Some random thoughts on Orthodoxy

I got my first real taste of Jewish learning as an undergrad at Arizona State University in 1987. As a younger teenager I had become interested in Judaism and mitzvoth, but at ASU I had my first discussions about Orthodoxy, the binding nature of halacha, religious Reform and more. Near the end of my first year in Tempe I started a chevruta (study partner) on Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, with Rabbi Barton Lee, the head of the ASU Hillel and a committed, religious Reform Jew. The interaction spawned many conversations about Reform vs. Orthodox Judaism, but it was clear that I was headed to Orthodoxy and the world of Halacha (Jewish law). In that self-assured, condescending way of a 20 year old, I learned quickly to dismiss Reform as a pathetic quasi-religion that had little in common with authentic Judaism.

In part, the hubris was justified. I noted, correctly, that the sparse attendance at most Reform congregations (including the one I grew up in) consisted of the elderly, and of young families whose children were not yet old enough to refuse being taken to services. Young adults looking for Jewish vibrancy went to Orthodox shules, because that’s where the mitzvoth were, and as a result, that’s where the passion was.

After making Aliya I spent several years in yeshiva, discovering the Talmud and honing my Torah-learning skills. The passion of yeshiva life and halacha strongly defined my 20s and 30s.

All these years later (I’m 46), however, I find my frustration level with Orthodoxy rising with every scandal, perhaps even more with every outrage that doesn’t make the headlines. I find myself frustrated that we seem to be falling into the same traps that defined the First and Second Temple periods, and especially upset that on a societal level, the technical observance of mitzvoth serves as a substitute for true spiritual work and deep service of God (that word is a perfect case in point: So many people take care to write G-d, which has no halachic implication at all, but have no compunction about cheating on their taxes or protecting child molesters).

Even worse, I fear that the halachic system itself prepares the groundwork for the abuse of religious norms, even of basic human morality. With an enormous focus on the intricacies of Talmud, I fear that we, on a societal level, have engaged in sophisticated trickery to justify gross violations.

For example: When interviewing a victim of sexual abuse, one woman told me that her abusive father – a prominent rosh yeshiva in his community – took care not to penetrate her “in the usual way,” thus avoiding the technical, halachic definition of incest. The woman told me that this was the basis for her father’s claim that he had done nothing wrong – “I didn’t violate the halacha, so I didn’t do anything wrong,” he is reported to have said.

Perhaps as a result, I find my “yeshivish” contempt for non-halachic Judaism, which lasted well into my 40s, to be moderated. I would still argue strongly against the idea of Jewish religious practice that is not defined de facto by halacha in practice, but I find myself increasingly drawn to “subversive” ideas: For instance, take the Torah’s command:

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ: וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים
הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם—עַל-לְבָבֶךָ:   וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ, וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might: And you should set these words which I command you this day upon your heart: You should teach them to your children, you should speak of them when you are at home and on the road, when you go to sleep and when you get up.

Halachically, the requirements of the Shema are clear: We have to say the words of Shema twice a day, and before bed. We have to put on Tefillin.

But the gemara (Masechet Brachot, around pg. 14/15), has a whole discussion about whether that passage really should be limited to a narrow set of actions, or perhaps Hashem is driving at something far deeper: A total, overall consciousness of Godliness, a sense of walking with the Divine word at all times. A Godly, Torah mindset that dictates everything we do, every aspect of our lives. That view holds that we shackle these exalted concepts by attaching strict, technical legalese to them, rather than demanding the tough spiritual work required to develop a God-like personality.

As a result, of this approach, I find myself listening to non-Orthodox rabbis and thinkers such as Ruth Calderon in ways that I haven’t in years.  As friends of mine (formerly of Efrat, now in Jerusalem)  have turned to a Conservative congregation, I find a vibrancy to their Judaism that is often lacking here in Efrat – much the way I found Orthdoxy so vibrant once upon a time, in contrast to the “dead” Reform services I remember as a kid.

In all, I suppose this all comes in under the heading of humility, a topic that forms a major subject in yeshiva study but that I now understand is impossible for a 25-year-old to understand .That’s a feeling and character trait that comes with age (and especially with having to parent teenagers!).

Thoughts and feedback welcome.

5 thoughts on “Some random thoughts on Orthodoxy

  1. Good write. I hear you. My version of being let down is the disappointing way that so many “frum” Jews have been treating me since my divorce (i.e. assuming the worst about me or treating me like I fell off the map). Nevertheless, I guess part of Torah is wrestling, like Yaakov did. Keep on writing.

  2. I will begin by quoting Beryl Wein – “Don’t mistake Jews for Judaism,” which I think gets to the crux of the problem. The abusive father (who incidentally was a Rabbi) was merely trying to rationalize – I would venture that any posek today would rule what he did Asur 100 different ways to Sunday (or Shabbat). His inability to follow halacha does NOT invalidate the system, it merely highlights the fact that we as human beings are fallible – it does not necessarily condemn the Halachic system as a whole.
    Also, just because people are picayune about seemingly insignificant things (as my daughter likes to joke OMG – OH MY G DASH D!) also does not mean that EVERYONE’s focus is off. I have friends who are very much into organics, but still smoke. Again, the contradictory aspects of individual lives and actions don’t necessarily point out inconsistencies or misemphasis on details of the halachic system.

