Until the lunar year re-synchs with the solar later this spring when we experience the “leap” month of Adar II, our Jewish calendar has appeared “very early” this year. Nonetheless, the upcoming parshiot (weekly Torah readings) which feature the Ten Plagues always occur in the dark days of the year. Although we’re aware, and on Pesach we celebrate that these cataclysmic events struck our enslavers rather than ourselves, even just witnessing such catastrophic disasters must have been terrifying.
Although the tales of the Torah occur in a particular time context, the Torah is eternal and it yearly unfolds in whatever present we find ourselves. As this winter, with its excess of darkness and often-extreme weather grips us, we witness the growing pressure, threat and isolation Israel is experiencing, along with the explosion of openly-expressed (and too often non-denounced) anti-semitism throughout the world.
I frequently write, teach and say that “Judaism is the art of unreasonable (often irrational) optimism”. Although it makes a fine sound-bite, I never say it glibly. Like every art, it takes years of practice, of crafting, of challenge, of small successes and great discouragements. Of course, it’s much more than merely an art (and remember, I say this as someone with an ongoing forty-year art career). It’s a way of life, it’s an obligation, it’s a multi-complex historical and social endeavor and it’s a spiritual journey.
The Jewish people in Eqypt remained silent while the physical world in their immediate vicinity was coming unstuck. Left with a promise, they saw little if any progress, only terror.
We’re told that, as slaves, we had descended to the 49th of 50 gates of pure depredation. It’s taught that we escaped Egypt at the very final moment–had we lingered even one minute longer we never would have emerged. Perhaps that final, fatal step we avoided, the 50th gate itself, was that of total despair. As weakened and exhausted as it must have been, our “art of unreasonable optimism”, of maintaining a glimmer of hope, enabled us to begin the ascent so many years ago. Generations later, it forces us to evaluate every situation we find ourselves in, not as good or bad, but as a staging ground to our next step, to believe that as dark as our immediate position is, as uncertain that little piece of the road ahead as is illuminated right now, our goal not only exists and is possible, but is destined.
How Did a Reform Rabbi Become an Orthodox Jew?
by Michael Arsers, Jewish Action Magazine, Summer 1999 edition
My journey from Reform to Orthodox Judaism has taken many unusual turns.
Perhaps the most unusual is that, despite living in Jerusalem and Brooklyn,
it was not until I arrived in Peoria, Illinois, that I became a baal teshuvah
How did a Reform rabbi become an Orthodox Jew? I need to begin by explaining
how I became a Reform rabbi. My upbringing was totally in the Reform movement,
but it was not what I would now to be consider typical of Reform Judaism.
My family was active in a unique Reform congregation.
It was a congregation where most of the members were deeply involved
and where Jewish education was taken seriously. I went to Hebrew School
three days a week and attended Friday evening services regularly.
I went to [summer] camps run by the Reform movement and when I went
to Israel for the first time, my Hebrew was quite good and I felt
myself to be a fairly knowledgeable Jew.
I remember the first time I went to an Orthodox synagogue in Israel.
I decided very quickly that it was not for me. I spent an entire year
in Jerusalem, never once questioning who I was or making any attempt
(except for my one and only trip to a synagogue) to explore the
possibility of Jewish life in Israel. I had many Israeli friends
and basically lived as a secular Israeli. The same thing is true of
my second year in Israel as a first-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR.
Again, I spent a whole year in Jerusalem, not once thinking that
there was any reason to look at any other kind of Judaism.
The truth is that I was firmly rooted in Reform and, based on
my experience, felt that it was serious, it not more serious,
than Orthodoxy. I believed that Orthodoxy was out of touch
with the modern world and represented an attempt to freeze
Jewish life in a moment of history, while Reform Jews were
actively engaged in making choices that integrated Judaism
with modern life.
My wife and I moved to Brooklyn and lived on the border
of Flatbush and Boro Park for two years, while I attended
HUC-JIR in New York. To make a long story shorter, let’s
say that it was pretty much the same as my two years in Jerusalem.
Despite the fact that I did study a little Talmud with our
neighbor’s son (who was a yeshivah student) to prepare for class,
I never found myself interested in any exploration of the Orthodox
community in which we were living. I spent one week laying tefillin
in an Orthodox synagogue (as a class assignment) and quickly
gave it up. We went only to the Reform temple on Friday nights.
So what changed things for me? After three more years in (Reform)
rabbinical school in Cincinnati and four years in the graduate program,
I was still a strong Reform Jew. After the birth of our second child,
I decided to leave the Ph.D. program at HUC-JIR and took a position
as a rabbi in a Reform congregation in Peoria, Illinois.
