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November 17, 2013 12:47 pm

Not Fitting Into Judaism’s Little Boxes

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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All illustration of Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Photo: Maurycy Gottlieb.

I was brought up to be an outsider. My late father, Kopul Rosen, was born in London, educated primarily in Mir in Lithuania, and served as the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. In 1948, he resigned to establish a Jewish residential school in the English countryside. That’s where I was brought up.

It was outside of the established Jewish community, in a fiercely and proudly Orthodox atmosphere, in splendid isolation. My father was a contrarian. A passionate Zionist, he resigned from the Religious Zionists when they went into politics. He was fiercely proud of old yeshiva (my Hebrew name, Yerucham, is that of the Mashgiach, the spiritual advisor who had a profound impact on him). Yet he had no patience for obscurantism or narrow-mindedness.

My father believed in our getting the best education possible, Jewish and secular. So I went eventually to the best yeshivot in Israel, and then to study philosophy at Cambridge University.

But I did not really belong in either completely. My spiritual life was on hold during my university years, and my rational, intellectual life shut down while I concentrated on fitting in and studying hard in yeshiva. But I knew I loved Judaism and that I wanted to represent it in an alien and unfriendly world.

My distaste for politics in Israel, particularly religious politics, drew me back to the diaspora. My antipathy towards religious establishments meant that I sought out independent Orthodox communities rather than the “big jobs.” I had no interest in committees, politics, or manipulation. I particularly disliked the way religious, not just rabbinic, organizations tended to be bureaucratic, insensitive to individual needs, and concerned more with power than spirit. So I reinforced my sense of not belonging, of being an outsider even as I strived to teach and represent an established religion.

My philosophical training meant that I could not just accept cliches or religious dogma without examination or questioning. And my passion for Torah meant I could not disregard or stand aside when anyone was suffering in the name of, or because of, religious exclusivity. I tried to become a champion of the alienated and the disenfranchised. This was as true of the outside world as it was of my inner Jewish world; I joined and rose within the ranks of the anti-Apartheid movement in Britain.

So after all these years of being a rabbi, a lecturer, and a teacher on three continents, I am still fundamentally a misfit. I have spent time in and amongst the most extreme Chasidic sects and rabbinic courts and loved them. Not a day goes by when I do not delve into Talmudic intricacies and concepts, when I do not feel close to God. Yet few days go by without classical music, philosophy, and Western ideas. I am all, but none exclusively. Reform Jews do not understand my commitment to Jewish law, and many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not understand why I care so much about those who are not. I can sit at any table and feel relaxed and happy, but only part of me is there.

My late mother used to call me a chameleon. I am more Jewish than non-Jews, more non-Jewish than many Jews. I am more secular than religious, and more religious than secular. I am more left than right and more right than left.

Let me just give you a snapshot of my discombobulation.

In the U.S., I feel repelled by Tea Party Republicans and by evangelical Christians who want to convert me, and by Muslim extremists who want to kill me. I do not trust protestations of Left Wingers who claim to be disinterested. I do not trust Bill De Blasio not to undermine the wonderful and safe atmosphere of New York that I enjoy so much. Yet I know I am exceedingly privileged and fortunate to be able to live the life I live. I agree, the gap between rich and poor is unacceptable, and big business dictates spending, rather than need and poverty.

Now switch eastwards. I do not understand why Jews would still want to live in a European world increasingly antagonistic towards Jews and Israel. Further eastwards, I badly want peace in Israel and an end to occupation, and yet I cannot bring myself to believe that Hamas will ever tolerate a Jewish state right there in the middle of the Dar al-Islam.

I read that Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu is back in Israeli politics, having been exonerated of charges of corruption, money laundering, and deceit. I feel an overpowering sense of despair and disgust that the Jewish state will be represented by such an unsavory, thuggish, tub-thumping, neo-racist. When I read that Chareidi thugs can go and beat up an old rabbi because he supported another candidate to be Mayor of Jerusalem, I want to have nothing to do with such people. When I read of corrupt dayanim, of recalcitrant husbands, of rabbis who are sexual predators, all getting away with it, how can I possibly recite the same prayers as they do?

When I see the hypocrisies of politics, the sexual corruption of modern life, the abuses and misuses, the pursuit of money as the ultimate value of most societies, I find it terribly depressing. Yet at the same time there is so much good. Socialism has brought us not just the corruption of unions but the protection of the weak and the social welfare, without which Orthodoxy would never have been as strong as it is today.

