Some cultural aspects of Orthodox Judaism require a lot of explanation, which makes them challenging to write about with accuracy and general appeal both. Also, I am no authority on this subject and am sure to miss some pertinent points in any explanation that I offer.

Nevertheless, I want to try, to the best of my ability, to describe some of the historic developments behind a particular facet of Orthodox Judaism: the tendency of the vast majority of today’s Orthodox rabbis to make religiously conservative rulings on matters of halakhah (Jewish law). These include:

I also want to touch upon a related subject that is very personal to me: the minority of modern day Orthodox halakhic authorities who tend to make religiously liberal rulings.

I will attempt to paint this composition in broad strokes, but even so I will have to cover much more canvas that I prefer.

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

Let’s set the stage somewhat for the Jewishly uninitiated.

Jewish Orthodoxy operates under a few fundamental premises. First and foremost, there exists a single omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. This God personally gave the Torah to the Jewish people some three thousand years ago, which is ostensibly the basis for all Jewish religious laws that developed throughout the subsequent centuries.

Secondly, according to mainstream doctrine, the Torah given by God was not limited to merely the Pentateuch, which is traditionally known as the ‘Written Torah’. God’s Torah also includes what is popularly called the ‘Oral Torah’, which was intended to never be written down – a tradition to be passed down orally from generation to generation. The ‘Oral Torah’ is considered to be as authoritative as the ‘Written Torah’.

As human history had it, the ‘Oral Torah’ ceased being oral when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judea, ~135 to ~217 CE) compiled and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah some time around 200 CE. This was done to preserve the ‘Oral Torah’ in the face of persecution at Roman hands. The rabbis feared that the oral traditions from the 2nd Temple period would be lost, and so the Mishnah thus became the authoritative source for all developments in ‘Oral Torah’. Following this, the next major, authoritative written work of ‘Oral Torah’ became the Babylonian Talmud, written and compiled in exile at around 500 CE.

The Talmud, which expounded upon the Mishnah, became the primary religious text upon which further works of Halakhah (Jewish law) were anchored, and it remains so to this day. Certain Halakhic codes of the medieval period are widely held as particularly authoritative to this day, but these differ among different Orthodox Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite).

It’s important to understand that while nobody denies that the Mishnah and the Talmud were written by humans, Orthodox doctrine maintains that these are part of an unbroken chain of transmission (from teacher to student) of the Divine ‘Oral Torah’, which is intended as an interpretive tradition. Accordingly, God’s Torah contains many levels of interpretation, and later generations of Torah scholars have been left to discover those that have not yet been revealed.

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

There exist real distinctions between the way most modern day Orthodox rabbis tend to make halakhic rulings versus how this was done for many centuries. Why?

It’s important to understand that before the Jewish Emancipation, during the Age of Enlightenment, the non-Orthodox movements (precursors to today’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.) did not exist. Nor did Orthodox Judaism exist, as the precursors to both ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were also born during that era. These distinct approaches to Judaism all came about as modern religious responses to the European Jews’ historic abandonment of their ghettos and integration into 18th and 19th century gentile society.

The Emancipation and the resulting births of these Jewish religious denominations had at least two major ramifications upon rabbis’ religious approaches.

Firstly, Jews were no longer living in insular Jewish communities under local religious leaders. Following the Emancipation, rabbis could only exert religious authority over those who accepted it from them. Previous to that period, one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion. Afterwards, identifying as a Jew became a matter of choice, with assimilation offering the Jews great social and economic benefits. Rabbis had to become convincing or become irrelevant.

Secondly, the newly born heterodox and Orthodox denominations locked horns in endless religious and political battles for the future of Judaism’s soul, thereby shaping their respective positions and practices. Heterodox Jews deliberately wanted to be identified primarily as Europeans (‘not Orthodox’) in order to integrate into gentile Europe while maintaining elements of their Jewish identities.

Inversely, Orthodox communities were deliberate in rejecting “illegitimate” heterodox religious practices, which they considered outside the traditional framework of ‘Oral Torah’. Neither group wanted to validate the other, and therefore, at least in part, each came to be defined by its rejection of the other.

Both of these factors hold true today, but further, more recent historic changes transpired that also deeply influenced the dynamics behind modern rabbinic rulemaking, as well as the relationships between rabbis and the Jewish laity.

