Short story: Comfort (III)

Wait for it… wait for…

The tall blonde’s thin cotton skirt swished as she walked by the loquat trees not far from the edge of the sidewalk. Behind her the sun continued its descent towards the distant Mediterranean, its beams piercing through the branches. The Star of David hanging from the her tanned neck sparkled.

Osnat trained her lens upon the Star of David, noting the small beads of sweat glistening on the young woman’s bronze skin. She seemed a wistful beauty, a perfect subject for Osnat’s new sunset photo series. Zooming in and out as the blonde glided around the corner, the older woman let her camera do the work, capturing the pinks and purples of the sky behind the young lady as she made her way to the nearby Jerusalem bus stop. Yosef would have so appreciated the girl’s air of pensiveness…

The middle aged woman traced the camera’s edges with her fingers, remembering how her husband had once held his beloved instrument, one hand under the lens, the other steadily gripping it along the side. In the years before his death, Yosef had taken such pride and pleasure in his hobby, presenting his work at local fairs and framing his favorites for friends and family. In those later years, he was hardly ever without his camera, always looking for graceful birds in flight or unsuspecting children at play. His photography still remained, lining the walls of their house.

After Yosef’s abrupt death, Osnat had taken to emptying out his bedroom and office, unable to gaze at his bookshelves and assorted tchotchkes without sobbing. It was thus she came upon his camera equipment in the office closet. At first, she couldn’t bear look at it, but as the weeks had gradually turned into months, Osnat eventually found herself laying Yosef’s many camera lenses, tripods, flashes and more out on her husband’s bare desk. The bird photographs on the walls looked at her.

It was then that Osnat had decided to teach herself photography. Their son Ephie’s daily kaddish recitation for his father at shul brought her great comfort, knowing that Yosef would have expected and wanted that traditional honor, but she, as a woman, felt out of place among the stern, bearded prayer-goers. Osnat would honor Yosef’s memory through the lens of his own camera.

* * *

Mincha, the afternoon prayer, ended with the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, which Ephie always stood for. Even after he’d completed his year of kaddish, the young man had continued coming to shul, just as his father had done before him. Ephraim wasn’t much of a believer, but he respected those who somehow managed to find and hold on to faith, including his Abba who had continued attending services long after he’d completed his year of mourning for his father.

He glanced out the window at the sky as its pinks and oranges darkened to purples. Eema was probably out with her camera somewhere, looking for new subjects to capture for her new Jerusalem Sunset series. He knew that she didn’t feel entirely comfortable at shul because of its male-centeredness, which bothered him also. That’s why she’d been so glad that he’d been the one to recite kaddish for Abba.

Of course, some ladies did occasionally come to services to recite kaddish for their parents from the women’s section in the back, but they were hard to see, seated behind the deliberately tall latticed mechitza that separated them from the men’s section. Also, many were self-conscious about their secondary role in the gendered public prayer space and didn’t recite their kaddishes loudly enough for the men to hear them and respond. They were largely unheard and invisible.

Since completing his own year of kaddish, Ephie had come to feel very strongly, as Yosef had before him, about supporting other mourners in the community with a firm, resounding response to their kaddishes; and his seat happened to be in the back, just in front of the women’s section.

Conscientiously, the young man always made sure to time his response with the female mourners behind him: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!”

* * *

Osnat stood and stretched her legs as the young woman’s bus drove off.

Ephie would soon be praying ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. His Abba’s shul had practically become a second home to him, ever since Yosef died. It pained her to see that the young man was still grieving so deeply, but he had to know that no amount of kaddishes would ever bring Abba back. “At some point, she sighed, “we all have to start living again. The old men at shul were undoubtedly kind souls, but how would Ephie ever meet a young lady if he couldn’t leave the past behind him?

Quietly, Osnat turned in the direction of the Old City, seeing the Western Wall in her mind. Hashem, I’m not a religious woman, but surely You know my heart. Please – help my Ephie heal… it’s already been four years since his Abba died. Please – help my baby move on from his Abba’s death. Please. Please, my Lord. Help him.”

* * *

The young man completed his prayers and glanced around the sanctuary. Were there any mourners present to recite the kaddish? No, it seemed not, he thought sadly. Ephie always felt a sense of incompleteness when no mourners were available to recite the kaddish after services. Somehow, he felt that tradition had actually intended people’s personal kaddishes for the entire community, including the souls of Abba and Saba.

