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Finding Orthodoxy

The time has come for a courageous, widely based consensus of truly pious rabbinical scholars to reassert their leadership in instituting halakhic changes to address the needs crying out to be met in Jewish law and custom of our own miraculous age in all walks of Orthodox life.

My path to Orthodoxy was unorthodox, and that has made all the difference, I think, in what I hope for and expect as part of Orthodox Jewry.

I was the child of an American-born mother from a religious home and an immigrant father whose family had fled the pogroms of the Ukraine in the early 1900s. While my mother’s father was a devout Jew from Poland who took up house painting as a profession when he realized most other jobs in New York would force him to work on the Sabbath, my father’s father was a colonel in the Russian army and a boxing champion. I don’t remember anything remotely religious about our household except for my mother lighting candles Friday night. But when I turned six, our lives underwent a traumatic change when my dear father, z”l, tragically died following a short illness.

Stranded in a low-income housing project in the Rockaways filled with welfare recipients, my widowed mother wanted desperately to get my twelve year-old brother out of the neighborhood’s delinquency-prone junior high school. Taking the bus to affluent Jewish Far Rockaway, she invaded the offices of the director of the Hebrew Institute of Long Island—an expensive Orthodox Jewish Day School housed in former summer mansions by the sea—demanding they take in her eldest.

According to family legend, she was asked to pay a five-dollar fee for an IQ test. Only after she had paid did they explain that if admitted, my brother (who didn’t know any Hebrew) would be placed in first grade for religious studies and seventh grade for secular studies. I vaguely remember my brother’s explosive reaction to this offer, which sent my mother scurrying back to request the return of her five dollars. It was non-refundable, they told her, but perhaps you have another child…?

As my younger brother was barely three, I was the only candidate. At the time, I was in first grade, happily enrolled in multi-racial P.S. 92, envious of my Catholic classmates who were allowed to leave school once a week with the nuns for religious instruction. It seemed exotic, and best of all, it got them out of class.

To take advantage of the scholarship being offered, my mother switched me.

I wasn’t happy.

Still in the throes of my young life’s transition from peanut butter and jelly into the drama and heartache of longing for my lost father, I struggled with the long school day, the double program, the strange letters of a language written backwards which I felt that as an American I didn’t, and would never, have any use for. But slowly, I began to see things differently.

Invited to my classmates’ homes for the weekend, I was entranced by the rituals of Shabbat: the lovely set table, the chilled wine in silver cups, the father at the head blessing his children, the mother at ease praised by Eshet Hayyil, in charge of a smoothly-running household so unlike my own. The songs, the preparation for the holidays began to enchant me. I stopped watching cartoons all day Saturday, taking the long walk to a synagogue in middle-class Arverne, enchanted by the silver Torah chalices, the velvet ark cover embroidered in gold thread, the stained-glass windows, the glowing wooden pews, all of which fired a lonely, dreamy child’s vivid imagination.

But there was no instant decision to become religious. My mother was not pushing me in any direction. The school didn’t demand proof of Sabbath observance (and if they had, I would have been expelled). I took it all in, but at arm’s length and at my own pace.

Finding Orthodoxy and accepting it upon myself was a totally independent decision that took many years. I was at least thirteen when a new teacher entered my life. He was a haredi rabbi from Jerusalem, very thin, with a wispy beard and a thick accent when he spoke English or even Hebrew for that matter. The girls, myself included, thought he was a riot. He was teaching us Humash. One day he began teaching us Parashat Mishpatim. “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me, and my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword and your own wives will be widows and your children orphans.”

To a fatherless orphan who daily witnessed her widowed mother’s struggles, the words resonated so deeply that I took another look at religion. Religion then was the practice of goodness toward others, especially the unfortunate, people I knew a great deal about: the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the stranger, the convert. My path to Orthodoxy started with this. From this small road sign, I followed a path that led me to a sincere love of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of compassion and justice. Eventually, this led me to Orthodoxy, a place which I believed housed a sincere dedication to pleasing this God I loved by doing His bidding as outlined in His Torah, both oral and written.

My moment of truth came when I was invited to the wedding of one of my cousins in far-off Pennsylvania. My aunts—my father’s sisters—offered to take me with them to the celebration. On Saturday, they picked me up in their car and drove. On the way, we stopped at a Howard Johnson for lunch. My aunt ordered lobster. I remember distinctly how she cracked it open and speared the white meat with her fork, dipping it into melted butter. Then she dangled it in front of me. “Try it. It’s delicious,” she cajoled. As I recoiled, she laughed. It was then that I understood that I was not, and would never be, like her. Without even realizing it, I had passed over into Orthodoxy.

