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.