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.