The Orthodox-secular rift has threatened the Zionist movement from its outset. To facilitate cooperation despite the deep differences, the "status quo" was established, so that it would not be necessary to deal comprehensively with the place of religion in Zionism and the State of Israel. Piece by piece, various "arrangements" were established in order to avoid making fundamental decisions.
Let’s start with “Elohenu she-baShamayim.” It’s a Passover counting song.
Poet Robert Bly speaks of two periods of “opening” in human life, roughly between 18 and 23 years of age, and then again sometime in one’s mid-40s. The first of these coincides with our college years, a time of notable openness to new ideas, new ways. It was as a freshman at Yeshiva College that I was introduced to serious religion, and I became an enthusiastic participant. My engagement lasted only five years. I was very much in love with the Orthodox life, the practices, and the learning. But for better or worse I had a philosophical conscience.
To Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
Your article the Spring 2010 issue of Conversations on “The Nature and Function of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” has inspired quite a bit of discussion in our family. Your comments have hit squarely home and crystallize the religious anomie of several of our recently married children. You issued a passionate call for responsible rabbinic leadership to meet the challenges of a less-than-dynamic halakhic process. This is vital to the authentic continuity of our traditions. Please grant me a few moments for a layman’s reflections on this matter.
“Then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie ... and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
—Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Going off the derekh is one of the greatest epidemics facing the religious Jewish community today. You would be hard-pressed to find a frum family untouched by this phenomenon, whether it is a child, sibling, spouse, cousin, friend, or schoolmate who has left religion behind. In the wake of the individual leaving is a tempest of emotions—confusion, guilt, anger, hurt, and sadness.
The Jewish community of Izmir was an important center of Sephardic Jewish life during the centuries following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. It boasted vibrant synagogues and communal institutions, as well as a host of learned Torah scholars and a respected rabbinical court (Beth Din).
Izmir’s Chief Rabbis enlightened the Jewish community by answering hundreds of questions in Jewish law. They answered the questions not only from ?zmir but also from the distant Jewish communities. Rabbi Shemuel Yitzhak Modeliani from Thessaloniki noted that the Jewish community of ?zmir was led by respected people.
In an interesting footnote to Jewish History, we find the triumph of the human spirit.
Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk (1680-1756) was born in Krakow, the scion of a rabbinic family. Newly married and working as the inspector of the local school, Rabbi Falk became a respected community leader in Lemberg, Poland. But in 1702, the trajectory of his life was irrevocably altered. A powder keg explosion took the life of his wife, daughter, mother-in-law and her father. Trapped under debris, Rabbi Falk narrowly escaped himself. While still threatened by the specter of death, he vowed to compose an original commentary on the Talmud. He swore to find meaning and purpose in this tragedy.
Our Rabbis taught: A certain Heathen once came before Shammai and asked him, “How many Toroth have you?” “Two,” he replied: “the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” “I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only].” He scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day he taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth; the following day he reversed [them] to him. “But yesterday you did not teach me thus,” he protested. “Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral Torah too.”
Why in Megillat Esther is the name of God not mentioned even once, considering that it was the hand of God that altered a near catastrophe for the Jewish people living in Persia?
(This article consists of two sections with different purposes. The first is an account of how I came to take on the observance of mitsvot, and what was going on in my family while that was happening. Though it is my personal story, it touches on issues that will resonate with others in various stages of engagement with halakhah. In the following section, I address a broader set of concerns that could be useful for potential ba’alei teshuvah, converts, and those who may be connected to them.