I would like to respond to the Nov. 7 letter “No Middle Ground”.
Judaism is not an “all or nothing” religion. I too was raised Orthodox, and “had the benefits of a full yeshiva education, the trips to Israel, and undistracted parents.” Yet nothing in my education or upbringing has taught me that if I stray from even one tenet of Judaism, then I may as well drop all of them. In fact everything I have been taught and continue to learn is antithetical to that supposition.
The Torah, the Talmud, and the teachings of our scholars are replete with examples showing that Judaism is anything but “all or nothing.” Their stories, parables, and teachings convey the importance and function of human frailty, the tremendous benefit and gift of teshuva (repentance), and that the principle that Torah was given to Man, not to the ministering angels; these attributes, from my perspective, demonstrate that respect, tolerance, and flexibility are the core of our faith. This notion is perhaps most famously taught by the attention, respect, and emphasis given to the commandment “Love thy neighbor” as an essential, if not the quintessential, commandment of the Torah.
The Laws of Judaism are unyielding. The Torah, in both written and oral forms, has been the unchanging keystone of Jewish life for millennia, defining who we are and how we should approach life. And while the letter-writer is right, in part – that for our religion there is no such thing as “almost kosher”- Orthodox Judaism does not judge the individual with equally unyielding objectivity. A Jewish person eating at McDonald’s (not the one in Israel) is undoubtedly and unequivocally eating treif, but the notion that such a divergence disqualifies the person from being “Jewish” in the confines of Orthodoxy is contradictory to anything I have been taught.
There is a story about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement – by many accounts the progenitor of today’s haredi community – that demonstrates this broader spirit of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Salanter was speaking in a synagogue at the time of the Enlightenment. He asked how many of the congregants smoked on Shabbos. After many raised their hand, Rabbi Salanter recommended that instead of smoking 20 times next Shabbos, they should try smoking only 19. He did not ask them to leave the synagogue, nor did he say to them “Why bother” even considering yourself Jews; he did not judge these individuals nor did he condemn the act as a bona fide transgression, he simply advised them to try to cut back smoking on Shabbos. He cared about them, cared about their Yiddishkeit.
There is a natural ebb and flow that we all experience in our spiritual lives. I have learned, however, that we should never view or define ourselves by a single action or actions in a moment of “ebb.” Doing so may only cripple any chance of growing in our spirituality.
While I have never “sneaked a cigarette on a Friday night,” I have had and continue to have bumps in the road on my religious journey. I shudder to think how much I would have missed had I walked away from the joy, opportunity, and privilege of Orthodox life, simply because I couldn’t be perfect and believed that I would be castigated by my community because of it.