From then on, I never desecrated the Sabbath again. In fact, I did everything I could to turn our home into the homes of my classmates. Taking the shopping cart, I walked to the kosher butcher and bakery every Friday while my mother was at work, getting her instructions over the phone on how to prepare chicken soup. When she arrived home minutes before candle-lighting, the table was set, the meal prepared. But before I allowed the meal to begin, I insisted someone make kiddush. I am sure my sudden, bossy enthusiasm rubbed my elder brother the wrong way, but I persisted (and he eventually also became Orthodox, sending his children to the same school he’d refused to go to).

I cleaned for Passover and readied the house for the New Year. At school, I was more and more serious about my religious studies, and by the time I graduated at eighteen, I was fully committed to becoming the most religious person I could be: everything the Torah was asking of me, I would happily do out of love for God, who in many ways had replaced my earthly father, becoming part of everything I did, or thought or hoped to achieve.

I applied to college, but also looked around for a Jewish studies program so that my knowledge would grow equally in both spheres. I wound up at the Sara Schneier Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Borough Park run by the esteemed Rabbi Bulman, z”l, who was familiar to me from his lectures as a rabbi of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway along with those of my own beloved Rabbi Chait, z”l, the rabbi of the Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater.

Going to college during the day, I attended Seminary at night. It wasn’t easy. In order to manage, I had to rent a room in Borough Park because there was no way I could travel home to Rockaway so late at night. One of my teachers, a devout Hassidic rabbi from Mea Shearim, offered me a room in his home at the going rate. I agreed, moving in. But halfway through the year, he suddenly asked me to pay a higher sum. He’d expected to house several students in the room I was using, he explained, but none had appeared. For the pittance I was paying, he preferred to have the room back. I told him that unfortunately I couldn’t afford to pay more.

Soon afterward, the rabbi’s daughter knocked on my door holding a pile of papers. She told me her father was working on a book and asked me if I could type up these pages. At the time, I was working two challenging academic programs in addition to paying my own expenses, including rent, through a work-study program.

But what could I say? He was my teacher, a respected rabbi whom I saw getting up every morning at 5:00 to study Talmud. I took the papers. In addition to typing, the manuscript needed major time-consuming editing to turn it into proper English. Finally, I handed over the work. Instead of a thank you, the next day, the daughter returned with another pile, making me feel like that girl in the fairy tale who has to spin an endless supply of straw into gold. Taking a deep breath, I handed the papers back to her, explaining that I just didn’t have time.

The next day I was asked to leave.

It was too late in the term to find another apartment. It meant I would have to leave the Seminary, which I did, going back home. Eventually, to his credit, the rabbi must have realized this, calling me to apologize and to offer me my room back at the old price. At that point, though, my hurt feelings and disappointment wouldn’t allow me to accept.

This was my first, but certainly not my last, encounter with the harsh reality of the ideals of Orthodoxy clashing with the behavior of people who, at least outwardly, seemed to be living a sincerely Orthodox lifestyle. It was a sad lesson, I thought, but one I didn’t allow to dampen my desire to live a totally committed Jewish life as I had always understood it from the rabbis and teachers who had been my religious mentors for so many years. I chalked it up as a strange anomaly.

Soon after I met my husband, a yeshiva high school graduate. Our decision to come on aliya after marrying was a religious one based on “lekh lekha me-artsekha.” Neither of us had ever been to Israel, but we didn’t want to be like the spies sent out by Moshe to scout the land. Whatever we would find there, we told ourselves, we would learn to love.

We did.

At the time I was wearing a wig and my husband had grown a beard. We wanted very much to be part of the haredi world, considering it the most sincere expression of religious devotion. We moved into Jewish Agency housing set aside for religious olim in Sanhedria Hamurhevet in northern Jerusalem. I became friends with my neighbor, a young haredi rebbitzen from Williamsburg with six small children. A few months into the year, she came to me with a shocking request: She needed help getting a passport. Her husband had taken hers away. He was not working and he was beating her and the children. She needed to escape.

