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Orthodox Judaism and Unorthodox Jews

Orthodox Judaism and Unorthodox Jews

What's really wrong with orthodoxy?


Dear Orthodox Rabbi

I'm in a bind. I like Shabbat. I like Torah—especially the Kabbalah stuff and Chassidic stories. I feel a strong attachment to the Jewish people. I'm attracted to the whole thing.

So, you'll say, what's my problem. Just do it, right? Be an orthodox Jew.

But I can't. I can't imagine being orthodox. I mean, look at me. Look at the way I grew up, where I'm coming from, where I'm at now. Can you imagine a non-conformist like me following all the regulations of a strictly kosher, orthodox Jew?

—Signed, Unorthodox Jew

Dear Unorthodox,

Finally, a man of my persuasion! Unorthodox! Yes! The most descriptive term I have heard for real Judaism! The belief that nothing is the way it is supposed to be, that everything in the world has to change, that we have to be different from everybody else. This is what Jews are all about—the recalcitrant, insurgent, revolutionary kvetchers of history—and what could be more unorthodox than that?

Didn't Judaism begin with the paradigm of all iconoclasts? Picture Abraham smashing the idols in his father's house, defying King Nimrod and all of social norms. Picture Moses defying Pharaoh, or Rabbi Akiva and the sages defying the massive Roman Empire. Is this something you would describe as 'orthodox' behavior?

To be Jewish is to rebel. Refusing to answer the phone on Shabbat is a rebellion against technocracy. Keeping kosher is a rebellion against consumerism. Getting up early in the morning to wrap in a large, white woolen sheet, twist leather straps and boxes upon your arm and head, join others in mystical incantations and read from an ancient scroll—is an outright rebellion against anything considered normal in modern day life.

Do you know the story of the rabbi standing out on the street looking for a tenth for his minyan? Finally, he found a Jew. But the fellow tried to turn him down, explaining, “I'm not into organized religion.”

”If this were organized religion,” the rabbi exclaimed, “what on earth am I doing out on the street harassing pedestrians?”

Have Jews ever been orthodox?

Have Jews ever been orthodox? Has there ever been a time when our views and behavior were considered normal?

Pharaoh thought we were crazy because we demanded workers' rights.

The Romans thought we were nuts because we wouldn't dispose of unhealthy infants.

The Church thought we were perverse because we wouldn't surrender to the faith of the majority.

The rationalists thought we were off-the-wall because of our mysticism and the romantics considered us obtuse for our rationalism.

The United Nations resolved that Jews are weird just because we insist on existing. In the meantime, everybody ended up adopting our mindset—yet we still remain an anomaly among peoples. There's just too much catching up for everybody else to do.

To paraphrase the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Judaism can never be called old fashioned—because it was never in fashion to begin with.

So, whoever came up with this oxymoron, orthodox Judaism?

I'll tell you: Two hundred years ago, when Emperor Napoleon decided he was the true messiah and the Jews were to be liberated, he appointed several leaders of the Jewish community to form a Sanhedrin of rabbis and scholars, just as had been in ancient times.

So honored, they went about convincing their buddies to join. After all, Napoleon was the wave of the future. This was progress.

But some rabbis didn't think it was such progress. Napoleon, a messiah? And Paris is Jerusalem, right? So they declined. And for this stubborn refusal to understand just how backward and narrow-minded they were, they were labeled, "you…you…you ORTHODOX RABBIS!"

"Orthodox Shmorthdox," they replied, "but the little guy with his hand stuck in his shirt is not the messiah!"

It's something like the way hippies started calling themselves 'freaks'. Some homesteader at Woodstock looked upon these fine, young American youth and spat out that epithet in front of the cameras. So, they said, why fight it? And they called themselves freaks.

Why I Am Not an Orthodox Jew

In modern-day jargon, the term "Orthodox" has come to designate those of us who don't change Torah just so it should fit in better with what everyone else is doing. In that sense, I definitely count myself among the "orthodox." But I sure don't feel orthodox. Should I?

