Selected Sermon/Article
2000-10-15 Sukkot - second day by Rav Ze'ev Smason
What is an Orthodox Jew?
For centuries, poets and writers have claimed that words have the power to move the world. The Greyhound bus corporation would agree. One misunderstood word had the power to stop one of their buses in their tracks. It all started when one of the passengers on the bus exclaimed that there was a 'bum in the bathroom' of the bus. By the time the message reached the driver at the front of the bus, it sounded like 'a bomb in the bathroom.' The bus pulled off to the side of the interstate. All the passengers got off the bus, while police swept through it with bomb-sniffing dogs. That section of the interstate was closed off, jamming up traffic 15 miles behind the bus. Only after all this had occurred did someone discover the misunderstanding.

Misunderstandings and imprecise definitions of terms can cause problems. One of the most misunderstood terms that I often hear used, that I'd like to discuss with you today, is the term 'Orthodox Jew.'

How would you define an 'Orthodox Jew'? Does someone qualify as an orthodox Jew through synagogue affiliation? If a person dresses with traditional religious garb: a man wearing a yarmulke, a married woman covering her hair - does that allow a person to consider themselves an 'Orthodox Jew'? I've looked through the entirety of the Torah, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no reference made to Moshe or anyone else being referred to as 'an Orthodox Jew.' So, to gain a handle on this popular but someone what elusive expression, we need to clarify our terminology.

This question became more relevant to discuss with you, in light of a recent pronouncement from the Union of Orthodox Rabbis that was made on October 5. I'd like to quote and to paraphrase parts of this statement for you today. Our policy is not to involve ourselves in political races, nor do we endorse candidates. When, however ... much of the world begins to relate to. Orthodox Judaism through the prism of the statements of ... vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, we feel it necessary to clarify several issues.

.....It is forbidden to vote for legislation which promotes or legalizes abortion on demand ..and the political agenda of the homosexual movement. On erev Yom Kippur, Senator Lieberman was prepared to address a large gathering of a homosexual lobbying group whose goals are...incompatible with Orthodox Torah-observant Judaism.

The statement goes on to call to the readers attention that Senator Lieberman has supported and voted for the legality of abortion procedures clearly forbidden by the Torah, as a prohibition that derives from the commandment 'Thou shalt not murder.'

The statement also calls into question comments made by Senator Lieberman on Don Imus' radio program, where the senator said that Judaism does not ban intermarriage. On September 20, the Jerusalem Post wrote that Senator Lieberman was asked whether Judaism places a ban on "interracial or interreligious marriage or dating or that sort of thing." Lieberman answered, "No, there is no ban whatsoever.

Certainly not on interracial. And not on interreligious."

"The fact that Jews marry among themselves," he went on to say, "stems from a "natural tendency among a lot of Jews, as there is among a lot of Christians and a lot of ethnic groups" to "marry within, to keep the faith going." Senator Lieberman's statement on this issue was challenged and questioned by representatives of Agudath Israel of America, the Union of Orthodox Congregations (OU), and the United Synagogue Movement (Conservative).

The end of the statement from the Union of Orthodox Rabbis calls upon rabbis and synagogue officials to clarify the confusion that may be engendered by Senator Lieberman's votes and statements, as some might think that his positions are compatible with authentic Orthodox Torah-observant Judaism.

Who is, and what is, an Orthodox Jew? Does a Jew who meticulously follows the details of the observance of the Shabbos, or attend synagogue on a regular basis but doesn't control the loshon hara that he or she speaks, can that person honestly refer to themselves as an 'Orthodox Jew'? What about the Jew who observes many or most of the 613 commandments, but has values and opinions in direct conflict with what the Torah itself states?

Asking these questions is much easier than proposing a cogent, workable answer that removes the fuzzy borders that seem to surround this issue. I would, however, like to share with you my perspective in the hope that it might serve to clarify in your own mind your feelings and thoughts about this topic.

Rather than using the terminology 'Orthodox Jew,' I prefer to use the expression 'Observant Jew' when approaching issues of Jewish nomenclature. And although no one can say of themselves, or others, that they are 'fully observant' (in that even the best of Jews, on occasions, make mistakes), the term 'Observance' focuses our attention on a legitimate goal and process -- to become a better Jew, through increased knowledge of the Torah, and increased observance of the Torah. It's rare for me to hear of a Jew who aspires to become an 'Orthodox Jew'; however, most Jews I know, regardless of their current level of observance, do desire to become 'better Jews' through increased learning and observance of the mitzvot. It's my feeling that the Jewish community as a whole, and the 'Orthodox' community in particular, would be better served by less frequent use of the term 'Orthodox Jew'or 'Orthodoxy.' Rather, more emphasis should be placed on 'Torah observance,' a term that connotes observance as a process and goal instead of the more subjective term 'Orthodox Jew.'

The Midrash comparing the Arbah Minim - the four species of Sukkos that we've begun to take today -- to 4 types of Jews - is well known. The esrog, which has both good taste and good smell, represents the Jew who is both knowledgeable and observant. The aravos, with neither a taste or smell, represents the Jew who is neither knowledgeable nor observant. They, and their two partially observant 'partners' (the lulav and hadassim) join together in one group to praise God on Sukkot. Leave one of the 4 species out, and the mitzvah can't be fulfilled. Leave one type of Jew out, and we don't have 'the Jewish people.'

In this time of trouble, where our brethren in Eretz Yisroel face ever increasing threats and danger in the current political climate, it's absolutely essential that we exercise Jewish unity on the homefront. The setting aside of divisive labels, to the degree that it is possible is extremely important. The only meaningful distinctions between Jews are: how much we know, and how much we observe.

I also believe that it's crucial that each of us should endeavor to act within our own congregation as a 'kehila' - a community.' What does 'acting as a kehila' mean? First, a prerequisite of Jewish unity is that we treat each other with mutual respect even in disagreements. I can be working within the framework of 'Jewish unity' and disagree with you; as long as, we disagree in a respectful manner. The second component of Achdus (unity) - so badly needed at this time, is that the members of a congregation follow and adhere to the wishes of the leadership of the congregation - despite personal feelings and interest to the contrary. One who is 'poraysh min ha'tzibur' - one who 'separates themselves from the community' - commits a divisive, grevious error.

If the Jewish people are united, there's no force in the world that can harm us. Why is that so? Because through unity, God will shower his blessings upon us, and protect us, and our brethren from all harm.

We're here in St. Louis; but the minds and hearts of each and every one of us at this time, is in Israel. We're looking for strategies to help, in the midst of feelings of helplessness as things seem to be spinning out of control in the Mideast. "Hashem oz, l'amo yeetayn, HaShem yivaraych es amo b'Shalom". God will give stregnth to His people, and will bless His people with peace - if we, as the Jewish people, can find a way to make peace amongst ourselves.

Good Yom Tov