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Hyphenated Orthodoxy

The secret is out: We sit next to you in shul but we don’t believe that God dictated every word of the Torah

Last week I penned a post entitled “No Longer Orthodox.” Many took it to mean that I have abandoned Orthodoxy; others understood it to mean that I eschew labels and want to be known only as Jewish. Both views are correct.

While the overwhelming response was positive I received many dissenting views. Some opinions labeled me as angry. In a sense I am angry but not in the way one might think. My anger is mostly at an environment whether created consciously or not, that emphasizes outward practice over content, that errs on the side of strictures rather than leniency and that sees no room in Torah and Halacha for other views.

Here I elaborate on my previous column. I find it quite pertinent in light of the plethora of commentary that has come out as a result of mikvagate. Mine is not the most articulate voice for necessary change in the Orthodox movement but it is part of the “chanting mob” as a New Jersey rabbi labeled us. The chanting mob includes a group called Orthodox Leaders, which includes some over achieving Orthodox women and a female Yeshiva student convert whose words beg a listening from every Jew, Orthodox or not.

Identity is multi layered and complex these days. I am a post-Modern-Orthodox-Jewish-White-Brooklyn-born-Zionist-Liberal-baby-boomer-American. Each identity means something to me on different levels. I belong to a growing group of people (call it a no longer silent bloc) who have reached middle age, affiliate with Orthodoxy out of a comfort level but who don’t buy into much of the doctrine.

Orthodox is not our foremost identity; it may not even be fifth on the list. Orthodoxy by definition should be the only identity that matters; every other one is secondary to accepting the yoke of divine kingship. However, there is a great hyphen debate between those that believe Orthodoxy can have no hyphen and those that do; between those that believe that Judaism is a big tent and those that don’t.

Recently, a spokesman for the group that represents the interests of those who cannot countenance a hyphenated Orthodoxy created his own sub group when he coined the term “culturally-Orthodox.” Here’s his description:

The Cultural Orthodox Jew phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining how an ostensible Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices, cheat, steal or abuse others. Or, more mundanely, how he can cut off others in traffic, act rudely or blog maliciously.

I point this out because elsewhere he states that hyphenated Orthodoxy is not Orthodoxy at all – See: here and here. His argument of course is that there is only one derech, one way to be Orthodox. Us modern types, in his view, have co-opted the label. He stands on the side of ideological purity, noble for sure but not at all practical. Orthodoxy is very proud of its growth and sustenance much of it coming from the right with its multiple overcrowded yeshivas. Scratch the surface though and I have bad news for the purists: ours is not your father’s Orthodoxy. Ideological purity, even on the right, can be just surface deep.

Here is the truth most know but rarely acknowledge. We sit next to you in shul but we don’t believe that God dictated every word of the Torah; we believe in some sort of evolutionary process, we believe in multiple truths, we do as we please behind closed doors and we avail ourselves of the writings of other cultures.

We are in favor of gay marriage, equality for women, legal marijuana, sex education and freedom of choice. We also keep a kosher home, send our kids to yeshiva, keep Shabbat (in our own way), learn, go to shul and are deeply committed Jews.

Orthodoxy’s biggest weapon, the one that keeps so many in line – answering to God – does not have the same resonance to us. Few people with a TV in their home or access to the Internet really believe we will be punished for texting on Shabbat or eating at a diner. More to the point, if the divine retribution we learned about in Yeshiva is that our souls die with our bodies and we won’t get to sit in His aura in the world to come? Newsflash – we never really believed in that anyway, we look forward to resting in peace.

Orthodoxy’s oxygen, it’s lifeblood lies in its resistance to change and the threat of divine retribution. In the pre-digital era it was easier to contain, now all bets are off. The doubters of my generation, the tail end of the baby boomers, we at least still cling to many aspects of tradition. Our kids’ generation though is leaving in droves. The synagogue experience is burdensome and boring. In a flattened world, many of our kids see Orthodoxy as an expensive hierarchy beset by petty politics. We have left them jobless, spiritless, passionless and devoid of continuity. Orthodoxy in its current state does not offer them content. In a world where change occurs daily and where a level playing field is the ideal, Orthodoxy is too complacent, burdensome, inaccessible and unappealing. Or to put it in terms Millennial’s use, Orthodoxy needs to work on its brand.

Orthodoxy’s tent has shrunk as it veers sharply rightward. Any swing outside of conformity is separated, labeled, segregated and often ridiculed. Hence all the hyphenated versions: modern, neo, post, open, hipster and social to name a few. I belong to a learned generation of yeshiva graduates where many of us believe if we can sell our unleavened food on Passover we can find a solution to the agunah problem. To us, these things are a matter of will. In our eyes, rabbinic leadership refuses to see how we view them, as unwilling to give up some of their power for our growth, unity and greater good. My generation is slowly starting to openly talk about it: the next generation is not going to give Orthodoxy the consideration of caring.

Orthodoxy positions itself as a stopgap to assimilation; frankly we don’t necessarily believe that either. We believe in opening up our religion to other points of view in order to grow or we just don’t see alternative Jewish lifestyles as assimilationist. Our beliefs are a consequence of the rigidity we encounter as Orthodoxy finds more strictures and less accommodation for its adherents to live by. We respect your point of view; we do not accept your judgment. Consider this as you consider Jewish continuity. What is a Jew? Who is a Jew? What is Orthodox? What role do women have in Judaism? What role do our LBGT kids and friends have? We think it is high time to let the “amei haaretz,” the laymen, have a say in it or eventually we will leave to a more welcoming tent.

About the Author
Joel Moskowitz is a businessman and writer who finally made it to Jerusalem. He is currently chronicling this move in an Aliyah Journal posted on this site.
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