Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

72 thoughts on “Keyboard Judaism”

  1. I am really the very last one entitled to express a comment here… and I an very uncertain with the thoughts and words to wrap my feelings. Nevertheless I will try to share them. My experience with G-d taught me that it is only through his presence within us that we give meaning to whatever we experience and we choose… There is no external or objective meaning outside ourselves. We fill everything with meaning and if G-d is within us then we pour G-d in everything. 🙌🙌🙌

    1. Why would you be the last one entitled to comment? That could only be true if I thought that any one person or any one group of people had a monopoly on Truth.

      I very much appreciate your feedback!

  2. The idea that non Orthodoxy lacks Jewish substance is simply a cliche. The response should be to add the substance where it may be lacking. But the charge is not true. Go to your local Reform Synagogues in Jerusalem, like Kol HaNeshema, listen to Rabbi Weiman-Kalman; or sing with my choir at Harvard Sinai in Pennington, NJ., and you will find Jewish content. Or dance with 1000 Jews at Havdalah at an IMPJ biennial. Or attend a service at Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Geer in Israel, as am now doing. It is an easy charge but not a true one.

    1. Peter, I’m sure you know that I mean no insult, and the reality actually pains me, no less than the many faults of Orthodoxy pain me.

      That said, I draw a distinction between content and substance (and/or knowledge). Knowing a lot of Jewish songs falls under the category of ‘content’, rather than ‘substance’, as far as I am concerned.

      Let me ask 2 basic questions of you:

      1) What percentage of non-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel have read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety (even in translation)?

      2) What percentage of non-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel enroll their children in private Jewish schools, rather than public schools?

      I ask these questions as somebody who grew up attending public school in the USA and an afternoon Hebrew School program in the afternoons. I ask as somebody who was among the most motivated attendees at such a program but came out knowing next to nothing about Judaism, compared to what I learned in my few years at the Pardes Institute. My questions and opinions are also based upon sundry conversations with individuals of my generation and younger who grew up in the heterodox movements. I don’t make such comments lightly.

  3. I do not buy your questions, David. Much as I love you.

    1. The Pentateuch is only one source of Jewish knowledge. What if you have read parts of the books but also Soloveitchik and Maimonides, or attend services, or participate in synagogue events. Or Study Hebrew.

    2. I am a firm believer in public schools. Period.

    1. Peter, we will have to agree to disagree.

      Regarding #1, the Pentateuch is the root of ALL Jewish texts and philosophies that have followed, including those that may disagree with or take issue with parts of it.

      Regarding #2, I’m not saying that I have a problem with public schools. I am simply saying, 100% objectively, that a child who attends public school lacks the Jewish education that an attendee at a Jewish day school would receive, which includes language, history, text, tradition, etc… That’s not subjective.

      I am not saying that all of the things you listed are insignificant or meaningless. I am saying that the majority of heterodox Jews have not read Soloveitchik and Maimonides, nor studied Hebrew. People like you, my friend, from my perspective, are the exception, rather than the rule.

      In any case, much love to you too, and I’m happy to continue the conversation!

  4. Very interesting, all. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, we can agree to disagree. A couple of observations. First, the Pentateuch contains much, like Aaron’s breastplates, that no one needs to know. I think we all need to know what is in there, but reading all of it through, as my friend David suggested, is not a prerequisite to serious Judaism.
    Second,thanks for the compliment, but there are many Reform Jews like me. It is a myth that the whole of us are Jewishly unlettered or indifferent to Israel.Third, it will be a sad day when Reform Jews leave the mainstream of public education to study in sectarian schools in the U.S. Public schools like Erasmus in NY were the glory of Jewish entry into American life. More importantly, Jewish support for and participation in public education has been vital to sustaining it in our country. The last thing the U.S. needs now is another group withdrawing into itself. Shavua Tov.

    1. Peter,

      Thanks for continuing the conversation – I think this exchange could be very fruitful, at least for me.

