‘The Secret Fear Plaguing The Unmarried, Untethered Orthodox’

Laura E. Adkins writes:

I did not grow up a religious Jew, but for my entire adult life, I’ve been a member of the Orthodox world. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time in other people’s homes, with other people’s families; Orthodox life is built around the family, and Shabbat and holidays are desolate affairs if you’re by yourself.

Countless families and communities across the world have graciously opened their doors and tables to me. From the homes of close friends in my neighborhood to the home of an eccentric kabbalist-cum krav maga teacher in Israel, through the boisterous Chabad of Panama City and everywhere in between, every Shabbat and every holiday I’ve found a place amongst my generous fellow tribesmen and women.

I’ve never once been made to feel unwelcome. But I have also never forgotten that I am always a guest.

And while I pay my synagogue dues and give what I can to the communal institutions that have made me who I am today, and though I regularly host Shabbat and holiday meals of my own in my tiny apartment, there’s a little part of me that will always feel like a burden, a tiny voice in the back of my head telling me I’ve been given more than I can ever give in return.

It’s not a friendly voice. A child of divorce, I hate to need. I’ve been able to pack a dufflebag by rote in fifteen minutes flat since age eight. I have become a self-sufficient machine; my first word was not “mommy” or “daddy” but “cat.” I’m an introvert by nature, and at the end of the day, I live in my head much more than I do in the presence of others.

But the Orthodox Jewish world is no place for such singularity.

This point was driven home for me during a seminar course in college on religious leadership. Our first assignment was to tell the cohort a 10-minute narrative of our life and religious journey. When it came to her turn, a fellow Orthodox Jew from a wealthy coastal town who I’ll call Beth shared the story of a woman I’ll call Rebekah, a woman from her community who had no nearby Jewish family members of her own. Rebekah would come to Beth’s Orthodox home every Jewish holiday at the behest of her parents, who made room for this unmarried woman in their hearth.

When Beth was a child, she saw Rebekah’s visits as a burden; making space in the house, making space at the table, making space in the family for a virtual interloper during the pinnacle of family time seemed like a grand intrusion. But as Beth grew older, she realized that though it was never truly painless having her home opened to someone so different each and every holiday, she gained as much from Rebekah’s presence and unique persona as Rebekah did from her family’s hospitality.

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Forward: ‘In Leaving Orthodoxy, Tova Mirvis Voices Questions Many Secretly Harbor’

From the Forward:

I was not raised in modern Orthodoxy; I married into it.

And as I read Tova Mirvis’ memoir, The Book of Separation, it often felt as though I was reading my own misgivings and hesitations.

Her book opens with a chronicling of her first Rosh Hashanah, after leaving her marriage and Orthodox Judaism. Mirvis grew up in the modern Orthodox community, married within it, and raised her children as such. She has a deep appreciation for the customs and beliefs she has lived her entire life, but the knot of doubt that she used to be able to push aside – does God really care if I drive on Rosh Hashanah, eat a non-kosher piece of pizza, or daven with the established prayers, and even, do I believe in God at all – has only grown, and she can no longer live her life as a lie.

Mirvis delicately traverses a new world, and treats her old one, the one her children still live in with their father, with much respect and even love. She does not leave Orthodoxy for lack of love, but for lack of belief.

Like Mirvis, I have always lived with that knot of uncertainty; I have always questioned what in this religion is real, and what truly matters. I know I’m not alone.

As Mirvis sits in Rosh Hashanah services and questions her beliefs and God’s presence in her life, she looks at those around her in the synagogue and thinks, “Surely inside some of these minds burned this strange fire, these same doubt-riddled thoughts.”

I am not surprised that Tova Mirvis is no longer Orthodox. January 30, 2005, I interviewed her:

Luke: “Do you believe in God?”

Tova: “Yes.”

Luke: “Do you believe God gave the Torah?”

Tova: “I do. I think it’s more complicated… I don’t believe in the fundamentalist notion that he wrote it down and handed it off but I believe in an evolving dynamic chain of tradition. It has formed my life. It is complicated. I would guess that I don’t believe in it in the same terms that Wendy Shalit does.”

Luke: “How about in the terms that Maimonidies formulates in his eighth of thirteen required beliefs [the Jewish prayer Yigdal, which translated into English reads: ‘I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.’]”

Tova: “Remind me.”

Luke: “That the Torah is divine. That every word of it is divine. And if a person was to say that a single word in the Torah is not divine, that that is outside permitted belief.”

Tova: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. Part of my Orthodoxy is that you don’t have to know all the answers. I don’t know. It’s a good question.”

