So what kind of Jew are you?!
(I must mention that in answering this question, I felt I had to write some points that are controversial. My intention was to be as honest as possible and explain where I’m coming from, and I couldn’t find a way to do this without bringing up some controversial ideas. If you read something and find it offensive, I do apologize, but I also urge you to consider what I’m trying to say and know that it is coming from a place of love.)
I’m often asked how I categorize myself in terms of religious practice. Having spent the majority of my life as “the blonde cellist”, I’ve always disliked labels which limit… and all the religious labels I’ve come across do this in some way or another. I also believe that deep down, most Jews are really getting tired of all the divisions and fragmentation within Judaism. I have really tried my best to stay away from anything that divides us, because disconnect is the root of all that is wrong in the world. It’s what got Adam and Chava banned from Gan Eden (contrary to popular belief, eating from the tree wasn’t the problem… it was the blaming each other afterward, the eschewing of responsibility.) It’s also why the second temple was destroyed, and it’s why we haven’t merited yet a third. However, since it is human nature to categorize and organize, I’ll do my best to explain what kind of Jew I am.
In terms of personal practice, how I learn and how I keep my home, I would be called an “orthodox” Jew, meaning that I keep Halacha (Jewish law) strictly. Unfortunately this implies a certain amount of closed-ness and disconnection from the world which certainly isn’t the case. Sometimes others mistakenly think that I am “modern” orthodox because of how I interact with the modern world, but if you look up the definition you’ll see that I am not modern orthodox (though I like the way it sounds). “Haredi” works in many ways but not others. Same with “Hassidic”. “Ultra Orthodox” implies being very cut off from anything secular, but many people think you have to either be ultra or modern so I’m more “ultra” than “modern”. (I kind of like “mega” because it sounds like a superhero. Unfortunately it doesn’t exist.) “Breslev?” Well I’m very happy and read his books so that works for me sometimes. In Israel, where the line between religion and politics is nonexistent, I get laughs and confusion by calling myself a “Haredi, Left-Wing, Zionist”. “Kabbalistic” has been ruined by the media so I don’t even want to go there, even though it is the deepest level of understanding and I try to live it as much as I can. I am Ashkenaz by birth but connect with many Sefardi practices, so I do them when there is no conflict. I believe that biblical Hebrew should be learned and spoken as biblical Hebrew, not with a Yiddish or modern Hebrew accent, but respect those that don’t agree. (I will write an article on this sometime.) So if you can figure out a title for all this, please let me know.
For those of you that might be struggling with these ideas, we must always remember this; The Torah tells us to “make ourselves holy”. It does not tell us to what kind of head covering to wear, or which type of siddur to daven from. It does not tell us to be “Haredi” “Breslov” or “Lubavich”. It tells us to become holy, and advises us on a myriad of ways to do this. I find it sad how often we forget this because we become bogged down trying to make a decision about which label to fit into. This is often an especially huge stress for b’alei teshuva, because we so desperately yearn for acceptance. We don’t need to do this to ourselves. This is not Torah. Torah wants you to be true to yourself and become all that you can be. The discipline that it requires of us is there to ultimately give us true freedom through connection.
And even if we were to create an “anti-sectionalization” movement in Judaism, we would enter quite a paradox! This is not my intent. Not at all. Do I disagree with different ways of doing things? Not in the least! Do I think that ba’alei teshuva should eventually choose a community that best fits? Of course! We all have to choose what kind of life we want to live. There is beauty in doing things for a community and uniting with our neighbours, but this choice shouldn’t make us feel like we’re losing ourselves.
In an orchestra, each musician plays the notes set in front of them and follows the conductor’s interpretation. If we were to all play our own notes and interpretations, we would never get to experience the beauty of connecting with our fellow musicians for a greater cause. And the audience would never get to enjoy a symphony because it would sound like a crazy, hectic mess! We need to put our own egos aside in order to unite as a whole and create music as a group. However, if the orchestra were to start criticizing and blaming another orchestra for “not doing it right” and the hate would eventually corrupt the musicians and not allow them to play music in such a beautiful way, then we have a problem. And if a musician wants to switch orchestras, or even play in two (or three), he/she should be able to do so.
Having different ways of connecting is beautiful, and even though it might not seem this way from the outside, there is complete synergy within the sections that seem contradictory. Here is another music analogy; You can put the same piece of music in front of different individuals and you will never get the same interpretation, even though they are all playing the same notes! Even moreso, you will never get the same interpretation hearing it from one person multiple times, because we are always growing. But everyone is playing the same notes, hoping to create beautiful music, just through different means. The same in our lives. We all have our own personal letter in the Torah, our own unique path to follow and our own potential to achieve in this world. The constant questioning, debate, and deepening one’s learning is what attracted me to becoming more religious in the first place. I once again want to make it very clear that the seemingly contradictory schools of thought, when studied deeply, are completely united. Because deep down, we all want the same thing and just have different ways of showing this on the outside. I do not claim to know enough to prove this to you (I can try!), but I am able to direct you to people that can.
Above all, I am a proud Jewish woman, and I’m doing everything I can to be the best Jewish woman I can be. Nothing makes me happier than making others happy, because our time here should be filled with as much joy as possible. If I can share what I’ve learned and help others live more meaningful lives, then it is an honour.
We are here to learn how to love each other, to build bridges, and most of all, to live with connection and joy. That’s what kind of Jew I’m trying to be.
**… and now it’s your turn! How would you define yourself if you were asked?**