That's another thing the Lubavitcher Rebbe said: "Labels are for shirts." Okay, there are other things that can take labels. Like Reform Temples, Conservative Synagogues, Reconstructionist Pine Groves. But the Jews that you'll find in these places have all just one label: Jews. Because "Jew" is not a behavioral term. It's an essential state of being. It's not where you're at, it's where you belong.

So if anyone should ask you to describe the three kinds of Jews today, answer as follows:

There are three types of Jews:

  1. Jews who do mitzvahs.

  2. Jews who do more mitzvahs.

  3. Jews who do even more mitzvahs.

And that's about it, because a Jew can hardly breathe without doing a mitzvah.

As for this issue you have with the yoke of doing this and not doing that…it doesn't really work that way. For starters, the whole system is already encoded in your DNA. It's the natural state of a Jew, for example, to do the incantation thing in the morning. That's why we're such kvetches. So that we can kvetch to Him three times a day. If we don't do it properly, we end up kvetching all day long. Once we have appointed times, we get it all out of our system and the rest of the day we can get things done.

The same with Shabbat, keeping kosher, mikvah—all the practices Jews have ground into their souls for 3300 years. All you need to do is awaken that Jewish soul with a little deep, inner Torah, some beautiful Chassidic tales and a couple of sweet melodies, and it comes alive and does its thing. Spontaneously. With joy.

Call it "effortless Judaism." Better, don't call it anything.

Except, maybe, very unorthodox.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Akiba Torrance November 16, 2017

Obviously, quite a few years after it was written, but this is one of the best articles I have ever read about the nature of us Jews and Judaism. You should, at least I would hope, reissue it periodically rather than keeping it in the de facto archives. Reply

Rachel Bethlehem, PA September 19, 2011

Labels Shmabels "There are three types of Jews:

Jews who do mitzvahs.
Jews who do more mitzvahs.
Jews who do even more mitzvahs.
And that's about it, because a Jew can hardly breathe without doing a mitzvah."

This is the best description I've heard yet on the different sects of Judaism...I LOVE IT! It's good to remember that keeping shabbos and keeping kosher are mitzvahs. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA June 6, 2011

The word ORTHODOX is Greek. It means: straight (true) and right belief. In that Judaism does not claim to be the only religion in the world to follow in order to "get to Heaven", then we don't claim to use the word "true" or that we have the "right" belief. Therefore, there is no Orthodox Jew. Only Torah Observant Jews and secular Jews. Yes, Rabbi Tzvi's answer was humorous, but I think that knowing the definition of ORTHODOX is important as well. Frum and other Torah Observant Jews believe there are Noahide people who are like Jews who only have to follow, I think, 7 commandments to be righteous. In the place of Orthodox Jews, I think I would call them T.O. Jews (Torah Observant). In fact, because I'm reform, according to this article, I would actually be the orthodox one. Hahaha. Very humorous. Reply

Benjamin Ashworth Baltimore, MD May 30, 2011

Rabbi's Reed Thust aside by a reed? When I read the talmud, I often privately disagree with the majority. I'm very much like the questioner in this piece. I want to make my own judgement without comming under the ban; but, everytime I try to do so and still retain my Jewishness, I find myself facing the sage argument of a Rabbi who tries to herd me along with his stick! A little tolerance couldn't hurt. Reply

William Winkelman Tucson, Arizona May 10, 2011

Burdensome requirements? Many object to observant Judaism, saying that there are too many requirements. I challenge that. Let's compare Jewish law to federal, state, county, and municipal law. Which has more regulations? True, many of the regulations of the federal, state, county, and municipal governments aren't about anything that pertains to us. But neither do all aspects of Jewish law pertain to us, e.g.. all the regulations on Temple service. Much of Jewish law overlaps secular law, too, so that reduces what is unique in Jewish law still more. So I think you're just down to davening, observance of Shabbat and the festivals, keeping kosher, and what you wear. Where you live, too, for completeness' sake, so that you're not driving to shul on Shabbat. In light of all the numerous other regulations we abide by, these don't seem like much of an addition. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA May 10, 2011

