Agreeing to disagree: The value of religious doubt

It was clear that some of the bride’s still-religious family really had to hold back their judgment as the wedding party danced down the aisle to the music of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”.

September 13, 2017 16:32
4 minute read.
A couple stands underneath a ‘huppa’ during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv.

A couple stands underneath a ‘huppa’ during their secular wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)


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Rabbi Eli has been a friend of our family for almost 30 years. Originally from the US, he’s an aliya success story – five children, 16 grandchildren, all still living here.

There’s one thing that bothers him, though: Not all of his kids have stayed religious. At least not the way he would have liked.

He has always been mainstream Orthodox: solidly National Religious, not haredi but definitely keeping strictly to Halacha (Jewish law) in an Orthodox understanding.

One of his children, however, went the “datlash” route – that’s the acronym for dati l’she’avar – a formerly religious person. (“Dati” is Hebrew for “religious”; “she’avar” means “in the past.”) In the US, the more alarmist initials “OTD” – for “Off the Derech” (“derech” means “path”) – are often used.

Eli’s datlash daughter, Na’ama, found her way back to the Jewish world recently through a Conservative congregation. That wasn’t Eli’s kosher cup of tea, but he was happy for her...

Until it was in his face: His granddaughter’s bat mitzva was coming up, and Na’ama wanted her father to participate.

At the bat mitzva, both mother and daughter would be called up to the Torah, and the bat-mitzva girl would read from her portion of the week. There would be mixed seating, and the service would be entirely egalitarian.

Eli was thrown into a halachic conundrum, one that’s becoming more and more a part of the Jewish world: Can Jews who practice their Judaism very differently still come together for family simchas?

I’ve seen it go different ways. My wife and I were recently at a wedding where the groom’s Orthodox family insisted on a traditional huppa, complete with a rabbinate-provided officiator, who mumbled through the Sheva Brachot as perfunctorily as possible, even though the bride and groom were completely secular and seemed eager to move on to dinner and dancing.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also attended the wedding of a totally datlash couple earlier this year. It was clear that some of the bride’s still-religious family really had to hold back their judgment as the wedding party danced down the aisle to the music of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (an odd if inspired choice). There was no rabbi officiating at all, but plenty of tattoos.

It’s not just the simchas. I know several stories where one side of a family won’t attend another side’s simcha at all (let alone eat the food at the party afterward), because it’s not frum (pious) enough. And I’ve written in this column about my own frustrations where guests have not been comfortable with me making some of the Shabbat evening blessings.

But there’s a solution. And it comes from my old friend Eli himself.

He decided he would attend his granddaughter’s bat mitzva. Before he got there, he took care to pray the morning service at an Orthodox early minyan, and at the bat mitzva he didn’t say a blessing over the Torah himself. But he came. He sat together with his wife and family; his very presence gave everyone great naches (joy).

Afterward, during the celebratory kiddush, Eli and I talked. He told me about how he got comfortable enough to attend the bat mitzva. What he said surprised me.

“I disagree with pretty much everything they’re doing when it comes to their Jewish practice. But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

I thought about that for a long moment. What Eli was saying is that we don’t have to agree on everything – with the old saying “two Jews, three opinions,” we probably never will – but that doesn’t mean that the other side is theologically or philosophically incorrect.

Eli wasn’t compromising on his personal beliefs. But he opened up his heart to a tiny window of uncertainty, allowing in the possibility for doubt – and coming together with family.

Imagine if that same principle were applied to the religious and political battles that are raging these days – in the Knesset, the Interior Ministry, the rabbinate, at the Kotel. If we backed off the hubris and the insistence that one side is right and the other must be wrong, think of what this country – what the Jewish people – could achieve.

Agreeing to disagree is the easy part. Usually, when we do that, though, there’s still a bit of us that believes there’s an ineffable Truth out there with a capital T – and we’re the side that’s got it.

Eli went beyond that black-and-white box. “I don’t agree, but I’m not so sure of myself that I can say with absolute certainty that you’re wrong. It’s not right for me, but it seems to be right for you.”

That’s my kind of truth – with a lowercase t.

I gave Eli a bear hug right there at the kiddush, herring and crackers in one hand, the other grasping Eli on the back. If I still were interested in having a rabbi, I thought to myself, Eli would be the one.

As we head into the High Holy Day season, with the themes of renewal and repentance rife in the air, I’ll be thinking about Eli’s words. Perhaps you will, too. The Messiah may not be picking up the telephone anytime soon, but if she did, I’d hope that this is what she’d say.

The author’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, was recently published.

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