The concept of domestic abuse among those presenting themselves as the ultimate in God-fearing Jewry sent me reeling with profound shock. How could such a thing be possible?! It went against everything I thought being a religious Jew was about. This, too, I branded an anomaly.

But a few years later, in another Jerusalem neighborhood, a haredi rebbetzin jumped out of a Tel Aviv hotel window from the 23rd floor, clasping her three year-old daughter in her arms, killing them both. She was my neighbor and the child—a little blonde angel— had attended pre-school with my son.

The words of the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” went through my head: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

Through my shock, horror and tears, I investigated. This, too, was an abused woman married to a sexual deviant guilty of both wife and child abuse presenting himself as a tzadik and an illui. Years later, I met the aunt of his second wife—an 18-year-old rabbi’s daughter from Lakewood—who would later divorce him, saying: “This time, you’re going to jump, not me.” But at the time of his first wife’s suicide, many of the religious people in our neighborhood expressed sympathy for him, painting the tragedy as the insane actions of a mentally ill girl he’d been saddled with by her devious, wealthy parents.

My decision to turn this story into a novel was truly based on the idea that religious Jews simply didn’t understand that there was a problem with domestic abuse in the religious world. I would enlighten them, thereby winning their gratitude and spurring them on to make vast changes in line with the Torah that would prevent these things from ever happening again …

The personal vilification I suffered (and continue to suffer) following the publication of Jephte’s Daughter and the two books that followed, all novels based on true stories in the haredi world, has left me older, wiser and sadder, but no less committed to Orthodoxy as it was taught to me by the lovely families that invited me into their homes as a child, and the wonderful rabbis and rebbitzins who transferred to me their knowledge of Torah, Prophets, Jewish law, Jewish history, and Jewish custom.

It has not been easy.

In the half-century since I entered the world of Orthodox Jewry, that world has undergone wide-ranging and cataclysmic changes, no less than those imposed on tradition by the Reform and Conservative movements. But unlike Reform and Conservative Jewry, the changes in Orthodoxy have struck at its deepest heart, the core of meaning from Orthodox life as it was taught to me and which I decided to follow so many years ago.

Take “daas Torah,” for example, a brand-new concept that gives rabbis license to abrogate every interpersonal law in the actual Torah, including allowing people to pursue venal agendas with backstabbing gossip, destroying the livelihood and reputations of those who disagree with them. A very small and recent example is the story of the young girl from Satmar who had the temerity to ask for justice from a religious “counselor” who had sexually abused her from the age of twelve. The Satmar community, with the support of its rabbinic authority, supported the counselor, even after a court convicted him on all counts. After the verdict, the “rebbe” went out of his way to publicly and with great fanfare place a mezuzah on the doorpost of a new business openly competing with that of the victim’s father, thereby attempting to ruin the man’s livelihood.

This disappointment in weak, cowardly rabbinic leadership is unfortunately supported by many such examples, the most extreme, perhaps being the inability (or lack of desire?) of Orthodox rabbinic leadership to solve the problem of the extortion of women by their husbands during divorce.

While rabbinic authorities of the past have had no problem in finding ways around laws specifically written in the Torah, including not having bread in the house on Passover (we sell our hametz to a non-Jew) or taking interest on loans (there is the heter iska) or cancelling debts in the sabbatical year (the prosbul), when it comes to annulling a marriage contracted under false terms (the husband turns out to be a homosexual, sexual deviant, wife-beater and so forth, all information hidden from the woman, who would never have contracted such a marriage under such conditions) apparently only for women can no solutions be found. The extortion of women rightfully seeking divorce in rabbinical courts, even when the dayanim agree with her and demand that the husband comply, continues on a daily basis all over the world.

Attempts by sincere well-meaning rabbis to circumvent the problem with prenuptial agreements have also been thwarted by the lack of agreement and will among Orthodox rabbis to insist it become a normal part of every marriage ritual, thus shifting the responsibility to the young couple and their families, who are often too embarrassed to bring the matter up. Surely an abused wife or an aguna is as vulnerable as any widow or convert or orphan, and thus coming to her aid is in the deepest spirit of the Torah. That a permanent halakhic solution to these problems continues to elude rabbinic authorities strikes at the heart of the Torah’s message to us. In the same vein, this disregard for human suffering, for justice, for the feelings of others can be seen in the outrageous decisions by Israeli rabbinical courts in retroactively cancelling conversions, often years after the fact. Can there be any worse way to oppress converts than declaring their marriages illegal, their children not Jewish?

