Jews, It’s Time To Abolish The Word “Orthodox”

The only constant is change.  On a scientific level, there is literally a complete change from this moment to the next, whether it has to do with atomic movement, aging, or the simple fact that time is physical, and so a change in time is a movement from one dimension of reality into another.  Spiritual reality is no different.

And perhaps that’s why we try to pin things down and make them permanent.  Perhaps that’s why we’re always desperate to make things stuck.  The last thing many of us want is a reminder that things change.  Change implies decay.  It implies the possibility of things getting worse.  And, ultimately, it means (physical) death.

The most extreme form of this attempt to freeze reality is labels.  We love labels, especially when applied to people.  I am liberal.  You are fat.  They are crazy.  Rarely do we define things with verbs, with actions.  With words that imply movement, that imply a process of growth (or decay).  

I’ve personally been knocking my head against this idea recently.

There’s a shift that happens as many people “become” religious (and I believe this applies to all religions): at first, they define themselves by movement.  They are growing, evolving, changing.  They clearly tell everyone that they haven’t reached the end goal.  That they have so far to still grow, to take on, to learn.

Often, people mark this time as some of the best, but also scariest, times of their lives.  They think, partly, it is from the excitement and danger of changing a lifestyle.

I think that’s probably true, but there is more.  There is something else.  And I didn’t understand that “something else” until I reached the other side… the unfortunate next step many people take after this period of embracing change.

It’s what I can only think to call, “The Period of Stagnation”.  Maybe “The Plateau”.  Anyway, something with capital letters.  Something about change stopping.

Because, we want, we so badly want, to believe that the growth stops at some point, that we can turn around to say to everyone, “Okay, this is who I am.”

The truth is, I am sure this applies to people who have grown up religious just as much as it happens to people who have taken it on later in life.  This desire to say, “I am this thing.”

We want, in other words, to slip back into our old ways, to embrace our desire to freeze the world.  To say, “Okay, I’m done growing.  Now I can define myself.  Now I can say what I am.  Now I can look around and say, ‘Yes, this is it.  This is the life I’ve chosen for myself.”

Nowhere is this more true than with the word, “orthodox”.  Never in my life have I experienced a word so poisonous.  As a Jew, I have never experienced a word so loaded, so full of the implication that all growth has officially stopped.

Rather than truly being a defining word, the way “Jew” refers to the soul-level of a person in this world, “orthodox” has been an attempt by Jews to force people into a frozen reality, a reality in which they must adhere to certain culturally-defined strictures in order to be considered that word.

Thus, a person could keep Shabbat and kashrut, but also lie, steal, not pay back debts… and still be considered orthodox.

Or a person could start to have doubts about their beliefs, start to look in different areas for enlightenment, perhaps even stop keeping certain things, like Shabbat… and they are defined as “off the derech” (perhaps an even worse label, but one that is rooted in the very idea of orthodoxy).

More problems have recently arisen because of this labeling-madness.  In some areas of the “orthodox” world, “Open Orthodoxy” has become a huge debate.  Open orthodoxy does a lot of things differently than the rest of their orthodox brethren.

And now big rabbis are spending half their time fighting this movement, saying, “This isn’t orthodoxy! How dare they call themselves that word.”

And the “Open Orthodox” are fighting for acceptance from their similarly-labled brethren.

This, in the end, is simply a debate about labels.  Yes, you could argue that it is about more than that: about what the Torah perspective is on this.  The power of mesorah.  Etc.  But this is not the debate.  The debate really only exists because the movement has decided to have the word “orthodox” in its title.

On an individual level, calling ourselves orthodox only produces negative results.  It creates complacency.  Saying we are orthodox implies that we have reached our destination, that there is nowhere else to go.  It creates division: suddenly non-orthodox Jews are “outside”, they are no longer a part of our community.  They can even be seen as a danger.  Someone who has trouble, has doubts, with their beliefs, can be made to feel like a pariah simply because they have chosen to call themselves orthodox. 

It also causes confusion.  Someone who dresses like an orthodox Jew can be seen as closer to G-d than someone who is inspired by the ethics and morality of the Torah (In his book, “A Jewish Code of Ethics”, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin claims in the very first line: “This book has a simple thesis: G-d’s central demand of human beings is to act ethically), but who does not keep Shabbat or wear a kippah.  

And it destroys the beautiful, multiplicity of our tradition, in which multiple people can believe and act in different ways and all still be right.

To be clear, these are all important topics.  Keeping Shabbat.  Believing G-d gave the Torah at Sinai.  Dressing like a Jew.

But they are topics that are distorted, not aided, by the word orthodox.  Because “orthodox” is inherently static.  It does not change, it is a defitinion.  Beliefs and actions, however, are ever-growing, ever-evolving, inherently movement-oriented.  A person can do the “wrong” actions and still have value, still be connected to G-d, still be on the “right path”.  A person could have the “right” beliefs, and still be far and need more spiritual and physical aid than people realize when definitions cloud the discussion.

There is no such thing as Jewish orthodoxy.  There are such things as actions.  Belief is real.  But they are actions, verbs.  They have power because we can tap into them, lose connection with them, grow in them, decay in them, and still be Jews.

And that’s the only reality that counts.

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