We're Missing the Point, We are Indeed!

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Upon attending a presentation in honor of my teacher and onetime graduate school advisor, Prof. David Berger, I couldn’t help wondering whether he was not part of a vanishing breed of serious academic scholars who are able to also be unapologetically mainstream Orthodox Jews. Although I find the contemporary Orthodox intellectual scene fascinating, many of its members have lost touch with their base and find themselves living in a thought-world increasingly less Orthodox. For that reason, I greatly appreciate the place Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has staked out over the last few years, as someone who clearly understands the discourse of sophistication yet self-consciously holds his ground as an Orthodox Jew.

The latter is certainly not a small undertaking. Yet in his latest book, he has done something even more remarkable. After spending the first half of the book defining the parameters of Orthodoxy, what is most interesting is the book’s second part, where he develops the critical place of autonomy in Jewish doctrine. He is well aware that post-Kant, Western Jews – even those who have never heard of Kant – are conflicted by the lack of autonomy that we think Judaism presents us with. Following this awareness, he puts together an original and insightful presentation of the important yet nuanced role of autonomy in the Jewish tradition.

Nonetheless, all of that is secondary to what the book title us is its main point (no pun intended!). In We’re Missing the Point, Rothstein correctly tells us that much of the Orthodox community has lost its way. Echoing A. J. Heschel's castigation of our community as pan-halachic, he writes that by becoming "checklisters and ritualists," we not only miss the forest from the trees but are not even able to differentiate between big trees and small trees. His answer is to try to identify a blueprint of the goals of Judaism and explain how various mitzvot connect with these goals. As he writes in his introduction, such an agenda should be obvious and to this reader it was. Yet I am reminded of the introduction of Messilat Yesharim which says the same and yet became a classic for much the same reason one would like to see the current work become a classic – because people often ignore the obvious.

I would go one step further and suggest that many of the fights that are raging between various sectors of Orthodoxy would be less divisive if halacha was viewed contextually as Rothstein suggests. By this, I mean that the community would do well to understand more overtly that we should not see our aim as doing a particular mitzvah per se, but rather achieving the goal it – as part of a larger system – is supposed to accomplish. Were that the case, Orthodox feminists would likely feel less desperate to legitimate women’s participation in all sorts of mitzvot that remain controversial. At the same time, more conservative elements would likely get less hot under the collar if certain communities struck a certain halachic position that allowed such participation.

The book's contents reads like shiurim on various topics that are all meant to feed in to the two major ideas and as a result, some of the topics will interest some readers more than others. Accordingly, some chapters can even be skipped and the reader will not lose the main points. For example, I enjoyed his discussion of prayer and its origins and would recommend it strongly. By contrast, though I am much in sympathy with his call for change in Jewish Education, I found that the discussion of this topic seemed to focus on issues unrelated to the main discussion.

It should be noted that educators may find this book less directly useful than his two previous works, which seem tailor-made for use in school (in fact his first, Murder in the Mikdash even comes with a teacher’s guide). Nonetheless, Missing the Point is an important book for educators, students and laymen alike and should be read whether it directly aids our lesson plans or not. Moreover, there are some very keen analyses of Tanakh and Jewish Thought scattered throughout the book that could well help in the development of lesson plans in those subjects.

The big question is whether an outsider like Rothstein will be able to make an impact on the Orthodoxy he is so right to critique for “missing the point.” As someone who has long carried a similar message, I think more people are ready to hear such ideas than in the past. While I don’t expect this book to be the watershed event that creates the paradigm shift I hope to see in our lifetime, it will certainly contribute to it.