I recently heard Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speak about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe believed that words mattered so much that he petitioned Israel to change the Hebrew word for hospital, Beit Cholim (house of the sick), to wording that indicated it was a house of healing. He urged people to use positive language as a way of bettering our world.
I would like to make the case that the observant community must find another term for “off the derech” (off the way), which has become so common that it is often known by its acronym, OTD. It is used to describe Jews who were observant or from Orthodox homes, but no longer ritually observe most or any of the restrictions of Shabbat and kashrut (dietary laws).
My first objection to the term OTD is that it implies that there is only one derech, one way. That is a profoundly un-Jewish concept. Even within the Orthodox community, we do not walk in one straight line. Some married women cover their hair, some don’t, and some only cover sometimes. Some wear pants, some don’t, and again, for others it depends on the circumstances. Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo once said in a class at his home in Jerusalem, that after reviewing the entire Talmud for instances of halakhic disputes and differences of opinion, he found that less than 20% of the time the debate is resolved with the words, “And the halakha is…”
Even if we did unanimously agree on “the way,” we would only be defining it by ritual observance or by adherence to the laws between G-d and the Jewish people. As Telushkin has said, “the greatest disservice we do is to equate religion with ritual observance.” If a person rejects every mitzvah (commandment) between Jews and G-d—from refraining from melacha (forbidden work) on Shabbat to fasting on Yom Kippur—this does not mean that they are unscrupulous in their observance of mitzvot (commandments) between human beings.
The laws that dictate how one must interact with another person, such as philanthropy, helping the sick, and acting honestly in business, are an equal part of the “derech.” Leaving Orthodoxy does not mean that one has rejected their relationship to Judaism or the Jewish people.
Some “OTDers” are deeply connected to their Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. My oldest daughter goes to synagogue more often than I do, and works every single day and night on behalf of Israel, both professionally and as a lay person. She keeps kosher, is honest, ethical, and deeply compassionate. She gives tzedakah (charity) and respects her parents. It is also the case that she travels on Shabbat. Is she off the derech? Not in my opinion. She is on another path, one where she is not walking in my exact footsteps.
If parents have to come up with disparaging labels for their children who choose professions of which they don’t approve, or lifestyles for which they had not hoped, or even spouses who fall below their expectations, we are going to have too many acronyms to remember, and we are going to alienate our children and our fellow Jews to boot.
I am not opposed to objective standards—I object to disparaging labels that are narrowly conceived. If we are going to stand by this term, we should use it as well for Jews who are very careful about Shabbat and kashrut observance, but who also are dishonest, do not give tzedakah, treat others with respect, or care for the sick.
Mostly, I would prefer that the Orthodox community stop sorting Jews into little categories and boxes. Until we divest from our love of labels, I am calling for more positive alternatives to OTD: ones that include a more full assessment that embraces the standards of interpersonal mitzvot and commitment to Jewish identity. I suggest that we use another term, like OAD, on another derech. Or as Ernie Salman has written here, what we really should call Jews who have chosen another path is, well, Jews.
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This article originally appeared in My Jewish Learning on August 16, 2016.