Luke: “This was a question that obsessed the characters of Chaim Potok novels and it obsesses me.”

Tova: “What’s interesting about Orthodoxy is does the term mean sameness of belief? There’s little sameness of belief in Orthodoxy. There are basic tenets. I don’t think one could articulate an Orthodox theology that would apply across the board. It’s complicated and I live with that complication every day.”

Luke: “Orthoprax means correct practice. Orthodox means correct belief. Sorry to hone in on this, but would it be more accurate to call you Orthoprax than Orthodox?”

Tova pauses: “I don’t even know where to begin. No, I have no idea. I don’t know what those words mean. Is someone who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and drives there [on Shabbat and festivals], is he Orthodox? I don’t know. Is one who davens three times a day but eats out [in non-kosher restaurants], is he Orthodox? I don’t do that, before that gets tagged on to me, but I don’t know. I don’t know what these terms mean. I don’t really think about them. I don’t know that there’s a need to define in that way.

“I am Modern Orthodox. I am liberal Orthodox. I am feminist Orthodox. But what does that have to do with my right to write fiction? The whole question of where writers are coming from is problematic and the least interesting way of looking at novels. I don’t know what my own personal beliefs have to do with it. Is it a credential test?

“People ask [a prominent Jewish author] if he believes in God. They want a yes or no answer. He thinks it’s not a yes-or-no answer but a discussion. To live in the Orthodox world is to be engaged in these questions and discussions and to wrestle with them and to be part of a conversation. It’s not to have all the answers. I just don’t believe that anyone does.”

Luke: “Are you familiar with Louis Jacobs?”

Tova: “Vaguely.”

Luke: “He was on the way to becoming Chief Rabbi of England in the early 1960s. They found a book he wrote in 1957 called We Have Reason To Believe where he accepted what is the universally held view in academic study of sacred text that the Torah is composed of different strands composed in different centuries and woven together over centuries. Because of that, he was thrown out of Orthodox Judaism.

“I bring that up because with your vast secular education, I am sure you are familiar with literary criticism and the asking of three basic questions: When was something written? Who wrote it? For what purpose was it written? If you apply those three basic questions to sacred text, you would come up with an answer completely different from that of traditional Judaism to its sacred texts. Do you wrestle with this?”

Tova, pauses: “Sometimes, but not to where I need to have the answer, to resolve it in my head. I think the same applies to issues of Orthodoxy and science.”

Luke: “Is Jewish Orthodoxy compatible with Modernity?”

Tova: “Yes.”

Luke: “So one can be authentically Orthodox and authentically Modern?”

Tova: “That’s what the Modern Orthodox movement is about. Modern Orthodoxy was founded on the principle that one doesn’t live in separate worlds where we do our Orthodox thing and then we do our Modern thing. We integrate them.”

Luke: “Do you think it is true?”

Tova: “Do I think that it is true?”

Luke: “Ontologically, ultimately? That you can be authentically Modern and authentically Orthodox and integrated?”

Tova: “I do.”

Luke: “I’m sure that much of what you learned at Columbia ran completely counter to your Orthodox Judaism?”

Tova: “I don’t know. It didn’t.”

Luke: “Did you ever take a class in Bible?”

Tova: “I didn’t. I regret that.

“I think these are interesting questions but they don’t have to do with fiction, with my fiction.

“I think of Wendy Shalit’s piece as a tzitzit-check, a sheitel-check. What are your credentials for writing. As a writer, I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the theological questions of Orthodoxy. I don’t pretend it in my life and I don’t pretend it in my fiction.

“I don’t think that writing from a place of certainty makes for the best fiction.

“I can discuss with you my own doubts though I don’t think that I need to. Orthodoxy is not always an easy package to hold together.

“I take issue with her argument that because characters struggle with communal norms and divine truths they are outsiders. I think she wants to do this to writers and to our characters. It is the second one that pisses me off more.”

After the interview, I exchanged some emails with Tova.

Eighty minutes after the conclusion of our interview, Tova wrote me:
I must tell you as well, in hindsight, that I have an isssue with many of your questions. Upon thinking about it, I wondered whether questions such as whether I believe in the one of maimonides 13 principles of faith are intended for discussion and thought, or to determine whether I’m really the insider I claim to be. if the former, then I truly am interested in the conversation and the ongoing exploration. But if its the latter, then I’d make the same objection as I make to her piece. Must we believe in the 3rd principle of faith, for example, to write legitimately about the ortjodox world. What if someone only believed in numbers 1-11? Does that disqualify them? And since its so on point, I’d love to quote The Ghost Writer, which I mentioned: “Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what qualifies you to write about Judaism for national magazines?” I’m feeling a little too much of Judge Wapter in the air.
I replied:
That was my favorite section of the Ghostwriter. I do not believe that you need to believe in anything to write on Orthodox Judaism or any topic. My questions on your beliefs were to find out where you are coming from. I realize this is a very sensitive area for many people… I had a fascinating discussion along a similar line with Alana Newhouse…in my book on Jewish journalism.
Later, I emailed Tova: “Why have you stayed Orthodox?”

