One of the biggest draws that brought me into the orthodox Jewish fold was realizing just how much the secular Jewish world was missing. I’d sit at the Shabbat table at my Chabad house in Arizona State and feel like I was in a dream: my whole life I had been dreaming of finding a place where people were not afraid to openly talk about spirituality, and that didn’t limit God to three dimensions, where religion wasn’t about culture but about truth.
And there it was, in my own backyard, just waiting for me. Year after year of reading books about Taoism and eastern religion had caused me to feel like there may never be a true melding of the east and the west, and that I would walk forever alone, thinking about the endlessness, the indefinability, of truth while the world around me spoke in harsh, straight lines about everything.
And yet, Judaism offered that melding. That combination of earthy action with elevated meditation. How lucky, how blessed, were the Jewish people?
And then I went from the Chabad house and entered a hasidic yeshiva, where, again, God was on everyone’s lips, where spirituality was sung and eaten and danced and prayed and spoken and touched.
What, I wondered, did the secular world ever offer to me? I had trouble understanding, trouble seeing it.
It’s now almost a decade since then. I’ve gotten married, I’ve had children, I’ve moved to a hasidic neighborhood, I’ve worked at Jewish organizations, I’ve started a Jewish organization.
I’m sitting a table speaking to a person I deeply, deeply respect. I’m on edge, I’m on fire, I’m enflamed. We tried not to get into it, but here we are, he and I, speaking about Donald Trump. But I’m not angry about Trump, at least not at the moment.
He said, “Look, Jews have been in every kind of horrible place. And we’ve made it out. Because we didn’t let that world define us, we didn’t let it control us.”
Nine years ago, I would have danced to that rhythm, I would have cheered him on. Temporal things like countries? Since when should people who define themselves by so much more, but things so much deeper, allow these things to control our actions, our hearts, our souls?
But now is not nine years ago. The years since yeshiva have culminated to this moment, where a thought I’ve been struggling with since moving to this community is now ready to erupt out of me.
“The ADL. StandWithUs. You and I are safe because of them. You can say these things about not involving yourself in the secular world because there are secular Jews out there protecting you. Putting their lives on the line for you as you look down on them as a whole.”
But I know, deep in my heart, that this is the key to what is missing here, what is missing in this whole discussion.
When I was a secular Jew, I had an incredibly negative view of the orthodox world. I had watched a documentary about Hasidic Jews, one that described how they controlled the people in their communities and had a terrible effect on New York City.
But that wasn’t what, on an emotional level, bothered me about watching that video.
One of the scenes showed a massive room of Hasidim dancing. Dancing and dancing around. They were all dressed the same. Dancing the same. Singing the same. The uniformity of it scared me. How on earth could a person be a person if that person nullified himself to the whole?
If anything, that one scene was enough to scare me away from even touching the world of orthodox Judaism. Better to keep them at a distance.
And, indeed, even when I started that road down into that world, it was the Chabad philosophy of embracing the individual’s spiritual powers that spoke to me so deeply.
But as I wandered into that world, and I opened myself up to the philosophy as a whole, as I would visit the Belz shul in Jerusalem, where rows upon rows of sameness-defined hasidim lined the walls in their bleachers, I felt the power of self-nullification in a way that inspired me to incredible heights.
I started to see this collectivist way of looking at the world as something that wasn’t just beautiful, but perhaps essential. Maybe not at the level of Belz, or even Chabad, but this… uniformity… had a power. A power that the individual-obsessed American world I had come from was missing deeply.
This power, I began to understand, was saving the Jewish people.
It became clear that the over-emphasis on individuality outside of the orthodox world had led to both the wisdom and the lineage of the Jewish world to quite rapidly begin to disappear. The orthodox world, on the other hand, is flourishing. There is more learning than perhaps there ever was in history. Their population is exploding. Intermarriage is not even close to an issue as it is in the rest of Jewry.
As I yelled at my orthodox friend about the secular Jews who were saving him, I couldn’t help but think about the insight that it was also orthodox Jews who were saving the Jewish world.
