Friday, February 21, 2014

My official designation equals Orthodox, but

Funny thing about labels.

"Orthodox" is a label.

I'm a Jew who doesn't believe in a literal Torah MiSinai and who often participates in egalitarian minyanim.

But because I keep Shabbat & kashrut and go to an Orthodox shul most of the time, people label me "Orthodox". That, and because I grew up Orthodox, and have never declared that I'm not.

So because people perceive me as "Orthodox", I'm included in the "us & them" conversation. Even some other Orthodox Jews who know my hashkafic bent still think of me as playing for "team Orthodox", and that I stand separate from heterodox movements, which are the "other".

Let's try a thought experiment. What if I made a tiny shift, and made the Conservative shul in my neighborhood my primary place of tefilla, and only occasionally went to the Orthodox shul, (the reverse of what I do now)? My halachic practices and my hashkafic beliefs would remain exactly the same. What would happen?

I think I'd suddenly be "the other", still retained as a friend, but not seen on being on the same team. I'd suddenly be a Conservative Jew (or a Conservadox, take your pick), and be subtly excluded from the endless conversation of what Orthodoxy stands for.

For example, instead of being seen as having an authorized voice to argue that Biblical Criticism should be acceptable within Orthodoxy, (a la Zev Farber), or that Chovevei Torah should still be included in the Orthodox world, I'd be an outside voice trying to tell Orthodoxy what it should or shouldn't be. I've seen this with various friends who straddle the denominational divide.

This isn't a polemic against labels. I certainly understand their convenience and how they're often necessary. When I started blogging, 7 years ago, my raison d'etre (which I soon abandoned) was to push a new label for the Open Orthodox crowd, so as to become an independent entity, distinct from Charedim. I was suggesting "Hilchati", hence my blogging name at the time, "Yehudi Hilchati".

But labels are quite subjective. The set of people who identify with a label is shaped like a bell curve, so yes, you do get a clumping of like-minded people in the middle. But the closer you are to the edge of that bell curve, the more arbitrary the labels feel.

I'm not sure if I have a real point in writing this post - it's more of a musing. But if I have any point, it's that my ability to argue that views like mine should be accepted within Orthodoxy, as Rabbi Zev Farber or do, is facilitated by the fact that most people view me as "Orthodox".

Interestingly, there's another side to the coin. Were I to step over the label line by making that slight shift in my life that I mentioned above, none of these beliefs would be an issue. If I'm labeled as "Conservative", nobody would care if I agree with the theories of biblical criticism. They're only an issue because of the side of the denominational divide I supposedly stand on at this point in time.


  1. Are there a lot of people like you in the orthodox world? My cousins are BTs and they would consider what your saying way over the line of acceptable. Do you have any insights from personal experience on why "true believers" even exist? Are they odd, or maybe angry, or deluded, or scared? All of the above maybe?


    1. Some true believers may be in a state of arrested development. While they've moved on intellectually in many ways, in terms of religion, they still believe what they were taught as small children and remain small children in terms of belief. (Interestingly, they use advanced tools like religious philosophy to justify their childlike belief). Why some people prefer the cocoon of childhood religion and some do not is a separate question.

      I don't know about BTs, but but for most BTs, the social aspects of religion come first and they adopt belief to fit into the religious world.

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  2. Labels, and outward identifiers, are largely what matter when it comes to the Orthodox/non-Orthodox debate.

  3. Yeah, tell me about it. :( I get a lot of flack on my blog for posting about halachic issues because I'm merely a "Conservative apikorus (heretic)." As if matters such as the agunah dilemma are of no relevance to non-Orthodox Jews.