I’ve just started working as Zeek’s online editor, and it’s been a curious experience to have as an Orthodox Jew. All of the non-fiction submissions eventually make their way through my Gmail, and a good proportion of them I am, frankly, horrified to read.
I have seen Orthodoxy called a cult. I have seen articles claiming that Orthodoxy as an institution is brutal and insular, abusive and – almost always – chauvinist. We haven’t, so far, run any of these, though not because they offend me personally. I send such articles on to Zeek’s editor-in-chief, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, who isn’t Orthodox and for whom these articles wouldn’t be personally offensive. As an editor, I hope to be impartial, but I recognize that, like everyone else, I have my own influences and opinions.
I wonder, however, whether the anti-Orthodoxy trend in the articles Zeek receives are reflective of sentiment among the larger Jewish population. And, would this anti-Orthodox sentiment I see arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of Orthodoxy on the part of the non-Orthodox?
All too often, these articles make categorical statements about Orthodoxy, as if Orthodox Jewry were monolithic. These articles ignore the divisions within Orthodoxy itself. Some Orthodox certainly judge people whose practices are different, and other Orthodox do not (as in every group). Modern Orthodox Jews may disdain the practice of Yeshivish Jews, and vice versa. For some Orthodox, Chabad’s outreach efforts are a mitzvah; for others, they dilute an authentic Judaism. Certain sects of Orthodoxy are isolated; others reach out to the world. Even those who are isolated are not necessarily insular: choosing not to encounter different people is very different from choosing to judge them (does anyone claim the Amish discriminate against other Christians because they won’t intermarry?)
In short, choosing to practice differently from you does not mean that you are bad and I am good, only that we are different.
What does distinguish the Orthodox from the rest of Jewry is theological. Orthodoxy carries with it the stricture that certain beliefs are immutable. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that God’s law is divine, and that it functions practically within a set of interpretations also laid down as a divine framework. I also believe that God, as my Creator, knows what’s best for me, and that the way to reach something better is to abide by the instructions that will get me there. I therefore believe that the loveliest way to live, as a Jew, is by the laws that the Grantor of life gave me.
This set of beliefs does not necessarily dictate how the Orthodox see, or must see, other Jews. Much of Orthodoxy (though not all!) embraces the idea of kiruv, literally meaning, “the bringing close [of something, to God].” The concept of Jewish “chosenness” means that we inherit a certain closeness to God, and for Orthodox Jews this closeness brings with it certain instructions that I am not perfect in obeying - instructions which you might not even know, or might not accept. The supposition behind the idea of kiruv is that no one is perfect, but that we are on a journey towards God, and that each person takes that journey at his/her own pace. For the Orthodox, the path towards God is well-marked, based on God’s own instructions. Religion is about being human, after all, and encountering Something not human.
I am liberal relative to many Orthodox Jews (and probably conservative relative to others), and the way that I am Orthodox (the way that my Rabbi interprets the Torah) follows suit. This is certainly true in the case of my community at home, and true in part when it comes to my community at school. I grew up in a small town in North Jersey, where I was (I am) unusual. I go to a university that isn’t Jewish and major in something that isn’t practical. I have left the New Jersey-New York area and I have friends who aren’t female, and whom I do not plan to marry. I am a modern Orthodox Jew who grew up in a Yeshivish town, which means that I am thoroughly in love with Judaism and thoroughly incapable of not following my poetry to Philadelphia, and maybe to a graduate program in London after I graduate this year. I love my friends and I want them to be happy; some of them are gay and so I am supportive of gay rights. I study contemporary poetics which means that I study questions of author and identity where they begin to break down and work against notions of an objective God. All this is just to say that I am a collection of paradoxes, as most people are, but my particular set has made me an Orthodox Jew editing Zeek articles from the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania.
I follow my own path toward God within Orthodoxy. That does not mean it is the same as any other Orthodox Jew’s, even in my own particular community. For example, every Orthodox Jew decides the extent to which he will interact with the outside world. Every person is influenced by his/her surroundings, and some decide not to take that risk altogether. I know many people who have made that decision, and I respect them for it.
Like all other Jews, I also make my own decisions on today’s big issues. I am very much tied to Israel emotionally, and often I feel as if we tried a two-state solution and one of them is run by a terrorist group that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Many readers of Zeek will disagree – but the point is that we can, and still see ourselves as being on the same path. Judaism is built on debate and interpretation; it’s part of what makes the religion so human.
In the future, then, as part of my editor’s portfolio, I will explore the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish worlds, and also the multivalent discussions within Orthodoxy itself. Please get in touch if you have ideas you want to share. I am quite excited to be a catalyst for these conversations.
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