      First, I’d like to nip one idea in the bud before continuing with my response: I did not write, do not believe, and would never suggest that Reform Jews (or any particular religious Jewish community) is indifferent to Israel, unless that community explicitly claims so itself (like this one: https://www.jta.org/2019/06/05/united-states/this-chicago-synagogue-is-a-home-for-non-zionist-jews).

      Second, this exchange is making me wonder whether or not there is a generational shift in levels of education among non-Orthodox Jews, which could certainly be a possibility that would account for your own high and self-acquired level of knowledge.

      Having written those two things, I would like to break my response down:

      A. Regarding the Pentateuch.

      I picked this example (not making mention of the Mishnah or the Talmud, etc.), for it is the most foundational Jewish text. To my mind, studying Judaism without knowing its foundational texts is akin to practicing U.S. law without knowing the U.S. Constitution. Also, in this exchange, I deliberately allowed for reading this text in translation, given that most non-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel do not speak or read Hebrew, the primary language in which the foundational Jewish texts were written.

      B. Regarding public school.

      As a product of the U.S. public school system myself, I have no issue with public schools, nor was I trying to suggest that. The point I am making is simple: Jewish children who attend private Jewish day schools are more Jewishly learned than Jewish children who attend public schools. Again, this is simply objective. Therefore, to my mind, the non-Orthodox families and communities that opt to send their children to public schools (which comprise the great majority of non-Orthodox families and communities) need to come up with some sort of alternative so that those public school children (like me) can also be educated in Jewish traditions, language, texts, etc.

      C. Regarding the underlying basis for my thoughts on these matters.

      I attended a Conservative Hebrew school (afterschool program) throughout my childhood, all the way up until college – and I did so by choice. I was a highly active member of a Jewish fraternity in college, with fraternity brothers who represented every denomination of Judaism. I taught at two Hebrew schools in two different states (OH & NJ) for a total of four years to 3rd, 4th, and 7th graders. I was an active member of a non-denominational community of young adults in Washington, DC. I also studied at the Pardes Institute for half a decade with many other Jews my age (and younger).

      In all of these settings, I had many conversations regarding my own and other young Jews’ attitudes towards Judaism, our relative levels of Jewish knowledge and education, and our degrees of commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people… my opinions are based upon these experiences of mine, and this is why I am wondering if, perhaps, there has been a shift in Jews’ knowledge of Judaism between your generation and my own.

      D. Regarding criticisms of and concerns regarding non-Orthodoxy:

      I can, as I have said, express my deep concerns about Orthodox Judaism’s flaws. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism, I believe, is still grounded in the fears of assimilation and anti-Semitism, which results in its withdrawal from all other communities (Jewish and non-Jewish). Also, various forms of xenophobia are inculcated in too many (probably most) Orthodox children to keep them away from “others”. Beyond this, the extended, mainstream Orthodox community accepts sexism, homophobia, and racism as being within the pale. These are only some of the more glaring reasons why I cannot consider myself Orthodox.

      I write this, wondering what your top criticisms of non-Orthodox Judaism might be (given that you are a passionate, committed, knowledgeable, and active Reform Jew). For me, as I have written, the lack of substantive Jewish literacy, knowledge and education are at the very top of my list of concerns regarding non-Orthodoxy. How about you?

    1. Seems like an unJewish comment. A nonsequitur instead of a discussion. And right after the High Holy Days, too.

      1. It was meant and taken in a positive way. Just because it went over your head doesn’t mean you should lash out at a stranger on the internet.
        Or boil everything down to Jewish= things I like, unJewish= things that make me feel threatened. That’s silly and reactionary.

  5. Dear David,

    I will try to be brief. .

    .A. Re the Pentateuch, I have practiced constitutional law and applied it as a judge. I cannot say I have read every word of the Constitution. So with the Pentateuch. For both I need to know what it is about, with a focus on certain provisions. I need to know its history and how it is interpreted. I need to knowcthecprophets and other developments of the themes in it. But read through every word?

