Identity

A lot of discussion of late has centered on identity. Identity, of course, is not only about how we identify ourselves but how others identify us. When we are younger and more versatile, we are able to shift identities, to be become who we want when we want, with an impunity and impetuousness that is a trademark of the young. As we get older, however, our sense of self coalesces around a concept, a thought and an idea, of what we are and who we are. For the most part, that is then how we present ourselves to the wider world.

But what happens if something changes? What if that all-to-subtle shift occurs that flips the analysis, which undermines the foundation of identity built up painstakingly and with great care for all those years? What is supposed to happen then? Do we expect that person to keep up the façade? To continue to act as if all that came before is the current reality? For some, the cognitive dissonance becomes too great, and the foundation, their identity, crumbles unceremoniously, and their understanding of their self collapses along with it.

I am an orthoprax rabbi of a modern orthodox shul. I have a lovely wife, beautiful children and a warm and welcoming congregation. Are these all not part of my identity? Who is to say what is more important, my actions or my beliefs? Plainly, I do not believe what my congregants do, and I go through the motions doubting the whole way through. But as I read some of the rather aggressive and strained apologetics regarding the historical accuracy of the Torah and the extraordinary attempts to explain away the obvious; as I see others take the incredibly unusual position of defending orthodoxy and the second-class standing within the same, I am struck how some identities are so tethered to that world, so mired in its muck and minutia that they seem incapable of understanding life without it. And I, having come to the opposite conclusions, find that much like others, I am still anchored to the world of orthodoxy, my identities too intertwined to break free, my lie and life choices forcing me to stay on board.

And so I speak on Shabbos, I make kiddush in shul, I daven for the ummad. I do all those things because identity, at least for me, has become a prison. But as I look out into the faces of my congregants, when I see them radiant after shul or after a thought-provoking drasha, I am disheartened yet fortified anew in my role as a rabbi, and my search continues for an identity within that hallowed title.

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44 Responses to Identity

  1. Lisa says:

    Oh, come on. You said explicitly in more than one place that you are not personally observant except in public where it would matter to your congregation. Stop calling yourself Orthoprax. It’s dishonest.

    • Philo says:

      I think many people will have many definitions for Orthoprax in accordance to Orthodox Judaism. One of them would be “forced Orthoprax” which is exactly the situation the Rabbi is in.

  2. Accidential Korach says:

    My wife is Orthodox (not prax) and my children are too young to know any different. She is my Orthoprax anchor – without her I would drift off the derekh completely. And yes, she knows I am Orthoprax.

    You have 2 anchors – family and work. I can understand your difficulty in breaking free.

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    I wish you the best in resolving any spiritual conflict, although I don’t think a rabbi can fully serve his congregation in such a conflicted mode.

    Perhaps you might want to consult with a trusted senior rabbinic colleague or other mentor in the field, or take a sabbatical from the line of work. Who knows, perhaps you might emerge stronger in your “doxy” :)

    • Philo says:

      Why can’t he? Does his contract include that he must keep a true metaphysical framework while performing his duties?

      • YC says:

        re Does his contract …..?

        We ALL have a contract: Mushba v’Omed me’Har Sinai

      • Shades of Gray says:

        It’s hard enough to live with such conflict, and I would think, especially to be a rabbi; therefore, I would suggest taking a break, if at all possible. There is always the possibility of light of Torah bringing one back as in “would that they abandon Me and still observe My Torah”, etc.

        It’s interesting that historically, there were Maskilim who were ambivalent about their choices, yet saw the good in Judaism. Bialik described the yeshivah as “factory in which the soul of the people is manufactured”, which is much better than the path of mocking Judaism or Orthodoxy that others took.

        As an example of contemporary conflict, I read a while ago an excerpt of a book by a psychology professor which is critical of religions, including Judaism. On the cover, he has a picture of an ostrich holding it’s head in the ground–he’s not exactly subtle!

        Yet he also writes how he has an affinity towards “shirie neshamah”, songs of yearning, such as Yedid Nefesh. I wondered–is this a case of religious schizophrenia, or perhaps, on the other hand, there is something missing in the depth of his “Yedid Nefesh”?

        Regarding Orthodox Jews as well, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote on a post on Hirhurim about why people become Orthodox, and about contradictions:

        “I suggest that what they are looking for is community – not for the sake of security or emotional comfort, although finding those are certainly strong factors in any decision to remain Orthodox, but rather because they want to practice Judaism in an environment that deeply values the seriousness with which they take Torah…

        He continues that “Orthodoxy – in all its diverse forms – regrettably, sometimes disappoints them in this regard. The cause of this disappointment may be a perceived inability to explain apparently contra-halakhic behaviors…”

        The explanation could be simply due to the complexity of people and their nature, based on Jeremiah 17:9:

        “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceeding weak–who can know it?”