Unfortunately, the rise of these injustices has been concurrent with the increasing power of haredim over rabbinical courts in Israel, which have displayed a disregard for women’s rights and the rights of the convert. A small example of the former: The woman about whom I wrote the play “Women’s Minyan” was issued a restraining order by the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court after her divorce from a philandering husband which prevented her from seeing her twelve children. No reason was given. No permanent custody decision was ever reached. To this day, thirteen years later, the Court, despite repeated requests, has never reached such a decision, nor has it insisted at the very least that the husband allow visitation. Nor has she seen her children. The damage can never be undone.

Further damage to the core values of Orthodoxy has crept in over the last few decades with the rise of practices that can only be described as magic and superstition. Despite all that is written in the Torah against witchcraft and idolatry, the popularity of red strings, the rituals of throwing candles into fires, written and spoken kabbalistic incantations have become commonplace practices which few Orthodox rabbis have had the courage to strongly and publicly condemn. In line with this, visiting the graves of Jewish saints and asking them to intercede on our behalf with God (or for that matter, visiting a living kabbala master or “saint” and asking him for the same) surely reeks of idolatry in its most basic sense, i.e., the setting up of an intermediary between oneself and God? Yet, those practices, too—once solely the custom of Christians and Muslims—have become ingrained in Orthodoxy despite tepid rabbinic protests voiced over the years. The public disgrace of Chabad declaring their rebbe to be the Messiah who was going to rise again after his death was also swept under the carpet after a few raised eyebrows.

But one of the most radical veering from Jewish law and tradition that has created the deepest and most hateful schism within the Jewish state is the demand that yeshiva students be supported by public funds so they will not have to work, despite the fact that such a demand has no basis in Jewish law or tradition.

Au contraire.

As Maimonides wrote hundreds of years ago: “Anyone who decides to be engaged in Torah [study] and not to work, and will be supported by charity — this person desecrates God’s name, degrades the Torah, extinguishes the light of our faith, brings evil upon himself and forfeits life in the World to Come; since it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world. The Rabbis said (Avot 4:5): ‘Anyone who derives benefit from the words of Torah in this world, forfeits his life in Olam haBa [the next world].’ They further commanded and said: (Avot 4:5) ‘Do not make them [the words of Torah] a crown to magnify yourself or an axe with which to chop.’  They further commanded, saying: (Avot 1:10) ‘Love work and despise positions of power’. And: (Avot 2:2) ‘Any Torah which is not accompanied by work will eventually be nullified and will lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.’”

The second deepest schism is the demand of the yeshiva world that their students continue to receive an exemption from the draft. This demand, made with an arrogant sense of entitlement, has infuriated both secular and dati-leumi Jews, uniting them politically into a power base that has shut out our haredi brothers and sisters from Israel’s government for the first time in many years. The drafting of yeshiva students is going to happen, despite the outraged “religious” objections of the yeshiva world and its branding of both secular and dati-leumi Jews as “Amalek,” for supporting it.

Rightly so.

One has only to look at the simple wording of the Torah itself in Devarim 20: “When you take the field against your enemies … ask … is there any man who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it.” Similarly, exemptions are granted “to anyone who has planted a vineyard … is engaged to be married … or is afraid and disheartened.” Moreover, even these exemptions are conditional. According to the Mishnah (Sotah, 8:7) in a mandatory war (or as phrased by Maimonides, a mitzva war) “even a groom in his room, and a bride under her canopy takes part.” Draft exemptions for learning Torah are a very, very new invention.

I have no doubt my learned haredi opponents can swiftly counter all these points with chapter and verse from their own rabbinic leadership. But even they must admit there is a strange irony in the introduction of all these vast unwelcome changes in traditional Orthodoxy accompanied as they are by the rigidity in the interpretation of halakhot supported by these same rabbinical authorities.

Nowhere is this more blatant than in the Orthodox attitude toward women’s role in Jewish ritual. The desire of arguably the most vastly educated and able of Orthodox women in Jewish history for a more active role in Jewish ritual life has often been denied simply on the grounds that a woman called to the Torah “dishonors” the congregation.