Again, Rabbi Tzvi, awesome answer. Although, it is a bit of a rationalization and oversimplification. I have a very, very important question because something you said bothers me greatly. You said, "The United Nations resolved that Jews are weird just because we insist on existing." When did they say that and under what circumstances? Is there a reference where I can look this up and find the quote? Thank you. Reply

Mrs. Dinah Ganor April 12, 2011

Rabbi Freeman, you are a great Jew. Reply

Gene Bellvue, Colo USA February 10, 2011

Wow Yes how awesome
In always wondered why I never fit in!
Thank you so much Tzvi Reply

Anonymous September 8, 2010

Ahron Dovid-- "I'm still not always sure when the good rabbi is being literal, playful, serious, or striving to push his reader's hot-buttons to get us to think outside the box."

He takes the readers out of the box and destroys the box. First you panic, then you wonder why you thought you needed it in the first place. He shows you the framework and you make it fit. This isn't about a Burger King god where you recreate G-d "your way" (are you old enough to remember the slogan?) but the basics stay.

Every writer at Chabad is unique and wonderful, but since my husband is an IT guy, I find myself passing Freeman's articles on to him or quoting his articles to him when we are discussing something. Reply

Anonymous September 8, 2010

It's a spiritual journey, not a destination Rabbi, but you are so backward in your thinking! LOL I wouldn't say this if I believed it! (Everyone, read the rabbi's bio! He's a tech geek!)

To the writer-- start out where you are. G-d may not want you to be Orthodox. He wants you to be you. I envision you being handcuffed to your fur hat! You'd be acting, not living, a life style! You'd be hiding behind your menorah and star of David.

As time goes on, you grow into your faith. Maybe you'll pick up more traits that are Jewish, maybe you won't.

Remember that as you get deeper into it, you will always meet people who are more WHATEVER than you. Some will encourage you and some will seem overzealous and you will want to gag. It's OK to gag! (But it's not ok to gag on their shoes.) Every group has it's fruits, nuts and flakes. Be the cream and rise above it and do what you need to do. (Remind ME of this and watch yourself to not be a fruit, a flake or a nut to me. I'll gag on your shoes!) Reply

Anonymous Blacksburg, VA September 6, 2010

Dissenting points... 1. Amusing article w/ good points/quips, but it seems to exclude the ger (convert) from your idea of Jewishness. I'm not asking you to be p.c.; the bluntness w/ which you wield your pen lends character to your writings. But please try to remember not all Jews are born into generations of norms and customs, especially when you write of what sets Jews apart.

2. Statistically, there are very few individuals on the planet who are 100% devoid of Jewish ancestry. Much of what is in the Jew's DNA is in the gentile's.

3. In response to the question: For many, the term Orthodoxy connotes adherence to customs which were developed several hundred years ago. With all due respect, Moshe did not wear black pants or a fur hat. If you had told him it would be a sign of Torah observance millennia later, he prob. would have scratched his head in disbelief. The Torah permits the exercise of free will in the bounds of the law. It is more difficult, but the reader could assimilate AND observe. (America rocks!) Reply

Aharon Dovid August 13, 2010

That was a unique spin on the usual dominant social themes perceiving Orthodox Jews as traditional conformists. The comments by many here are also interesting to reflect upon.

I'm somewhat new here to and to reading Rabbi Freeman's articles so I'm still not always sure when the good rabbi is being literal, playful, serious, or striving to push his reader's hot-buttons to get us to think outside the box. Reply

Chaya Saint Louis, MO June 27, 2010

thank you Tzvi, I have yet to read anything you've written on that didn't leave me feeling grateful. I am a young woman who was raised in a completely disconnected/secular family and I've spent a lot of time agonizing over the process of what to do with myself, much in the same vein as Mr. "Unorthodox" posing his question to you here. To read your answer uplifts my neshama that I'm not an 'outsider' for the lack in my upbringing and that any time is a good time to start learning and doing and being the Jew that I am. Reply

