Orthodox Week Here at TRR: Rabbi/Social Worker Evan Steele

This week begins my “5 Things” series.  I’ll be having guests post on the topic of “5 Things I’d Like You to Know About ______ Judaism.”  Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and, I hope, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism.  I am really excited about this – I have some awesome people lined up!  They are smart, menschlich yidden, and we consider them friends and colleagues.  And I’m excited for them to meet you people – you guys are fantastic!

As such, I expect nothing less than respectful, productive discourse.  No sarcasm, slamming, bashing, snark, or “They don’t like me anyway *snif*” comments or you’re outta here.  Have a question about or take issue with what they’ve written?  Ask or say so!  Tell us how you feel!  Share your opinions!  Feel strongly!  Write firmly!  But don’t be nasty and no personal attacks.

Remember, this is “5 Things I’d Like You to Know,”  NOT  “5 Things I Think You Should Believe/Do.”  Just their 2 cents, and stuff they want you to know about the life they live.  And stuff I think you should know about the life they live.  Gotta make an effort to understand each other in my opinion.  Unity and Understanding start with “U“.  As in YOU.

First up we have Rabbi/social worker Evan Steele, who works for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services in Boro Park, NY.  He lives in Far Rockaway, NY, and is a long-time friend and all-around great guy.  I have a great deal of respect for him and I’m honored he’s agreed to share his thoughts here.  Take it away, Evan:

1. Orthodox Judaism isn’t a cult: A cult, knowing that its logical and intellectual positions are inherently problematic and unpersuasive, seeks to persuade through physical and emotional manipulation. In short, it does an end run around one’s head. Any system or idea that appeals directly to the intellect itself is therefore not cult-like. If one is so untrusting of one’s own critical process to feel that one cannot withstand persuasive arguments made purely in the realm of ideas, then this speaks poorly of one’s own thinking process. Indeed, if one does come to Orthodox Judaism at the hands of a charismatic speaker or “group think,” then I would argue that his or her relationship to Torah is problematic. The most important thing that a Jew who is interested in Torah can do is to simply learn. Do not be afraid to learn. Any book picked up can be put down. Any idea entertained can be rejected. Do not be so afraid of ideas as to not expose yourself to them.

2. The “big questions” may not be so important after all: People often assume that “big” questions such as “is there a G-d” and “is the Torah true” are important/noble/profound. I would argue that entertaining foundational questions such as these only keeps one in a “stuck” state, preventing both challenge and progress. I once met a woman in her late 30s who shared that she had been pondering the question of whether she wanted to have children for many, many years. Consider the two questions: “should I have children,” and “given that I am having children, how can I be a good parent.” I would argue that only the latter question is truly difficult, thereby leading to personal growth and progress. The “assumption” of G-d creates a cascade of difficult, important, and life-transforming questions that drive personal progress, whereas being stuck in the foundational question itself avoids such progress.

3. The potential abuse of powerful ideas does not negate the idea itself: The notion that there is objective truth, that there is objective morality, that it is fair and reasonable to judge others, that there is evil in the world, and that power and authority are legitimate can and often is used to oppress the weak, justify violence, promote intolerance, and deaden intellectual discourse. That this is so, however, should not lead to the opposite/deconstructionist conclusion that all such notions must be abolished. This is simply a flight from the more difficult task of learning how to properly manage these volatile notions. It may feel safe to completely reject morality, truth, and authority, but anyone who has lived past adolescence is aware that they are essential for human living. Don’t be afraid of Orthodox Judaism because it engages these notions. Learn instead the far more difficult and important task of managing them.

4. Surrender: As a husband in relationship to my wife, a worker in relationship to my boss, a child in relationship to my parent, while I fully maintain my individuality and critical thinking, I am also aware that what is called for is a suppression of my ego to another. If, in these relationships, I only accommodate that which I myself agree with/subscribe to, without the element of surrender that would allow me subscribe/agree to even that which I am not in agreement with, then it will lead to conflict and problems. Many Jews have a relationship to Torah and Jewish law in which they “do what feels good/right.” What is missing is the element of surrender to something that is greater than myself. Indeed, if one engages a religion where one only does what makes sense to the individual, then it is little more than self-worship. The Torah tells us that being a “slave to HaShem” means being a slave to no one and nothing else. The surrender of the self to the ultimate source of existence is the ultimate freedom, in which one’s pure, inner self is revealed precisely because one is willing to end the worship of self.

5. No pain, no gain: Again, Jews often speak of engaging in those Jewish rituals that “work” for them. I have heard many variation on this theme, such as “if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.” True growth, whether it be intellectual, spiritual, or physical, always comes with pain and discomfort. No one ever won an Olympic medal by “doing what feels good.” Torah is hard. It is expensive (kosher food, yeshiva tuition, shul membership, I could go on), it can mean giving up some enjoyments, and it can mean coping with Jewish laws that seem unjust. If anyone tells you that the Orthodox life is pure bliss, they’re snowing you. Still, the discomfort is where the transcendent, transformative life lives. If you seek a life Carpe Diem, then Torah is not the life for you. If, however, you seek to be challenged in ways intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, then the Torah awaits your interest.

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