Rabbi Steven Pruzansky & Maharat Sara Hurwitz

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky & Maharat Sara Hurwitz

In this week’s issue of The Jewish Press, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky wrote, in his “The Rise of Orthopraxy”, that

while Orthodoxy literally means “correct belief” but in actuality encompasses an entire range of thought and behavior that is regulated by Torah, Orthopraxy (“correct action”) is much more limited in scope, requiring only the adherence to certain behavioral norms without any semblance of philosophical commitment to the system from which such behavioral norms emerged.

And further describes them as

an informal, incognito group of unknown size and scope who, for the most part, practice halachic norms but do not really believe in God (or that He chose us as the nation that would carry His moral message to mankind) or understand what they are doing. They might not even believe in the divine origin of the Torah, but identify themselves with the Orthodox community for social, ethnic, cultural or even aesthetic reasons.

In the course of his article, he argues against Orthoprax’ outward practices but otherwise empty inner spiritual life. What Rabbi Pruzansky engages is a polemic against such an modus operandi and further describes Orthopraxy as something that “transcends all the traditional (and artificial) divisions in Orthodox life. It compasses right wing and left wing, modern, centrist and yeshivish, haredi and non-haredi alike.” Rabbi Pruzansky aims to prod the Orthoprax in the world towards better standards of behavior as well as thought. However, it could also come as detrimental to pushing those who are within the Orthoprax camp to feeling bad about their observance. Granted, there are plenty of places in North America where having Jews be Orthoprax is a higher level of observance than they would otherwise have been. Moreover, there is also a danger of תפסת מרובה לא תפסת תפסת מועט תפסת* – that is, some Orthoprax that may feel that it’s not for them, and not try to also develop inner Jewish beliefs, etc.
As to his proposed solution to his developing a problematic, he says

How do we triumph over Orthopraxy and reconnect our divine service to God? We can – must – infuse our mitzvot with a recognition of their divine imperative by returning to fundamentals. We should study ourselves, and teach our children, not only “how” we do things but also “why.” We all must learn the details of the mitzvot – from Shabbat to Pesach, from kashrut to monetary integrity, from the laws of Chanukah to the laws of Tisha B’Av – but also the framework of those mitzvot, how they combine to create a faithful, moral, decent servant of Hashem.

The one problem with this solution is that the answer consists of learning הלכה (Jewish way, practices) and not השקפה (Jewish outlooks) and, for someone who is not that familiar with Orthodox thought, is not tremendously helpful. In any event, I like הלכה and I’m all for studying it, but that may be an unsatisfactory solution for this issue of Rabbi Pruzansky’s.
Neverthless, Rabbi Pruzansky throws in the following:

Orthopraxy underlies such phenomena as the female clergy, the Partnership Minyanim (in which women chant portions of the davening, and a quorum of both ten men and ten women are needed to begin services), and the integration of Christians into special worship services.

Although I have no idea as to what Rabbi Pruzansky when he mentions “the integration of Christians into special worship services”, “female clergy” is nothing more than a reference to Maharat Hurwitz, who has been in the news lately, as a title change to Rabba(h) was proposed and then taken back by Rabbi Avi Weiss along with the development of Yeshivat Maharat. “Partnership minyanim” are what they sound like. As to the latter two topics, Rabbi Pruzansky clearly does not understand that these are not Orthoprax inventions. Granted, they are not typical Orthodox institutions, nevertheless, that is not what underlies them. For Jewishly-learned women aspiring to roles whereby they can use their personalities and Torah knowledge to serve our people, involves many factors, the primary of which is sociological. Since there are these תלמידות חכמים (learned Jewish women) who are ready, able, and willing to spread their Jewish wisdom, are they supposed to just sit on their knowledge and not work in the Jewish communal field? When I lived in New York, I knew several young ladies who were disappointed that after studying for years, they couldn’t go further with their training and had to go into teaching science or become librarians, etc. Granted, on the other hand, I can understand the uncomfortability that some of our fellow Orthodox brethren feel regarding such a move, with such a change. In fact, while I was an undergraduate student working on an anthropology paper with another student on women rabbis, I came up with a rough draft of an introduction that would explain why women should not be rabbis (the paper did not include this introduction).
As to partnership minyanim, they hew to halakhah, albeit with debate on how certain issues of halakhah are understood. Interestingly, Rabbi Pruzansky elsewhere points out that “it is surprising to see that many ModOs are such textual fanatics” – that is there is such a careful looking at halakhah amongst us Modern Orthodox. Now, this falls into the precise suggestion of his quoted above that “we should study ourselves, and teach our children, not only ‘how’ we do things but also ‘why.’ We all must learn the details of the mitzvot….” This is what the Modern Orthodox do – investigate halakhah. However, apparently, learning halakhah is not sufficient for Rabbi Pruzansky, as he describes in the latter piece, that some things are just meta-halakhic issues….

* A term meaning you reach for a lot, [stuff will fall out of your hand and] you won’t grasp it; you grab for a little bit, you will have grasped. It is a stammaitic term found twice in the Babylonian Talmud: once on Yoma 80a and once on Rosh HaShanah 4b (although, in the latter reference, it is תפשת מרובה לא תפשת תפשת מועט תפשת.

About the author


Having begun blogging in the summer of 2005, Drew joined the Jewlicious mega-Jewblog after Jewlicious Festival 6.0 in February 2010. Drew is committed to serving the Jewish people, and is one of a small number of rabbis who were bloggers whilst in rabbinical school. He's thrilled to be a part of Jewlicious: The Blog and aims to spread his views, thoughts, and ideas amongst the masses.


  • I don’t think that that’s what Rabbi Steven Pruzansky was trying to get across. It’s that many Rabbis today have turned into nothing more than Judaic lawyers, always trying to find loopholes. Keep in mind that things also have to be kept “in the spirit” as well.

    I for one, on Erev Yom Kippur, wouldn’t attend a Jets game even though I technically could for the very reason that I consider Erev Yom Kippur a time to reflect on the past year and what I could do better the next year, should Hashem grant me the Mazal to live next year. Anything less would cheapen the experience.

  • While I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments that rabbis should not lose sight of the spirit of the law in the face of their zeal for halachic legalism, it’s interesting to note that generally this critique is asserted by non-orthodox rabbis who attack orthodoxy for be caught up in the minutia of the halacha. Now, when left-wing orthodox groups insist on an adherence to halacha in their support of female spiritual leaders, it is davka those elements within orthodoxy who generally recoil at non-halachic, watered-down considerations are now clinging to the amporphous “spirit of the law,” which in haredi practice is synonymous with “Da’as Torah.”