Before I begin to recount the factors that caused me to look at things
so differently, let me first say that the Jews in Peoria are wonderful
people. They have been extremely nice to me and they are trying hard
to keep Jewish life going in a small mid-western city,
Also, I do not believe that the faults that I found with Reform Judaism
are in any way unique to Peoria. What I observed there has been confirmed
by surveys and by my conversations with colleagues in larger communities.
Almost immediately, I discovered that only a tiny proportion of our
(Reform) congregation had any kind of serious involvement with Judaism.
Very few members even thought of themselves as religious Jews.
Clearly they were looking for something, as they had joined —
but it was a minimalist Jewish identity that had mainly to do with
having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
I discovered that most people knew almost nothing about Judaism.
Except for Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and the first night
of Passover, most holidays were observed only by a small fraction
of the congregation. We had to employ all kinds of gimmicks to get
people to come. Usually it meant giving their kids a part in the service.
And then there were the demographic issues. I became very
disheartened when I saw the large numbers of inter-married
couples and the high percentage of children who thought
they were Jewish because of “patrilineal descent”.
Many of the congregants were only accepted as Jews by
the Reform movement, but were not part of the Jewish People.
Despite my Reform upbringing, I was passionately committed to
the unique importance of the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
When I realized how many of our congregants would not be accepted
as Jews in Israel due to traditional Jewish laws, I was devastated.
I started arguing with my colleagues that Reform was on a path
to complete separation from the rest of the Jewish People and
besides, with so few of them seriously committed to religious life,
what kind of Jewish future would this be?
After two years in Peoria, I saw the problem, but I didn’t know
what the solution could be. I can remember sitting in a restaurant
with one of my colleagues, eating a treif [non-kosher] meal and
vehemently warning him that Reform Judaism had no future in
Klal Yisroel [the Jewish People as a whole] and that most
Reform Jews would fade out of existence in the next few generations.
The power of Torah study is truly remarkable. I continued to be
interested in [Torah] learning and someone lent me some study tapes
for Masechet Shabbat in the Mishnah. I sat down to
start learning the Mishnayot. What I discovered had a tremendous
impact on me. The issues of concern in the Mishnah seemed
to be totally removed from anything I knew, or anything I had heard of.
Here I was a [Reform] rabbi, and I did not know that it
was forbidden to carry on Shabbat, which is what
the Mishnah was primarily discussing.
For the first time, I began to question whether Reform was indeed
a continuation of historical Judaism. As I read and studied more,
I came to see that Reform was a dramatic break with the past,
not the next step in its historical evolution as I had believed.
But I still didn’t know what the central difficult was until I
read an article by Yeshayahu Leibowitz in which he argues that
halachah [Torah Law] is not just an aspect of Judaism,
but THE defining aspect.
Many of my colleagues had called Reform “non-halachic Judaism:”
I now knew that term to be an oxymoron. But what was I to do?
Most people who become observant can still make a living —
but its not so easy when you’re a Reform rabbi!
We were keeping strictly kosher and I was Shomer Shabbat
[Sabbath observant] as I could be. For two years I still continued
to serve the Reform congregation. We sort of lived as Marranos:
secretly I had become Orthodox, but very few people knew.
I wanted to find a job where I could live openly as an Orthodox Jew,
but I couldn’t find anything suitable. I had started davening
[praying] at the traditional congregation in Peoria and when they
heard that I wanted to leave my Reform congregation, they asked me
to become their rabbi. And that is what I have been doing for the
past three years. My new congregation has been extremely warm and
welcoming. They even had to overlook their by-laws to hire a rabbi
with Reform semichah [rabbinical ordination].
Ever since I was a child, I have yearned to be a religious Jew
and take part in building the Jewish future. With the help of
the Chicago Torah Network, I have learned that the Orthodox
community is not stuck in the past, but is vibrant and dynamic;
and it’s the only hope for the Jewish future.
As I write this article, my wife and I are making the decision to
move to Chicago so that I can learn [Torah] more intensely, and hope
to be able to get Orthodox semichah [rabbinical ordination].
I haven’t written here about the challenges to our family life
which resulted from my transformation, but with G-d’s help,
things have worked out. My son is a freshman at the Skokie
yeshivah and my two daughters are also making the adjustment.
My wife is rediscovering much of what she lost from her past as
the daughter of traditional Tunisian Jews who grew up in Israel.
I believe that as Orthodox Jews our lives are richer, more
committed to G-d, and more securely rooted in the Jewish past
and in the Jewish future.
Michael Arsers is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim
in Peoria, Illinois, and runs a home remodeling business with his wife, Pnina.