In the Torah, Moshe and company put to death an Israelite for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.
Orthodox Judaism plays hardball.
This surprises many outsiders who have a picture of religion as primarily a spiritual loving community.
Orthodox Judaism has spirituality and love but these aren’t it defining characteristics. Before such secondary matters, Orthodox Judaism is a religion of law. What does the law demand? What does the halacha (Jewish law) say? Those are the primary Jewish questions.
One of the things that halacha demands is shalom bayit (peace in the home). The siddur says that Torah scholars increase peace in the world.
If you’ve been in a Jewish home or a traditional shul, this might seem bizarre to you. Jews are known as outspoken difficult people. Shuls are liable to fracture on many different ideological and personal lines. Torah scholars as a group are known at least as much for machlochet (arguments) as they are for peace.
Judaism is complicated. It is a constellation of values perpetually in conflict with each other.
Despite these subtleties, Orthodox Judaism is primarily a religion of law. An Orthodox Jew, for instance, should not eat food prepared by anyone but an Orthodox Jew. He should not eat in a non-kosher restaurant. He should not attend an intermarriage. He shouldn’t wish anyone a “Merry Christmas.”
Anyone who wishes to convert to Orthodox Judaism today must meet some formidable requirements. The person must demonstrate an ability to read Hebrew aloud. They must have formed a connection with a sponsoring rabbi who’s willing to vouch for their commitment to Jewish law. They must show that they are tough enough to navigate Jewish life and to earn a reliable income.
I’ve experienced plenty of love and spirituality in Orthodox Judaism but I still primarily think of it as a hardball religion. During my early years in it, I had a hard time with this. During my first four synagogue ejections, I shed a lot of tears and I got a reputation in the community for being soft. I was thought of as weak and pathetic. People despised me.
Then, around 2004, I got hardball with the way I wrote on Orthodox Judaism on my blogs. I started reporting on Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox communal life the same way I’d report on any other group (until then, I’d treated Orthodox Jews on my blogs like family). And by following these basic practices, I quickly shed the soft label. I think I still have a bad reputation throughout much of Orthodox Judaism, but few people think of me as soft anymore. Now I’m as tough as the religion that formed me.