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?

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?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 13

One of the most fascinating aspects of the mourner’s kaddish is that it doesn’t directly mention death or mourning. Given that kaddish is a conversation between people, this leaves me wondering.

How much do we leave unspoken between us? How much was left unspoken between me and my father z”l? If the death prayer omits death, how much more so might loved ones omit love? How much of humankind’s communication lies between our lines? Between our words? Between our breaths and syllables?

There are so many reasons I write. One is: my daily recitation of the traditional mourner’s kaddish is not about my father. If the traditional kaddish is impersonal, this kaddish series is not. Even so, reflecting now, I would say: my personal kaddish cannot express everything. My tears don’t stain your computer screen. In truth, they rarely come, but how would you know? I fear letting go, even as I write with desperation and my father continues to slip through my fingers like dry sand.

Also, if I were to write an entire composition about my love for God (assuming that I loved Him) without mentioning my father, would that befit my father’s memory? Would it honor him? Would it preserve any of him? Would it have anything to do with him? Would it be more in the spirit of the traditional mourner’s kaddish, or less so? If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

I must read between my own lines.

* * *

Now, regarding the tradition: Two questions spring to mind.

  1. Why not mention death or mourning in the mourner’s kaddish?
  2. Given this pretermission, why does the kaddish persist as the Jewish prayer for the dead?

* * *

The answer to the first question, it seems, is more equivocal. I discover an answer in Wieseltier’s book Kaddish that resonates with me. He brings a text from a novel written by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky titled The Five. The Editor quotes the Revisionist (p. 164-5):

A man stands at the open grave… and presents his… accounting for the damages, to the Lord of the Universe. He is furious… and… behind the tombstone nearby, Satan squats and lies in wait for… when the man… explodes with curses… As soon as he hears these words… he… addresses God: ‘See what you get for your goodness! And see from whom: from a Jew! From your own agent and representative on this earth! So go quietly, old man. I am in charge now.’ This is the devil’s plan. But the [man]… guesses Satan’s game. He asks himself: ‘… Will I really allow evil to rule the world? No! …’ – and at this point… the man begins to list all those praises of God… who needs reasons? It is reason enough to lay the devil low… To say, in other words: ‘You, Satan, keep out of this! Whatever grievances I have against God… Somehow we will settle the matter between ourselves…’

In Jabotinksy’s understanding, the kaddish takes the form of a doxology in order that we keep our worst demons in check. Give in to our darkest inclinations; succumb to our pain; permit unfettered evil to reign. Therein lies no honor for our loved ones.

* * *

Actually, it’s the second question that draws me because I think its answer is simpler, and I’ve already touched upon it: the mourner’s kaddish persists because we cannot coherently articulate the immeasurable depths of our helplessness and loss. That the Jewish wisdom of yesteryear saw fit to attach mysterious words of an ancient language to the opacity of death is comforting. Tradition consoles. Even the most articulate mourner lacks for expression.

My sorrow’s voice is age-old.

In volume six of My People’s Prayer Book, I unearth a gem. Rabbi David Ellenson writes the following (p. 155):

The rationalism of Reform’s founders did lead the authors of the 1819 Hamburg Gebetbuch to address the fact that no mention was made of the dead in this prayer. They compensated for this “lapse” by inserting an Aramaic paragraph… whence it found its way into the classical Reform prayer book… Despite the fact that the new version of the Mourner’s Kaddish thus achieved considerable long-term standing in Reform tradition, no other Reform prayer book in the twentieth century… retained it. This ultimate failure of even an innovation that lasted over 150 years demonstrates the tremendous tenacity of folk traditions in matters surrounding mourning. The affective power of the classical version of the Mourner’s Kaddish has proved more enduring than theory and a century and a half’s sustained novelty.

I am struck hard by curiosity. What were the words of this discarded text? A bit of online research brings up the following:

Insertion from the 1819 Hamburg
Reform Gebetbuch (prayer book):



Not only does the mourner’s kaddish not directly relate to death or mourning, but it would seem that we Jews don’t want it to.

* * *

Is humankind’s rejection of reason so hard to understand? For me, it’s the most intuitive facet of the mourner’s kaddish. Consider this: For as long as I can remember, my father kept spare batteries in the door of our refrigerator, insisting that this would extend their lifespans. Of course, even a cursory review of articles suggests that this is a dubious claim [see: 1, 2, 3], but you can still guess where I keep my batteries.