isn’t.

The topic of Orthopraxy seems to have first come to mainstream attention in the Jewish community as a result of an Ami Magazine article published in 2011, titled “The Imposters Among Us.” ‘Judgmental’ is perhaps the kindest thing that can be said of it. The author portrayed Orthopracts as sick, corrupted individuals out to prey on good, believing Jews and tear down their community from the inside. The rhetoric was reminiscent of how some right-wing religious Jews speak of homosexuals, to be honest. According to the author, there is no sane reason to be Orthopract except out of a desire to be a pernicious parasite in the Jewish community. In fact, the article is utterly incapable of understanding how a person could come to Orthopraxy except due to some sort of mental deficiency. After all, it’s not like the Orthoprax have personal histories of violence, abuse and addiction, as so many people who go off the derech do. They just perceive a conflict between science (hard and soft) and Torah, and they believe the former over the latter. Therefore, there simply must be something wrong with them, something that only a trained expert can see, because no sensible person could disagree with Yiddishkeit.

This was not the first time that the Jewish community was alerted to the “threat” of Orthopraxy. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky had broached the issue a year before the Ami article, in a blog post published by The Jewish Press. Rabbi Pruzansky, known to be rather hardline, is if anything even more critical of the Orthoprax than the Ami writer. He blames all of the failings of Modern Orthodoxy on these Orthopracts, these people who show up to Jewish services but don’t care enough to behave with proper decorum. To Rabbi Pruzansky, Orthopracts are just people half-heartedly trudging their way through Judaism, and everyone would be better off if these louts just left. There is nothing intellectual to their rebellion against God: no thought is involved. They simply can’t control their lust for the pleasures of the flesh, and lack the discipline that is necessary to live the life of an observant Jew. Thus, they are deemed “Orthoprax” because they go through the motions just enough to avoid being ostracized. No truly Orthodox Jew would dare show insufficient respect to Jewish ritual and study.

The discussion that actually prompted this article came from an unexpected direction: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink’s blog, Fink or Swim. In a post last August, Rabbi Fink summarized a discussion he had with Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University. Near the end of the conversation, Rabbi Fink asked what YU was doing to combat atheism and Orthopraxy on campus, and President Joel admitted that while nothing was being done at the moment, there were plans for the future. President Joel seemed to think that Orthopraxy could be combatted by playing up the spiritual side of Judaism, so as to help these poor, confused Orthopracts find some sort of meaning in Judaism that would give them a reason to observe beyond sheer habit.

Leaving aside the discussions of the fundamentals of Jewish dogma and different degrees of belief and practice that have characterized certain segments of the Jewish blogosphere, these three posts seem to convey the “dominant” impression of Orthopraxy among the leadership of the Orthodox community: that they are apathetic at best, and malevolent at worse, that if only they could understand the true value of Avodas Hashem, their problems would be solved.

As an Orthopract – and one who has spent a lot of time observing discussions of Orthopraxy – my impression is that none of these writers seem to realize what they’re dealing with. Most Orthopracts who consciously choose to stay in the Jewish community came to heresy for intellectual reasons. That’s the thing about Orthopraxy: to qualify for the title, you have to actually practice.

This is the great irony of Rabbi Pruzansky’s attempt at defining Orthopraxy. The people he indicts, the people who show up to shul but can’t be bothered to daven, are highly unlikely to be Intellectually Orthoprax. Most Intellectual Orthopracts just wouldn’t go to shul if they didn’t want to, assuming they could get away with it. Those who must go or else out themselves would prefer to sit quietly and read, if they wouldn’t daven. An Intellectual Orthopract is by definition respectful enough of religious activity not to inhibit it in others.

On the other hand, there are legions of Jews who believe wholeheartedly in all thirteen ikarim, at least in the abstract, but for whom the belief is not real enough to them to control their actions. What Rabbi Pruzansky has highlighted in his piece is not Intellectual Orthpraxy at all. Rather, it is what Rabbi Fink called “Orthoprax by Default”. It is the behavior of people who don’t really have deep thoughts regarding Judaism one way or the other but find themselves living in an Orthodox community, and so they do what is necessary to fulfill communal obligations.

There is a further subdivision of those living Orthodox lifestyles with less than Orthodox beliefs. This is the “closeted OTDer.” A closeted OTDer has no intention of staying frum, and does as little as is necessary to keep up appearances and avoid scrutiny. At the first oppurtunity, he drops all pretenses and becomes secular. A person could be a closeted OTDer for either intellectual or emotional reasons. What distinguishes this category is that unlike either type of Orthopract, the closeted OTDer had no intention of living in the Orthodox community under any circumstances. He is merely biding his time until he can escape.

An intellectual Orthopract is different from these other two categories. He intends to live in the frum world, at least for the moment. Just how much of halacha he keeps may waver, especially in private, but what he does is done wholeheartedly. His understanding of Judaism is on a fairly high level, which enables him to enjoy frumkeit despite his lack of faith, at least to some degree. Although he believes that major fundamental positions of Judaism are false, the lifestyle of Orthodoxy appeals to him, be it for reasons of familiarity, tradition, or anything else.

Of those “Intellectual Orthopracts,” some are young enough not to be tied down by commitments to family and community. These people are in their late teens or early twenties, old enough to be independent and with sufficient skills to survive in the secular world. For whatever reason, they have come to the point where they can no longer fully believe in all of the dogmas that an Orthodox Jew must. And yet, despite the ease with which they could escape, they do not. They are Orthoprax by choice.

It’s an odd-mindset, to be sure. What would lead someone to adopt such a lifestyle? Much has been devoted to explaining why a child raised with frumkeit would leave for the secular world, but why would a child raised Orthodox come to apostasy and yet stay? In the next part, I’ll explain how I personally ended up an Orthopract. I can’t say with any kind of certainty that it was that way for everyone, but hopefully there will be a pedagogic lesson for the Orthodox world in my story.