Many years ago I purchased a set of cassette tapes (still available) which contain a talk by Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l where he addresses labels and badges within the Jewish world. Speaking in the 1970s, still toward the beginning of the Ba’al Tshuvah movement, he takes on the mutual isolation (at that time) of the newly religious/orthodox (ba’alei tshuvah) and the always religious/orthodox. Although over time much of that barrier has disappeared, at least on the surface, the today’s divisions within the Jewish people are much worse.
By and large, the Sephardic world dodges this crisis, mainly by seeing a continuous range of mitzva/halacha observance rather than separate categories. But the Ashkenazi world is cripplingly shattered into the “orthodox” vs. the “liberals”, the “frum” vs. the “conservative”, “reform”, “reconstructionist”, “renewal” and “humanist” (not to mention the antagonism between all of these groups). And as the rabbi described all those years ago, each group proudly badges itself with it’s name and excoriates all others with labels. Although there are temporary alliances, each group is sure of it’s correctness and thus, necessarily, the folly of everyone else.
Among the tragedies of this situation, and the one I most focus on as someone who sees great positive value on infinitely many levels, is an entire section of our Jewish people, probably the majority, who, by self-definition less in terms of what they are than of what they aren’t, who never avail themselves of the potential benefits they might gain from the entire mitzvah system. I think the responsibility for this sad state of affairs can be shared pretty equally between those who have shrunk the Seventy Faces of Torah into a single, inflexible path and those who reject, with a sense of shame, people who aren’t as “contemporary” or “with it” as they perceive themselves.
Perhaps one of our greatest historical tragedies was the choice of the word “orthodox” with which those opposing the nascent “reform” movement chose to label themselves. Literally, “straight and narrow”, nothing could be a less apt description of the דרך, Derech, path of mitzvot. Torah Sh’B’al Peh, the Oral Torah tradition, including Mishna, Gemara, Zohar, evolving into a traditional literature of Halacha (law), Hashgafa, philosophy, Kabbalah (mystical wisdom), from the very beginning presents reality, including halachic reality, as too complex to be simply described. Halacha, itself, is based on a process that presents and analyzes different views (not so much different “opinions” (traditionally, we never cared much about opinions as traditions) as facets, not mutually exclusive choices), gives us definite, but broad frameworks in which to operate. While rejecting moral relativism (the curse of modern western culture), it not only leaves room for individual expression, it insists on it. There is a definite inside and outside of this framework, but each mitzva, each halacha, contains an array of acceptable ways to fullfil it. The true path of halacha is anything but “straight and narrow”, but it’s just as much not a free-for-all.
Before we bifurcated into those who champion a single, often fossilized, “halacha” and those who reject all traditional observance (it was only in the last few decades, for example, that the Reform movement “allowed” their rabbis to wear a kippa!), it was taken for granted that no one observed each and every mitzva “perfectly”, whatever that might mean. No one “batted a thousand” and no one was expected to. But in a world view that saw halacha as a path to both personal and universal refinement, the real path to tikkun olam (repairing/perfecting/completing the world), as well as a path that was supposed to be individualized to each personality/life-condition/neshama, there was a reasonable self-motivation to develop ourselves along this path. But as that path has become presented as narrower and narrower, grimmer and grimmer, it attracts few and repels many.
I hate religious coercion. On the other hand, I can understand, but oppose, those who attempt to impose “observance” (i.e. their own view of observance). People my age can remember the cliché of the Jewish mother’s table pleas, “try it, you’ll like it”. It never worked for me in getting me to like delicacies like beef tongue or liver or other foods I still can’t tolerate, but it sure opened me to long-time favorites like artichokes, but I think we mainly realized that it was a plea based in love. As a parent, I often experience a mirror of this interaction when my children try to get me to listen to music I wasn’t open to–“try it, you’ll like it”, and once in a while I do.
Of course, there are those who just enjoy trying to force their ideas and styles and tastes on everyone in order to confirm their own correctness, but there are others, perhaps the majority of “orthodox” leaders, who, rather than wanting to compel or coerce, just want to invite others to just “give mitzvot a chance”. But, too often, they’re thwarted both by the backlash against those who do try to force others and also by the dogmatic rejection of any possible, beyond nostalgiac, benefits to our traditions. This is tragic, because the spiritual cannot be observed, described or measured, but only experienced. And cutting oneself off from this channel of experience is at least equal in tragedy and destructiveness to the hate that has grown to such great volume between Jew and Jew in today’s world.
Whatever one might think about the late Menachem Begin and his political legacy, I think we all should admire his customary response when people would ask him “what kind of Jew” he was. He would always answer, “I’m a stam (plain, unadorned, non-hypenated) Jew”. We don’t need to subdivide ourselves, let alone enshrine these divisions with badges and labels.