I feel just like one of those silver pinballs in the machines in the old entertainment arcades of my youth (now it’s all computerized and we don’t have jukeboxes any more, only iTunes). Why do I have to belong where I do not feel comfortable? Why cannot we make our own choices and live our own lives according to our own decisions? Why can’t religion accept that its role is to provide services and inspiration, not control? Why not appreciate and nurture the individual souls instead of looking at the exterior conformity, the shells? Every single denomination and variation of every religion, as far as I can see, is as guilty of exclusion and pettiness as every other.

I am no model. Lord knows I’ve got it wrong as often as not. But we have to try to be honest with ourselves. We can and should keep our own boundaries and preferences. But we need to stop trying to impose them on others. Sometimes, it is true, the other side just won’t let us. Human conflict, the desire to appear to be better, morally superior, and holier seems endemic and universal. Yet if small groups, ethnicities, and religions don’t fight for their own space, they will disappear.

“ŽI fight to keep Judaism alive because I believe it matters and has something good to say. But I feel that most of my coreligionists don’t seem to care.

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  • Ben Sternberg

    Thank you Reb Yerucham for your kind response.

    It is not only to another denomination that God may direct your attention, and love.

    But as the wise Reb Tevye once remarked: “Some people are so happy with the heavy yokes they feel obliged to carry through life that they don’t know how miserable they are”! Well, someone, somewhere once said something like that !!

    God bless you Rebbe.


    • Thank you Sir and may the Almighty bless you too.

  • Joshua

    Great essay, Rabbi. Yashir koach, keep your mind independent, we like it. I agree Judaism is meant to guide us through life, not be the basis for bureaucratic control by others to manipulate our lives for their gain.

    • Thank you Joshua.
      I m afraid we humans seem prone to ruin the best of ideas and the highest of ideals! Still we must persevere.

  • Ben Sternberg

    Dear Rebbe

    You won’t remember me, but I have enjoyed the pleasure of your company – albeit briefly – on 3 occasions.

    The first, when I attended one of your Pesach Sederim at the Western shul, and again, when you hosted a debate between the late Hyam Maccoby and Prof. Philip Alexander at Yakar in Hendon, a groundbreaking event, where, for the very first time I witnessed a respectful discussion by Jews on Jesus and Christianity in an Orthodox venue, with a good smattering of beards and yarmulkas in the packed audience.

    I’ve just found a document that suggests that debate probably took place on Reb ‘Mickey’s” watch (olov hasholom), in which case please forgive my poor memory.

    I met you 1 more time during a short course you were conducting at Yakar, when I put it to you that you perhaps had a ‘Jewish identity’ problem, and that your liberal ideas on Judaism – and life – qualify you more for Masorti or Reform ranks, rather than Orthodox (I don’t think you believe that God dictated every single word of the Torah to Moishe, who took it all down in long-hand – onto stone !)

    But, like father – like son: a maverick is a maverick, and that’s why you find yourself with all avenues of hope seemingly blocked off. Just look at the title of your shtick – no Jewish box for you: a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

    Your ‘sainted’ father will not turn in his grave if you open your mind to new un-Orthodox truths, and take off in new directions.

    Just ask God, and trust him. Ask him earnestly, persistently, what His plans are, what Truths have been hidden from you, and demand an answer.

    I did just that exactly 20 years ago immediately after the debate at Yakar referred to above, and His answer came back to me precisely how, when and where I asked for it. So clear, so unambiguous, so incredible.

    ‘Yes, noch a meshigenner !’ you may be thinking, but since then I have met so many people who claim to have had similar experiences, which I now believe. If God exists, why shouldn’t he converse ?

    It worked for me and I have been a much better jew ever since.

    Mit mazel und berocho



    • Good to hear from you Binyomin

      But I am not at all attracted to any other denominations. That was precisely my point. I am perfectly happy where I am,drawing from the Charedi world the Torah, Tefilla and passion of Jewish religious not be found elsewhere and at the same time being open to some ( and I stress the word some) of the ideas of the non Jewish intellectual and scientic world. The last thing I want to do is to get into another box.

      But at the same time I m delighted you have found your niche!

      And yes the evening you refer to was in Mikey ZLs time.

  • Levi Bookin

    Some of us are perfectly happy living in Israel (Baruch Hashem, Yom Yom). We don’t vote and have nothing to do with party politics. We just get on with our lives.

  • Jacob Etner

    I was acquainted with the author’s father, as my father and he were friends.

    I am neither chasidic nor orthodox, but agree with many of the opinions he offers, especially those at the end.

  • Michael Garfinkel

    The author makes some interesting points, and he seems sincere.

