Orthodoxy of any sort is a tough game. In an orthodox system, tradition isn't just an argument, it usually is the argument. And there is no more powerful evidence of the correctness of a given practice or belief than its durability over generations. A religiously motivated vision for change, for adaptation, for departure from ingrained norms, is virtually by definition out of place.
Underlying our effort is the rejection of the premise that the words "Orthodox" and "new" cannot appear in the same sentence. To the contrary, we believe that the two great questions that Orthodoxy seeks to answer are: "What is the proper way to live?" and "What is the proper way to change?"
Of course, a few words of explanation are in order about why we even think that Orthodoxy needs this new vision. After all, the argument could well be made that Orthodoxy is thriving. Left for dead after the Holocaust, the movement has proved that predictions of its demise were not only premature, but absolutely wrong. Orthodox day schools and synagogues grow and multiply, Orthodox families tend to be larger than the average American Jewish family, and the Orthodox community exudes a palpable, well-earned sense of self-confidence (even an unfortunate touch of triumphalism) as it heads into the 21st century.
The "new vision" of which we speak might even be considered something of a betrayal by those who are responsible for Orthodoxy's revival--that small number of souls who courageously decided to hold on to the old ways, come what may and at whatever price. The reason we now press for a new vision is that we believe the era of religious freedom we currently enjoy demands that we renew our commitment to being the "kingdom of priests" God asked us to be.
For centuries, our strength and our outward vision were sapped by constantly worrying about physical and spiritual survival. But now, at a point in history in which, thank God, we don't need to be preoccupied with sheer survival, we are absolutely obliged to emerge from our defensive, preservationist crouch, and again become the kind of world-transforming force that God intended us to be.
It is a time for renewal, and renewal demands that we look at ourselves carefully and take seriously the notion that Judaism is one of the great religions of the world.
Another challenge could be raised against our "new vision." Don't more world-engaging, more open models of Judaism already exist? Is this not the thrust of Reform Judaism? Might not Judaism's Conservative movement be a more logical address for our Nuevo-Orthodox vision? Why don't my colleagues and I just move elsewhere?
We stay inside Orthodoxy for two reasons. One is that we are committed to the Orthodox belief system, and to its methods of legal interpretation. Second, we believe that Orthodoxy has a unique potential for religious greatness, a unique potential for growing a truly great Jewish community.
I'll invoke one of my favorite rabbinic anecdotes to illustrate where Orthodoxy's special power and potential comes from. Several summers ago, on a Friday afternoon, I received a phone call from a congregant who was vacationing with his family at a beach house in the Hamptons, which is at the eastern end of New York's Long Island. He had a straightforward, technical question for me: How early in the day could he and his family accept the Sabbath?
I was deeply moved by the question. It captured the complete commitment to deep love for tradition that characterizes the Orthodox community. The desire to fulfill God's word is so thoroughly woven into the soul that the accepting of the Sabbath is not perceived as accepting restrictions and limitations upon our activities, but as the opportunity to enter into holy space.
Jews who are committed to the Orthodox tradition do not make a cost/benefit analysis when it comes to the sacrifices of time, energy, and money that are inevitably a part of living by the demands of Jewish law and of educating their children to do the same. The commitment is absolute, and the results speak for themselves.
Orthodox parents are wonderfully successful at raising children who remain true to Orthodoxy. Our community has great passion and deep faith, and our children imbibe this. The power of the Orthodox community to be a religious force for positive social and religious change would appear to be immense.
The challenge is to get the Orthodox community to recognize what it is capable of achieving if it only grasped the larger picture. The reason that this is not a simple challenge is that the commitment to tradition that invests us with our unique energy is the very factor that renders us spiritually irrelevant in many ways. Our attachment to the past and our resistance to (and suspicion of) change clearly functions as a double-edged sword.
Excerpt from Spiritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America From Young Spiritual Leaders of Many Faiths. Copyright Niles Elliot Goldstein (Woodstock, VT:SkyLight Paths Publishing, 1999). $21.95 + $3.50 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or online at www.skylightpaths.com. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.