The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 10

My father z”l identified as a non-religious Jew, à la the Israeli paradigm of religious identity (as does my mother), but this bears clarification.

Babushka z”l (my mother’s mother) described my parents as “religious,” which both would consider amusing. I spoke with my Babushka nearly every day for years, and she often voiced this. According to her, my wife and I were “quite kosher” (совсем кошерные), and my parents were simply religious (просто религиозные). Granted, her familiarity with Judaism was limited, still Babushka was the most intuitive woman I’ve ever known.

* * *

An anecdote:

After years of celebrating the Jewish holidays in America away from family, my parents and I flew to Israel for Pesach when I was yet in my teens. Our previous visits had been during summer vacations, but that year we made an intentional decision to share Passover with our family. One memory pierces through the fog: the shock when everyone began to eat without delving into the Hagaddah. Now, my parents and I certainly had no sense of obligation to read the Haggadah in its entirety (and we never did), but our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table. I recall my mother’s reflection later: “We’re never doing that again.”

* * *

For my father, intellectually curious as he was, Pesach was a pleasure. He enjoyed the text of the Hagaddah, and he took pleasure in riffing on it (…אני כבן שבעים שנה). Also, the seder is a private affair, his comfort zone. Thinking back, I recall my father challenging me to share my insights at our seder, but I was never inclined to be decoded and unriddled by him.

In any case, was he non-religious?

* * *

In Israel, there are popularly accepted categories of Jewish religious identity.  Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular). One may well submit that my father was Masorti.

A ~dozen years ago, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics officially split the “Masorti” category into two subcategories: “Traditional – Close to Religion” (מסורתי – קרוב לדת) and “Traditional – Not so Close to Religion” (מסורתי – לא כל כך קרוב לדת). The Bureau did not see fit to divide any of the other major demographic categories. Given the new subcategories, perhaps my father was “Close to Religion,” at least in spirit.


* * *

Upon first coming into contact with Orthodox Jews when I was eighteen, I was struck by their model of cohesive Jewish community. I was drawn to their warmth and to the traditions and institutions that united them.

Having never experienced a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism that inspired me, I eagerly absorbed the messages I received from rabbis, educators, and community members regarding Orthodox Judaism’s exclusive claim to Jewish authenticity. Even as my religious practices fluctuated throughout the years, I judged myself and everybody else by the theological and cultural norms of Orthodoxy.

By the time I came to Israel to study Torah more than ten years later, I had gained exposure to a wider range of compelling and empowering Jewish perspectives. Enamorment had faded, and many of Orthodoxy’s claims no longer rang true. Still, the traditional and unshakable commitment to Jewish religious life and peoplehood remained alluring; and I had picked up on hints of a freethinking, intellectual strain of Orthodoxy, which gave me hope.

I will forever admire my teachers in Jerusalem for their commitments to Torah and masorah on the one hand, and to reason and modernity on the other. For some years, learning at their feet, I thought I’d found a home in Orthodoxy; I thought I could belong.

But knowledge.

* * *

In his work The Jewish Religion: A Companion theologian Rabbi Louis Jacobs z”l (1920-2006) describes the popular understanding of ‘Orthodoxy’ as follows:

[at the beginning of the nineteenth century] the term [came to be] used… as a convenient shorthand for the attitude of complete loyalty to the Jewish past… faithfulness to the practices of Judaism, to the halakhah (Jewish law) in its traditional formulation.

The term once described a theological response to the Jewish Enlightenment and the Jewish Emancipation. Today, faithfulness to traditional halakhah no longer defines Orthodoxy, as explains cuttingly:

Rather than truly being a defining word… ‘orthodox’ has been an attempt by Jews to force people into a… reality in which they must adhere to certain culturally-defined strictures in order to be considered that word.

Thus, a person could keep Shabbat and kashrut, but also lie, steal, not pay back debts… and still be considered orthodox.

Or a person could start to have doubts about their beliefs, start to look in different areas for enlightenment, perhaps even stop keeping certain things, like Shabbat… and they are defined as ‘off the derech’

Why are defrauders and sex offenders still accepted as Orthodox?