Having occasionally attended an egalitarian Orthodox minyan in Modiin, in which men and women, separated by a mehitza, share in conducting the service, women and girls getting aliyot to the Torah, reading the Torah and giving the learned Torah discourse, I can honestly say that while I still prefer the old ways, I see nothing but good in the new ways. Women learning to read the Torah, and involving their daughters, is an excellent way to ensure mothers and wives become active synagogue members and enthusiastic supporters of religious community life.

While mainstream Orthodox congregations are slowly adopting new rituals to include women, including giving women their own Sefer Torah with which to dance on Simhat Torah and the “naming of the daughter” ceremony — in which the entire family, including the mother and baby girl, stand before the entire congregation reciting prayers of thanks and haGomel and naming the child — this is not enough.

In my opinion, the ultimate solution to this conflict is to make the synagogue service more meaningful to both men and women so that women will not feel that the only way for them to deepen their spirituality in prayer is to don a tallit and a kippah. To pray as part of a congregation that is divinely inspired toward the height of spirituality can open up one’s mind and profoundly expand one’s heart with love for the object of our prayers. How many times, however, does the experience do that? And how many times is it a futile attempt to hurry through obligations and get to kiddush?

There is no one solution to that problem, but it is something that must be on the agenda for the coming years if we are to combat the growing allure of alternative prayer services, for example the Breslaver howling at the moon in the forest. While Breslav does not denigrate the need for a traditional prayer minyan, many of our children who have been to the forest have found the experience paints in fine relief the emptiness of hollow mouthings to stale tunes among disinterested adults in the average Orthodox congregation.

What I would like to see in the next century for Orthodoxy is innovation whose sole purpose is a return to authenticity; a rededication to the values and spirit of the Torah that convinced me to embrace Orthodoxy in the first place.

A more authentic Orthodoxy would mean a sincere desire to return to “Do not do anything to your neighbor you would find hateful if done unto you.” Surely this would include all domestic abuse, all child abuse, all child molestation, all sexual abuse. Instead of the well-documented desire of many Orthodox rabbis and their communities to hide these offenses and shelter the offenders, to keep them from punishment by secular authorities, there would be a general rabbinic outcry that demanded anyone with knowledge of such crimes bring the criminal to light and to justice in whatever way possible. The law of moser, often used to excuse the whitewashing of Orthodox pedophiles in the community, would be clearly denounced.

A way must be found for the religious community in Israel to be full participants in the building and defense of the Jewish State, the beginning of our redemption, based on the words of the Torah, the Mishna and the Maimonides. Does Moshe not admonish those who refuse to take possession of the land: “Will you sit back and let your brothers risk their lives?”

An authentic Jewish way must be found to recognize the modern miracles of the founding to the Jewish State and the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth. We recite Hallel for Passover and Hanukah. Why not a consensus for reciting it on Israel Independence day, surely equal in its miraculous intensity following as it did the most horrific destruction of our people in its long and bloody history, certainly as meaningful as that of the victory of the Maccabees?

In the same vein of authenticity, should not there be a clearly defined halakha that commands the Jews of the Diaspora to “leave their homes and their birthplace” and move to Israel? Or at the very least, visit? Should not the Orthodox Jews of Cedarhurst, Lawrence and the Upper West Side of Manhattan be obligated by such a halakha? Not to mention the Jews of Golders Green, Lakewood and Monsey?

A return to authenticity and the words of the Torah will only become natural when Tanakh is once again taught side by side with Talmud. In our enthusiastic desire to imbue our sons with Talmudic learning, we are forcing them into studying Talmud before they are intellectually or emotionally ready to embrace the profound lessons it has to impart, running the very real risk of alienating them forever from this foundation of Jewish life. All of us are witnesses to the alarming side effects of these educational mistakes, from boys from religious homes bailing out en masse from religious schools and life, as well as the rise of haredi hooligans who force women to the back of buses and throw rocks and soiled diapers at little girls on their way to school, having learned none of the simple lessons of respect and humanity, kindness and compassion for the weak that I learned as a child so long ago from the straightforward words of the Tanakh.

In the first volume of his wonderful book Hakhamim, author Rabbi Benjamin Lau describes the vast changes in Jewish practice instituted by Shimon HaTzadik in response to the Babylonian exile. The teaching of Torah was taken out of the hands of the Kohanim and given it to Anshei Kenesset HaGedola, the Torah was translated into Aramaic, Torah readings were instituted every three days and the laws of muktzah were enacted to combat widespread desecration of Shabbat. If such remarkable changes were made necessary by only seventy years of exile, how many changes does the challenge of a 2,000 year exile necessitate to ensure the strength and continuity of the Jewish religion during the miraculous ingathering of the exiles that has taken place since 1948?

