When I chose a traditional pattern of observance back in the day, I was looking for community and for meaning. I found both. Unbeknownst to me, what came with as part of the package was a new vocabulary. It took years in yeshiva, Orthodox semicha (ordination) and decades of involvement in the Orthodox (and broader) Jewish community to master the dialect.
This post examines of the more troubling entries of the lexicon: “Off the Derech.” The word derech in Hebrew is a path, a way, or a street. In parts of the Orthodox community, it is used to refer to an individual who was observant by Orthodox standards and has since become less observant or completely non-observant. That person has gone “off road”.
Why it’s a troubling phrase:
The phrase assumes that there is one “way” to be an observant Jew. Not only does it dismiss any type of Judaism that is not Orthodox, it also oversimplifies even traditional types of Judaism. There is not and has never been only one “way”. Biblical Judaism had competing temple sites. Talmudic era Judaism had Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and other groups, all observant in one way or another. It also had the “schools” of Hillel, Shammai, and more. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews were so different that the Shulchan Aruch, which codified Jewish practice, couldn’t unify all practice. A few hundred years ago, the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jews differed so much that the Lithuanians excommunicated the Hasidim, even though both were ostensibly observant. And all of these examples came even before the more recent expressions of Judaism — Reform, Conservative, Zionist, Reconstructionist and such.
It oversimplifies each individual’s decision about how to be observant. If a person attends synagogue on Shabbat, but uses a cell phone to stay connected, is s/he “off the derech“? If an individual no longer keeps every nuance of the Kosher laws, but becomes a vegetarian, is s/he “off the derech“? If a person no longer strictly observes Shabbat, but moves to Israel and becomes an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) member, defending the land and people of Israel, has s/he gone “off the derech“? Choices, especially spiritual / religious ones are more complicated than a simple “yes/no” option.
It is insulting to the individual involved, and, contrary to whatever a person who uses the phrase might tell you, it is absolutely meant in a derogatory way.
It’s totally judgemental. If you want to judge another person, you’ll need a law degree. And even with one, judging another person’s brand of religion is just not something you want to be doing. Because let’s face it, some of our people just got finished swinging a live chicken around their heads and smashing willow branches on the floor. So you don’t want to “do what is hateful to you” to another person. Know what I’m saying here?
So, yes, this is a part of the OrthoJew Speak lexicon that I not only refuse to adopt but rail against.
What is a Jewish person who has chosen to leave Orthodox observance, then? A Jewish person.