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May 9, 2013 12:23 pm

The Difference between Orthodox Jews and Religious Jews?

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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A Yeshiva University campus. Photo: Jim.henderson.

As CEO of 5WPR, I am well versed in matters concerning brands and how media shapes perceptions.  On a professional and personal front, I wonder why it is that Orthodox (and Ultra-Orthodox) Jews are often called “religious” by the media? Speaking as someone whose children attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas, as a member of numerous Orthodox synagogues, and as a board member of Jewish outreach (Kiruv) organizations, I find it to be a question to which there is clearly no easy answer.

The term “orthodox” implies “observant”, and there is a vast difference between being observant and being religious; they are not necessarily one and the same. An Orthodox Jew outwardly carries himself as someone who follows the Torah, the written law passed down from Moses at Sinai.  Yet, often people who publicly appear Orthodox will act in a manner contrary to religious doctrine, hence, all Orthodox Jews are not “religious” and the words Orthodox and religious shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

For example, let’s review some recent news stories reported over the last few weeks and months which could leave one perplexed about whether these people are religious, or even orthodox?

  • Rabbi Tully Bryks, an Orthodox Rabbi at Bar-Ilan University installed two surveillance cameras in the girls’ dormitory and was fired this week; Can anyone doubt that he isn’t actually following the ethics and rules required of Orthodox Rabbis?

  • The “Council of Torah Sages” installed Aryeh Deri who was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust as head of Israeli political party Shas. This means that the first convicted felon to lead a political party in Israel is from an Orthodox party.

  • The heads of Yeshiva University who have covered-up sex abuse cases over the last thirty years to protect the institution and the reputations of individual figures rather than the students they are supposed to look out for, are not acting religiously.

  • The many recent arrests in Brooklyn of men who have been charged and even convicted of child sex abuse, and those within their communities who ostracize the victims in defense of the perpetrator.  Can their prayers, black coats and yarmulkes hide the fact that they are in clear violation of religious code?

  • Ultra Orthodox families who hide assets to obtain government welfare, food stamps and housing credits at the expense of people who really need it, who rationalize that they are allowed to steal from a non-Jewish government according to their understanding of the Torah.

All that said, there’s no question that Orthodox Jews indeed get a bad rap in the media. There are bad apples in any bunch – and the negatives are of course more news-worthy than the countless positive deeds which Orthodox people carry out.

But, it cannot change the fact that being Orthodox and being religious are – in many ways – different attributes. There are some in Orthodoxy who miss a key principle of the Talmud – The way of the pious – as the Talmud describes the highest form of ethical behavior. They look the part, pray, immerse themselves in study of the books and laws of Judaism, but it’s superficial, as they do not live the life of the pious, yet these same people judge other Jews and condemn them as not-Jewish enough.

And indeed, often times rather than focusing on issues of importance to klal Israel, some among the Orthodox leadership spend time making rules on matters which are so inconsequential for so many proud and caring and good Jews, and impose greater restrictions on their communities that deal with outward conduct as a way of maintaining image and control.

In fact, for me, there are many people who should be deemed very religious, whether or not they daven three times a day:

  • A person who goes weekly to spend time with poor and needy Jews, spends hours a week feeding them, listening to their problems and doing everything he can to help people.

  • The many great parents who spend time raising their kids to be good Jews.

  • Community leaders ranging from Chabad Rabbis whose doors are always open for Jews in need to those like Rabbi Avi Weiss who has immense love for Am Israel, while a leading Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization, Agudath Israel of America, deemed him un-Orthodox for making a women a full member of rabbinic staff.

  • Many great Jewish philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt who changes countless Jewish lives with Birthright Israel and similar programs.

  • And there’s so many more…

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, religious people are defined as “relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances”, and “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.”  In many ways, for those of us who accept that Judaism is about the religion, philosophy, and way of life of the Jewish people, could not those who are devoted to Am Israel and doing what’s best for the Jewish community undoubtedly be deemed religious?

And surely, along those lines, unethical people cannot be deemed as “religious,” or even Orthodox based on the sole consideration of how fervently they pray, how they dress, or what kind of kippah they may (or may not) wear.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I care only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Ronn Torossian lives in NYC with his family.

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