Suddenly, the sound of a door swinging at the back of the women’s section caught his attention, and Ephie made out the sound of somebody walking quickly, nearly running, towards the mechitza. Through the latticework, he could barely make out a female worshipper and heard her clear her throat nervously. Softly, she began reciting the kaddish, muffled through her tears.

None of the other men had noticed the woman’s entrance, and they were too far away to hear her… the necessary prayer quorum was already dispersing!

Ephie stood in place, seriously, deliberately, and intoned his response loudly for all the rest to hear: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!” The elderly petitioners stopped and looked around the room, trying to figure out whom Ephie was responding to. Through the stillness, they finally heard the woman’s kaddish and crying. Collectively, the men moved closer towards the mechitza to better hear her kaddish.

B’rich hu, they responded together, and then: Amen; Amen!

The mourner completed her recitation, and the men smiled at Ephie as they threw on their jackets and headed for the exit. The sexton patted Ephie on his shoulder; “Tzaddik,” he whispered.

Ephraim shrugged shyly and returned his siddur to the bookshelf, before reaching for the light switch. As he made his way down the corridor, he heard a woman’s voice behind him: “Excuse me? Were you the one standing next to the mechitza?

The young man turned to see a beautiful blonde with tear stained cheeks standing before him. I’m Nechama, she told him, “And I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’”

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 22

If I’m being honest, it’s easier to read and write about kaddish than it is to bethink myself of memories, even privately.

– Me (Blog #13)

At first, I thought I would study the kaddish in my father’s memory to suffuse the rote with meaning, perhaps to even make it interesting.

Quickly, I came to realize that my approach would not be that of Leon Wieseltier in his dense Kaddish volume, wherein he published the notes from his yearlong deep dive into the halakhic and aggadic texts on kaddish, death and mourning. His was truly a feat for the generations, unearthing countless layers of seemingly impenetrable bedrock, but for me these same traditional texts beckon foremost as springboards, anchoring me in the Jewish fundament, yes, but also inviting my meandering responses.

I find that the texts are endless, but my ends somehow defy them. At times I am utterly unmoored and teetering, with no text but that of my stifled, pounding heartbeats, as I flail wildly for ancient wisdom.

That’s how it is now.

* * *

My feelings are my primary sources, perhaps to the detriment of my intellectual development. What did I learn today… What did I learn today… What…

What did I feel today?

– Me (Blog #4)

This is what I wrote back in early September, but I’ve continued to lean heavily on Jewish texts to buttress me. Can I write without citation?

* * *

I’ve been reflecting upon the kinship I feel with many of the women who contributed personal essays to the book Kaddish: Women’s Voices. Three facets of their shared experiences speak to me in particular, the third of which I will explore below:

  1. Most obviously, the contributors to this volume are sharing the intimate details of their kaddish odysseys, as I am attempting to do. This I expected.
  2. For most of the authors, the decision to recite kaddish was not a foregone conclusion. Few women in traditional Jewish circles attend shul on a daily basis, and not all communities are supportive of or friendly towards women who want to take this religious obligation upon themselves. Whether to recite kaddish at all, how often to recite kaddish, whom to recite kaddish with, and many other related deliberations speak to my experience – even though I am a man. Such reflections have been weaving their ways through my own writings.
  3. Many of the women (I counted 14) related their kaddish journeys in some way to their children. This theme was absent from Wieseltier’s Kaddish, for he didn’t have any children of his own during his year of mourning.

* * *

My 3-and-a-half year-old daughter… insists upon coming with me to shul every week…

Last week I and a few others noticed that my child was reciting the mourner’s kaddish along with me, as I stood beside her.

– Me (Blog #5)

My daughter is no longer 3-and-a-half years old. In early February, she’ll be turning four, and she’s been growing up so, so quickly. (Those of you who are parents can appreciate this.)

Unfortunately, due to daylight savings time, my child hasn’t come to shul with me since late October – she wakes up groggily from her afternoon naps just as I am running out the door for mincha on Fridays and Saturdays and cannot get ready in time to join me. Still, she often reminds me that she’ll be returning as soon as the spring rolls around. I’ve been missing our shul time together, but I must also admit that it has been liberating to have these prayer times entirely to myself.

Perhaps because I’ve recently been feeling alone on my kaddish journey and aware that my daughter is no longer an active participant, I’ve taken to deliberately mentioning my father to her in conversation. For Chanukah, I bought her a nice children’s camera, reminding her that Dedushka Shurik was an avid photographer, and I have also introduced her to peanut butter spread on apple slices, which my father would often snack on enthusiastically (he always ate the entire apple).

