Orthodox the Only Way?

(The following is a response to an email correspondent who asked how it was that I considered Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox conversions to be authentic and true.)


The sages teach us that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. From that we can learn that the world to come is not exclusively for Jews, that there is a concept of "righteousness", that there is a concept of nationhood, and that there is some place/state of being/whatever known as "the world to come".

So, unlike Christians, we accept the idea that you don't have to be "one of us" to be righteous.

My comments to KM were not regarding other nations, though, but really about Jews -- and the various philosophies we see in our modern world, all calling themselves "Jewish". Keep in mind that I am NOT saying anything about Jews who belong to these movements or implying that THEY are not Jewish (converts excepted, but I'll get to that.)

Let's approach it a bit differently and look at American Citizenship. We (as a whole of American citzenry) have no problem accepting that a person born to American citizens is an American. We also accept that the constitution and the laws of the land define what it means to be a good citizen. AND we accept that not just anyone can become a citizen. They need to live here, agree to obey the laws, learn about the US, pass a test, take an oath.

If you and I decided that Suri Bonami from Nadaland should be a citizen, we can't just hand her a flag and "poof!" she's a citizen. Even though you and I might think Suri is a wonderful person and will make incredible contributions to the USA, she cannot become a citizen outside of the law.

In Judaism, Torah is our "constitution" and our body of law. The difference is that it was not authored by man, but by G-d. We do not have the right to change it. We DO have the right to apply its teachings according to a given set of rules.

This is where the divisions in Judaism occur.

The non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, to one degree or another, have rejected the Torah as the binding law and constitution of our people, or have arbitrarily decided that they have the right to _change_ Torah.

This is somewhat like the people of Kentucky deciding that they didn't like the constitution and writing their own, not paying taxes, not allowing women to vote, etc. That, effectively is secession. Wars have been fought over such. In any case were Kentucky to do such a thing, we certainly would NOT just stand idly by and say that, in the spirit of being inclusive, we would still accept them as good American citizens. Nor, if they granted American citizenship to Ploni Almoni, would we be likely to accept that citizenship as valid.

Torah defines what it means to be a Jew. Torah defines what is required to become a Jew. Torah defines the rules by which a Jew is supposed to live. If something is not based on Torah, it is not Jewish.

I know I belaboring the point, but it is crucial that you understand it.

The next thing to understand is that there are two ways in which Torah was given to our people. Written and Oral. In fact, the oral transmission was the PRIMARY transmission of the interpetation of law and custom to our people until about the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. It was only then, because outside forces were threatening to hopelessly disrupt that chain of transmission, that it was recorded -- eventually becoming the Gemorrah we have today.

BTW, It is a serious error to undervalue Oral Torah. It is impossible to understand Torah (and Tenakh as a whole) without it. It is as much - even more - a part of Judaism as the corpus of constitutional law is to the US.

Now you tell me: If there are groups of Jewish people who say they don't like what Torah says, and either don't want to do what it says or wants to change it or ignore certain parts or even add to it, and they don't care to give credence to Oral Torah -- Are they practicing Judaism or are they creating a different religion based on the parts of Judaism that they like?

What I was trying to explain to KM was that it is the Orthodox who still hold Torah as the defining center of our religion. Because an Orthodox conversion upholds Torah and the rules set in the Oral Torah, it will be a valid conversion. A conversion done any other way will not be. If so, then the person, as good and righteous and sincere as they might be, will not be Halachically (legally) Jewish.

Of course a person undergoing a Halachic conversion will need to agree to the "rules". They will learn, have a mikvah, affirm before a court of Jewish law that they will be observant in all the mitzvos (keeping kosher, practicing family purity, keeping kosher, praying, etc.) and they will (in the case of a man) have a circumcision and they will go to the mikvah.

If the person will NOT be willing to observe the mitzvos, then they cannot become Jews, no more than a person who is unwilling to observe the laws of the United States will be granted citizenship.

Again this is saying NOTHING about their worth or conduct as a human being. We are talking about what is required to become a Jew.

BUT, you might counter, "There are lots of Jews who eat bacon and never pray and they are still considered Jews." Absolutely. And there are Americans who cheat on their taxes and speed on the highways and are still Americans.

The difference is that if a Jew eats ham, it is a sin. Worlds are destroyed.

If a Gentile eats a ham sandwich, bon apetit!

That is why it is crucial that one convert ONLY if one is serious about observing mitzvos. For if you would become a Jew and then sin, then you do far more harm than had you remained a Gentile.

As for the statement on the Conversion home page ("that clearly says repeatedly that all divisions of jewish faith are , as divisions of Christianity, equal in the eyes of G-d.")-- imho it is absolutely incorrect and has absolutely NO basis in Jewish thought. It is the wishful thinking of the author or a serious misunderstanding on his/her part.

All people are loved by G-d. We are NOT all the same. Torah is explicit about this. The Jewish people are different, not because we are better, but because G-d set us apart. The Cohanim are different, not because they are better, but because G-d set them apart. Jews have a different makeup to their neshamos (souls) than Gentiles, and we are expected to achieve a different task in this world because of that. That is why there are seven mitzvos for Gentiles and 613 for Jews.

I DO agree that we cannot by OURSELVES know G-d's preference. That is exactly why the Torah is so important. It, and it alone, can tell us what is G-d's preference. It may well be that He prefers that one person remain a Gentile and another become a Jew. That is why there are mitzvos for both.

All religions, however, are NOT equal. G-d abhors idolatry, for instance. Goodness, whether applied to Jew or Gentile is ultimately based on truths expressed in Torah. That which denies these truths is evil and falsehood.

So maybe I am still scaring you? I hope not. What I might be doing is tearing down some misunderstandings on you part as to what Judaism is really all about. Before you give up on me as a hopeless fanatic, though, think through what I am saying. Let me know what makes sense to you and what does not, and we will talk about it.

One more thing: You might be tempted to pursue the idea that we can change Torah to bring it more in line with "modern" thinking. I urge you to be very careful with such an approach. Analyze it through. If we can change Torah to match what we feel is more in line with our current social values, then how does Judaism differ from any other ethical approach.

What is the difference between being a good Jew and being a good person?

I hope I've given you some food for thought. And please, do keep in touch.