    I take issue with some of what he has to say, but I’ll limit my criticism to one statement in particular: “In the U.S., I feel repelled by Tea Party Republicans and by evangelical Christians who want to convert me, and by Muslim extremists who want to kill me.”

    This statement in particular, in which the author seems to suggest an equivalency between middle-class Americans opposed to bigger government, Christians who seek the furtherance of divine grace – and Muslims who want to kill him, is frustrating in the extreme. Is he really unable to differentiate between these three cases?

    The author concludes by professing that he fights to keep Judaism alive because “he believes it matters and has something good to say.” He’s concerned, and rightly so, that many Jews do not share a similar commitment to the faith.

    I share his concern, and would make one suggestion in this regard: if one believes that God has entered into a Covenant with the Jewish people, these difficulties remain, but become incidental in nature.

    Without this ground on which to stand, these difficulties are insurmountable.

    • I really was not in any way equating the cases I mentioned. Of course there are degrees. They were just intended to be samples of the sort of issues I find difficult to to accept in Americam society.

      I also agree with you that the positive is far more importnt than the negative.

      Thank you for your comments.

  • Sharon Klaff

    Wow! I wish I could be so perfect!

    • You are too sweet. No human can be anywhere near perfect! Or were you being sarcastic?

  • Degel

    Thank you!

  • pinchas baram

    sorry but my computer erased a long talkback I wrote re this fine essay, but i’m too damn tired to do it again at this late hour. pb

    • So sorry. I do hope you will try again. It has happenned to me several times, so nowadays I put my response down in a word document before I copy and paste!

  • pinchas baram


  • Paul la Demain

    Dear Mr. Rosen: You;re quite correct: you are now the wandering soul you’ve always dreamt of becoming. Constantly complaining perhaps because you are Ignorant of historical facts about the nation of Israel that if known would banish your lone-wolf fantasies. How about doing something new and refreshing: Prof. Howard Grief’s seminal treatise: “A Treatise on Jewish Sovereignty over the Land of Israel – The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law.” This might divest you of much of your cultural angst and your yen to play contrarian in order to feel “out of the box.”

    BTW: One need not be a Jew to grasp that Israel is unjustifiably maligned by jews, perhaps because these self-flagellating Jews think this will purchase assimilation wherever they wander.
    — Paul SC4Z (Secular Christians for Zion)

    • Wandering does not necessarily mean lost of course!
      But why do you say I am constantly complaining? Havent you read any of the positive things I write? One swallow doesn’t make a spring nor do criticisms mean there is no good. Otherwise the Bible would not have said ” Whomsoever God loves He rebukes.”

  • Ooga Booga

    Great post!!

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Rabbi Rosen,
    Shalom rav! Although I do not have the advanced degrees you have attained, I am still an academic. Your appraisal of world Jewry makes a great deal of sense to me. I relate to every assessment you have afforded the reader in every way, except for the fact that I have never lived in Europe. In a month I will be making aliyah as a toshav chozer. My hope is to teach English in either a university or a college, preferably in Jerusalem. I have been teaching on English on the college level since 1996 and for the previous twenty years mostly in high schools in the Chicago area. I taught mostly high-school English for two years in the late 70s in Israel.
    Once when I was researching for a short story I was writing at the Hebrew Union College library, I came across an article by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua. He offered a profound insight into the writer’s being a priori an outsider in society. Of course, his intention was not a religious one because I suppose that he is a secular Jew; yet there is a common trait between a writer and an observant Jew: both follow the inclinations of the heart rather than the head. Even a cerebral writer bases the ideas on intuition to allow either the characters or the research to present the truth, as least as it appears on paper or on the screen at the moment. I have heard Ray Bradbury, Doris Lessing, as well as voices via the characters in my own writing speak out and control content of the story. I have read essays by MDs, especially by Jung and Frankl, who contended that one listen to the yearnings of the heart and soul in the search for life’s journey in adherence to meaning to provide the tone for the narrative.
    At age sixty-four I am leaving my teaching at a college and my marriage of twenty-nine years to help my people at the very core of our existence in Israel. It has been my lifelong dream to live in Israel and work with the people to help build a better future for our children in our homeland.
    Rabbi, perhaps some day you will join us and find your place when we began–outside of the carping, adversary exchanges, pettiness, and power struggles–in the pintele Jew which every Jew possesses throughout his or her life adventure.

    • Yoel
      That’s a beautiful post and you are obviously widely read and very thoughtful. Isrel is fortunate that you are returning to help build a better place.
      Chazak VeEmatz

      • Yoel Nitzarim

        Rabbi Rosen,

        Todah rabah!