* * *

What’s not ‘Orthodox’?

Partnership with Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues is stigmatized. Tacit validation of non-Orthodox Judaism’s authenticity tarnishes an Orthodox leader’s standing in Orthodox society.

This hearkens back to the theological disputes during the period of the Jewish Emancipation some two hundred years ago when the Jewish denominations (including Orthodoxy!) were born. Within Orthodoxy, there were different approaches. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch z”l (1808-1888) asserted that Orthodox Jews should secede from communities that maintained Reform institutions, while Rabbi Márkus Horovitz z”l (1844-1910) served with the conviction that differing religious approaches could coexist.

Today’s mainstream Orthodox view, expressed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks below, rejects pluralism. This is at odds with those who assert that any Judaism that doesn’t recognize the validity of non-Orthodox Judaism is itself invalid, as Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z”l expressed:

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, z”l
“Within Judaism… Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism are regularly portrayed as the four Jewish denominations. Those who think in these terms see such a description as just that: neutrally descriptive. But it contains a momentous hidden premise. It imports pluralism into Judaism… Orthodoxy… does not validate, in the modern sense, a plurality of denominations. Orthodox Judaism remains a modern-minded possibility – if it is open-minded regarding the possible validity of other, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as well. This line of thought, to be sure, produces the specter of an all-encompassing relativism. But however one may cope with that specter, the fear of it does not justify resort to a medieval-style authoritarianism that can no longer be honestly maintained.”
One People
p. 31
What is Judaism?
pp. 28-29


Opposition to granting any validation to the non-Orthodox streams manifests in religious edicts issued by Orthodox rabbis and rabbinic associations, aimed at setting their society apart from Reform and Conservative Judaism. Such edicts are couched in halakhic language, but are ultimately sociocultural.

For example, Rabbi Hershel Schacter, a prominent rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, declared the ordination of women to be a threat to the fabric of the Orthodox community. His YU colleague Rabbi Brander explained: “such an initiative, if institutionalized, challenges the… Orthodox community vis-à-vis the Conservative and Reform.” It’s not that halakha forbids women’s ordination. Rather it’s that Orthodox religious leaders don’t want to be perceived as Reform or Conservative.

Sex offenders may be Orthodox. Female rabbis may not. In a brilliant and scholarly article called The Novelty of Orthodoxy, Rabbi Natan Slifkin (I simply cannot recommend his article enough) provides the historic context and explanation for incongruities like this one (p.6):

It was not actually the case that Orthodoxy opposed all change… Rather, Orthodoxy’s overriding concern was to oppose changes that appeared to be changes; changes that came from without, rather than from within.

Female rabbis, you see, come from without. Criminals may come from within.

* * *

I had been pushing my doubts aside, dreaming of and hoping for an inspiring, modern-minded Orthodoxy. I had found an ugly, modern political battle over a hollow identity construct. The walls (whose foundations had been set in college) crumbled; I stopped caring about Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy.

A yearning for belonging remains; it would be easier, of course. It would be less lonely. (Just leave your conscience at the door.)

I am not Orthodox. I am not Reform. I am not Conservative. I am Jewish and done with sociopolitical nonsense. I am “Traditional – Close to Religion,” and I am motivated by love of my People and my heritage. My Jewish identity is my own, just as my father’s Jewish identity belonged to nobody but himself.

5 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 10”

  1. The categories of Jews are a fascinating exercise. I read the 2020 Pew Report on Jewish Americans that came out in May (and considered a blog post about it, but I couldn’t get around to it in timely fashion). The classifications were interesting to me. Jew of No Religion vs. Jew By Religion.

    That Rabbi Naftali Slifkin quote is amazing. So well said and very spot-on, I think.

  2. This was fascinating. In so many ways – just change the names – you could be writing about Christianity. I suspect it’s the same within all religions – too much legalism; not enough love.

    1. *sigh* – I don’t feel qualified to write about any religion other than my own because it’s the only one that I’ve explored in any depth, Linda… but, that said, I would assume that you’re right – when the institutions become the new gods and are primarily invested in holding on to their power over human beings… well, that doesn’t lead anywhere good.


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