Sometimes it takes only one word to strike you so deeply that you find yourself returning to it again and again. Recently, I’ve been haunted by a singular word choice, happened upon in an interview with Amos Oz, a long-time literary role model of mine.
In light of the recent publication of his "Jews and Words," a book he co-wrote with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, Oz comments on Jewish tradition: “When those people [the ultra-Orthodox] say ‘the real Jewish tradition,’ they have in mind not the living and kicking Jewish legacy, but a fossil.”
A fossil. Certainly, as the authors wryly preempt in the epilogue, "Jews and Words" may irk the Orthodox reader and the believer, with its celebration of Jewish literature as it is understood by “atheists of the Book.” But it’s not the book’s irreverence that I found problematic. It’s the claim of secular ownership over debate, the assumption that traditional, "fossilized" observance must preclude one’s ability to ask radical questions.
I've always found it amusing that the secular world sees Orthodox Jews as those who live with utter conviction. Perhaps it’s a simple deduction to make, watching us sway over our books and close our eyes in prayer. But I’ll tell you a secret belief of mine, from the Inside:
It’s impossible to live this lifestyle of ours both quietly and consciously.
Because as much as our texts are steeped in debates and questions, so are our daily lives and most minute thoughts. We breathe our literacy. Indeed, as Oz and Oz-Salzberger so poignantly describe, we are obsessed with this, but in no way have we “forgotten the spirit of questioning that the Talmud once knew.”
I invite you to enter our yeshivas and our Sabbath tables, our forums and journals and Facebook feeds too, where we debate this very stuff of fossils; try to hear yourself think over the din of hundreds of Orthodox Jews arguing passionately. Paleontologists have yet to find a fossil, that remnant of a distant era, with as loud a heartbeat as this one.
It’s a lifestyle devoted to major moral questions – all the time. To be a consciously religious Jew requires a certain measure of intellect, an ability to constantly think, to never tire of asking and seeking meaning.
Debates arise beyond our study halls, but in the rituals that govern our daily lives. I encounter questions every day only because of these rituals – the very ones that I am told by the secular world are hopelessly backwards, a "convenient abstraction."
“What is this commandment to you?” they ask us, smirking. And sometimes I stay quiet because I myself am still deciding what these commandments mean to me, and at other times I stay quiet because I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully convey just how deeply, achingly, important I find these traditions.
The questions probably begin, like most things, with prayer – the punctuation mark of the Orthodox Jew’s day. Regardless of circumstance, we put everything aside and turn eastward several times a day to recite the same ancient words, every time.
But why pray, if it’s all by rote? Why force myself to say these words if I don’t feel in this moment that I’m literally convening with the Divine? I often set the prayer book down and recite the words from memory, pretending the words aren’t dictated but rather come from inside – and even if I do feel the words deeply, when a sudden phrase seems to articulate a most wordless thought, how will I know if there’s an answer? Sometimes I know He is listening, and other times a wall is a wall is a wall, and no matter how many prayers I try to place into it, it remains still – what then?
And every morning, I can’t help but wonder about this uniform of the Orthodox woman that I continue to choose: knee-length skirt, long sleeves, high neck. It’s not just about modesty – there’s also something of a statement in this dress code, because when I step out onto Madison Avenue in mid-July and realize I’m the only obvious Jew, I feel different, incurably so. I’m inevitably reminded of my Otherness, and part of me cringes as other women give my sleeves quizzical looks –- “Honey, did you check the forecast today?” – and I’m reminded not only of some values I strive to stand by, but also of this heightened sense of alienness. Even if no one else notices, I still feel bound to this name and identity; if I’d just change my clothing, perhaps I’d be free of this, perhaps I’d blend in with the rest of the enlightened world and breathe freely and never think twice about the way I’m perceived.
Thus a simple walk in Manhattan provokes a barrage of questions: Why be an Other, and why not be "like all the other nations?" Why suffer this endless Diaspora syndrome, the way my parents and grandparents did in the streets of Kiev? Dear God, now this uniform makes me an obvious Orthodox Jew – now I ought to be extra careful and smile and be polite and offer my seat to others on the subway, to set a good example as a Daughter of Israel lest someone starts a pogrom. Constant, constant consciousness – perhaps bordering on neurosis, too.