The time has come for a courageous, widely based consensus of truly pious rabbinical scholars to reassert their leadership in instituting halakhic changes to address the needs crying out to be met in Jewish law and custom of our own miraculous age in all walks of Orthodox life, from fairer marriage and divorce laws, to more inspiring synagogue services, to more effective religious education for both girls and boys, including pre-marital counseling which not only teaches the halakhot of taharat haMishpaha, but also how to be a loving and effective partner in building a Jewish home. This must start with moral clarity in rabbinical leadership. Politics and rabbinic leadership need to part ways, swiftly and forever.

Sadly, those modern changes that have taken place have transformed Orthodoxy into a place I must admit I never envisioned inhabiting fifty years ago when I chose to be part of that world. That shining beacon of morality, justice, compassion and Godliness that had attracted me has been dulled by ineffective leadership and the rise of religious dogmatists and fanatics who on the one hand have introduced vast inauthentic changes to Jewish practice, while on the other resisting at all costs every positive necessary change to adapt Orthodox practice to the true meaning and spirit of the Torah.

What gives me hope for the future is our past. Often in our long history, the lessons of our Torah have been forgotten by the masses, hidden from us as a nation. But they have never been extinguished.

In modern Israel, filled with the children of the miraculous ingathering of the exiles, there are now more believing Jews than almost any other time in our history. Among them, I see a new determination to fan the living embers into a new conflagration, a bright beacon, a hearth, at which every Jew filled with a sincere love of God can warm him or herself; a place in a cold and alien world that every believing Jew can truly call home.

This article first appeared in Conversations, a journal published by the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

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29 comments on “Finding Orthodoxy”

  1. Chanah S

    Naomi, thanks again for another well-written article that expresses so well what many of us feel. After making aliyah, my husband and I found a very nice mixed community in which everyone is accepted. We’re in process, trying to make Orthodox halachah a part of our lives. It’s not easy and seeing what is happening with the Charedim can quickly discourage \Jews like us. So I look to you for inspiration and encouragement. Thanks for your courageous willingness to take up that mission.

  2. Pavel (Pesach) Levin

    No doubt, these problems known in the Charedi community should be spoken of and should be addressed. However, I don’t like generalizations made in the Naomi Ragen’s article, they look like a part of political agenda. One advantage of Talmudic studies is that knowledgeable person would be more careful with “innovations” described in the article and proficient scholar would seek consensus in this matter not announce some “progressive” trend as the only possible solution. By the way, Ezra’s decision about Torah study democratization considered as an advancement of the teaching of Moshe rabeinu had one unintended consequence – sinat khinam.

    L’shana Tova tikatvu v’teichatmu!

    • Elisha B Avuya

      Pavel, if you think Ms. Ragen’s article is an indictment only of the haredi community, you need to read it again. And if you think the haredi community is aware of any of its problems and will address them on their own initiative anytime soon, you’re being naive. Haredim change only when forced to, and then they claim that it was all their idea in the first place, and anyway nothing actually changed because nothing ever changes in their constipated version of whatever religion it is that they are practicing.

  3. Naomi R.

    I have been what I suppose would be called modern Orthodox my entire life, but lately find myself exposed to bigotry that I never envisioned in my youth. The blatant chilulei HaShem that are committed by many in the Yeshivish (substitute Hareidi) community toward fellow Jews who are deemed not as religious is shocking in its intensity. Your article is an eye opener for many I am sure, but sadly I do not see realistic change any time soon. Thank you Naomi for once again baring your soul. I pray that people appreiate your courage. Shanah Tovah Umetukah to you and your loved ones.

