We sat in wicker chairs at a cafe overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City. We both sipped lattes and laughed easily, silently appreciating how the sun peaked through the umbrellas covering the outdoor seating area, soaking the Jerusalem stone all around us. The amaryllis were in bloom, adding a pop of pink to the otherwise sand colored horizon.
As the conversation continued flowing, he gently put down his glass mug. “So,” he said. “Are you religious?”
I smiled — and not only because we had gotten on quite well. I tend to find this question wholly unspecific. I understand that it serves to help the human mind categorize an individual, but I actually see it as more of a hindrance:
When people ask this question, they’re not asking if the individual is living in the presence of God, as the Psalmist writes: Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid, ‘I have placed God before me at all times’. They’re not asking if the individual tries to internalize the Torah and applies it to their life in a way that is moral and good. They are not asking if the individual is well versed in Jewish ritual, law, history, thought and theology. No. In my experience, they are asking something within the confines of how one dresses, how many rabbis were paid to certify their food, and if they keep Shabbat to a degree that marks Scrabble a sin punishable by the high court of God.
By that metric, I guess I’m not religious, but how do I even begin to explain this, I mused, to the cute, kind man sitting across from me?
Millennials are experiencing a surge of skepticism towards theological fundamentals and organized religion. A first-of-its-kind study on the Modern Orthodox community, an affluent and highly educated group that represents approximately 4 percent of the American Jewish population, confirms these experiences. Approximately 30.3 percent of Modern Orthodox millennials polled self identify as having become less observant, according to the “Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews.” This figure is higher than the corresponding figure for the older generations polled — which was 20.5 percent.
This is not to say that I’m a statistic or anything like that.
But I suppose I am a statistic. I grew up in an Orthodox home in South Florida, and was gifted with a strong yeshiva education from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree, where Jewish textual literacy and general academic rigor were breathed into us like God breathed life into Adam II. While there was some level of diversity in my Jewish exposure within Orthodoxy— my family prayed at a Chabad synagogue on Shabbat, I went to a primarily Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox day school, and was an active participant in the local Sephardic synagogue as well — the formality of societal expectations and communal structure lacked a certain love of God and ritual.
With every step of my yeshiva education — from day school to my religious seminary in Israel, to my years at Yeshiva University — my parents pointed out that while I was receiving the tools for Jewish literacy and how to live a Jewish life at school, my teachers weren’t transmitting a love of Judaism and a love of God. Sure, I could pick up any Shulchan Aruch and understand the intricacies of how to make a salad on Shabbat without violating the prohibition of borer, sorting (a forbidden labor on the Sabbath), but did I feel Shabbat? Did I appreciate its beauty, or was I caught up in the minutiae of chopping tomatoes and how and where I could walk in heels on Shabbat (that one comes from the rabbinic prohibition of horesh, plowing). My parents had tried to supplement my education by reading me Jewish self-improvement classics like Bahya ibn Paquda’s ‘Duties of the Heart’ before I went to sleep as a child, but I was not actively receptive to it.
In retrospect, my parents’ concerns were correct.
And perhaps that’s why there are so many of us no longer identifying with the proscriptive Orthodoxy from whence we came: We love Judaism with its rich rituals, philosophical investigations, and rigorous texts, but we were not given the tools to express that love beyond the confines of Jewish law.
My faith in community began to dwindle after my broken engagement. I couldn’t understand how hundreds of people came out to celebrate our impending nuptials in three different cities in two different countries with heartfelt mazal tovs and shots of spirits, but only a noticeable handful of them showed up when the walls came crumbling down.
How could it be that religious teachers, community leaders, and rabbis— many of whom I had been out of touch with for years— went out of their way to call, email and message me when I got engaged but were noticeably absent when things ended? When I’ve reflected on this reality to members of the community, I often receive a response akin to #NotAllRabbis. While that may be true, it was not my experience. After a lifetime of yeshiva education and Jewish involvement, they were silent. As the Torah says: Vayidom Aharon — ‘And Aaron was silent’.
People in my extended social circles, friends I naively called them, though now I understand that such people are referred to as acquaintances or a broader network, didn’t know what to say, and completely avoided me.
This led to my questioning the tenets of community altogether: What is a community if its members only gather for celebrations and negative occasions with prescribed religious texts like, say, a funeral? That’s not the community of spiritual seekers and sources of inspiration of which I wished to be a part.
The experience of being placed outside of the community, and feeling isolated from the ability to partake in communal rituals, afforded me the opportunity to critically evaluate different facets of Jewish communal expectations as an informed outsider.
And I didn’t like what I saw.
Steeped with racism, sexism, blindness to privilege, and a tribal mindedness wherein chessed or charity work was focused on Jewish issues to the exclusion of human issues — the community was plagued with a certain selfish sense of morality, I began to realize. These negative aspects were veiled in rabbinic language or Godly arguments, and thus officially deemed Truth.
In my understanding of Judaism and the Divine, it is immoral to say what God is or what God thinks or what Judaism is or thinks. The human mind can never truly contain even the most minute aspect of the Divine, and Judaism’s texts are too robust to allow for one definitive definition of the true meaning of its essence. (Call me a good Maimonidean.) But this was far too complicated to be the norm in my community.