    B. You need to address what is lost if liberal Jews absent themselves from public school. The losses will be considerable.both to us Jews and to the general public.if we quit this part of the public sphere..

    C. I disliked Hebrew school as much as anyone, except for my first year with a really good teacher, and in tenth grade, when I learned some history of the Reform Movement. My sense is that teaching is better now. Also, we have Birthright and much more contact with Israel and it seems to me, more summer camp activiity. Plus, more of an effort to get young people to take roles services, unheard of in my day. Problem not solved, I agree, but all is not lost, either.

    D. My own personal experience and belief system do not support Orthodoxy. So I have no real choice in that matter. As to other Reform Jews, yours is not the right question. Reform Jews are not a monolith, any more than are secular or religious Israelis. We include active Temple members and officers, attendees at study sessions, social justice sdvocates, and religious school teachers, attendees at services. We have men’s club members who build sukkahs and sisterhoods who hold shabbat retreats. There are also many involved in the URJ and the World Union who support Jews in every nation on earth. There is no single question that applies to all. The essence of Reform I am suggesting, is not Judaism lite.

    That’s it for now, must attend the latest seminar run by Uri.

    Regards, Peter

      1. Actually Rabbi Bar Chaim is pretty interesting. Boy, did I ever goof. In Animallizard’s honor, I am going to have chicken sausage with cheese tonight.

  6. Further to David’s comments on Hebrew. I think non-Orthodox Jews in Israel obviously have very little trouble with Hebrew. That one reason it is so important for Reform and Conservatism to continue to grow in Israel. For the rest of us, I think we need enough Hebrew to get some sense of the original. Like at least d=getting the diction, and the terse character of the original.. Like Bereshit Ch. 1, the repetition in the Akeda, and Psalm 23, which literally reads Lord shepherd, not want.
    Some of the translations in our ;prayer book are not even close. The second verse of Maoz Tzur is translated as Children of the martyr race, when it actually reads children of the Maccabees, quite a different concept. Shabbat shalom and hag sameach sukkot

  7. I loved reading this…. beautifully thoughtful writing. I most related to this part: “On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre.” Yes! What a great way of putting it. But it’s kind of purifying. At least I feel that way, in the Now. Much love to you on the journey. 🙌🙏💛🌷

  8. I’ve always wished for the certainty you mention, and I’ve wished I’d been born a man, so that I could be part of the frum community in full. But, I must accept myself, a woman, and a dreamer, I guess. Not wanting to be skeptical, but having no choice.

    1. heck, I’m a man, and that doesn’t help me find certainty or feel more a part of the frum community. so much of what I hear coming from the mouths of rabbis and other representatives of the extended frum community is uncomfortable (at the very least) for me… and, sure, I can show up in shul and be counted… but I can’t comfortably express my perspective on God in an Orthodox shul and expect to be accepted fully as I am.

    1. A) being a gentile doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me at all, and B) any gentile could go through a conversion to become a Jew.

      Do you really consider it an “added” challenge?

      1. I thought about converting because truly I do believe in the Jewish message. To be true to myself and to who I am through, my journey as being a gentile, I couldn’t honestly become a Jew. I believe Jesus is Messiah. Because I believe in this Jew I have learned to love the Jewish because the message of Jesus is the same. I believe in the Jewish Jesus not the Gentile one.

        1. Are you familiar with Messianic Judaism? (it’s not accepted by most Jews as a legitimate version of Judaism)

          I have a friend who was born Jewish (Messianic Jews are not all born Jewish by any stretch of the imagination), and she found herself in this religion and ended up marrying a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

        2. Thank you Ben, you’re sweet. Yes I’ve tried and they mean well, but I still find the message too “Christian.” I like Orthodox Judaism because the truth is also in keeping many things that Christianity has not accepted as being God, such as Sabbath, kosher, holy days. They are too liberal. I still visit the Orthodox synagogue. They accept me as a Gentile 😊 I find our relationship s like a man and a woman, we butt heads, but the Gentle has something to say too. The amazing thing today is that we are becoming one. As you are even proof of that. We can share our different sides together in love and respect and that is all that really matters.