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

For the purposes of this particular post, I want to make one very particular point about the implications of the decimation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis: that murder of six million Jews was no less than the complete destruction of the vast majority of Orthodox communities in Europe, along with their respective religious traditions.

Thus, for example, whereas the laity of Europe’s Litvishe (non-Hasidic Orthodox) Jewish communities once maintained their kosher kitchens without having to consult their rabbis over every little nuance, those ageless family traditions that had been passed down from mothers to their daughters through the many generations, were erased. Beyond this, the vast majority of religiously literate European Jews (who could navigate the Talmud and the Mishnah) were forever lost to us.

In short, after the Holocaust came to its gruesome end, Jews who wished to live according to Halakhah were almost entirely reliant upon rabbis for religious rulings pertaining to their daily lives, as their families’ traditions had been murdered, along with their parents, grandparents, and most of learned European Jewry.

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

Historically speaking, halakhic rulings were made locally. These included rulings on Jewish conversions (a particularly touchy political subject today), but they essentially covered all areas of Jewish communal, family and personal life.

For centuries, local rabbis issued religious rulings according to the realities and needs of their respective communities and of the individuals who came to them for religious guidance. Their rulings would account for the nuances of situations that went beyond the prescriptions of popularly accepted halakhic codes, sometimes even ruling against the codes’ instructions; but the local decisor’s’ wisdom, learning, and authority was accepted, respected, and implemented by his community.

Certainly, rabbis of different communities had disputes about their respective religious rulings and communities’ ways of practice; and many such disagreements were recorded and preserved in pieces of correspondence between scholars. Nevertheless, nobody would have thought to say that one rabbi’s rulings were illegitimate – every single rabbi was considered a link in the chain of Jewish interpretive oral tradition.

Then came the Jewish Emancipation, as mentioned, and that historic paradigm shift began to unfold. Given the newfound mobility of European Jewry, its members could select the rabbis and communities that most suited their personal preferences, and Orthodox rabbis found themselves judged, in part, by their stances towards non-Orthodox Judaism and gentile society.

Hardline religious stances in the Orthodox Jewish community came to carry an air of ‘authenticity’, which later gained further traction after the devastation of the Holocaust when those wishing to abide by Halakhah were left reliant upon religious leaders intent upon rebuilding a traditional, Torah-based Jewish society.

Broadly speaking, Orthodox rabbinic leaders gradually succeeded at refounding Orthodoxy following the Holocaust, and, in a lot of ways, it came to thrive as a counterculture in the increasingly permissive West. However, rabbis continued to be judged by the laity and by other rabbis on the basis of their ‘commitments’ to ‘authentic’ Torah (juxtaposed with modernity, secularism, and non-Orthodoxy), and much of the shell-shocked post-war Orthodox community was distrustful of non-Jewish cultural influences.

Then, some decades later, with the advent and eventual global adoption of the Internet, nearly limitless information became instantly available to everybody. This included news of rabbinical rulings, the majority of which had been becoming increasingly monolithic in the decades following the Holocaust. Most Orthodox rabbis that wanted to keep their jobs had to toe the majority’s line, else the global Orthodox community would learn of their ‘heresies’ (I invoke this word with irony), and they would face immediate backlash.

* * *

Too long; not long enough

This post is both too long and not long enough, but I did my best, given the medium, to fill in large sections of the picture. In truth, there are many more factors that I haven’t touched upon, such as:

  • The power dynamic at play between the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and Orthodoxy in the diaspora…
  • The politics at play between rabbinical associations representing the various religious denominations…
  • The implications of traditional Jewish texts becoming available, often with accessible translations, via the Internet…

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

I used to peripherally occupy and aspire to a particular Jewish space, which was that of modern-minded, intellectually honest Orthodoxy. My community was committed to religious observance, traditional Jewish text study, open channels of communications with those who held differing views, and the modern sensibilities of civil rights and human dignity.

Broadly speaking, we were, as a group, turned off to the kneejerk restrictive religious rulings representative of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis. This became increasingly true as we poured through Halakhic texts together, learning that lenient positions existed within Jewish tradition, and realizing that many mainstream Orthodox religious rulings and social norms are not required by Jewish law.