In other words, secular Jews are saving orthodox Jews while many of the orthodox scoff at them. And while I recall vividly being a secular Jew mocking orthodox Jews, I was unaware that they have been, always will be, busy saving the Jewish people.
What better analogy than Israel? Where many Haredi Jews don’t even recognize the very state that protects them? Where the vast majority of Jews putting their lives on the line for other Jews are secular? But where it is also the Haredi Jews who are so steadfastly insisting on refusing to allow intermarriage to be recognized? And are studying Torah at enormous rates, spreading it farther and deeper than any other place in the world?
Israel. Where many orthodox Jews mock the secular ones for being so liberal, saying the liberals are putting Israel in danger with their philosophy? When it was this liberal worldview, this secularism, this focus on the world, that led to secular Jews literally creating Israel? Israel would not be here without the very philosophy of action over spirituality that the secular Jewish people had used to fight for independence.
And so, while I’m yelling and gesticulating and getting angry, there is a part of me that knows all this, that knows that I can criticize him all I want, but I am falling into the same trap: of saying that there is one side, one world, doing more than the other. It is his perspective that has led to the collectivist strength of the Jews, one that sees beyond the physical and into the God that protects the Jewish people when they protect their connection to Him. My friend’s perspective is as essential as the one I am trying to get him to hear.
It is in this moment where my experiences growing up secular and my last decade of orthodox Jewish belief begin to mesh… swirling together, sending a message much deeper than “Oh my gosh, orthodox Jews need to be more grateful to their brothers and sisters.”
No… it is deeper than that, deeper than just learning from each other.
It is about seeing that we are organs of a body. And it is not just the orthodox, or just the reform Jews, or the conservative Jews, or the secular Jews, or the atheist Jews, that are the important parts of this body. Every body part matters, every voice matters, and while we can pretend some side doesn’t matter, such thinking would be as logical as saying your arm doesn’t matter or that your heart doesn’t matter. Or, God forbid, that some part of the body doesn’t even exist.
Of course, we hear rhetoric similar to this in many Jewish circles. That we are all part of the body. But it is important to see the value being brought by each part of our body if we are to truly internalize this concept. Every single part of the body brings value. And, more importantly, requires the aid of every single part of the rest of the body.
Yes, orthodox Jews, that means you need to listen to the secular Jewish world. To see that you are not just being protected by God, but people who are putting God into practice by fighting for you in ways you can’t imagine.
The secular Jewish world, as well, needs to stop lecturing orthodox Jews for learning Torah, or for their emphasis on collectivism and tribalism. It is studying Torah, it is collectivism, it is tribalism, that will save the Jewish people from spiritual and familial annihilation.
More importantly, by respecting what everyone brings to the table, we have the ability to communicate and work together like we never expected.
Imagine a Jewish world where orthodox Jews stopped doing kiruv. Where they instead simply started communicating. Said, “We have something to offer, and we know you have something to offer. Let’s discuss and learn from each other.”
(This is happening in some ways, even in the Haredi world. The confrontation with the scourge of sexual abuse has led to this very discussion. One where a realization has set in that without the help of secular knowledge and philosophy, and valuing the individual over the communal, sexual abuse will never be confronted deeply.)
Imagine a Jewish world where secular Jews didn’t look down on tribalism, but worked with orthodox Jews to create a Jewish peoplehood focused on truly bringing out the individual within the tribal.
Yes, there are many beginning this work. No, it isn’t as simple and binary as I’m writing here.
But it is not truly part of either side’s philosophy yet. We are still ghettoizing ourselves from each other. We are still acting like the side we’ve chosen is the true one.
In other words, the binary isn’t simple, but we’ve created one. It flows through us all, in different ways, and it has crippled us for far too long.
For now, it is God that is holding us together, providing us with the roles we need to fill. But He is waiting for us. Waiting for us to let go of our hangups and to truly see each other’s value. To not just see the humanity in the other, but the truth.
It’s time. Let us finally unite. Let the body finally realize it is one.