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Thought for the Day: The Chasm Between Orthodox/Torah Judaism and Its Derivatives

Disclaimer: I am utterly and without reservation opposed to the idea of thinking there are "branches" of Judaism.  Nonetheless, I am also keenly aware that the surrounding culture does think of Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist/FlavorOfTheWeek that way.  I was (again) made aware of that distressing fact when my boss asked me to explain the "Jewish" view regarding abortion.  I said I could give him the Orthodox view, which I did.  His response came in two parts; first to what I said, second to the implications for other branches.  To what I described his response was, "So every case has to be considered independently with all of its unique factors and a competent rabbinic authority consulted."  Yes and yes!  Precisely the message I wanted to convey.

Regarding the implications for other branches of Judaism, though, his response was most distressing.  "So the Jewish view is basically a spectrum from there."  Yikes!  No, I said; those other philosophies are not really any more Jewish that Christianity or ethical humanism.  He rolled his eyes; "So you are saying that if I went into their temple, I wouldn't find a torah scroll?"  I completely understood his reaction as an outsider looking at me, an ultra orthodox fanatic.  So I thought and thought about it.  I finally arrived at a way to present the case for what separates Orthodox Judaism from all other philosophies.  I even came up with a better word to describe them: derivatives of Orthodox Judaism.

First and foremost, Orthodox Judaism is defined by one overarching concept: the Torah -- both the written form and what it all meant -- was received by the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai with 100% clarity and without error.  More than that, the Torah is not a book of rules and stories; rather it is the blueprint of Creation.  Or, if you prefer, it is the genes and chromosomes of Reality.  That being the case, by definition there can be no situation that is not already addressed by the Torah.  Furthermore, those who originally received the Torah also understood and appreciated all of the principles by which reality operates -- and that knowledge had been accurately transmitted generation after generation down till today.

With that introduction, I can now state the differences clearly.  Anyone who identifies himself as an Orthodox Jew, when asked for an opinion on some topic, will answer, "I may have my own feelings about the matter, but at the end of the day I know that the HaShem's opinion (so to speak) -- as revealed by the Torah -- is the only one that really matters."  Those from one of the derivative religions will say, "The Torah is an important document that expresses real wisdom.  However, there are other documents that also express wisdom.  At the end of the day, I take some input from the Torah, some import from other sources, and then I form my own opinion."  I said that closer derivatives may give 90% weight to the Torah, while more distant derivatives may give only 10% weight to the Torah.

My boss (a somewhat observant Christian) was totally on board with this description.  He also now appreciated when I said that both Reform Judaism and Christianity are both derivatives of Orthodox Judaism.  Christianity, in fact, was basically the first derivative religion from Orthodox Judaism.  As I have noted many times, Christianity is in some ways a closer derivative than Reform Judaism, and in other ways more distant.

My final point was simply to note, without making a value judgment, that once a philosophy takes even the smallest stop away from looking at the Torah as the blueprint of Creation, then its distance from Orthodox Judaism is only going to increase over time.  Like the drop of water on the edge of a cloud.  No matter how close to the edge, it's still in the cloud.  Once it leaves -- no matter how close it is right now -- it is on it's way out.  It is no longer in the clouds, it is rain plummeting to earth.

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