Unfortunately for me, as I developed close relationships with some intellectual, religiously lenient rabbis, I found that a good number of them were also prone to issuing kneejerk religious rulings, which were flexible, rather than restrictive.

I came to understand that intellectual religious leaders could justify nearly any interpretation of Torah, meaning that they were ultimately playing with traditional Jewish texts to provide religious bases for their personal sensibilities. For these Orthodox rabbis who sincerely consider themselves links in the chain of interpretative Jewish oral tradition, their rulings are as legitimate as those of any other intellectual, knowledgeable Torah scholar… I am not doubting their intentions or commitments to God and the Jewish people, but I have come to profoundly doubt the Divine essence, root, and purpose of the system that all of these rabbis are committed to.

If Torah can be nearly anything, then what is Torah? And – if Torah reflects the restrictive majority’s views, then what is Torah to me?

37 thoughts on “Disillusionment”

  1. My dearest ben Alexander, as you can see, I have taken the author’s advice and managed to navigate my way to where I now find myself. Being a little addle-payed of late, I am not as astute as usual and, to be honest, reading isn’t my forté (unless it is a textbook… and I can manage to battle through what I have to in them because they are purely factual and, at the time, a necessity to gain earthly knowledge).

    I admit to not having made it very far and I hope you will forgive me. But I hope you appreciate that your words are almost identical to those of my adult son who has recently been trying to educate his poor, old, dear, grey-haired Mum of the exact same things. And, in all honesty, such a fact made me laugh and made it crystal clear that there is a reason why I braved trying to express myself in a public forum and learn to deal with criticism and failure, I began with the piece that I published in short time, and the reason for the first person to read and appreciate it is because there is something profound that we can offer each other.

    I love your cover photograph. It automatically made me think how my late father would have massive “camera envy” – marvelling at all the advancements made since the late 1930s when he managed to bluff his way into the Royal Australian Air Force as a photographer after WWII broke out. And his parents fled Poland and Latvia because of what was leading up to WWI.

    I am keenly interested in corresponding with you in greater detail than what would be reasonable in this forum, for one reason or another. I don’t know if I can proclaim to have maternal instinct and female intuition but, having seen the minimal pieces of your blog, I know I don’t have to read further (at this moment) to know that we may hold a missing piece of one of each other’s puzzles.

    I haven’t figured out how to use private contact in here, yet… mainly because I haven’t felt the need to know, until now. But please feel free to contact me set the wheels in motion with this Jewish-Agnostic-Athiest (depending on prevailing circumstances… and what mood I’m in 😉) ❤️ xxxoooxxx ❤️

    1. The cover photo is of my Dad () on a trip to Costa Rica. In his later years, he really got into photograph… and my blog here is dedicated to him, as it was catalyzed by his untimely and unexpected death.

      I can’t promise that I’ll be able to maintain a long form correspondence, but I’m happy to e-mail you if you would like. I’ll do that now.

  2. Isn’t it true that even the essentials/core teachings of any faith need interpretation? I think we would agree the Ten Commandments are of Divine origin. Ex. “You shalt not bear false witness” which as children we were taught meant “don’t lie“. But what if I’m in Nazi occupied Holland and I am hiding Jewish people. The Gestapo come to my house and ask me if I am hiding Jews. I lie and say I am not. They beat me, they torture me and I refuse to tell them the truth about the many questions they are asking me and I even make up stuff to distract them. Do I really need a Rabbi to have foreseen this dilemma and have given me an applicable interpretation? Can I not be confident that I have not veered from the way of righteousness even though there appears to be a contradiction? Elihu in the book of Job says “it is the spirit in a man that gives wisdom”. When Solomon had the opportunity to ask for anything he asked for wisdom and not riches or the death of his enemies. As a side note, maybe this attitude is what prepares the way for the Messiah. Is it fair to say that we are disillusioned by how many of our leaders lack spirit/wisdom. I think the wise person loves righteousness so much that they are even willing to suffer for it. The more they suffer the wiser they become. I love the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 50 “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed….I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking or spitting.” Maybe we (Christianity and Judaism) and our leaders are so confused and contradictory because we prefer riches and the death of our enemies to wisdom and we are unwilling to suffer for righteousness sake. I’ve personally been in a fog and I’m sure it’s partly because I just want God to remove a particular enemy right now and financially rescue me. I’m pretty sure I needed to articulate this for my own sake.