        3. wow; that is really quite interesting! that puts you in a very unique place, religiously speaking.

          have you had any interactions with Noahides?

        4. Yes, but not as much. Again, I feel to be more Jewish and give more than just 7 laws. The Sabbath is very important for many reasons, but if we all respected Sabbath then it would unite us all. Along with understanding holy days is the prophetic understanding they reveal doing them.

        5. fair enough!

          BTW, this isn’t my view, but – mainstream Orthodox Jewish doctrine holds that gentiles aren’t supposed to observe Shabbat. In fact, people who are converting to Judaism through an Orthodox process will deliberately flip a light switch every Shabbat to make sure that they don’t fully observe it until they’ve undergone the conversion to Judaism.

          Just an interesting tidbit for you 😀

        6. Yes, ty. I was aware. It is gentle that it isn’t an expectation in Judaism. As a Gentile I believe we should want it though since it is God’s holy day and humanities day of rest that units us as one.

  9. Even within a recognized religious tradition, we must each craft our own relationship w/ God. It sounds as if you have been doing that. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29: 13).

    1. It’s funny – that’s similar to what one of my rabbis said to me – that for somebody who’s a skeptic, I spend a lot more time worrying about God’s existence and my relationship with Him than most people do.

  10. Only you can answer this question for yourself, David. Your father Aleve v’Shalom was of my generation, the generation of Jewish Renaissance, which mostly meant trying to find out as much as possible about Jewish culture, rather than religion, and being proud of one’s Jewishness, rather than embarassed of the infamous “fifth line.”
    I consider myself fortunate in that I am this rarity: a post-Stalin-generation girl (I was two years old when Stalin died, may his name be erased from memory forever) brought up in a Shomer Shabbos, kosher home. I grew up with a concept of G-d explained by my granmother in my early childhood, and I was again fortunate later to spend two years with my great-grandfather, Reb Avrohom Chaim, the Tzaddik of Zhitomir.
    Before the lockdown, we always welcomed Baalei Tshuvos to our Shabbosim, Yomim Tovim, and weekly shiurim, and it never mattered to my husband and myself who observed what or who raised questions about the existence or substance of the A-mighty. As long as you come with an open heart (even if the mind is not ready yet), there is always “a gleizele wine” and a frank discussion.
    I wish you the very best in your search,
    Dolly

    1. That is very interesting, Dolly! Where were you raised?

      trying to find out as much as possible about Jewish culture, rather than religion, and being proud of one’s Jewishness, rather than embarassed of the infamous “fifth line.”

      My father was almost entirely ignorant about Judaism as a child, and he was very cosmopolitan – he had many non-Jewish friends and was bright enough to be successful despite the quotas in the USSR. It was only in his mid-twenties that he started becoming curious to know something about his Jewish’ness… and that led him to study Hebrew underground and eventually to make Aliyah in ’74.

      As you say, he wasn’t embarrassed… but he did know that being Jewish carried certain negative connotations.

      Yours,
      David

      1. It’s funny – I just asked you the same question. I am from Odessa, and Odessa has traditionally been very cosmopolitan. Considering that I worked for TV and newspaper, I obviously had many non-Jewish friends. In 1974 I was still stting in “otkaz,” and it was not until 1978 that I was expelled as “the enemy of the people.”
        We also had an underground ulpan on the wild beach, but that was secular learning of modern Hebrew, rather than Torah learning.
        Be well,
        Dolly (Devorah Yentl)

        1. Neither of my parents were ever “refused” – they both left in ’74 for Israel. (but my father was harassed by the KGB and had to leave the USSR without any of his belongings)

