It’s tough to be Orthodox these days. A recent spate of ex-religious autobiographies has caused quite a lot of tie-adjusting, throat-clearing consternation in the Jewish world. From Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose, to Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament (both fantastic), and everything in between, a lot of internal dysfunction has been exposed.
Should Orthodox Jews be on the defensive? I don’t think so.
For practical reasons as well as substantive ones.
The practical reasons are that everything, and I do mean everything, has positive and negative facets to it.
There is much harm that goes on in Orthodox society, but, to assume that the harm, in the aggregate, exceeds that of secular society, is to be a bit too invested in a narrative denigrating Orthodoxy.
As well, many ex-Orthodox, seeing Orthodoxy from a particular experience, tend to simplify things at the expense of realistic nuance. For example, Leah Vincent’s recent article meanders into unfair simplification when she calls out Orthodox leaders for deserting their flock and escaping to safety. I think that we really do not know what motivated these leaders to leave to safety. It could have been many things, including feeling a responsibility and obligation to escape so that they might be able to lead those Jews who would survive. If a ship is going down, and some passengers escape to another boat, I’m not sure the captain should go down with the ship when the passengers who made it to safety won’t survive the high seas without expert seamanship.
Another element here is that we are missing the memoirs from the tens of thousands of secular Jews who became Orthodox over the last four decades. Where are the Foreskin’s Rejoice memoirs and the Bind Me Tight, Set Me Free memoirs? They are, of course, nonexistent for the most part, due to several reasons, the most obvious being that Orthodox Jews are hesitant to record their past secular life.
But more substantively, these people have a message and we should listen. We should listen if we want to understand their pain, we should listen if we want to honor their experiences, but most of all, we should listen so that we might come to appreciate what has hurt them so horrifically and remove such harmful behaviors from the Orthodox cultural lexicon.
Leah Vincent’s recent article is telling. She writes:
We dwelled on a foundation of fear, as if our home rested on a sleeping monster that could waken with a single misstep. ‘In every generation they rise up to destroy us,’ we sang each Passover, a prediction of impending tragedy that drove us to defensive piety throughout the year.
Is fear a driving factor in our commitment to our religion? Is that the way we compel the younger generation? The answer exasperatingly defies simplification. To be sure, there are a lot of positive and empowering facets of Judaism. But all too often, like a druggie handing a cup of juice to his friend, they are laced with hard to see additives; subtle undertones of fear, consequence, and punishment, both human and divine.
This occurs on a micro as well as macro level.
On a macro level: Vincent attests to the fact that she was taught:
‘Hitler was not only sent by Heaven, but was sent as a kindness from Heaven…. Because assimilation and intermarriage are worse than death’. When we rebelled against God, we could expect calamity.
Such statements are banshee-like in their screeching horrific-ness. To teach this to people, especially children, is truly a crime against God. It is high time we unabashedly staked out a worldview of authentic, healthy, but halachically committed Judaism.
While I understand the need felt by some to justify God, and provide some rationalization of the Holocaust, it is misplaced.
My own teacher, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe had this to say:
One desecrates the honor of the martyrs, who perished al kiddush hashem, by justifying the holocaust as if it were punishment for their sins. Heaven forbid that one should utter such words. Some events are the product of an unfathomable divine decree, a dictate that transcends any and all explanations. [See “Vayechi\10th of Teves,” in Sichos in English, Vol. 47 (Teves–Nissan, 5751), p. 62-63]
How could the Holocaust have happened? We simply don’t know why God did it. While this is a cranial concept, the real work takes place in submitting one’s heart to this idea and experientially moving forward from a place of unanswered uncertainty.
But let’s be clear, let’s be unabashed, and let’s be unequivocal: Any passing of the buck from God to Jews is unacceptable. When bad things happen, do not place the blame on human beings. That is the message we need to get behind. That is the vision of Judaism we need to teach our kids.
On a micro level, much of the way children are taught Judaism in some places, is with a heavy dosage of carrots and sticks. Do mitzvot and you’ll get pie in the sky; do a sin and you’ll get 12 months (the maximal time in hell according to the Talmud) of unspeakable pain when you die.
We need to move beyond this dull and unimaginative, indeed childish, paradigm. We scoff at Arabs blowing themselves up for seventy virgins, and yet a lot of Orthodox Jews might not be that different in their orientation to God. Namely, future-oriented pleasure seeking. True, one is physical pleasure and one is spiritual, but the basic motivation is the same.
Perhaps it is time we owned the fact that God truly does desire a relationship with us. Perhaps it is time to accept that it is valuable and worthy to do a mitzvah, because He needs and wants it and we want to be there for Him. Because it is the right thing and the true thing, not because we want to experience spiritual bliss.
Of course, to invest in such a paradigm, to the extent of teaching it to our kids, requires an optimistic belief in the capabilities of human beings to be idealistic, and graceful and receptive to a higher calling.
One of the reasons I love Chabad is that it has a vast and rich layered conceptual worldview that allows for such ideas to flourish. One of the central tenets of Chabad is that every Jew at their core is a divine piece of God and that, when push comes to shove, that divine-ness comes out and blossoms. That is the core belief underlying Chabad’s optimistic (some would say naive) belief that if you ask a Jew to, say, put on tefillin, they deeply desire to be in a relationship with God; all you need to do is provide the platform and prompt.
And it is entirely invested in such an optimistic worldview to the extent that it disavows the notion of divine punishment, choosing instead a consequentialist view of schar ve’onesh, i.e. hell is simply the process of removing the investiture in physicality that one inevitably undergoes while on Earth.
It is very hard to listen receptively when one feels their way of life is being attacked. And certainly, some ex-Orthodox should be sensitive to this if they truly wish to create change instead of venting. But the call of the hour is to stand still, and listen. Listen to what practices are so hurtful to so many, and embrace a narrative of authentic halachic Judaism that is sensitive to the humanity of its adherents.