Tova wrote back: “I’ve stayed Orthodox because it’s who I am, it’s my childhood and its my family, my parents and my children, and it’s part of all my memories. I’m Orthodox because I love ritual, because I love the texts, love the idea of a chain of ideas passed down from generation to generation, each one adding one more link. Because I love Shabbos, love that the chaos of my everyday life quiets down for those hours. Because sometimes when I least expect it, a cantorial tune, a word of a prayer will catch me off guard and move me, make me feel a longing for something deeper, fuller, higher. I’ve stayed Orthodox even though so many things about it anger me, so many things feel problematic and troubling and unresolvable. And I stay because the Orthodox world is so much wider than some people believe, because one can doubt and wrestle and observe and believe and that is all part of this tradition.”

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Forward: ‘3 Ex-Orthodox Women Accuse Community Member Of Sexual Assault’

Yehuda emails:

So a few ex-Orthodox women claim that had unwanted sex with another ex-Orthodox guy.

I got it.

But why does the word Orthodox have to be used?

Just write: “Three secular Jewish women complain about another secular Jewish man”

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Jewish Displacement From The Inner City

This is an issue of the Agudah Israel journal from 1972 examining the problem.

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‘Leader Of Richard Spencer’s White Nationalist Group Was Inspired By A Jewish Intellectual’

From the Forward:

Evan McClaren, the new leader of Richard Spencer’s white nationalist think tank says his political path into far-right politics began after reading the work of Paul Gottfried — a Jewish intellectual who has been dubbed the “Moses of the alternative right.”

McClaren became executive director at the National Policy Institute this summer, taking over the role that Spencer once held and says he was “very attracted to the writings” of Gottfried as a younger man.

“I was very attracted to the writings that were published by Paul Gottfried,” McLaren told the Intercept.

Gottfried is an academic and author who has been an outspoken critic of neoconservatives in the Republican Party and coined the term “alternative right” — which Spencer later shortened to “alt-right.” While Gottfried does not call himself a white nationalist he has become — in the words of Tablet — a “philosophical lodestone” to people like McLaren and Spencer.

McLaren was so moved by reading Gottfried’s work that he drove to his office in Pennsylvania to get involved in Gottfried’s H.L. Mencken Club, named for the 20th century “free-thinker.”

It was through this club and Gottfried that McLaren would go on to meet other white nationalist leaders like Spencer — and later take over leadership at NPI.

“I knew Evan during his college years at Kenyon,” Gottfried wrote in an email to the Forward. “He then attended an early meeting of the Mencken Club but never came back. I was flabbergasted to see him evolving into some kind of white nationalist.”

At a Shabbat dinner in 1994, I met a guy and immediately hated him because it seemed like he was making progress on some woman at the party I wanted. Then I started talking to the guy and we kept talking deep into the evening and it turned out he had no designs on the woman (who I had no success with anyway). This guy became my best friend in LA from 1994-1998.

I felt chagrined that night about the thin line between love and hate. I started out the night hating the guy and ended the night befriending him. He became such a good friend that I trusted him enough to give him a credit card (I was responsible for it) and I expected he would pay his bills promptly. It turned out that he stiffed me for about $500 and got furious when I canceled his card. He never wanted to discuss what happened and that took a toll on our friendship and I felt like I wasn’t particularly interested in having him in my life.

A mutual friend said to me that I should join the line of people who’ve been burned by this guy.

My buddy’s life went from bad to worse. He had accident after accident and normal life ceased for him around 1999. I haven’t spoken to him since about 2008.

It is easy to flip between love and hate — for individuals and for groups. I’m not surprised that many white nationalists were influenced by Jewish intellectual Paul Gottfried. In slightly different circumstances, our love turns to hate and vice versa. In one context, goyim might be favorably disposed to many Jews and in other contexts, they might want all of them gone from their country, just as for Jews, in some circumstances, may feel positively toward goyim and in slightly different circumstances, hate them.

Big doors swing on small hinges. If you are a visible representative of a minority group, you should be on excellent behavior when dealing with out-groups. Millions of lives might swing on it.

Hitler had many positive experiences with Jews but more negative ones. I’m not sure how much his personal experiences shaped his worldview on Jews.

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