* * *

Alexander Bogomolny, the man who knew to cherish and praise the beauty (of math, of nature, of people of different ages, of family ties and relationships) and made us all appreciate it more. You are deeply deeply missed…

While there are many, many words and long texts that have already been written; and many more could be and should be written in your memory, I miss one very significant aspect of yours: what a great, special, kind, and devoted GRANDFATHER you were and you will always be in my mind. The special connection, love, appreciation, and joy that you brought to each other from the very first months of our daughter’s life and since then are not forgotten and will never be… We love you, we miss you, and we always will.

– My wife, two days following the funeral (lightly edited)

A couple of days after the funeral, my wife wrote this from our home in Israel. I read it before going to bed that night in America, and I read it again after awaking. It was then, sitting alone in the stillness of my parents’ kitchen that I sobbed for the first time. I arrived at shul with my eyes tearing, avoiding the other petitioners’ gazes as I recited kaddish.

My father cherished his granddaughter. He nannied her for two months full-time by himself when she was only several months old, and he returned for each of the following two summers to care for her during the Augusts when her daycare was closed. This year, he had deliberately been planning to visit us during Sukkot to spend time with her while she was on holiday.

I have no memories of my years as a baby or toddler, and I don’t recall what my father was like with my younger brother, but he seemed to me a transformed person when he was with my daughter. He adored her utterly, and gave of himself completely and unconditionally. I have never known and cannot imagine a gentler, more caring grandfather. My baby’s loss of such a precious dedushka remains the hardest loss for me to accept.

When he died, we told her that he had been sick and then moved to a faraway place where he would no longer be ill, but he could no longer come to visit us. Upon leaving Israel for the funeral and shiva, I told her that I was going to America to help Dedushka Shurik move. Even today, I continue to struggle with how to talk about this with my not-yet-four-year-old daughter and attempt to nurture her memories of him. I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

Before I returned to Israel, my mother took the last bills from my father’s wallet and purchased four sets of Play-Doh for my daughter as a final gift from Dedushka Shurik. We’ve given her two of them thus far and will give her the other two on coming special occasions.

Can one send presents to his loved ones from “a faraway place,” I wonder?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 14


It happened that on Friday evening I was the only mourner in my minyan. Between mincha and the end of ma’ariv on Friday, there are three mourner’s kaddishes and one kaddish d’rabbanan (rabbis’ kaddish), all of which are the mourners’ domain. On this particular Shabbat, they were all exclusively mine.

The unexpected force of the congregation’s response, ‘amein,’ to my first kaddish reverberated through the room and I nearly stepped backwards. After my recitation, the gabbai chanted a special prayer in honor of the eleven Jews murdered the week before in Squirrel Hill, and the context crystalized for me. Scanning the room, I noted that the gentleman waiting to lead us in the kabbalat shabbat service had a firearm clipped onto the back of his pants, concealed under his well-pressed white shirt. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘thank you for bringing that, and no less for covering it.’

I felt myself an agent of collective Jewish sorrow, voicing the pain of Pittsburgh, of my own community, of world Jewry. With each of my kaddishes, I took the luxury of enunciating the syllables, not chanting them, but speaking them as though I were engaged in plaintive discourse. I was glad for my three-and-a-half year old daughter’s absence from shul on this particular Shabbat evening, for I was left spent, my own grief more palpable with the weight of eleven additional Jewish souls.

I am just one Jew, and this just one journal entry, but I humbly dedicate it to the memory of those eleven Jews who were murdered in Pittsburgh for being Jews. May all of their memories be for blessings.

* * *

My mother queries, “So, I wonder, does a son say Kaddish for his mother too? Or is it only for the father? Will you be saying Kaddish for me when my time comes?”

“Yes,” I respond wistfully, “a son says kaddish for both parents.”

My fuller response begins so: The term “mourner’s kaddish” (as it is most commonly translated into English) is a mistranslation. In Hebrew, it is known as the kaddish yatom (קדיש יתום), which is the orphan’s kaddish.”

noun: orphan; plural noun: orphans
a child whose parents are dead.

The recitation of the kaddish yatom has historically been the child’s duty to his parents, rather than to any of his other immediate relatives (including children, siblings, and spouses), for whom he is expected to mourn according to Jewish tradition.

Prof. Judith Hauptman writes [here]:

The only relatives for whom one traditionally observes rites of mourning for 12 months are parents, both father and mother.