A Mertins May 5, 2010

rebellion sorry, I dont buy that.
Being kosher is rebellion against cunsumerism?
That is simply false, and here's why:
Rebellion is a PURPOSEFUL act against something. Meaning: You do something BECAUSE you want to make a statement against something else.
But, before there was capitalism and consumerism, jewish people ate kosher. And if there will be a time with no consumerism, you would still eat kosher, wouldnt you?
That is because these behaviors are NOT rebellious.
It would be in fact rebellious to be vegan ( I am not) . Because it would be a conscious act against something.
Dont confuse "different" with rebellious, please. That way you just fuel romantic illusions of (in this cause) jewish people (which I am not), that what they do is a heroic thing. But I think humanity doesn't needs illusional heroes. (not that jews cannot be heroes, of course they can!!!). I think we need heroes without illusions...
greetings Reply

Ann Houston December 9, 2017
in response to A Mertins:

It has always been difficult to keep kosher.
Pork costs less than almost any meat on the market.
In early America, lots of people hunted bears and ate the meat, but bears are not kosher, so that food source was unavailable to those who kept kosher.
Not all American Jews kept kosher in the early days of America. It was too difficult. Many men assimilated to the point of marrying out and having nonJewish children who were lost to us.
Keeping kosher always required an extra effort and expense and it still does.
We can't even use ordinary cookbooks without changing at least one ingredient in almost every recipe.
Kosher beef costs about three times as much as nonkosher beef, so I rarely eat it. Even the poultry (which I do buy) costs significantly more than non-kosher poultry, but in that case it is worth it, since kosher poultry is not subjected to the cruelty that factory farming requires.
I'm not saying it's "heroic" but keeping kosher certainly requires devotion.
I do it out of love. Reply

Rochel March 18, 2010

To Unorthodox Jewess Why do you want to be a man? Do you not think that G-d knew what he was doing? You speak of Male/Female roles as if they are man made, but G-d created us different and we should celebrate those differences and enjoy them. Men are not better than women and the man's role is not more fun, more interesting, better, or closer to G-d in any way shape or form than a woman's. It is sad that some women think that unless they can be men they are worthless. Who taught you that? Is that feminism? I would not trade the role I play in Judaism and the world for my husband's. He has his job, I have mine and together we make a whole out of two halves. It's perfect, just the way G-d intended. Reply

Anonymous Camelot January 14, 2010

Unorthodox Jewess You speak to the Unorthodox Jew enamored of mystic thought and poetic action. You speak of rebellion, courage and strength, the core of an ancient practice bequeathed to us by our forefathers. You speak of a people advanced in thought and deed.

Yet you speak of men, to men. What do you say to the frivolous woman who would be counted in a quorum, permitted to engage in the communal life of Judaism, accepted as a witness in court? What of the deserted wives of Zion, who have no redress, no status, no voice unto themselves? If everything in the world must change, why do you not respond to the silent demands of the daughters of Israel?

Orthodox Judaism has failed to stand up and address real grievances, preferring to engage in apologetics and hide behind pretty platitudes.

Kol kvudah bas melech pnima.

A woman's honor lies within her, not within a cage. Reply

Josias Wolhuter Kimberley, South Africa November 13, 2009

so good it is bad People usually think I am so weird and rebellious for following "orthodox" ways, what an oxymoron. LOL Reply

Ann again May 29, 2009

Tzvi's post Good one, Tzvi!
REally good.

Simple and true. Reply

Mariluz (Java ) Levy Guatemala, Guatemala May 25, 2009

three types of jews!!! I love your answer, you are a genius rabbi Tzvi Freeman!!!! We love all your writings, thank G-d and you for being in this world so that you can answer greatly all our questions and make us be better jews!!! Reply

Anonymous new york, ny May 25, 2009

u r the best thing happened to i really mean it. there is no other way i can put it.i never finish reading an answer from you and be lost. its amazing how you put the regular 2 and 2 together. something that simple that i couldnt think of. its more amazing that after i read your answers it feels i had the same feelings but couldnt put it in words. thanks for all the wisdom you have and you share. Reply

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