  4. chained jew says:

    There seem to be many of us in similar situations & because of family and community we are forced to continue the lie as to do otherwise would cause an irreversible stigma and consequences to our families, yes a prison without walls (or rabbi)

  5. baltlaw says:

    I am reminded of a book I read once.
    “Ordained to be a Jew: A Catholic Priest’s Conversion to Judaism” by
    John David Scalamonti.
    In this book, the author is ordained as a Catholic Priest, with his family’s pride and approval, but gradually becomes less enamoured with the Church. He takes a “leave of absence” and meets an Orthodox woman. He is ultimately converted to Judaism by Rabbi Rosenblatt (Z”L) in Baltimore, MD.
    Maybe he was Catholicaprax?

  6. Sophie says:

    “God’s truth conceals itself from those who reach for it with one hand only, regardless of whether the reaching hand is that of the objectivity of philosophers which preserves itself free of preconceptions, soaring above the objects, or that of the blindness of the theologians, proud of its experience and secluding itself from the world. God’s truth wants to be entreated with both hands. It will not deny itself to him who calls upon it with the double prayer of the believer and the disbeliever. God gives of his wisdom to the one as to the other, to belief as well as to disbelief, but he gives to both only if their prayer comes before him united. It is the same man, disbelieving child of the world and believing child of God in one, who comes with dual plea and must stand with dual thanks before Him who gives of his wisdom to flesh and blood even as to those who fear him.”
    –Franz Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, page 297

    There are more than just the two options, belief and disbelief. There is the possibility of a life lived between the two. You may not be able to reconcile your mind to the ‘pure faith’ of some of your congregants, the pure faith that some never abandon, but that does not mean that Judaism must be for you an empty set of rituals, the practices of those who are simply too blind (or too stubborn) to acknowledge a difficult truth. Life is far more complex than that, as is Judaism–and as an educated Jew and an educated human being, I anticipate that you are able to see that. Though your position as a rabbi makes exploration more difficult (because you feel tied to the endorsement of a certain kind of Judaism, a Judaism with all the answers), it is worth seeking a more nuanced and complex approach, one that may allow you to synthesize your public persona with your personal philosophy.

  7. shim (Shimon) says:

    Obviously you have decided that Identity is something that takes hold of you from without, that is decided by others and circumstances.
    Your Identity is how you look out and interpret all, if you have externalized that then I clearly see how you could come to reject logical thought and action as well as your emotional surroundings to try to, by acting in a manner contrary to those surroundings, give yourself back that feeling of Authority of self, forgetting that being true to yourself, your Identity, means it matters not what the surroundings are for the positive or negative. The Identity is only dependent on the Identity itself.
    You say
    “I am an orthoprax rabbi of a modern orthodox shul. I have a lovely wife, beautiful children and a warm and welcoming congregation. Are these all not part of my identity?”
    To answer you, no they are not they are part only of your environment you may choose to let them influence you or not but it is a choice.

    • The underlying “you” doesn’t change. If you are so sure that we frummies are wrong and can describe our faith as being mired in muck, then back where you believed you were probably equally as arrogant and dismissive. Only what you endorse has changes, not the essential you.

  8. Yossi says:

    I feel as if I’m reading an essay I wrote myself. I’m not a rabbi, but I am a Jew who has lost faith and is keeping that loss hidden from everybody else. Good luck to you

  9. I’d really like to see you address these two questions:

    1) Don’t your children have the right to not be brought up into that prison? Are you planning on just telling them it’s okay to leave when they grow up? Don’t they deserve a father who’s really honest about what he believes?

    2) Don’t you have an obligation to not support Orthodox Judaism? Orthodox Judaism condemns many to lives of quiet desperation. It’s true that many others love it and have their lives enriched by it, but what about the gays and lesbians and the real feminists and those depressed by the worldview?

    • Suzanne says:

      I used to teach Hebrew/Sunday school and I like the rabbi tried to tow the party line in many respects. Not so much to keep my job, but because I was trying to be respectful of the traditional (non-denominational) shul that hired me. I did occasionally lead discussions about belief and just encouraged the tweens in my class to think for themselves and tell me what they thought. Now I do occasional bar/bat mitzvah tutoring privately, and in light of all that has been going on in the discussions on this blog, I am glad I am able to educate my students on some of the contradictions and historical criticism as it relates to their torah portion. I don’t have any real conflict about teaching them “heresy” since their parents are not orthodox. Their parents do send them to an orthodox camp, but they don’t do so because they believe in it, it just happens to be the only one in our area. Unfortunately, this camp does a good job of brainwashing the kids, so I hope I can at least inject a little realism into their knowledge of Judaism.

  10. Yaakov Yechiel says:

    You “daven for the ummad”? How can you in good conscience serve as the shliach for worshipers who expect you to represent them before G-d when you do not believe that G-d exists?

