I am so confused I don’t know what to think. When I started studying about Judaism with you, it sounded so beautiful, sweet, and positive. I met so many nice people who warmly welcomed me into their homes. I wished I could have that Shabbat experience, faith, and love in my home.
Now it is a few years later. I have become much more observant, maybe even what you would call “Orthodox.” I see the flaws in the community. I see that lots of people are not sweet or warm. I see judgmentalism and rudeness. I feel kind of deflated. Why didn’t you tell me?
Let me begin by expressing my dismay at your disillusionment. You seem not only dejected and therefore possibly stunted in your Judaism, but also that you feel I have done you a disservice by not opening your eyes to the flaws and difficulties of observant life in advance.
WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME
Imagine that you are dating a guy that you are really excited about. Finally, you feel like maybe this is Mr. Right. He’s kind, sweet, thoughtful. You meet a married girlfriend for coffee and fill her in on your life. She says, “Oh, honey, they all start out that way. Let me tell you what married life is REALLY like. He’ll leave his stinky socks on the floor and gain 15 pounds. He’ll ignore you when the football game is on and burp loudly even though you hate it. There are going to be times that you’ll wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea. And THAT,” (she drops her voice ominously) “is with a GOOD man.” (Deep, long-suffering sigh.)
Has your friend done you a service or a disservice? Is she right?
You schedule a meeting with a new school for your kids. You meet the director of admissions who shows you around, and extols the virtues of the school. You ask good questions and get good answers. You like the look and feel of the school. Everyone seems to really like it there. You join.
After a few months you start to notice it’s not all roses. There seems to be some underlying tensions between some of the administrators that filters down to staff satisfaction. Some of the policies of the school don’t sit well with you. But you still like the school in general, and are happy to spend the extra money to send your kids there.
Was it the job of the director of admissions to inform you of the politics and every policy of the school? If a friend would have filled you in on all the behind-the-scenes negative stuff, is it a favor? Is it right? Would it have changed your opinion?
GIVING UP ON THE ORTHODOX
Is there any institution, school, company, family, religion, community, city, that doesn’t have flaws? That doesn’t have negativity? That doesn’t contain people who aren’t good role models? Does that mean the institution or community is inherently flawed?
Here’s what Elie Wiesel said on the subject:
“A credo that defines my path:
I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.
Was it yesterday – or long ago – that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty? That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely? Should one, therefore, turn away from humanity?
The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not.”
— Open Heart, 2012
You wonder why people in the Orthodox community are flawed. It’s because humanity is flawed. But let’s not give up on Torah, on mitzvah observance, on humanity. You may wonder why the religion didn’t “make” those people better. It’s because religion can’t “make” anyone anything. A
religion can’t make someone better, because he has to do the work to bring it
from his head to his heart to his actions. Free will is the arbiter
here and I don’t think anyone would want it taken away.
So, to my dear burned out friend.
Remember the day you discovered your parents weren’t perfect? Didn’t know everything? Wasn’t that devastating? But now you probably see that although they’re not perfect, they did much good and taught you a lot.
WHO ARE THE “REAL” ORTHODOX?
I hope that you can see the meaning and beauty in the life that Torah outlines despite the fact that not all its adherents lead wonderful lives. I could extol the virtues of the mitzvah-observant “lifestyle” and even its community with so many examples of truly incredible people who lead beautiful and wonderful lives, both in and out of the limelight. But this is neither the time nor the place to do so, because you know they’re there. You’re not talking about them. You’re talking about the others.
Who are the “real” Orthodox? The great role models you encountered at your gateway to observant life, or the poor role models that you met later on in your journey? I can’t answer that because Orthodoxy is a human invention. But I will say this:
To the extent that a Jew is following Torah, his actions will be beautiful.
Because the same Torah that says to keep kosher, enjoins us not to judge those that don’t.
And the same Torah that says to have humility and modesty begs us not to gossip about those that don’t.
And the same Torah that pleads with us not to neglect Shabbat forbids us from embarrassing another human being.
When you find Jews who are keeping all the man-to-God commandments, and are neglecting the man-to-man commandments, you have the most toxic, ugly mix possible. You have a classic chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). You have before you a person for whom there is a total disconnect. For whom his relationship to God is stunted, confused, or dead. For whom Judaism is in his body but not in his heart. Maybe he is keeping the external ritual laws out of habit or social pressure, but this is incomplete and warped Judaism.
But this is the human condition. You are disillusioned, yes, because to think that Orthodoxy can magically transform us from all our human flaws of impatience, rudeness, judgmentalism and the rest – is, indeed, an illusion. When you sign up for Orthodoxy, you don’t buy a KGB of rabbis who force you to comply with anything. You’re on your own, there. And if you want to keep Shabbos and be rude, yes, you will have the free will and the space to do just that.
WE ARE REAL PEOPLE
Did you know that Orthodox people struggle with the same character flaws as everyone else? WE ARE REGULAR PEOPLE. We are trying, but we’re not perfect. We are learning, but we may not always apply what we learn. We are all different. We are not lumpable together. Our rabbis and teachers constantly tell us not to judge. Although we sometimes fail, can we try together to succeed?
I know we’ll both be richer for it.