A text from the Talmud drives home the point that mourning rites for parents are more demanding than those for other relatives. It lists nine ways in which the two sets of practices differ (Mo’ed Katan 22b).

I’ve learned that the recitation of orphan’s kaddish is not mentioned in the Talmud (because it developed later), but today’s standard practice is to recite kaddish for one’s parents for the duration of this traditional year of mourning (minus one month). Neither Jewish mourning practices nor the orphan’s kaddish make a distinction between one’s father and one’s mother. The distinction is between one’s parents and everybody else.

In old-fashioned Orthodox communities, it is common to see men reciting the orphan’s kaddish for their departed mothers, while their fathers remain standing silently nearby.

* * *

We must be honest with ourselves. My mother’s question is entirely natural, given the tenor and tone of Orthodox Judaism. Also, it could have gone the other way. After all, a historic dispute does persist over whether daughters should be allowed to recite the orphan’s kaddish for their parents.

Let’s recall that the Jewish tradition of mourner’s kaddish is based upon a legend of Rabbi Akiva, as I’ve written previously. In the story, a deceased, corrupt tax collector’s soul is saved from damnation after Rabbi Akiva finds the man’s son and teaches him to praise God properly before the congregation. Some traditional sources highlight the son’s role (a son redeemed his father’s soul, rather than a daughter), but it strikes me that the rabbis could have just as readily focused on the role of the tax collector in the story (a father’s soul was redeemed, rather than a mother’s).

In fact, the great Rabbi Isserles (1530-1572) who penned HaMapah (still to this day, the central halakhic document for Ashkenazi Jewry), explicitly begins his explication of the laws surrounding the mourner’s kaddish as follows (Yoreh De´ah 376:4):

It is found in the midrashim that one should say the Kaddish for a father.

Thankfully, his quill did not stop there, but we must be mindful that it could have. Such a non-egalitarian tradition wouldn’t have nonplussed my mother or countless other non-Orthodox women; it would simply have been par for the course.

* * *

Anybody researching the nuances and history of the mourner’s kaddish will come across rabbinic texts that address the matter of daughters reciting kaddish for their parents. As expected, Wieseltier covers many of these sources in his book Kaddish, and the Israeli Beit Hillel rabbinic association’s ‘Responsum: May a Woman Say Kaddish For Her Parents?’ also covers a selection.

I’d like to put this to rest (from my perspective) by quoting Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen z”l who wrote the following on ‘Women and Kaddish’:

… the rulings of the three most influential halakhic sages in America… permeated the essence and formed the standards of synagogue life in America: namely, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Rav Henkin (1880-1973)… wrote: ‘If she does keep… basic mitzvoth, it is permissible for her to say Kaddish…’ Rav Moshe accepts a woman reciting Kaddish as a normal, unquestionable practice… Rav Soloveitchik ruled that it was permissible for women to recite Kaddish in synagogue.

Today’s halakhic authorities can readily permit women to recite the orphan’s kaddish in shul, yet many choose not to. Why? (That’s what interests me.)

* * *

Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) opposed a daughter’s recitation of kaddish for her father (even with a minyan in the privacy of her home!), although he conceded that (Kaddish, p. 179):

There is no proof that would contradict it – for women, too, are commanded to sanctify the Name… Even though the tale of Rabbi Akiva, which is the basis for the recitation of kaddish by mourners, speaks only of a son, it is reasonable to assume that a daughter, too, may bring benefit and calm to the soul of the dead, for she, too, is his progeny.

So why did Bacharach oppose a daugher’s recitation for her father?

All this notwithstanding, we must be concerned that, as a consequence, the force of the customs of Israel, which are also Torah, will be weakened, and everybody will build his own altar on the basis of his own thinking, and will treat the words of the rabbis with derision and jest, and come to scorn them.

Historically, most poskim (halakhic decisors) ruled against daughters reciting the orphan’s kaddish, even in their homes. Rabbi Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen (1670-1749) wrote that sons recite kaddish because they, unlike daughters, are their parents’ heirs. According to his responsum, even the son of a daughter does not qualify to recite the kaddish. Rabbi Ephraim Margolioth (1762-1828) also forbade it, and in 1906 Rabbi Meshullam Finkelstein published his commentary on Margolioth’s ruling (Kaddish, p.186):

In our day, when lewdness is common, we are not to… allow a daughter to say the kaddish… for she will certainly want to sound lovely… instead of the others sanctifying the Name of heaven… the others will hit a stumbling-block.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) followed a similar line of thought (Kaddish, p. 187):

The man who hears her may be aroused to an evil thought, which is worse than sin. The woman must be very careful that she is not responsible for the failure of the men. 

