Recently, my great nephew celebrated his bar mitzvah and I did something I have never done before; I drove to the celebration on Shabbat. Admittedly, this was not the first time that I have ever traveled on Shabbat, but it is the first time I did so openly with the knowledge of my extended family. Except for a period of rebellion in my late teens and early twenties, I had been a Sabbath-observing Orthodox Jew for most of my 52 years.
This evolution has been building for some time now. Let me be clear, I am not a member of the formerly Orthodox who has been traumatized and has left the movement with bitterness and anger. This is not a theological transformation and I offer up no label to replace my old one. I’m not agnostic, I’m not an atheist, what I believe or don’t believe is now more personal between God and me if She even exists at all.
Certainly, for the better part of the last 30 years, I was an enthusiastic and active participant in Orthodox life. My children all received a yeshiva education, I was active in shul life and I love the liturgy and melodies that accompany it. I embraced various expressions of Orthodox spiritualism from Carlebach style services to going for blessings from Hassidic rebbes. My bona fides of Orthodox observance are solid and verifiable.
The Orthodoxy I embraced in adulthood is not the religion I was taught growing up. Whether it was done intentionally or not, the key religious message I internalized in my youth was that God was always watching, was always angry and quite vengeful. Of course. there were many positive attributes of religion that were taught to me, but the prevalent intimation I internalized was of the punishing — angry God and thus the only one I was identified with in my formative years.
When I matured and was able to shed the phobias and paranoia of the ever present, angry God and embrace the loving — kind one, I immersed myself in the beauty of communal prayer, Torah study, robust Shabbat and holiday meals, charity and a sense of community. I tried to focus less on what Orthodox tradition expected of me and more on what I thought Orthodoxy meant to me. I was always an outlier, but one that found comfort conforming to what I knew. My way of communicating with God and spirituality was most familiar to me through Orthodox practice. And so practice I did.
I have used this space to critique some real issues that Orthodoxy faces as an organized movement. The most pressing of which I believe is a distorted value system that judges people by their level of observance above and beyond the content of their character. Rabbinic Judaism has empowered rabbis with more infallibility than the pope, even when they are so very flawed — because they are — rabbis. Mamon in many Orthodox circles is a higher-ranking God than Yahweh. The economic cost of keeping kosher and day school education is prohibitive, making Orthodoxy an indulgence of the 10-percenters. These are pressing and legitimate issues that good, intelligent people in the movement grapple with and seek to fix, I wish them well.
But I am an explorer, a self-professed thinker and amateur philosopher. While I love so many of the traditions I immersed myself in for so many years and I still practice many of them, I find any rigid Orthodoxy out of sync with who I am now. Religionists might feel it’s their duty to prove my thinking wrong; it’s my burden to politely not care. The beauty of belief or faith is that it is so very personal.
Golda Meir was once asked if she believes in God, her answer was that she believes in the Jewish people and that they believe in God. Well, I believe in the Jewish people. I believe in our diversity, our complexity, our nation, our homeland, our right to disagree and the richness of our traditions. In the US I am now labeled as “off the derech,” or off the path. I find the term demeaning. In Israel it is called Datlash, which is an acronym for “dati l’sheavar” or formerly Orthodox. Well, now I’m out of the closet as either or both, forgive me for feeling really good about it.