    • baltlaw says:

      The Committee on Laws and Standards of the Conservative movement is called upon from time to time to issue Teshuvot on issues that arise.
      In 1987 they issued a Teshuva on this question:
      “May an avowed atheist serve as a Shaliach Tzibbur?”

      Now, I am not sure if you are “avowed” or “secret” or some other form of atheist.
      But, I add to this discussion the link to what the Conservative movement had to say 23 yrs ago. (I hope the link works…I am not very good at this computer stuff)

      http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/teshuvot/docs/19861990/lincoln_atheist.pdf

  11. “You “daven for the ummad”? How can you in good conscience serve as the shliach for worshipers who expect you to represent them before G-d when you do not believe that G-d exists?”

    Meh, I’ve done it too. Once a Rabbi (who knew I didn’t believe) even asked me to daven for the ummad.

    • How does both of you being insincere make it any more acceptable?

      • The stress was not on the issue that I did it, but that there was a Rabbi who specifically asked me to do it knowing fully well of my lack of belief. I think the reason he asked me was probably just some kiruv thing, but perhaps he believed I can be davening for the ammud regardless of my belief in the words. After all, there are many people who daven for the ammud who don’t even really know what the words mean, but have just grown up hearing them so many times.

      • offthederch says:

        Make that the *three* of you.

  12. There’s a guy in my shul who openly announces that he’s a proud atheist. Despite that he’s asked to daven on a regular basis. I once quietly asked the rav why he would do that given the guy’s open belief in not believing. He told me he’d spoken with him and that the line “I can’t believe in a God that would let children suffer” came up. Ah ha! He really does believe but he’s just having a hard time with certain issues. That’s how the rav justified it.
    So bottom line: your rav probably didn’t believe you either.

    • Haha, Trust, me. He believes me. We’ve been through it all (Kuzari, first cause, fine tuning,..etc) too many a time. If anyone knows I genuinely don’t believe it’s him.

      • Shades of Gray says:

        “If anyone knows I genuinely don’t believe it’s him.”

        My attitude would be to leave some type of an out. How do you know how you will feel about this ten years from now?

        Moreover, there are degrees, even among maskilim, who did not reject everything(eg, Menachem Begun, Bialik).

        I say this not for “kiruv” purposes, rather because I have thought, and grappled with countless issues, and think this to be worthy of consideration(as I’m sure plenty of fine Jews, “sheina Yidden”, have as well, but just don’t talk about it !)

      • offthederch says:

        Shades of grey, I am so utterly sick and tired of your patronizing, condescending nonsense. “How do you know? Maybe in ten years somehow you’ll magically believe!” (This goes for you as well, Garnel.)

        Acfting all self-righteous and high and mighty and effing arrogant does NOT conceal the fact that you’re no less an atheist than anyone else. We’re all atheists. Deal with it.

      • offthederch says:

        Oh, and quit grappling with issues.

      • Shades of Gray says:

        “Acfting all self-righteous and high and mighty and effing arrogant does NOT conceal the fact that you’re no less an atheist than anyone else”

        There is a difference between definitively identifying as an “anti-ma’amin”, versus identifying as “someone who needs to improve in matters of faith”(eg, the Chazon Ish in Emunah U’bitachon, as well as Alie Shur notes that there are many levels of emunah).

        If you wish to definitively identify as an atheist–wonderful; I suggested a different approach.

      • OTD says:

        I also need to “improve in matters of faith.” I need to become a better atheist, please God.

    • tesyaa says:

      It’s amazing how frum Jews, in this case a rabbi, rationalize things that they claim to oppose (in this case, allowing an atheist to daven for the amud). It’s amazing, but extremely common.

      • Yaakov Yechiel says:

        Friends, the issue I raised originally is not whether an atheist can hallachically daven as a shliach tzibor, nor whether the Conservative rabbinate gives its approval, nor whether some rabbi somewhere seemed to condone it. The issue is whether it is ethical, even by an atheist’s standards, to agree to represent others before G-d when some (hopefully many) of the congregants want a sincere representative and do not want someone who is merely mouthing the words insincerely. If this matter is important to some of the congregants then they would feel deceived if they learned the truth, and they are indeed being deceived by the atheist. You don’t have to be Jewish to see that dishonesty is unethical.
        Of course this question of dishonesty as a shliach tzibor is part of a more general issue of Orthoprax Rabbi’s unethical behavior which I address under his blog “Speed Reading?”

      • “The issue is whether it is ethical, even by an atheist’s standards, to agree to represent others before G-d when some (hopefully many) of the congregants want a sincere representative and do not want someone who is merely mouthing the words insincerely.”

