I am Orthodox, and Orthodox is me

Hello. My name is Sarah, and I am Orthodox.

No, this is not the beginning of an AA-style recovery. It’s just that I’ve noticed there seem to be a lot of people out there who profess to know quite a bit about me, so I thought it was high time that we be formally introduced.

Let me start by sharing some of the descriptions “you” have applied to me. (And I use the term “you” loosely and rhetorically, referring to all those whose negative statements about Orthodoxy have appeared on my internet browser over the years. Even if you, yourself, identify as Orthodox.)

I will take them from the comments section to this fascinating piece – not because I’m writing about the article, and not because these lines are substantively different from countless others I’ve seen, but because I happened to read this article and these comments the most recently, so they’re the easiest to look up:

small minded, hate mongering misogynists, who interpret Jews by quantity, not quality”

“a barbaric fundamentalist cult which is a profound embarrassment to Judaism

“I left orthodox Judaism because my classmates at YU couldn’t stop talking about how a non-orthodox Jew didn’t have a neshama, how a non-Jew didn’t have a neshama, and how the only thing that both groups cared about was sex. (Interesting projection!!!)”

“The loathsomeness and despicability of the Orthodox knows no bounds. I was daily subject to harrassment when I was in school. They referred to our temple as “that church”.”

Did you know, when you wrote these things, that you were talking about me?

No, I don’t believe you did. But I take it personally anyway. In fact, it occurred to me today that I might even take it so personally because you didn’t know you were talking about me.

If I might borrow a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – you didn’t bother to find out, did you?

Here, let me help.

My father was a philosophy teacher who taught me, among other things, to accept the possibility that a tree might not actually be a tree; one does not escape such a childhood with a small mind. I thank him for that gift.

I am not aware of ever having mongered any hate. In fact, I find it difficult to hate anyone myself; I certainly do not go around trying to get others to do so. On the contrary, I frequently find myself – influenced by my “fundamentalist” Jewish traditions – giving people the benefit of the doubt: I assume they are basically good people, by which I mean they strive to live according to some value set that may or may not match mine. Why on earth would I hate someone for that?

Misogynist? I could respond to that one in so many ways: by talking about my in-depth, text-based, analytical class for women on topics in Jewish Law; by describing my personal gender-related challenges in raising a girl and two boys; by talking about gender roles in my household…

I once jokingly asked my daughter, “What’s a mother?” She responded “someone who makes rules and makes dinner.” Both amused and disheartened by that definition, I thought to ask “What’s a father?” She thought a minute and gave the exact same answer: “someone who makes rules and makes dinner.” I do hope her definitions of our identities, our roles, and our contributions to her life will become more sophisticated with time – but at the very least, we seem to be successfully modeling an even partnership. In our Orthodox home.

I don’t even know what “interpret Jews” means.

Let it be known: I have never tortured small animals, nor do I approve of it. Come to think of it, I lobbied fiercely (and successfully) against even getting our cat declawed when I was younger, to the great dismay of my mother and her treasured afghan. I also cry when I read Charlotte’s Web to my daughter – every time. No, I don’t believe I am a barbarian.

I am indeed a fundamentalist, if by “fundamentalist” you mean “person who takes seriously the texts and traditions of her people, and strives to live her life in accordance with them.” If what you mean is “barbaric, hate-mongering, misogynistic barbarian,” then no, I’m not a fundamentalist either. Cult member? Also depends on your definition, I suppose – and one’s definition would likely depend on one’s general perspectives on organized religion. If you think the very idea of organized religion is cultish – well, I disagree.

Have I done something to embarrass you? I’m so sorry; please, tell me what I did, so I can try not to do it again. Unless it was simply the fact of my skirt and hair covering, in which case I am afraid I will have to say, Deal With It.

Funny, I don’t remember a single discussion about the soullessness of other people from my own days at YU. (No, not Yeshiva College, which is the men’s undergraduate division; I attended Stern College, as well as multiple YU graduate programs.)  What I remember discussing is how to balance Torah study with secular learning, and all sorts of similarly offensive topics – and yes, dating and marriage and such. Never once did we hang out in the dorm talking about how we, as Orthodox Jews, are the only people who have a neshama and who don’t think about sex constantly. (What a strange conversation topic!)

Loathsome and despicable? I mean, I did tend to be picked last in gym class as a kid, but I didn’t think I was that disagreeable! I also don’t believe I ever harassed you; I certainly have no recollection of referring to your temple as anything at all.

Am I being facetious here? Yes, of course. I’m angry and hurt and sad, and it’s finally coming out.

I have some strongly-held beliefs, to be sure.

One of them is that every individual deserves the benefit of the doubt; no one has a right to jump to conclusions about anyone else. That includes judging them as being judgmental.

I also believe that the world is too complex for words – almost literally, as I frequently find myself at a loss for the words to adequately express even the most basic of points. At the same time, words are necessary – we just have to be careful not to ever assume that a word can easily portray the full sense of an idea with all its nuances. So, when I choose to use the word “Orthodox” to describe myself, please remember that while I use it as shorthand for the many things I have in common with others who call themselves “Orthodox” – it does not make me them. It is unfair for you to use this word in a manner that stains me with their sins, real or imaginary.

Perhaps you are Orthodox too, and think that makes it okay to say these things about us? It doesn’t.

If some (other) Orthodox individual(s) has offended you in some way, I am deeply sorry – in the sense of offering condolences, not apologies. I did not do what they did, and I may be as outraged as you about it.

So please, if you feel it is important to say something about an individual gone wrong, say it. But try to avoid making sweeping statements about “the Orthodox” or “Orthodoxy” as some nameless, faceless, heartless, homogenous entity.

Remember that as soon as you attribute a deed or a character trait to “the Orthodox” – you are talking about me: my name, my face, my heart. And you never even bothered to get to know me first.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, Lehrhaus, and more. Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world.
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