More questions arise as we avert our eyes from the forbidden and push away temptations. At a dinner party, a cafe, a gallery opening, a young well-dressed foreigner walks over to chat. The music is getting louder, and he’s leaning in closer and from the look in his eye, I know that I have approximately six minutes to slip away before he tries to put his hand on my waist and invites me for a drink. For a fleeting moment I consider it, then compose myself and walk away before I get caught up in the heat of the music, but as I walk away, I wonder: A 21-year-old girl living in New York City, forbidden from so much as a hand on her waist? Medieval, puritanical! Who am I, to cite my teachers and insist that touch is powerful, if I know nothing of it?
And even as the sun sets on Friday, when we turn off our phones and laptops and suddenly there is peace in the house, every small gesture transforms into a Sabbath gesture, and then into a potential debate: the halakha determines the way we greet each other, the way we sort silverware, the way we pour tea. When my father raises his glass to say kiddush over the wine, week after week, he invokes God’s creation of the world and the redemption from Egypt. But what is this Sabbath, what can I learn from the story of Creation, and how is this related to Egypt – where does one find freedom, in this day of restrictions? In the afternoon, I read Torah passages that spark more difficult questions: A commandment to wipe out Amalek? Why, genocide! A woman's oath is subject to be overridden by her father’s or husband’s wish? Misogyny! Endless descriptions of animal sacrifices? Irrelevant! A frantic search through rabbinic commentaries offers thousand of years of others before me, confronting the same questions and positing their own answers – what is morality?
Who are we to decide what is moral, in the face of Ultimate Truth? And how can I understand these concepts without altering the original into something entirely different, without taking the easy way out and brushing off these texts as irrelevant?
And then there are questions that arise because of the communities we’ve constructed for ourselves. Try living in a society of rigid norms without quietly questioning, try learning the language of each community without a healthy dose of humor. Orthodoxy is diverse, but we know enough about one another to know which conversations are allowed at which table. In one place I can reference a Talmudic passage without being considered a radical feminist, in another place I can discuss emotion without being deemed simple. Here, I can say "Gut Shabbes" to other religious Jews and here I shouldn’t, here I can wear red and here I can wear all black – heaven forbid that I mix the two up. And why all these rules, is there a value to these social standards that we silently laugh at? Must I define myself by my community, and what of the children I want to raise, what schools shall I send them to? What of our leadership, those who are too careful to call the emperor’s new clothes for what they are, and what of those schoolteachers who are so pious about the Law and not about human interactions – how does one rise above hypocrisy, preserving one’s ideals without being discouraged?
Here, what small gesture doesn't emerge as a question? Perhaps if I were to lead another life, my mind would be relatively quieter: no questions to constantly grapple with, no angels to wrestle, no desperate search for meaning in tradition either. Because here, every latte requires a pause and a blessing, every first morning glimpse a nod of thanks, every mezuzah a kiss of acknowledgement: constant, constant consciousness is demanded of us. Faith is far from "convenient;" it’s all-encompassing, a sincere choice that needs reaffirming daily. Our turbulent pursuit of meaning is in no way restricted to the sanctuaries and libraries of scholars, but it exists at our tables, in our kitchens, our offices and bedrooms and gardens. I often feel that, like the symbols and motions of the Passover Seder table, the rituals of Orthodox Judaism are almost predisposed to provoking questions and seeking answers: Is it not pulsating with vibrancy? Is this really the life of a fossil, a ‘living museum’ of family heirlooms relegated to the attic?
Calling another tradition a "fossil" has unpleasant implications. It’s faintly reminiscent of the language Sir Arthur Toynbee used in his 1934 writings on the Jews, and it renders the other as barely relevant, silent, extinct.
Last week, MK Ruth Calderon spoke elegantly about the Torah not being the property of any stream. Indeed, let the same be said about questions. Do not insist on monopolizing the right to question – secular brethren, as much as the Orthodox should not write you out of the story, I humbly ask that you do not write the Orthodox out of this story either. Do not deny our part in this great national conversation by dismissing our ability to think critically as well.
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