  4. Silky Pitterman

    Dear Naomi,
    I am glad I read this essay because it explains so much of your work. As someone who is Orthodox and straddling the Charaidi and Modern Orthodox communities, I have to disagree with some of your answers and some of your reader’s posts. You make it sound that ONLY the Charaidi have people who act like pious people but are really monsters. You make it seem that only the Orthodox don’t all back Israel one million percent. Well, first of all, this is an old problem. Through Partners in Torah, I learn with a lovely woman who doesn’t have the same Jewish educational background as me. This week we are learning sefer Yeshayahu, perek 58 (Isaiah chapter 58 for those who don’t know the Hebrew). In it, Yeshayahu castigates the people for many of the things you do particularly being meticulous in their man-G-d mitzvos but the man-man mitzvos are forgotten.
    As my friend told me, Hashem and his mitzvhos and Torah are perfect. Man is….man.
    People haven’t changed despite what we would like to believe and problems aren’t confined to the Charaidim or to Orthodoxy. During the recent war with Lebanon, my friend’s rabbi wanted to put a sign on the grounds of the Reform Temple saying that they stand with Israel. She had a huge fight with many of her congregants about it.
    May you always be able to still see Hashem’s love even when man is being…man.
    Have a year filled with health, nachas, simchos and parnassa.

  5. Wayne Levin

    Thank you for yet another thought-provoking and insightful essay, Naomi. Assimilation is another major issue that requires resources and, if I can use the term, reform. We can’t afford to lose a single Jewish youth – not one – but there are rabbis aplenty, whose extremism is the primary source of balkanization and estrangement, that we can easily do without.

    Shana Tova to you, Naomi, your family and all your readers.

  6. joan

    A courageous article.

    Much of it resonated with me – bringing back childhood experiences.

    Unfortunately I was exposed to the darker side of orthodoxy when I was very young – starting at age 10. The gossip & lies by observant Jews – impacting people who would or could not fight back. These experiences, in one form or another, sadly were repeated through the years – making the life of a couple of my children hell [in a day school]. They ended up in a public school where a bully’s parent’s income did not affect discipline..

    I went the opposite direction from yours – from almost full observance to shul going mainly on the yom tovim & keeping kosher but not much else.

    Fortunately for my family, another experience at age 19 showed me that children needed to have some form of faith &, to me, Judaism was the best & obvious choice. So my children were raised as Consdrvadox Jews despite my doubts & all became dati-leumi [in spite of the hell they went through from their classmates] with 2 of them making aliyah.

    Like you, I pray that courage & compassion combined with tradition will be in the future of our people – before we lose the young to the missionaries.

    Keep up the good work

  7. Gary Aigen

    A very interesting and enlightened essay. But, religion is a sanctified way of cementing power in the hands of a few and convincing the rest that it is in their best interest to support this with their labor and treasure. So without a revolution/reformation this goes no where. Conservative, Reform and other J-W’s are conveniently disqualified from being heard and women can normally be cowed into submission. Naomi is smart and brave and strong – she needs a Women’s March on Jerusalem and Williamsburg attended by orthodox women and men alike followed by a boycott of offending synagogues, schools and commercial establishments.

    Or she can just say fuck-it and let the bastards stew in their own shit.

    • Larry Miller

      I like Gary’s thought about a “Women’s March on Jerusalem and Williamsburg.”

      This week in the US is all about the powerful and significant 1963 March on Washington, so important for Civil Rights. I suggest it provides the right matrix for dealing with these problems in Israel as outlined by Naomi Ragen.

      An old saying that “You can take the boy out Brooklyn but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy.” Perhaps if what applies to “boys” also applies to “girls,” Naomi is the Brooklyn girl to get something going.

      Maybe a march is the right medium.

  8. Sammy Alzofon

    Thank you for this wonderful article. It appears in my mailbox just as I finish reading Chains Around the Grass … I look forward to hearing you here in South Florida soon.

  9. Shoshana Comerford

    You have such ideas that I wish could be implemented in the Orthodox world. I am not Orthodox; I’m actually a Mormon, but your words ring true for any religious community. May we all be able to work hard, love G-d and live good lives of service to our fellow man.

  10. Irene Hizme

    Thank you for this very well written article that clearly expresses my feelings as well. You are right on target and it is time for the Hareidi young people to join in protecting our country because it will also provide them the opportunity to be productive.

    L’shana Tova tikatvee v’teichatmee.

    I am a graduate of HILI.

  11. Larry Miller

    I could not put the article down–like a mystery story–how will it come out?

    Would it be wrong to observe that there seems to be, at the core of many religions, a group of extremists who seek to hijack their religion, redefine it for their own purposes and prejudices, and build their own institutional power base, especially over women?