        I’m curious, would you be so eager to point out your disgust and condemnation towards a believer who davens for a amud who does not know what the words mean? Or a believer who is davening for the amud and is simply going through the motions of parroting the words without giving them any meaning or thought? Are these people not also “merely mouthing the words insincerely”?

        If the answer is yes, then I suspect you have a lot more people who are davening for the amud to worry about.

        (Of course, it was rare to see any of my rabbeim care about any of that, even when they knew the person didn’t know what the words meant, they let them daven for the amud all the same)

  13. Ephraim says:

    A very impersonal post that could have been written by any orthoprax rabbi. Except a real orthoprax rabbi would write something less two dimensional, something with personality instead a flat projection of a concocted blog persona.
    Ironically, this may yet be the most truthful post in the series!
    For example:
    “we are able to shift identities, to be become who we want when we want, with an impunity and impetuousness”
    Oh… do you have other blogs?

    “Do we expect that person to keep up the façade?”
    In your case, I don’t.

    “my identities too intertwined to break free”
    How many identities do you refer too?

    (“when I see them radiant after shul or after a thought-provoking drasha”
    Name one thought you have provoked. )

    “and my search continues for an identity”
    What the heck does this mean?

  14. Yaakov Yechiel says:

    Avi Bitterman: The issue is not so much my “disgust and condemnation” but how the Orthoprax Rabbi justifies his davening for the amud. How does he rationalize the dishonesty?

    • “Avi Bitterman: The issue is not so much my “disgust and condemnation” but how the Orthoprax Rabbi justifies his davening for the amud. How does he rationalize the dishonesty?”

      Can the same question not be asked for the a believer who davens for a amud who does not know what the words mean? Or a believer who is davening for the amud and is simply going through the motions of parroting the words without giving them any meaning or thought? Are these people not also merely mouthing the words insincerely? Do they also not realize that the congregation would like someone who is sincerely davening and not just parroting the words? Are they also not dishonest then?

  15. “They are not deliberately trying to deceive anyone.”

    I was not deliberately trying to deceive anyone either. I davined because the rabbi told me to, and the rabbi here davined because he has always davined, as it was his job. No one was davining for the sake of deception. If you want to argue that it was a deliberate deception because we know people want someone who does not say the words meaninglessly, then the same can be said for the above mentioned people.

  16. Dan says:

    Rabbi, have you ever read Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf? It is disturbing at times and it really challenges the reader, but the story (even if it is ficionalized) of Elisha ben Abuyah is too powerful for any Jew to ignore. Too me, it is one of the finest Jewish novels ever written.

  17. JDE says:

    Over the past few months, I’ve read a few of these posts, along with their attached comments. The obsession so many of you seem to have with the rabbi’s identity, the outrage you express over what you consider to be his “deception”, your continual questioning of his morality – these epitomize, for me, everything that is wrong with Orthodox Judaism. As the years go by, I find repeatedly that there is absolutely nothing about you people or your community that would make me want to be frum. Of course, I’ll simply get a few snarky responses to this, if anyone even bothers to respond at all. Not one of you will hang his/her head in shame. The arrogance of the frum – your smug certainty that you alone are right, your condescending attitude toward everyone who disagrees with you – has long since ceased to surprise me.

    Rabbi, you have my sympathies. I agree with JewishAtheist – I’d consider leaving for the sake of your children, and so as to no longer support an oppressive and anachronistic belief system – but I’m not telling you what to do. I’m sure your life is difficult enough already.

    • Shades of Gray says:

      “The arrogance of the frum – your smug certainty that you alone are right, your condescending attitude toward everyone who disagrees with you – has long since ceased to surprise me”

      I don’t claim to represent the frum, and I don’t have answers to all things which I would like to have. I am open to questions(though I was criticized above for admitting that I “grapple” with issues), and try to give a thoughtful answer.

      To make things fair, there has been plenty of nastiness, snarkiness, and even expletives from the anti-Orthodox side as well; THAT is one thing which keeps me frum :)

  18. JDE says:

    To make things fair, there has been plenty of nastiness, snarkiness, and even expletives from the anti-Orthodox side as well; THAT is one thing which keeps me frum

    Yeah, well here’s the difference – we don’t think you’re going to hell.

  19. Elliot says:

    Why not change careers? You may be doing the job you are hired to do but you have to park your personal self at the door. That can’t be healthy. Are there any Doctors who practice medicine but believe science is hogwash?
    Perhaps being frum conditions a person to compartmentalize his personality to avoid dissonance from the inevitable failures to meet the demands of the community and Halacha that living a double life is second nature for you.
    I am curious as to how common are atheist Rabbis?

  20. “Are there any Doctors who practice medicine but believe science is hogwash?”

    Unfortunately, yes.

  21. toemoe8 says:

    Rabbi,

    Where did you go? Just when things were getting interesting…

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