Posted on November 27, 2012 by David Bogomolny
Evan was my first flatmate in Israel; he and I studied at Pardes together, and we had plenty of conversations about our shared Jewish heritage over the course of that year.
He had fond childhood memories of his grandfather, a traditional, American shul-going Jew, and recalled the smell and texture of the tallit that he had worn at services. Evan’s Jewish religious identity was bound tightly to his memories of his grandfather.
My Eastern European last name means ‘He who prays to G-d’, and as far as I know, my family was comprised of traditionally religious Jews only five generations ago. Nonetheless, my decision to live a traditionally religious Jewish life has set me apart in some significant ways from my family members. Unlike Evan, I have no personal memories of anybody’s tallit, but still feel that my Jewish religious identity is bound tightly to the meaning of my last name, and my ancestors to whom it was assigned.
That year, while living with Evan, I was struggling with questions of “authenticity”. What was I trying to connect to through Judaism? Why was I trying? Evan’s memories of his grandfather felt beautiful, personal… what did I have? Was I just pretending, just yearning for something that wasn’t really mine?
Conversations with mentors of mine gradually shifted my thinking that year.
I learned more about the dynamic history of Judaism, the Jewish people, and the many denominations of Judaism that exist today, including Orthodox Judaism and Hareidi Judaism, which I’d once related to as more “authentic” than other versions of Judaism in most possible ways.
[expand title=”An Aside: Brief History of Hareidism”]
Contrary to popular belief, neither Moses nor Maimonides was haredi. Haredi Judaism developed from Orthodox Judaism, which itself differed in small but significant ways from the traditional Judaism that preceded it.
Orthodox Judaism, as the term is used in the academic study of Jewish history (as opposed to in the colloquial sense of “observant”), arose in the 19th century as a response to the challenges of the Enlightenment and emancipation, and particularly in response to the assault upon traditional Judaism led by the Reform Movement. In the face of systematic and sweeping deviation from traditional beliefs and practices, traditionalists found it necessary to separate themselves into a distinct sub-community within the Jewish people and to develop a more conservative approach to Judaism in general.
Originally there were a variety of streams of Orthodoxy in Europe, but over time, extreme forms of ultra-Orthodoxy began to overwhelm the other approaches. In the face of the novel phenomenon of Jews organizing themselves politically (such as with the Zionist movement) and the new personal autonomy offered by the modern period, Orthodox Jews created organizations such as Agudath Israel that began to dramatically recast traditional models of rabbinic authority into their modern manifestations.
THE PROCESS whereby Orthodoxy became ever more withdrawn from the modern world was further assisted after the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the subsequent re-creation of Jewish communities in Israel and the US, when the structure of the Orthodox community changed. Instead of the synagogue being the focus of religious life and the community rabbi being the main rabbinic authority, the ivory tower of the yeshiva took center stage, and the heads of the yeshivot gradually assumed the reins of rabbinic authority.
Furthermore, with the increasing laxity and encroachment of modernity, the conservatism of Orthodoxy accelerated to an unprecedented degree. As contemporary culture became ever more antithetical to religious values and became harder and harder to keep out of the home, haredi Judaism responded by building ever higher walls in an attempt to keep it out.
I began to appreciate my personal story – the story of my life, my connection to Jewish identity and Israel, and how it connected to my family’s story – one of Eastern Europe, Soviet Aliyah, Zionism and the United States of America. I began to understand that my own modern Jewish story was “authentic” – that my experiences and my way of relating to them did not have to be pushed aside to make room for my religious Jewish identity and practices.
While I continue to think (and feel) a lot about this issue, and my learning is ongoing, my first year in Israel was particularly pivotal for me. With greater access to sources of information about Judaism, I was able to begin identifying what the “core” of Judaism was for me, and how much various Jewish communities went beyond this “core”, or fell short of it.
While I’m not much for blessing people, I do offer this blessing: May we all grow to believe in and respect our valid, authentic Jewish identities. May we all truly embrace these words of Rav Kook in our hearts:
“The authentic and sincere person must believe in his life. That is to say, must believe in the validity of his own personal life, and in his emotions which emerge directly from the root of his soul – that they are good and pure and that they will lead him in an honest way.”
Lights of Torah 11b