I am not Orthodox.
There. I said it.
Yes, I look like I am. I have a full beard, I am the rabbi of a traditional synagogue and don't eat anything not kosher. But I am finally comfortable enough with myself and my Judaism to come out and say what has been lying underneath the surface for so many years.
I just can't classify myself anymore as an Orthodox Jew.
Truth be told, as I look at the membership list of my congregation here in suburban Long Island I feel that none of my community is really Orthodox either.
Please allow me to describe to you my journey on how I reached this conclusion.
Every Friday night, my wife and I host a Shabbat dinner in our home. Sometimes it is families from our congregational Hebrew school, sometimes a family that just moved to the community and sometimes a family going through a difficult time in their life that can benefit some homemade chicken soup.
After lighting the Shabbat candles some onion challah and a few l'chaims, the conversation becomes intimate, moving and sometimes even provocative.
A few weeks back we had three different families join us; each with their own story on how they joined our congregation and each with their own level of involvement.
I was feeling a bit daring (maybe too much Bartenura) and I posed the following multiple choice question: Do you consider yourself Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, None of the above or Other.
The first guest thought for a few moments and said "I'm not sure. My parents were Conservative, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi, but our kids went to a Reform temple for nursery. I didn't fast on this past Yom Kippur but my daughter's upcoming Bat mitzvah is going to be done by an Orthodox rabbi.”
The next guy said he is Reform since currently he is not a member at any temple but he takes his family to a Reform temple in Westchester every year for the high holidays. Since his parents are on the board of directors they get a good price on tickets so it is worth the schlep. Also, while he hadn't studied much lately, he feels that his beliefs are more in tune with the Reform movements ideas of Tikun Olam.
The third scratched his head and said, “My friends ask me this same question when they hear I am a member at an Orthodox congregation. My response is “Other” since I don't fall into any of those categories.”
That is when it suddenly hit me.
I am not Orthodox since there is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew. As there is no such thing as a Reform Jew or Conservative Jew.
These terms are artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes ignoring the most important thing about us all. We share one and the same Torah given by the One and same God.
We might buy into these labels for social, financial, communal, political or even for emotional reasons. But that is all they are: labels. They don’t define us as a people, they won’t predict our future and most significantly they don’t describe the fiber that has kept us alive and strong for three and half millennia. These labels are more about tearing us apart than furthering Judaism.
Yes, some people are more observant and involved than others. As we well know, when two of us are in a room there is a minimum of three opinions.
But our Jewish experience runs so much deeper than our theories and opinions. Have you ever heard of someone calling herself "Protestant with no religion?" Still, plenty of Jews today are identifying as "Jewish with no religion." Elevent percent of that group says they keep kosher at home! We are all internally and eternally connected with our Father in heaven, whether or not we realize it.
I think what recent surveys cry out is that people are Post-Denominational. They are tired of being boxed into these silly categories. The overwhelming majority of people don’t even know what they mean. Instead, they are yearning for a real connection that has real life application.
It is the job of the Jewish leadership to embrace our responsibility, not as God's policeman but as My Brothers’ Keeper. Our definitions should be based on the highest common denominator. And that is the Jewish soul, the piece of God that was gifted to each one of us and that each of us a have a sacred right and responsibility to cultivate that relationship to the highest level.
When we are able to focus on the fact that while we have differences but a family truly remains connected eternally, it will reconfirm what we already knew: Am Yisroel Chai!