By Michael Eliyahou
A friend who, unlike me, grew up with a religious Jewish education in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, described the kind of idealism that a student of Judaism might hold:
The tradition passed down to religious Jews in the schools we go to, I do think pretty much across the Orthodox board (which can otherwise be pretty diverse theologically, make no mistake) is that, on Mount Sinai, after we left Egypt, God told Moses everything.
Everything: how it begins, how it ends, right? But furthermore, how to relate to people and families, how to build the perfect utopian economic system, how to enforce social justice and prevent corruption, how to resurrect the dead and animate clay, how to conjure demons and make them wait your tables, how to make people’s kidneys explode…
The secret names that all the angels answer to, the secret languages of all the animals, the secret of folding space to be able to teleport from place to place, the secret of how to transmogrify cucumbers into venison, the secret powers of every plant, and the appropriate context.
In Yeshiva, we all heard the story of the Lithuanian rabbi who taught his brain surgeon how to do brain surgery better, because he had learned it out of a passage of the Talmud somehow. Because, ostensibly, it’s all there.
I had this fantasy about the desert Israelites… Moses taught them everything. They could win every war and conquer the Holy Land because they were like tantric ninja masters, whose daily prayer services included asanas now unknown to us. They had the knowledge of how to be ideally developed human beings, and they devoted it all to God, because, truth be told, what else is there?
Although his description is a bit exaggerated, I think that the ba’al teshuvah (return to observant Judaism) movement of the late 20th century gave us newcomers a similar notion. I did not grow up in a Jewish community, and my primary exposure to Judaism for several years was the literature I read heavily on kiruv-oriented websites such as those of Project Genesis (Torah.org), Aish HaTorah, and Ohr Somayach. When I lived in France, I also listened to a Jewish radio station that broadcast the public shiurim (lectures) of Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, and these speeches electrified me. I am not saying there was anything wrong with any of this content; it was all quite good. But it fostered in me an idealism of what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew, something like this:
If we were willing to spend our entire day in Torah study for a number of years and live a committed, frum life, we could achieve enlightenment and a deep spiritual awareness. Never mind that the education was lacking in what Western Civilization considered academically necessary, because Torah contained all the knowledge in the universe. Our practical needs, as well as culture and beauty, would naturally blossom in this environment. And if all Jews would live this way, we would have a utopian society and the end of Exile.
I chose this religion and this identity over the one in which I was raised because I was convinced that the Torah was the authentic expression of God’s will, unlike the other . I didn’t want anything less than the Real Thing.
When I made aliyah, though, I discerned already that there were issues in Orthodox Judaism. It was not the utopian ideal that I’d imagined. But I mostly attributed this to the fact that we were still in Exile. I still had a strong idealism regarding being a Jew in Israel. It went something like this: “Am Yisrael has its Torah heritage, and we are now living where we are supposed to be – the official location. There are leaders, the Gedolei HaDor, who are obviously very saintly people who know all of Torah and how it is to be lived. They are the transmitters of that ancient tradition. There must be some ideal existence that a Jew living in Israel is ‘supposed’ to have. I need to discover that.”
This is a fantasy that I still entertain sometimes, even though my opinions of both the Religious Zionist and the Haredi worlds has changed quite a bit in the seven years that I have been living here. I do still believe that the Rabbinic tradition came from Sinai, that it is supposed to be capable of dealing with everything in life, and that there is some ideal way to live. As a small taste of this, I thoroughly enjoy studying practical halakhah and the Mishnah. I get a real thrill when I taste something authentic even if I do not entirely understand all the underpinnings and implications. I am making progress on that.
But as for an ideal life as represented by the Jewish people living in Israel, I am dismayed and disillusioned. True, I have come to identify more with the Haredim in my day-to-day life. At some point one has to figure out where to put the children in school and which minyan to keep going to.
