Taking into consideration that I’ve been involved with various pluralistic movements in the past, and at one time being an active member of the Reform, and later the Conservative youth groups in my community, I can empathize with the thoughts and feelings that people have for the convictions of Orthodoxy. With this in mind, please understand that while I may make some points and observations that can come across as accusatory in tone, the prime motive I have behind my comments is to help foster mutual understanding, and any comments perceived as negative are necessary in order to help convey the message. The goal that I hope to achieve here is to reveal the „other side of the coin that is often neglected (often not on purpose, but by ignorance) by society at large, which is … the feelings and perspectives of the Orthodox community regarding our interaction with Jews of different beliefs and convictions (especially the Newly-Orthodox and their Non-Orthodox relatives). I also want to analyze some ideas on how to minimize some of the miscommunications, and pain that often is the outcome of these misunderstandings.
A friend of mine once told me a story regarding him and his family: It was his grandmother’s birthday and the family wanted to celebrate the occasion at a restaurant. Being the only one in his family that keeps kosher, he suggested they choose from the whole „smorgasbord of kosher facilities in New York (i.e. not a matter of convenience, but one of, well, taste). However, his family insisted they eat at a non-kosher Japanese joint. One more detail, he was expected to be one of the hosts! His family was disappointed that he declined the offer, even though he forewarned them that he could not participate due to religious beliefs. I am not relating this story to gain sympathy for the many people (baalei teshuva*) who often can not attend family functions because their family failed to consider if they would be able to attend an event with the circumstances in mind. The question I am drawing out from this story (and the many like it) is that given the liberal/non-Orthodox pride in pluralism, where is the tolerance and sensitivity towards people attempting to live according to their beliefs and
convictions … which causes many Jews, who are otherwise extremely non-judgmental and perceptive to have on blinders to the situation of their Orthodox family and friends who due to Torah convictions are unable to always go with the flow?
I would now like to address what I understand to be two of the main root causes of much misunderstanding and strife. The first cause is that often non-Orthodox Jews have a strong sense of Jewish pride and feel that when Orthodox friends or family can’t participate fully (or at all) in an occasion or event that their Judaism is being challenged. Therefore it is not hard to understand why they feel that they are being judged. The second core issue is that non-Orthodox people have a hard time relating to the concept of a „Divinely commanded lifestyle and interpret the actions (or inactions) of their Orthodox relative as trying to separate himself or herself from the family.
The judgment factor: It is no great secret that Orthodox Jews desire that their Jewish family and friends share the same values and observances as themselves, and it is also no great surprise that most non-Orthodox Jews feel comfortable where they are in their Judaism. When an Orthodox Jew declines to be involved in matters that involve going against halachah** this is a direct assault on the comfort zone of the non-Orthodox friend/relative. Indeed, there is no getting around it; the Orthodox Jew by the very nature of what the Torah demands of him (or her) is not allowed to view certain actions and beliefs as appropriate. Because of this reality, many non-Orthodox Jews feel threatened and are put on the defense. This explains why many times non-Orthodox family members are oblivious to the feelings and concerns of an Orthodox family member who can’t come to a gathering, as Mrs. Azriela Jaffe pointed out to me, when people are feeling angry, judged and threatened … compassion and sensitivity are not compatible feelings.
I would like to suggest an outlook that should appease those who feel judged by their Orthodox relative/friend. When an Orthodox Jew speaks about something that is incompatible with Judaism, he or she is not judging the PERSON, but rather the ACTION or the IDEA. To make the mistake of thinking the rejection of a person’s actions/philosophy is synonymous with the rejection of the person who is subscribing to them is an easy mistake to make, this is why making the differentiation is essential for harmonious relationships.
The fanatic factor: One of the requests most often made of Orthodox people from their non-Orthodox family/friends is can’t you just make an exception. Many times it is presumed that Orthodox people are apathetic to their family’s needs, or worse, get some
sort of pleasure from not being able to do what is being requested. It is as if people think their Orthodox relative or friend really could make an exception, but for some inexplicable reason refuses to do so. They can fill in the blank with just about everything, except for the possibility that their Orthodox relative is doing so because their religion requires it of them. This mentality (for most cases) could not be further from the truth. Many times, in resisting acquiescing to demands made of them, Orthodox Jews experience many emotional hardships. The reaction of causing pain to a loved one is often not lessened even if the pain that the loved one is feeling is self-afflicted, and beyond control of the Orthodox family member. What many non-Orthodox people have a hard time relating to is the concept that the rules are accepted as a Divine command, and are not some self imposed habits of a person in an expression of individuality. A perspective that should help relationships with Orthodox family members is: that indeed the Orthodox family member would love to be able to go to any restaurant that their family chooses, however they can not, because to them the Torah is the expression of G-d’s will for them, a will that it is imperative they not deviate from. The reality of the Orthodox Jew is what is expressed in the Torah, so they are not flippantly able tojust make an exception. The best option is to go over with the Orthodox family member how s/he would be able to attend a family gathering ahead of time. Sensitivity and thinking ahead are crucial to make sure as many people are accommodated and as comfortable as possible.
The reason I decided to write this article is because of a personal experience. When I had my wedding, there were some challenges with my family asking me to make some exceptions that I was not able to make. I got a call from my cousin who wanted to see if it was possible for things to be changed. His call led to an in-depth discussion of my feelings and perspectives on our family matters. The outcome was that my cousin was profusely thankful to me for pointing out a lot of the components that were involved in the situation that he had never even thought of! The purpose of this article is not to point fingers, and say, no, you are the intolerant ones! Rather, my hope is to share a little known perspective with the Jewish community at large that just may help mitigate the hardships of everyone involved.
I wanted to articulate these ideas in a concise form to benefit the widest possible audience; but for those who would like to read more, a great resource is the book What Do You Mean You Can‚t Eat In My Home? By Azriela Jaffe.
Any comments or questions may be addressed to me at: Michoel_stern@yahoo.com
* Baalei teshuva (Singular form: Baal teshuva) = This term typically refers to one who was not raised religious, but became Orthodox later in life. However, it can also refer to a person who was raised Orthodox, then dropped his or her Orthodoxy, then later in life came back to it.
** Halachah = Jewish law