          Yours,
          David

        2. Yes, I was also questioned by the KGB for several months and then, when stories about me appeared in a couple of Western papers, I was expelled, and of course, also without amy belongings, with a six-year-old in one hand and a visa that bore a KGB, rather than the OVIR stamp in the other. I still have that visa; the stamp reads “Leave the borders within 10 days.”
          Mind you, I was no “heroic refusenik,” just a courier who delivered names.
          Be well,
          Dolly

        3. Dolly,

          In this blog post, I wrote this detail of my father’s story:

          In 1974, my father was detained by the Soviet militsia for protesting for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. He was no refusenik leader, but his friends had called him (on the day of!) to join them at a protest near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop in Moscow, and he had agreed to come. Minister of Internal Affairs Shchelokov interrogated my father, and my father felt the Minister’s cold gaze boring through him – focused somewhere upon on the back of his skull. This was the first and only protest my father attended in the USSR; he was one of the lucky few to receive an exit visa and moved to Israel shortly afterwards.

        4. Thank you for the link, David. I just left a rather long comment there.
          Wow! your father was interrogated by Shchelokov – what a distinction! I only had a lowly KGB colonel interrogating me, but it lasted a few months.
          Ah, the old synagogue by Mayakovskaya Metro where I would meet with the next person in information transfer relay…
          I did not participate in any protests, other than the two memorial services at Babi Yar where half of my family had perished. We were all under 18, i.e. not responsible under the Criminal Code (organized by adults, of course, who had connections with Western press). The boys said Kaddish, and we girls carried candles. Those were the first two times I got arrested, but they only held us overnight and kicked us out early in the morning.

        5. Reading a bit about your experiences makes me feel more connected to those times and places, Dolly, which are a part of my own history. Thank you.

          -David

        6. I am fascinated by the fact that you seem to want to get connected. My son, who was six when we left, has chosen to block it out, until suddenly he had to go to Russia on business in the 2000’s. and encountered a visa issue: we lft from Ukraine, but he had to go to Russia, The Russian government required proof that he was not a Ukrainian citizen, even though he has been a US citizen for years already. Lo and behold, my visa, in which he had been included as a minor, served as proof of having lost Ukrainian citizenship.
          I think he had suffered an emotional trauma when the KGB came in the middle of the night to search our apartment; together with all the pillows they cut open his beloved stuffed monkey. Don’t worry about the monkey; my grandmother stitched his belly and put pants on him to cover the scar. Now he graces my granddaughter’s bed.
          Incidentally, the last chapter of ny novel takes place at that old Moscow synagogue on Simhat Torah.
          Be well,
          D

        7. I think… I just have no scars of my own from the USSR.

          And… well… knowing more about it makes me feel that I know more about my family – my parents, my grandparents, etc….

          I wouldn’t say that my parents avoided talking about the USSR, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how special it was to get out of the USSR in ’74… somehow I never thought to ask why all of my father’s and mother’s extended families moved to the USA and Israel (respectively) in the late eighties and early nineties, after they had been entirely absent from our lives before.

          Also… I think that speaking Russian makes me feel that I’m connected to something that is beyond my own life experience, which fascinates me.

        8. I don’t write, but I can read (although I have to sound out longer words)… but I don’t read for pleasure in Russian – rather, it’s a welcome exercise for me.

        9. Well, my Mom tried – I had an Azbuka at home.

          But as a kid, I wasn’t very interested in reading in Russian – my English skills eclipsed my Russian skills at a young age so I had almost no motivation.

          As an adult, especially after I returned to Israel to live and worked for JAFI at a summer camp in St. Petersburg (which is how I met my wife), I became much more invested in speaking Russian correctly and reading more fluently.

        10. Which language was spoken at home during your childhood, David? You see, my husband’s family also left in 1974 (we got married here). He had finished 3rd grade there, but he also doesn’t write and reads with difficulty.
          You were immersed in the language in that summer camp, and the natural language acquisition process took over, I think.

        11. we spoke Russian at home, but I only spoke it with my parents and grandparents for the most part.

          but my Russian was full of errors because the longer we lived in the USA, the more our Russian at home became a form of Runglish.

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