Orthodoxy?

Throughout my posts in this blog it is fairly obvious that I am an observant Jew. I am Shomer Shabbat, I eat only kosher food and I try to live my life in accordance with the laws and customs of traditional Judaism. What I have never really talked about my personal Jewish commitment and why I do what I do. As I begin to write this post, I cannot say that that is what I will write, but an article in the New York Times from about a week ago caught my eye and I wanted to comment on it and on my own choices.

The article is entitled “Among Orthodox Jews, More Openness on Sexuality“. I never liked the way newspapers and magazine title their articles. But I understand that they need to sell their product and titles help that (and that is a total different topic). I recommend reading the entire article as it is very interesting, but I will summarize. In the right wing Orthodox Jewish world, there is little talk about sexuality and when young adults are getting married, they really have no idea what to do. Some in the Orthodox world are working to solve this problem and I hope they are successful.

I bring up this article to highlight a reason why I am not an Orthodox Jew. I consider myself a Conservative Jew. To try to explain the differences between Orthodoxy and Conservatism can (and does) take books, so I will not attempt to do that here. In many ways, from the outside, I look no different from a Modern Orthodox Jew. I wear a kippah all the time. I eat only kosher food and I observe Shabbat. The difference is in my beliefs. For example, while I believe in the divinity of the Torah, I see it as a document that records man’s understanding of divine revelation. That is to say that God reveled himself at Sinai to the Israelites and the Torah is their understanding of what they experienced.

Everything else is commentary. I am not saying that the laws that came later have no authority, but I do believe that they are not written in stone and although the earlier interpretations need to be given much weight, I do believe that everything is still open for discussion. A friend of mine, Rabbi Geoff Haber used to explain the difference between Orthodoxy and Conservatism with this simple analogy. It may be a bit too simple, but it works.

Imagine Jewish law as a chess game. Each piece has a specific role in the game. Pawns can only move one square, bishops on the diagonal, etc. Before moves are made, the players will look at every move and what the other player might do based on their move, and they will try to do this as many moves out as they can. Finally, after careful examination, a move is made. In Jewish law this was the way it was for many years. Rabbis would examine everything and after that careful examination, they would make a ruling. But what happened is that by the middle of the last century, when Jews gained a level of freedom they never had before, the Rabbis countered by placing a clear case over the chess game. The game could still be studied, but the moves could no longer be made. Conservative Judaism still proceeds with the game open.

As I said that is simplistic, but it does work. If the Rabbis had chosen to allow certain things, they could have, but they chose not to. I prefer to be involved with Judaism that is still willing to interpret laws based on the changes in society around us, not a Judaism that reacts to the world by closing themselves off from the world.

Getting back to the article, I want to focus on the part where the teacher told her class (women who were about to be married) that sex was horrible and painful. This is an example of an even further reaction by Orthodox today where they are not only closing themselves off, but they are making things even more difficult. The fear is that if people were to think that sex was a beautiful and enjoyable experience, then people might start trying to experience it outside of marriage. Better people should think sex is horrible then the community have to deal with teaching young people sex education.

These stringencies are appearing in every aspect of Jewish life, from kosher laws to sabbath laws. This is why I choose to be involved with Conservatism. Do I agree with everything in the Conservative movement? No, of course not. But I do believe it is the most authentic way to be Jewish. All I can do is try my hardest to live my life the way I think God wants me to. I hope I am doing my best.

I want to end with a joke (this post was a bit serious) and a youtube video.

A man comes to his Rabbi and asks, “Rabbi, is it ok for my wife and me to try different positions when we have sex?” The Rabbi says “of course.” “So it’s ok if she is on top” he asks. “Yes” says the Rabbi. “What about if she is on her knees and I am behind her like a dog?” “Whatever you do in the bedroom is fine” answers the Rabbi again. “Rabbi, what about having sex standing up?” “NO” says the Rabbi sternly. “Absolutely not!” “It might lead to mixed dancing!”

In the same vein, here is a wonderful number from “Fiddler on the Roof”. This number was for whatever reason left out of the movie (and it is too bad, because it perhaps one of the funniest moments in the show!) I added this myself on youtube. Listen to the whole thing, as the “punchline” is at the very end.

1 Response to “Orthodoxy?”


  1. 1 plslade May 15, 2008 at 8:03 am

    I tried to get through this monster of a post yesterday but kept getting interrupted. I read the whole thing this morning and still don’t understand everything, but you did a very eloquent job of explaining some of your beliefs. Since I know not much (at all) about Judaeism, too bad there’s not an “Idiot’s Guide” out there somewhere.


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