Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Three misconceptions about orthodox Judaism

1) Orthodox Judaism Claims the Universe is Only 5,778 Years Old. 

The current Jewish year is 5,778, but Judaism has never taught that the Jewish year is the age of the universe. Rather, this is the number of years from the creation of the first human, Adam, who was created near the end of the sixth “day” of creation.

The question then becomes, how long is a “day” in the Torah’s account of creation?  Since the sun was not created until the fourth day of creation, it is not possible for each of the six days of creation to be 24-hours in length.  Rather, each “day” of creation that the Torah described is understood as an “epoch” of time.

Therefore, according Traditional Judaism, the age of the universe is six “days” (or epochs) plus 5778 years old.  Thus, there is no conflict between Orthodox Judaism and mainstream science that posits that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

In continuing with the above, it is a rational leap to harmonize Traditional Judaism and the “general” approach of the Theory of Evolution by viewing God as the creator of the universe in which God used an evolutionary process. Where scientists posit randomness, Orthodox Jews see God.

In fact, the Torah’s description of creation actually follows the same sequence as the Theory of Evolution. And, the most famous Torah commentator Rashi (1040-1105), whose commentary is printed in every edition of the Torah that contains a commentary, explains that everything was created in potential on the first day and then evolved into different species on subsequent days (Rashi on Genesis 1:14, 1:24 and 2:4).

(It must be stated that Traditional Judaism contains at least four elucidations on the Torah’s account of creation—that I know of–of which three reconcile with science. The above was chosen because is the easiest to explain. For another, see Gerald Schroeder’s highly popular Genesis and the Big Bang.)

2) Orthodox Jews View Non-Orthodox Jews as Not Being Jewish.

What makes a Jew a Jew is not their beliefs or practice, but their soul. Every living thing has a soul which keeps it alive, while Jews have an additional soul called a Nefesh Elokhut which is colloquially translated as a Jewish soul.  A Jewish soul is an actual piece of God within a Jewish person.  If a Jew does a Mitzvah (commandment) or an Avayrah (sin), this affects the outer “garment” of the soul, but the soul remains unchanged.  Therefore, on a soul level—which is what makes a Jew a Jew–there is no difference between Jews who do a lot of Mitzvot and those who do not.  No matter where a Jew is on the Mitzvah spectrum, he or she is equally as Jewish as every Jew.

Rabbi Akiva taught that one of the greatest Mitzvah’s is the Mitzvah to love every Jew.  This is no matter how many Mitzvot one does or which Avayrah’s (sins) one does.

Furthermore, Orthodox Judaism does not advocate an “all or nothing” approach when it comes to doing Mitzvot.  Rather, every Mitzvah one does has eternal value for which one will be rewarded for doing, and every Mitzvah helps foster a stronger relationship with God.  There is nothing hypocritical with lighting Shabbat candles (18 minutes before Sundown on Friday) and then immediately getting in a car driving to a non-kosher restaurant. The lighting of the Shabbat candles doesn’t get cancelled out, it is still a Mitzvah.

Additionally, just because a person does more Mitzvot, studies more Torah, and works on his character more than others this does not make him/her a better Jew.  This is because everyone is graded on their individualized curve based on their circumstances.  What essentially makes a Jew a “Good Jew” is that he or she is a growing in their knowledge and observance of Judaism.

It should now make sense that Orthodox Judaism does not accept the labels of Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, etc., nor even the label “Orthodox Judaism”– though, ironically, the term is used here for identification purposes–because such divisions do not fit into its world view.  Such terms are seen as political labels that divide Jews and hinder one’s Jewish growth rather than unite Jews and encourage Jewish growth.

3) Living an Orthodox Life is a Burden and Not Fun.

Parents want their children to be happy.  Traditional Judaism teaches there is a huge difference between happiness and meaning, and well a difference between happiness and pleasure.

Happiness comes about from satisfying wants and is directly associated with how one feels.  For example, a person desires getting the latest iPhone (or any other material object or experience) and only reaches happiness upon obtaining the said iPhone.  But this level of happiness subsides when a new model of the iPhone comes out, and it takes getting the latest iPhone again to obtain the same level of happiness.  Happiness is not permanent.

Meaning, on the other hand, is about having a sense of purpose, especially making positive contributions to the lives of others, and entails evaluating one’s life as a whole. People who live a life of meaning have pleasure, rather than happiness.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s z”l most profound teaching is one in which he encapsulated that “Judaism is for our pleasure.”  This is because in Traditional Judaism Mitzvot are viewed not just as commandments, but “opportunities” to connect with God, while at the same time provides the construct for leading a meaningful life.

For example, in Orthodox homes on every Friday night the entire family has dinner using a cell phone. Another practice: Davenning (praying) three times per day foster’s a sense of appreciation and of the Imminence of God. Keeping Kosher reminds one of their uniqueness and of the sanctity of all life.  Learning Torah everyday reminds one of their purpose and how to fulfill it.  Furthermore, the Jewish holidays and festivals entail fun such as eating delicious food, drinking wine, singing, dancing, camping, wearing a costume, lighting a bone-fire, etc., but within a meaningful context.

As has one can see, observing Traditional Judaism encapsulates living a meaningful life that is physically, mentally, and spiritually liberating (not burdensome), and fosters an enormous amount of pleasure.

There are many additional misconceptions people have about Orthodox Judaism—such as pertaining to: being chosen, women, sex, kashrut, the Talmud, and Chabad. Instead of holding misconceptions, one should just ask someone who is Orthodox. Similar to what you learned in this essay, you’ll probably be enlightened by the explanation.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and an outreach rabbi in his free-time. www.birthrightjudaism.com
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