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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  • Malka Hellinger Forshner

    Ah, very, very nice…..you packed a lot of beauty (and a lot of “issues” that need to be addressed) into this short piece…….And it felt like a perfect step on the road, for me, at least, in preparing myself for Gimmel Tammuz….The Rebbe, as far as I’m aware, didn’t label a Jew, aside from just that — “a Jew” — and he did it with fierce love, devotion, and kindness, but that was combined with a very high expectation that we need to keep reaching higher….and digging deeper…….You’ve given us all a bit of homework to do…thanks, really, I’ve always liked homework!

  • elisheva schwartz

    great post

  • Moshe

    One of the nicest, most inclusive, most truthful terms (we can’t seem to avoid them….) I ever heard was from a parent of a student of ours, who called himself “a Jew on a journey”. Who could argue with that?

  • Sara Ross Kutliroff

    I have always preferred the word, Observant. You choose what you observe, how to do it and where that falls personally. Religious, Orthodox, etc. never cuts it.

    • We have to stop defining “observant” as “Orthodox,” though. Too many people think they’re synonymous.

  • Mr_Cohen

    Pop Chassid said:
    “This [the battle against so–called Open Orthodoxy],
    in the end, is simply a debate about labels.”

    I respectfully disagree with Pop Chassid this time.

    So–called “Open Orthodoxy” includes a high percentage
    of leaders who reject the divine origin of the Torah and
    accept homosexuality.

    One of their Rabbis recently published an article in a major
    newspaper in which he swore to never again eat kosher food
    because eating kosher is allegedly “unethical.” That’s not Orthodox!

    • I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate these issues, or to be clear that the Torah inherently comes from Hashem. My point is that we need to discuss those topics, not to make it a debate about “orthodoxy”. In other words, the reason it’s become such a huge issue is simply because they use that word.

      I’m not against the substance of these debates. I’m against the label distracting us from the very substance you are claiming exists.

      • Bentzy

        Elad, are you disagreeing about the existence of a defined “category” (bad word, but don’t have another one) of people that fall into what is called “Orthodoxy”, ie. people that believe in Torah as God’s communication to the Jewish People and strive to keep halachah to the best of their ability, or are you saying that there are clear boundaries for this category/group just that the “word” orthodox doesn’t float your boat? IOW, the words “Frum” would be better?

        • Rebecca K.

          I totally understand this desire to abandon the label “Orthodox” as a way people look down their noses on others, for example. But “Frum” is no better. Plenty of people claim to be Frum — which means “sensitive” — but behave in ways that reveal both an insensitivity to halacha and an insensitivity to other human beings.

          In terms of “frumkeit,” I think a better term is “bnei aliyah” — namely, someone who is on the way up. They are learning more Torah, trying to refine their middos, growing in mitzvah observance.

          An additional problem is that the term “Orthodox” serves a purpose. For example, if I hire a caterer, I want to know whether their standards are what I’m looking for and can check if they use a mashgiach who is Orthodox (and trained by an Orthodox-run organization). If I am looking for a shul to daven in, looking for a mikvah, etc., in general I can assume the standards in ones that are labelled “Orthodox” would meet my standards. Moreover, there are some halachic implications of a person’s adherance to what we call “Orthodox Judaism”: whether a person can perform certain acts like witnessing a wedding, for example.

          In that case, the best way to describe a person would be “Halachically-compliant” maybe?

          • A few thoughts on this:

            1. Kashrut is a perfect example of how the term “orthodox” is extremely unhelpful. What matters with hasgacha and mashgiachs is the level of competence they have as well as the particular derech that they hold. We see how horrible this labeling has become especially in places like Israel and NYC where the fact that “orthodox” kashruts can confuse people, especially people without experience into trusting inherently incompetent organizations, or organizations that are not in line with their particular derech. I wouldn’t say it’s the only problem, but it certainly doesn’t help.

            2. Halachically compliant is also a hard term (as is frum, which I totally agree with you about, which is just another label). Are you completely halachically compliant? If you are, um… wow. I know I’m not and even the most amazing, devoted Jews I know also aren’t.

            In the end, the main problem is umbrella labels for a huge, vast, group of people for whom their identity is both constantly in flux, and also incredibly diverse. Specificity, in the end, is what will save us.

          • Rebecca K.

            I wouldn’t label a person halachically compliant, but a service: a mikveh (meaning the water in the pool is collected correctly, etc), a shul (meaning it has a mechitzah, the decisions about what to include, etc. are all done according to what today is called “Orthodox” practice, relying on typical authorities like the Mishna Brura if you’re Ashkenaz and yeshivish or the Ben Ish Chai if you’re Sefardi, etc. for each Nusach). Consumers/daveners/etc. have to be protected and informed in some user-friendly way.

            I’ve spent a lot of time with non-Orthodox people who practice Judaism and are truly bnei aliyah, but whose handle on halacha prevents me from being able to eat in their homes, etc. Their conversion methods make it so some of them may not count in a minyan, etc. Something has to indicate to “users” of a service how the creators of a service are “holding” in an easily understood way. “Orthodox” as a label will not go away until that’s accomplished in another way.

            As I see it, the problems you describe about Kashrus in NY and Israel are not problems with labeling something as “Orthodox” but problems 1) with bureaucratic issues, 2) such a wide variety of opinions about what is kosher, 3) business practices. These problems are significantly less even in cities like Baltimore and L.A. with large Jewish populations.

  • Reading this, I am reminded of a story that I believe I read in Telushkin, about a Chassidic Rabbi whose students tried to stump him with this whole “orthodox” thing – although they didn’t use that word. The story goes that they came to him, positing the idea that the 613 mitzvot are like the rungs on a ladder reaching to heaven. One man keeps more of the mitzvot than another, and so is higher up on the ladder. And so, Rabbi, they ask: “Who in the eyes of G-d is higher?”

    The rabbi considered the question, and then said “I cannot answer you. You have not given me enough information, because you have not told me which of the men is moving upward.”

    I have been slammed in three different online venues for my desire to convert to Judaism when it was discovered that I was not going to convert Orthodox. I have been told I will not be a “real Jew.” And yes, it’s hurt me. But it just renews my conviction that a Jew is a Jew, and the labels and divisions are not from HaShem but man-made. Man-made divisions, while understandable, do not have divine force and cannot define me.

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s important, and I hope it goes viral.

  • Pingback: Moving Up the Ladder, or, the Foundation of My Yiddishkeit | Wrestling With G-d()

  • Arnie Samlan

    Excellent insight. How the traditionally observant community took what is essentially a derogatory expression and tried to wear it proudly is beyond me. As a rabbi and Jewish educator (and as a parent), I am thrilled to be living at a time at which “post-denominational” is becoming more accepted. We, as Jews, need to encounter one another on our own individual terms and build community from there.

  • Yadidya Greenberg

    I couldn’t agree with this post more, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Thanks for putting it out there!

  • EdCodish

    I have not read all the comments, so I may be repeating someone else’s post. I have described myself, without further explanation, as an observant Jew. Unlike Orthodox, it has no political flavor. It has the obvious advantage of including anyone who calls herself or himself Jewish, because we are all observant to some degree, if only by not murdering or having sex with our parents.