Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew

When our Yiddishkeit is called into question, what can we say to the questioner? I attempt to answer that question.

(This is a modified version of a post I made to a discussion board for Jews by choice today. I want to share it here, and maybe start some discussion. A friend of mine read it and said that it qualifies as a drash. I hope that that’s correct – that’s one of the things that draws me to Judaism in the first place, the ability to interpret and argue about texts.)

I’ve been the kind of person who does not like inconveniencing anyone. Ever. For any reason. I always try to find out the rules so I can follow them and not make anyone angry or inconvenienced by not following them. My mother is a narcissistic personality, which is probably part of the reason why I have these hangups. This means that I’m one of those people (as a result of my childhood experiences) who has been very afraid of having people disagree with him or tell him that he’s wrong, because that means I’m inconveniencing them.

So when I read about other converts being confronted by people who are also Jewish and being told that they’re not really Jewish because they’re not Orthodox (or because they don’t keep kosher, or because they are Reform but wearing a kippah 24/7, or because they are interfaith-married or the children of an interfaith marriage, or because they are gay), I feel both angry and threatened. Angry, because how dare they tell me (or any convert) that we’re not Jewish? Threatened, because it feels like they wouldn’t be reacting this way if I wasn’t inconveniencing them.

Ah. Hello, old landmines from my childhood. How nice to see you again! Pull up a chair. Have a scone. Make yourselves at home. I’ll just try to ignore that ticking sound you’re making.

On a board for converts, a new member expressed the opinion that everyone on that board was engaging in lashon hara by saying that the Orthodox were unwelcoming or unfriendly towards non-Orthodox converts. This is my response.

I’m still moving toward my own Reform conversion, and in the process I’ve spoken to several friends who are either Orthodox by birth or converted from other movements to Orthodox for various reasons. None of them has pressured me to convert Orthodox, or made me feel like I’d be “less than” by converting Reform. I have, however, seen numerous articles around the web on Orthodox sites, and many comments on boards like this one, that use the word “observant” as a synonym for “Orthodox.” That does offend me. To me, that is lashon hara. I’ve also read a number of blogs by Reform and Conservative gerim who are more “observant” than many of the JBB people in their shuls and yet would not be recognized as such by many of the leaders of the Orthodox movement. 

My main issues with the Orthodox movement (and I speak here mainly of the haredi leaders who are in charge in Israel) are that they will not recognize my conversion as valid unless it’s done “their way,” and they will not recognize me as a Jew if I wish to make aliyah to Israel. 

If G-d is not willing to allow change and development over time, then he is not the G-d that I have been learning about in my own conversion studies. More to the point, rabbinical argument creates that development, which (as I understand it) is exactly what Adonai intended when he gave us the Torah at Sinai. He set the ball rolling, but it is now our responsibility to keep it going. 

I remember reading a parable recently during my studies about Rabbi Eliezer, who was arguing for a particular point of religious law, when the rest of the council he was arguing with was opposed. He asked G-d for several miracles to prove that he was right, and all of them occurred. Finally, Eliezer called on G-d to support his judgment, and G-d spoke from the heavens, saying that Eliezer was right. The leader of the council then, incredibly, rebuked G-d, saying “The Torah is not in Heaven!”

It is said that G-d then chuckled and said something along the lines of “my children have defeated me!” – which was exactly G-d’s intent for us, that we be able to figure things out on our own, through argument and eventually consensus, not through blind following of the rules he originally set down for us. 

So I would put forward that my main discomfort with the Orthodox movement is that they seem so unwilling to move forward and so willing to cling to rules that may have had some purpose when G-d first gave us the Torah, but which, today, do not let people live. Rules like pekuach nefesh, for example, exist to allow people to live. (I cannot eat any of the five grains without severe and painful physical reactions, so I cannot eat challah or matzah, for example. Those are mitzvot that are permanently impossible for me. Will G-d turn me away because I cannot perform them?) 

And this rigidity that I see is in direct violation of the principles set down by another rabbi, whose name escapes me at the moment. His students decided to trick him into an impossible position by posing this question to him: if keeping the mitzvot can be envisioned as a ladder of 613 rungs, isn’t the man who keeps more of them higher on the ladder and thus more righteous than the man who keeps fewer of them? After consideration, the rabbi said “I cannot answer your question. You have not told me which of the men is moving upward.” 

In my experience, through my searching and discussion, the haredi branch of Orthodoxy seems to equate “observant” with “higher up on the ladder,” just as that rabbi’s students did. That, to me, is missing the point. G-d does not require perfection. He just requires our best effort, and he understands when some mitzvot cannot be performed while allowing us to live.



Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

3 responses to “Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew

  1. I’m pursuing an Orthodox conversion because I don’t want to get bound up in arguments about what is “halakhically valid,” but I still agree with your sentiments here, 100%.

    In one of my books (I think it is Cooper’s God Is a Verb), there is a story that equates the mitzvot to precious stones embedded in a road. Some of them are easy to pick up right now, others are impossible, but might become easier to lift later.

    B’hatzlacha l’cha.


    • And for me, I choose to approach it from the other direction. I feel that I am Jewish, and I’m not able to be Orthodox for a number of reasons. That doesn’t make me any less Jewish. As I told a friend, if the pogroms ever come again I’ll be up against the wall or in the camp just like every other Jew on the planet.


  2. Pingback: My Issues With Orthodoxy: A Response to Rafi Mollot | Wrestling With God

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