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There and Back Again: My Journey Into and Out of Orthodox Judaism and the Religious Right (Part 2)

By Kristin Fleetwood

This is part 2 in an ongoing series on Orthodox Judaism. For part one, click here

Part 2

Part 1 of this series was aimed at providing a brief introduction of myself and a basic sketch of Orthodox Judaism and the varied perspectives within its borders. I will endeavor in Part 2 to go into a bit more detail about some of my personal experiences, the fine line it felt like I was walking at times as a more liberal person living within a conservative or ultra-conservative variant of the American Orthodox Jewish community, and the new perspective I was given living in the multicultural, inspirational, fractured, and complicated State of Israel for two years.

I’ll start with Shabbat (“the Sabbath”) in the Ashkenazi Orthodox communities that comprise the majority of the Jewish population in the United States. Ashkenazi Jews (who may be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or completely unaffiliated) are those whose ancestors hailed from Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe and immigrated to the US primarily in the mid- to late 1800s and early 1900s as contrasted with Sephardi Jews whose ancestors originated in the Middle East and North Africa and have been in the US since the 1700s. This translates to heavy fare at the sumptuous Shabbat lunch always served in families’ homes after the Shabbat morning services at the synagogue.  People will often invite relatives and friends over for the Shabbat meal after services, but there is often room for strangers and newcomers. Proper etiquette dictates that one be invited for the meal, but it is not unheard of to call neighbors or friends and ask to join them, especially when one is a relative newcomer to a neighborhood or wider community.

Discussions at the Shabbat table can cover just about anything, depending on the family and where they fall on the Orthodox spectrum. More modern Orthodox families may discuss sports and current politics and other modern topics, whereas ultra-conservative Orthodox families would keep the topics centered around the week’s Torah portion (the part of the Torah and also selections from the Prophets read at the morning synagogue services). There is usually some time devoted to the Torah portion, ranging from a school-age kid reading something they received at school about it to a full-length interpretation by the head of the household.

Shabbat is usually the highlight of the week for Orthodox Jews. For about 25 hours, the phone is not answered (or doesn’t ring since one’s neighbors and friends may also be Orthodox and keeping Shabbat), no one is using their phone or a computer, kids are playing outside when the weather is fine, people relax by reading books, taking a nap, or going on a walk. Friends will often meet up and sit together and talk. No one is texting. For 25 whole hours. It’s like when people in the secular world take a day where they disconnect from the technology we use in our daily lives, but in the case of Shabbat, there are specific religious rules to abide by so that one does not commit an infraction considered to be a desecration of the holy Shabbat. Candles are lit by women on Friday evening before sunset and then the lights are left on (if they were not previously set on a timer) to conform to the Torah injunction not to kindle a fire on Shabbat (electricity was interpreted many years ago by major Orthodox rabbinic authorities as constituting fire for the purposes of Shabbat observance). The atmosphere on Friday night is sublime as the working week slips away and one enters the special realm of Shabbat. It is something you must experience to fully understand. It’s one of the main things that attracted me to Orthodox Judaism. If you ever get the opportunity to experience an Orthodox Shabbat, you will understand.

As someone coming from a more liberal background, I found the structure that Orthodox Jewish religious laws provided both comforting, something permanent and solid that I could rely on, and anxiety-inducing. I cannot count the number of times I ran around like crazy making last-minute preparations for Shabbat, trying to get everything done before I heralded in the Sabbath by lighting candles on time (candles are lit 18 minutes before sunset, but cannot be lit after sunset; so if you miss the candlelighting time, you missed out on performing a mitzvah, a God-given commandment, as it is seen to be in the Orthodox community). There were metaphorical fences and borders that could not be crossed. Modern Orthodox Jews have accepted the theory of evolution and many are at peace with it and a belief in God who created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh (“day” has been given various interpretations so that the description of creation in the Book of Genesis is seen to conform with the Earth’s billions of years of history, etc), whereas Orthodox Jews on the far right view the Genesis account as the true account and treat the theory of evolution as suspect or completely groundless. So, when I was in ultra-Orthodox communities, I did not touch the subject of evolution with a ten foot pole. Looking back, however, I think a sign of a healthy religious community is one where respectful debate is welcomed and encouraged, not avoided or banned completely. Religious and secular people need each other, in my opinion, to keep each other sane and really thinking about the how’s and why’s of belief and to save ourselves from falling prey to groupthink and cult mentalities.

My two years in Israel gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to be Jewish. In Israel, most of the Jewish population is secular, though some of the bastions of the ultra-Orthodox faith reside in their own insular communities in the midst of secular Israeli society. My discussion of my Israel experiences will have to wait until the next piece. Check back in the coming weeks to hear more of my story!

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