  3. I would definitely agree with what Eric wrote.

    The problems of many orthodox Jews, and many orthodox Jewish communities are huge. I’m not really a fan of the term ‘orthodox Judaism’ to start with. I’ve never been a Lubavitcher, but it always impressed me when a Lubavitch friend would answer the question ‘what type of Jew are you?’ with ‘just a Jew’. It’s something I feel I should strive for.

    So people write ‘G-d’, are careful about tefillin, eat only certain foods and cheat on taxes. Does the wrong of cheating on taxes mean the other stuff is also wrong? That’s the danger of chillul hashem, that an ignorant person will say ‘if that’s Torah, I want no part of it’, but since you, as an educated person, know that that ISN’T Torah, you have no excuse for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    By all means let’s listen to Ruth Calderon or whoever takes your fancy, but bear in mind that bias exists on all sides, and the only true Torah insights are ones which actually hold together with a coherent understanding of the whole Torah. Very few modern people starting from scratch can reach the amazing breadth of pattern matching which has been achieved in the last 2000 years of Talmud scholarship all on their own. The idea of chiddush is highly valued in Torah study, but it can’t be confused with making up stuff out of whole cloth.

  4. I am reminded of many conversations years ago with religious Christians of a variety of stripes and denominations. When I would challenge them about the “peaceful” nature of Christianity – it’s tough to claim “religion of peace” in light of 1800 years of Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms, etc. – they often answered “they weren’t true Christians.”

    I disagreed: At some stage of the game, I argued that one would be forced to conclude that if the nature of Christianity itself was not violent, then at the very least there was some fundamental element of Christianity that led to extreme violence.

    (I note that Christianity, as a whole, has done much to revamp and re-define itself over the past 50-70 years. Whereas in 1700 few non-Christians would have argued that Christianity was a net force for good in the world, today it is clear to me that Christianity is a net force for good in the world. But I digress…)

    That’s the trouble with the point you make, Eric. Of course human beings are fallible. The goals of spirituality and Godliness necessarily stand in contrast to the reality of a physical world. That’s what makes people like [name your tzaddik, or saint] so impressive – their ability to tame the desires and passions of physicality for a higher purpose. We all struggle – some with food, some with passion, some with honesty in business, some with violence and anger.

    But when child abuse and community cover-ups are rampant in yeshiva communities around the world, when border authorities in many countries with sizeable Orthodox Jewish populations have learned to examine kips-wearing travellers, when everybody knows that New York slumlords are likely as not to be Orthodox Jews – at some stage we must ask honest, painful questions.

    I have no issue with an individual who prays daily, punctiliously observes the Sabbath and is prone to dishonesty of one type or another. I certainly struggle with my own demons, even as I strive to keep them under control, and when I fail I know this invalidates the many positives I do in my life, or the validity of the halachic system to which I try to adhere. And of course, I recognise the difference between “Jews” and “Judaism.”

    My struggle is not with the individual struggler. But I fear that our Orthodox society has created a focus on technical legalities as a substitute for honest spirituality and Godliness. In other words, I fear not that the Chassidic slumlords in New York feel no compunction about their horrible actions, but even more that they would attempt to use legitimate Torah-style logic and concepts to excuse them (ever hear of the discussion in yeshiva about whether or not it is permissible to steal from non-Jews? How about the some-or-another infraction passed off as “only derabbanan”?).

    Of course a posek (halachic decisor) would tell the abusive father that oral or anal sex on his daughter was forbidden. But what would that posek reply to the father? After all, he did take care not to cross the line into “karet-land”. I lose sleep at night over the thought of a posek telling the father that his actions were forbidden by rabbinic law, not by strict Sinai Torah law. In other words, the father could rightly claim to have stayed on the “right” side of the law, while at the same time having bastardised the Law and everything it represent.

    Kibi, your points are very valid. No, I do not propose throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I appreciate the fact that bias exists on all sides. I only feel that you have made the classic “yeshivish” mistake: Confusing Gemara/Halacha study for the entirety of Torah. I suppose that here I have another question: What if our focus on gemara and halachic minutae, to the exclusion of so many other aspects of Torah (poems like the Ha’azinu or the Song at the Sea, for instance) creates this imbalance in our communities? Is the yeshiva system flawed? Could a strong yeshiva focus on Tanach, aggada, midras, Jewish history and literature help address some of those fundamental flaws?

  5. Maybe challenging our own apathy and complacency has something to do with our age our concern for the next generation :-). Whatever it is I empathize with your observations. As a category/definition the term Orthodoxy coined not so long ago historically seems to have outlived its usefulness as evidenced by the many qualifiers given to it in our times; ultra, modern, open, centrist, chassidic etc. etc. Seems that few even students of Yeshivot can distinguish between, halakha deoriata/rabbanan, minhag and whats nahug. Finding observant Jews engaging in critical thinking is a rare breath of fresh air. Its clear from the most casual reading of the Shema that the Torah requires us to internalize its principles and that true keduaha is only found in carrying out the mitzvot. IMO the problems we face today stem from loosing sight of the basics, so much has been added by some to induce religious fervor on one hand instead of true ahavat Hashem or on the other hand so much focus has gone into the halakha that it has become an issue mere technicalities in the mindset of many rather than the ethical and moral excellence that is the result of the application of halakha to life.

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