An Orthodox Jewish friend asked me, with some real perplexity in her voice, why I wasn't Orthodox. "You love Torah study. You davven [pray] regularly. What keeps you from being Orthodox? I don't understand it."
This is my stuttering, inadequate response. I will try to answer as best I can.
I am a religious Jew, but I am not Orthodox. For some that is an impossible contradiction in terms. It is not for me. For me, it is a matter of belief and integrity.
I am a religious Jew because I believe in God as the One, HaBorei Chei Haolamim -- the Source and Soul of the universe. I love Torah study and try to find a way to learn something sacred every day. I believe in prayer. I take the mitzvot -- the commandments -- very seriously as an everyday part of my life. I am a passionate supporter of the State of Israel as both the Jewish homeland and a democracy open to all. I also have an instinctive love of Jewish people as members of my family.
But I do not believe the Torah was written by God and literally dictated. I believe it was told and retold by the ancient Israelites about their experiences and then eventually written down over time. After centuries the Torah was edited together, most likely in the time of Ezra. The Torah isn't fiction, and it isn't nonfiction; it is in the in-between place called autobiography of real memories passed down through the generations. It is sacred to us because it is the vocabulary that Jews have used for centuries to talk about God, and it mirrors the human condition. We learn Torah to understand what our ancestors believed, to learn what the Rabbis taught, and know ourselves.
I do not believe that Jews are am segulah, God's treasured, chosen people. I believe that we are people, with an identity that is unique and remarkable, but I don't believe our souls are different from others. I believe that all people are made in God's image.
I also do not believe in the literal resurrection of the dead, or that a moshiach [messiah] will appear on the top of the Mt. of Olives to save us. I do not pray for the rebuilding of a Third Temple and the reinstitution of animal sacrifice. I believe that Olam Haba is not the World to Come but is the World that is Potentially Already Here, not in heaven but on earth. I believe our job is to make our world into that world by relieving suffering.
I believe in a Zionism committed to Israel's security and eventual coexistence.
I believe in free will and consequences. I believe that there is no conflict between religion and science. I do not believe God rewards and punishes, either on a macro or personal level. I believe that often you reap what you sow, but also the world is imperfect. Sometimes the most important bracha [prayer/blessing] we can say is: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam Borei [Blessed are You the Eternal our God Ruler of the universe who creates] Good Enough. Sometimes it just has to be good enough.
I believe in inclusion. I do not believe that gays and lesbians are sinners, as some ignorant people still claim, or that women are "so holy" that they have to be kept away from certain public aspects of Judaism. I believe that God made every soul unique and precious, and I am responsible to whoever is before me. I believe that ethics comes first.
I love the rituals of Judaism, but I believe that some rituals, namely keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat strictly, and following the order of the entire traditional siddur, have become so overly complicated that they alienate rather than bring together, which is contrary to what they were intended to do in the first place. The letter of the law has often become divorced from the spirit of the law. I believe that sometimes simpler is better.
I believe in the beauty of Judaism. I love the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the challenge of fasting and the melodies on Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, and sleeping outside on Sukkot. I get an electric charge from reading the end of the Torah and immediately starting it again on Simchat Torah. I love staring at Hanukkah candles. I love eating dates -- the Biblical honey of the land flowing with milk and honey -- at a Tu B'Shvat seder. I love being ridiculous on Purim. I love hearing children sing the four questions on Passover. (I do not love gefilte fish, but I tolerate it with horseradish.) I love seeing our youth chant the Ten Commandments on Shavuot for Confirmation.
Most importantly, Shabbat -- with family meals, study, and prayer -- is my most sacred time. The most important moment is when my wife and I bless our children.
I believe in speaking in the name of the prophets at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I believe that Judaism is more than just going to services and lighting candles of various kinds; it is about social justice and actually doing something to make the world a better place. I believe not only in a Promised Land but a Promised World. I believe in tikkun olam -- the obligation and the dream of fixing the world. I feel much better about myself after I have brought food to our local food pantry or having delivered free groceries to someone in need.
And I believe in praying and studying every day. Every single day without exception. For me, prayer is also tikkun olam -- fixing the world -- but on the inside. My inner world needs fixing too. I believe in loving and serving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.
So you see, I am a deeply religious Jew, but belief separates me from the Judaism of previous centuries and the Judaism of some of my present-day family members.
God gave each one of us two amazing gifts: a religious tradition to guide us, and a conscience with which to make decisions. I thank God for both, and I will abdicate neither.
What do you believe?