Since making aliyah to Israel three years ago, I’ve had the chance to meet and strengthen my connection with some wonderful religious human beings: traditional, haredi, ba’al teshuva and frum-since-birth. Distinctions and categories of believers that had been practically invisible to me as a mostly-secular New Yorker with mostly gentile friends suddenly became visible. The stories of people’s personal journeys were interesting, and so were their accompanying thoughts and insights. I discovered that each texture of the fabric of human experience could offer some wisdom and help inform our lives, if viewed with an open heart and mind.
Yet while religious pluralism can be a beautiful thing, not all aspects of religious orthodoxy are admirable. There were the instances of extreme pedantry. Too much energy and too much time spent on strictly observing the minutiae of laws that neither really improve nor damage the world. But most troubling of all to encounter was the underlying fear—whether it was a fear of loss of control, of making mistakes, or of allowing others to make mistakes—which seemed to be the driving force of so much religious orthodoxy, in Judaism and beyond.
The potency of this fear becomes palpable to an outsider only in the passing comments, whispers and secrets that penetrate the lives of many, though certainly not all, religious people. Fear is my shomer Shabbat friend who secretly texts on Saturdays (if he told his religious friends, he would risk appearing hypocritical). Fear is the rabbi’s son who omitted mentioning to a close friend that the girl he loved wasn’t Jewish, after all (he wouldn’t want to set a bad example to those who respected him). Fear is the wife who could not speak to her own husband and son about her religious doubts (it would rock the boat). Fear is the closeted boy who snuck off to the recent Pride parade in Tel Aviv (his father would be upset). And fear is the closeted man who didn’t attend at all (he couldn’t risk being seen).
I’ve noticed that most non-religious people prefer to stay neutral on the subject of religion; we tend to hold it at arms’ length so as not to accidentally offend or provoke our stickler brothers and sisters. “Live and let live,” we say. “They can practice whatever they want, as long as they let me do whatever I want.” Yet the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s apathy. And whether we study at Bar Ilan University or proudly march down Bograshov Street, or both, we are all Israelis. We are not the State of Tel Aviv and the State of Jerusalem: we are the State of Israel. We get involved with each other, and I like it this way.
I prefer to be curious, openly question, and, if necessary, speak strongly but politely against the shrouds of silence surrounding religious communities. This is because I have personally witnessed communities who at best, glaze over “uncomfortable” subjects and at worst, unwittingly hurt or alienate some of their own members—the very people to whom they have a moral obligation to defend as fellow Jews and human beings. When you force people to keep parts of their identity or individual history hidden from view, it often leads to mistrust, distance and shame. But another way can be chosen: the way of love.
When love overcomes fear, the degree to which you observe the Sabbath is secondary to what you actually do with this day. When love overcomes fear, religious authorities openly discuss the pros and cons of interfaith relationships, maybe even encouraging creative solutions to the challenges of such couples. When love overcomes fear, family members feel comfortable engaging in dialogue about their religious faith or lack thereof, together weighing and debating the merits of various practices and ideas. When love overcomes fear, fathers wearing kippas proudly march in parades with their gay sons. And when love overcomes fear, religion is no longer used as an antidote to fear, but as an expression of love.