Traditional Jewish Split Personality

By: Rachel S.

I grew up as one of two (the other Jew was my brother) Jews at my elementary school in rural western NY until my parents sent us to the community Hebrew Day School, where I was introduced to Rashi, prayer, and passive Hebrew verbs. Though I attended public high school, I became familiar with the local Chabad and was active in the orthodox youth group NCSY. In college, I was involved in Hillel, where I’d go to Shabbat dinner on Friday night and Frisbee tournaments the next morning. While my Shabbat observance fluctuates, it follows principles I keep track of in my head: I don’t go to the store or a party, but I may go hiking in New Hampshire. When I go to happy hour in the summertime, I need to leave the bar early to get home before sundown. Most of my friends are not Jewish or are irreligious Jews, yet I have a large exposure to and appreciation of religious communities. There are many things I admire and respect in these communities, including the manner in which they observe the laws of Shabbat and family purity, and how their observance of Torah seems to promote a wholesome and enervating existence.

Am I selective? Yes. Unprincipled?  To a certain extent. I am a microcosm of two main camps of Jews, which I will refer to as the “Orthodox” and the “Everybody Else.” In writing this, I run the risk of offending some people from one camp or the other. My intent is not to offend, merely to express some of my observations and experiences as a participant in both camps. I know this characterization is unfair, yet I find that young unmarried Jews who are not Orthodox and live on their own tend to defy labels and typically end up in the Everybody Else camp. If I chose a side, it would be Everybody Else, with lots of Orthodox exposure.

Because I have had exposure to both camps, I have been privy to occasional conversations by one camp against the other. And on some of these occasions I realized that my Shabbat observance is not the real hypocrisy I am guilty of. It is those times I assume the mentality of the Orthodox in judging my fellow Everybody Else – perhaps the friends I went to summer camp with or lived with at college. Why do I do this? And how do I stop?

Perhaps at times, I judge myself through the eyes of the Orthodox and then unconsciously distribute this to others. This doesn’t just stem from an admiration of their observance. I am guilty of judging my fellow Everybody Else because in that camp statistically there is a greater risk for intermarriage, which increases the odds that their children will not be Jewish or will be less interested in Judaism. Of course everyone’s story is different, beset by unique circumstances that may be undecipherable to anyone else. Yet in the biological calculus of species and populations, fewer Jews marrying Jews equals fewer Jews. (I believe the correct biological term is extinction vortex.) It won’t happen in one generation. But maybe in four or five or six.

On the other hand is the knowledge that the individuals I know with the strongest, most profound personal connection to God are Everybody Else. That the religious establishment in Europe rejected the Zionist enterprise, with devastating consequences. That the majority of my fellow Jews are Everybody Else, and I am commanded to love my fellow Jew as myself. So, too, with the Orthodox. That I am a flawed human being, yet special in the eyes of God, and so is everyone else.

I was in a conservative shul earlier this year and was sitting next to an Orthodox. I asked him what it was like for him there given the differences in Shabbat services between the two establishments. He said that he tries to see the big picture, that we all come from the same place. I don’t anticipate that the disagreements between all the Jewish groups will cease any time soon. As for myself and the struggle inside my head between these two camps, perhaps first I need to forgive myself my unOrthodoxy. And regardless of whether one camp prevails, I need to learn to live with them both so when they turn to face each other, it is with sever panim yafot – a pleasant countenance –  and a reminder to hevay dan et kol ha’adam lkaf z’chut – judge everyone favorably.


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