But I have very little confidence in the Haredi world’s apparent concept of an ideal society or in its decision-making processes. I don’t even know if that world is aware of what those decision-making processes are, or if it is just a mob mentality, something analogous to Google search results – the ideas with the most people talking about them are those that rise to the top. I don’t know if the Gedolei HaDor are who the people say they are, and if their decisions and decrees are really what they people say they are, both by this people’s lives and by their public decrees. The Rabbi Slifkin controversy, for example, and the various proclamations about technology have blown out of the water any illusion that this community knows what it is doing.
 http://cannabischassidis.blogspot.com/2005/01/420-is-gematria-of-smoke.html (Okay, so it’s a very different context. Do not view this citation as my support of the author’s views regarding cannabis.)
 I didn’t want to get into it here, but the religion I grew up in was Christianity, specifically in Fundamentalist Baptist churches and schools. Christianity also claims to have all the answers that you need in life, but maintains that the questions are much simpler, and that whatever is too complex to be understood easily is not worth debating.
About Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. He heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
Can we hear the rest of the thought? I am intrigued by the idea being put forth here but I feel like I just read an introduction and my browser did not load the complete article.
Michael – What would you like to see?
Michael Eliyahou says
Your suspicion is correct. The original blog post that I wrote was editorially cut in half. Part two will be published next week.
If by your question you mean, what would I like to see in the Orthodox Jewish world that I don’t see now, I am not sure that next week’s conclusion is going to answer it.
So I would say that I would appreciate more honesty, more consistency, and more facing up to the realities of life.
I often hear the Haredi way of life, which is an unprecedented new development in Jewish history, described as being the best of the best of the best. The hard-core adherents of frumkheit are compared to aristocracy. Families with life-long yeshivah and kollel learners attempt to reproduce the miraculous existence of the children of Israel in the desert. And the lesser aristocracy, those who can’t fully implement this way of life or who are new to it, still hold it up as the ideal. When they make important decisions about education and matchmaking for marriage, they conform excruciatingly to its code, despite all the difficulties that it presents.
But if it works, I would frankly expect to see our local economy a little stronger, and our culture a little richer. I would like to see less poverty and more healthy living conditions.
If learning the Torah truly teaches everything necessary for life, I would like to see more vocational opportunities available to graduates of the fine Orthodox institutions. And I would like to see them less afraid of technological progress.
If it is truly a great mitsvah to live in the holy Land of Israel, I would like to see more concern for the natural environment, less litter, and more responsible use of our resources.
When the Rabbanim who are considered to be leaders of the generation make society-altering decrees (e.g. the famous Pashkevils), I want to see accountability. When it turns out later that those rabbis didn’t actually make those decisions or were not aware of the details, it pretty much puts all of their decrees in question. And it makes the unquestioning loyalty to their proclamations look pretty sad.
If the intricate rules of dating really work, then I would like to see fewer Orthodox singles wishing they could find a husband or wife, but unable to for the past 15 years for no particularly good reason. The number of those whom I know personally is astounding.
Those are just a few examples. Do they answer your question at all?
Thanks for the comment!
Nathan Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks for your observations.
Be aware that there are many people who think like you and who have the same kind of questions and experience. You are not alone.
For many years I taught at one of the Baale Teshuva Yeshivoth but after some time I realized that what they preached is not authentic Judaism besides the fact that it was far too simplistic. I clashed with them and left. Baruch Hashem! (There is much better literature around than the kind which Artscroll, etc. are publishing.)
The issue of the Oral Law is much more complicated and the idea that everything came from Moses is, even from an authentic Orthodox point of view, highly questionable. The same is true regarding our “belief system.” The 13 principles of the great Maimonides are very problematic and were never accepted as the last word on what we believe. The truth is that it is all far deeper and in fact much more beautiful. The questions which you ask and the real answers to them are far more profound and much more deeply religious than most Orthodox Jews know or want to know.
Your disappointment with the Orthodox establishment should only bring you to an even greater appreciation of what Judaism is really all about. It should only deepen your commitment as it did to me once I walked out of the establishment. True, it is a little lonely, but since it much more authentic it is worth the loneliness and is much more religiously truthful.