  12. Michael Abramowitz

    Naomi: I agree with most of what you say, and laud your ability to express yourself so well. I think one of the best developments to sanctify Israel is emergence of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home Party) in Israel. Although the Haraydim are incensed at the inevitability of army service, it is the best thing that could happen to their children and progeny. Although most of them are good people, it is a perversion to have a Torah life without living in this world too. (Pirkei Avot: If there is no Torah there is no flour, and if there is no flour, there is no Torah) Just as it is a perversion to have a secular life imbued with the ways of the gentiles without having a base in Torah. Army service will benefit the whole nation because as we see today, the most valiant of soldiers are those who are fighting not just for State of Israel but for the Jewish People’s right to the Land of Israel. The best benefit of their army service will be far less “sinat chinam” with secular Jews learning to love Judaism and the Jewish People.

  13. selma ost

    Interesting to see reply from Rabbi Rackman’s son – I was a young girl in his congregation at Shaaray Tefila in Far Rockaway. I also remember all the places Naomi mentions in her growing up years. Orthodoxy has changed and undoubtedly Reform will be the cboice of most americans.

    • Silky Pitterman

      Selma, my dear Jewish sister, I respectfully disagree with you that “Reform with be the choice of most Americans”. That was said back in the 1930 and history has shown that Orthodoxy has flourished and the number of halachicly Jewish people in many Reform Temples have shrunk.

    • Silky Pitterman

      Selma, my dear Jewish sister,
      Back in the 1940s, people said the same thing about Orthodoxy. History has shown that the Orthodox numbers have swelled and the amount of halachicly Jewish people in many Reformed Temples has shrunk.

      Hypocrisy isn’t only among the Orthodox.

  14. ann b

    The idea of reciting Hallel on Israel Independence Day is wonderful! (I love Hallel anyway) and so appropriate. I belong to a Conservative Synagogue and have brought the suggestion to our rabbi.

  15. Allyn Kanowsky

    I always enjoy you writing and look forward to seeing you on your trip to South Florida. We need more people to speak up as you do both in Israel and in America.

  16. Bruce Williams

    Shalom Naomi. Quite a read even for a Christian male. Would to God the whole of Judaism read and take note. Hi to Alex please.

  17. Nikki Simon

    Thank you, Naomi, for putting the words together to express my own thoughts.
    While the rabbunim of the shtetls were “shawckling” the Jews remained persecuted, marginalize and victimized until HaShem said: “They’re going nowhere…they’ve just settled in to this gahenah.” The rabbis are so busy quoting the sages of old that they don’t look in a forward direction. They have failed us as leaders pre-WWII.
    Thank you for your wisdom and your voice which speaks on behalf of so many of my generation. L’Shannah tova to your family and Kol Am Yisrael!!

  18. Jonathan Isserlin

    What an excellent article, Naomi. I have read most of your books and been on your ‘list’ for years. I must have realized that at least your early books had to be more or less drawn from personal experience. Your path through Orthodoxy, however, and your very astute assessment of the hypocrisy of the Haredim, certainly reflect where a lot of non-Haredi Orthodox feel the religion needs to go. Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

  19. Michael London

    Thank you for this enlightening article that informs me about the misbehavior and malicious desecration of the directives in the Torah. That is doubly sad in that the perpetrators are people who have supposedly studied the principals of good behavior.

    What makes these miscreants feel that their actions are excusable?

    I am not a professional in the behavioral sciences, nor am I Orthodox. However, in my 70+ years, I have seen examples of parental behavior that lead me to be fairly-confident that certain patterns in the developmental years of a boy’s life can lead to resultant patterns in later life.
    Just one example comes from my years as a baseball coach in which I saw plenty of parents giving out effusive praise regardless of the relative quality of performance of their child. There is plenty more to be considered, and I think that it is a matter that could be explored with greater expertise than I can deliver.
    Thanks to you for getting this topic started.

  20. Rivka Arieli

    THANK YOU, Naomi, for your modelling, your writing, and your mentorship of so many of us.

    This is such an excellent article to share with so many!

  21. Bennett M. Rackman

    I know my father would have agreed with you. When in JFK Airport, please visit the only shul in an airport in all of North and South America.
    L’shanah Tovah tikataivee v’taichataimee l’alter l’chaim Tovim b’aifran shel tzadeekim gemoorim.

  22. Irene Konig

    This is an excellent piece of writing and I learned a great deal not only about the author, Naomi Ragen, but also more of what is going on in the Orthodox community. Thank you, Naomi, for sharing this with us.

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