TL;DRDespite there existing no substantive, text-based reason to forbid a daughter from reciting the orphan’s kaddish, she may still be prohibited because A) changes to Jewish tradition may lead Jews to think critically about claims made by rabbinic authorities, and B) women’s sexuality must be controlled.

* * *

The inclination of many modern halakhic authorities to continue limiting women’s expression in the public sphere is ironic. Even the rabbis of yore cited above accepted the premise that a daughter was eligible to recite the orphan’s kaddish for her parents, and their rulings to the contrary may be excused, given that they lived long before women were accepted as full citizens of their respective societies.

In the modern day, however, the debate has actually expanded from one over women’s participation in communal ritual functions to the matter of women’s leadership in Jewish communities. For example, the modern religious authorities who oppose Orthodox women’s rabbinic ordination, as I’ve written, follow closely in the steps of their religious precursors. They admit that such a thing is permissible according to halakha, but still they forbid it.

In Yeshivat Maharat’s Keren JournalRabbi Alan Yuter tackles criticisms of ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis. He draws attention to Rabbi Schachter’s post ‘Can Women be Rabbis?’ in which Rabbi Schachter (a foremost opponent of ordaining Orthodox female rabbis) admits that there is no halakhic text explicitly forbidding this.

Rabbi Schacter believes that Orthodox Jewish law is not a legal normative order, but a social and ethical culture… and recognition of dissent undermines the authority… manifest in the charisma of great rabbis.

This is exactly the argument of Rabbi Yair Bacharach (1639-1702) against a daughter’s recitation of the orphan’s kaddish! This sociopolitical rejection of ordination of female rabbis came into the spotlight in late October 2015 when the Rabbinical Council of America (affiliated with Yeshiva University) passed a resolution against it. The RCA’s vote was halakhically questionable for at least two reasons:

  1. If the ordination of women as rabbis is “against Jewish law”, why did the RCA have to vote at all? Does it follow that the RCA could have voted against halakha?
  2. Halakha is not determined by voting! Ever since the ultimate abolition of the Great Sanhedrin (and throughout the many centuries of Jewish exile) individual religious decisors have been issuing halakhic rulings for their local communities.

For me, it’s quite simple. If you claim to uphold God’s law (halakha), then you must act and rule accordingly. Further, if you have conceded that halakha allows for the possibility of women being public participants in particular Jewish communal rituals or functioning as leaders of Jewish communities according to God’s law(!) it is nothing less than immoral to forbid this.

As a wise rabbi once noted, “Around half of all Jews are women.”

* * *

Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal chronicles the kaddish journey of Dr. Esther M. Broner after the death of her father in 1987. She committed herself to reciting the orphan’s kaddish daily for eleven months in an all-male minyan at an Orthodox shul, despite the refusal of some regulars to respond, ‘Amein,’ to her kaddish (and other harassment). A second-wave Jewish feminist, Broner was the author of the 1976 Women’s Haggadah. She was no stranger to bucking gender norms.

Ah-hah! A feminist! A troublemaker! An outsider! Surely Broner doesn’t represent the average Jewish woman and her desire to mourn and honor her parents according to Jewish tradition?

Very well then, how about the following example?

The Recitation of Kaddish: A Personal Odyssey chronicles Dr. Ruth Walfish’s kaddish journey after the death of her mother in 2012, after not having recited the orphan’s kaddish for her father in 2002. Some two months into her year of mourning, this Orthodox woman scholar spontaneously stood up and recited the kaddish in shul on Friday evening. A product of her Orthodox culture and background, she “came to understand [her] decision to say Kaddish for [her] mother as a way of also grieving for [her] father.”

* * *

My father was no feminist. He was politically and socially conservative; and quite skeptical of political activism and social causes. This blog post would have intrigued him primarily because it was written by me, as an insight into my mind. He may also have appreciated the intellectual exercise.

Reluctant as he was to take political action (beyond voting), the following two snapshots from his life are particularly illuminating:

  1. In 1996, my father flew to Israel to vote for Bibi Netanyahu for Prime Minister. He considered the Oslo Accords to be an existential mistake, posing a terrible danger to the State of Israel’s very being, and he couldn’t sit idly by in America while the Israeli left brought about the downfall of the Jewish state.
  2. 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.


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.