      1. I think you’re right. But 99% of my followers would be pretty irritated if I were to post it on my blog and I would probably receive zero feedback. At least that was my experience with a previous blog in which I attempted to dialogue about theological issues that were troubling me. I’m not very good at talking to imaginary people or else I’d just journal.

          1. Okay :). You’re right. The worst thing they could possibly say is “interesting” and that already just happened, lol.

          2. You know, I have actually been thinking about this tension between writing for others v. for myself. Especially in an online forum like a blog.

          3. I’d appreciate it if you would read my most recent post The Power of Negativity if you find the time. No obligation to comment.

  3. I appreciate deeply your intellectual honesty! Thank you so much for this post! … Yes, wrestling with G-d… I love that passage so much. It taught me a lot n it’s always present within stimulating my capacity of analysing n understanding! 🙌🙌

        1. Agree. A personal note. The meaning of Isra-El was first brought home to me in 1992 on our first trip to Israel at Yad Vashem. Our family”s guide, who had been in all 5 then wars, pointed it out to us on a long since removed mosaic which showed Jews feeling Europe and going to the Holy Land. We continue to struggle, as you point out.

  4. Kudos on the long, thoughtful post!
    In answer to your question at the end…I also felt like the Rabbis could interpret the law to get whatever outcome they wanted. And it also made me lose respect for the system.
    What changed my perspective was actually my job and working with regulatory at a consumer products company. It became easier to appreciate how seemingly the same question could get you different answers from the regulatory team or the consultants, depending on whom you asked and what details you gave. Those details could radically change the question, and hence the answer, not to mention that risk assessment varies by individual. It’s definitely not a perfect analogy and I can’t say that I came to fully appreciate the Rabbinic system. But it did help me put it in context.

  5. Very interesting and relatable read! This journey is familiar, I’ve been down this road and fell off the derech. 😉 Your questions at the end reminded me of two things: Hillel’s famous: “If I am not for myself… “ questions and the 70 Faces of Torah. I love how the Sages said all interpretations of Torah are valid, as long as they don’t contradict core Jewish theology. You know I did a shiur on it! 😄

      1. I knew you were going to ask that! I almost included in my comment, but thought I would wait for it… 😅 Core Jewish theology — monotheistic and no Messiah theology other than our own.

          1. I wanted to include a basis (starting point) in all our Holy books and PaRDeS in the definition of “core Jewish theology.”

            Re: Mashiach — Sages said performance of mitzvot, but I have my own rebel Jew views on what and who Mashiach is. Diverges from Jewish, Christian and all mainstream religious perspectives. It’s my own epiphany, although since there’s nothing new under the sun 😊, I’m sure others share it too.

  6. Interesting read to say the least. My limited understanding of Judaism has been broaden and also the foundational for my Catholicism. Thank you for doing a little unpacking here. Be blessed…

  7. Thanks for letting us in on the history and your personal thoughts and reactions to all of this. Systems and the decisions that serve to preserve and strengthen them is something I have personally struggled with and been impacted by. Both religious and non religious systems. Of course who hasn’t. And then of course when those who make the decisions claim to be Divinely endorsed in order to be taken more seriously well that’s a whole other issue again. Thanks for taking the time to write this I’m personally interested in these things that you are wrestling with even though I wrestle in what would seem a very different place.

    1. Israel means wrestling with God. If nothing else, I am Jewish in that way 😉

      But by that definition, there are a lot of other Jews in the world, I suppose… maybe even some “non-Jewish Jews” 🙂

      1. Oh my, lol. I was just picking up things around the house and thinking on that image. You are so right and I don’t think God would want us any other way. I’m not letting go until He blesses me. It’s been a long night though and I can imagine I’ll be left with a significant limp.

      2. Wrestling with God is the key, for me. But thank you so much for your highly literate and readable history. Where is Rabbeinu Gershon and other advanced thinkers when we need them.

  8. I got to admire you taking time to write this interesting read. I learnt something very new. The rabbis and torra is a different perspective.

    1. Thank you so much – I know this post was a doozy. I honestly don’t know if I would have taken the time to read so much text written in someone else’s blog.

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