Recently, I found myself sitting at a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community in South America. One of the other guests made an unsolicited homophobic comment. I quickly weighed my options: I could be polite and not say anything, as I was a guest in this community, or, as one of the only reporters who has consistently covered the Orthodox LGBTQ community globally, I could say something, in hopes that it would somehow help at least one closeted child that, statistically, I’m sure is living in that community.
Many Orthodox rabbis deny even the possibility of an LGBTQ identity, and deem acting on it a sin based on the verse in Leviticus 18:22.
Sitting under a painting of the Biblical Jerusalem in my host’s tasteful dining room, I asked, kindly, if the other guests would make such a comment if he knew someone at the table — someone Orthodox — was struggling with an LGBTQ identity.
“Being gay is a sin,” he said plainly.
“But what if there were someone who was born and raised Orthodox,” I countered. “And loved their Judaism and their community. And were gay. What should that person do?”
“It’s difficult,” he said.
“Yes,” I pushed. “So what should the person do about it? Let me add another detail to this hypothetical. What if the person we’re talking about is fifteen years old. What would you say to that kid if they came to you and told you that they wanted to stay frum and in the community but they were scared they wouldn’t be able to because they were gay?”
After some back and forth between the entire table weighing this question through different halakhic and psychological lenses, I raised the point of pikuah nefesh, the responsibility to preserve life. According to the Family Acceptance Project, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. So if a community promulgates the notion that being gay is a sin, and there is strong psychological evidence that in fact one is born gay and doesn’t choose it, then couldn’t shutting down conversation about LGBTQ identity other than calling it a sin put every member in the community in the prohibition of the responsibility to preserve life?
My table companions listened and resigned to mull it over.
After lunch, I apologized to my hostess for having the topic of LGBTQ Orthodox identity dominate the conversation— a men’s conversation, I might add.
“No, it’s amazing,” she said. “We’ve never seen someone Jewish who looks like you.”
I was embarrassed and confused. When I pressed her, she explained that they’d never seen a woman who was well-versed in Jewish text and could hold a conversation with Orthodox men. Not only did I not fit their stereotype, but I had exposed elbows and knees and was backpacking alone. “It’s amazing that there are people like you,” she told me as we cleared the china off of the white linen tablecloth after lunch, “We just didn’t know.”
I smiled and said hineni, à la Abraham or maybe Leonard Cohen. Frum or socially observant Judaism didn’t have to be presented as a monochromatic, doctrinal way of living. Yes, a woman could quote Scripture and also wear pants. She could have a respectful, text-based exchange with learned men. And yes, there could be a person who was religiously literate and not keeping to the social expectations of Orthodoxy.
It seemed my mode of existence didn’t compute with how other Orthodox Jews perceived reality.
And it’s not just them, either.
A section of the Nishma Research study focuses on ‘OTD-ers’, people who are off the derekh, path, suggesting these are people who have deviated from their Orthodox upbringing.
A label does not yet exist for my crop of millennial Jew. We are not OTD. And we’re not Orthodox either. We are religiously literate, care deeply about Judaism, are fluent in Orthodoxy and are not triggered by it. At the same time, we feel a deep lack of connection to the traditional community. This could be for a variety of reasons, as the survey did get at, ranging from the theological to the social. Things like women’s leadership, LGBTQ inclusion, community hypocrisy, because what was transmitted to us as the “right” thing to do is in fact morally or otherwise abhorrent, or finding deep inconsistencies between what one was taught as Torah and what one knows of the world could all be factors.
So I distanced myself from community — not in anger or despair, but just because it no longer jives with my mode of being, my sense of morality. I return on occasion and feel a warmth in me, a nostalgia for my youth. But that warmth brings with it a simultaneous knowledge that this community is no longer wholly mine — and that was my choice.
There I sat, in Jerusalem, wondering where to begin answering the question and how much to allow myself to say to this man.
How could I say oh, I know I don’t look religious— whatever that means— and I am not traditionally observant of halakha, but really whenever I eat a salad from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, I am aware of the various ways I am violating the prohibition of borer? Or how I am planning my 2017-2018 schedule around the Jewish holidays, “like a yeshiva student,” my best friends joke?
And the short answer to his question — ‘Are you religious?’ — is, no.
But that’s not the whole story. Not for me, and not for many of my fellow millennials. We’re a new type of Jew, those of us who are religiously literate, and care deeply about God, faith and tradition for our own reasons.
“I guess…” I started saying under the Jerusalem sky, “I wouldn’t be classified as what one would traditionally call religious,” I said, gesturing to my jeans and quasi exposed collarbone, for starters. “And my ritual observance looks nothing like my childhood observance did. But I always mark Jewish time…Does that make any sense?”
“I know exactly what you’re saying,” the former yeshiva student laughed and stirred his latte. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Rachel Delia Benaim is a reporter and editor at weather.com. Her reporting on the intersection of religion and gender has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Tablet Magazine, among others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Why Are Modern Orthodox Millennials Like Me Looking For A Different Path?