Three ways for Orthodoxy to improve

It comes down to what I categorize as the three “T”s: Tribalism, Tolerance and Tanach.

The study of Tanach does not receive the time or attention it deserves in most Orthodox educational systems. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The study of Tanach does not receive the time or attention it deserves in most Orthodox educational systems.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Shabbat marks 36 years since I began my journey to Orthodoxy, embracing Sabbath observance as a teenager with all the idealism and verve of youth.
I still remember walking briskly to synagogue on that beautiful autumn morning in the suburbs north of New York somewhat unsure about where exactly this theological trek might lead me. Watching as my friends gleefully drove by only served to add to the slight bewilderment that accompanied my decision.
Having been raised in a traditional Conservative Jewish home and educated at Jewish day schools made the transition relatively easier, as I was familiar with the laws and lore as well as the rites and responsibilities that being a Jew entails.
But nonetheless, while I was convinced of the propriety of my path, I still felt that I was embarking on a bit of an adventure to the unknown, heading toward “the land which I will show you”, as God tells Abraham our Patriarch in this week’s Torah portion.

In the ensuing decades I have grown in observance and learning as I followed a winding trail, one perhaps too personal to share on the pages of a newspaper.
But as I reflect back on what brought me to where I am today, I feel compelled to offer a few unsolicited thoughts about what Orthodoxy is and where it could use a few healthy doses of improvement. Specifically, it comes down to what I categorize as the three “T”s: Tribalism, Tolerance and Tanach.
TO BEGIN with, it is worth noting that the label “Orthodoxy” is a bit of a misnomer, suggesting the existence of a monolithic, unified movement, which it is anything but. The vast array of differing customs and approaches to life, from lite to right and everything in between, is obvious to anyone who takes the time to explore the sociology of Orthodox Jews.
This is not inherently a problem, unless of course it descends into tribalism, which is precisely what has occurred. This is even more pronounced here in Israel, where thanks to politics and self-segregation, the various fissures within and among religious Zionism and the haredi world have only been exacerbated still further.
Indeed, the basic lack of respect that can often be found within Orthodoxy for differing and legitimate halachic approaches, the mockery and derision that are frequently directed by one Orthodox group against another, are far too common, both in public discourse and private conversations. For a belief system that values and stresses the inherent worth of every Jew and offers a variety of paths to connect with the Creator, this tribalism is as damaging as it is inexcusable.
Naturally, that segues into the second of the three “T”s, which is tolerance. Too many people seem to view anyone less observant than they are as a bit of a heretic, while anyone more devout is seen as a fanatic. That different mitzvot speak to different people on varying levels is something we should take pride in rather than denounce or decry.
Indeed, earlier this month, in a post on Facebook, Rabbi Moshe Taragin quoted the haredi sage Rabbi Asher Weiss, who was speaking to his students at Yeshivat Har Etzion, as saying that a perfect Jew should have a Litvak’s brain, a hassidic heart, the integrity of a Yekke (German Jew), the simple faith of a Hungarian Jew, the respect for Torah of a Sephardi and the love for the Land of Israel of a religious Zionist. That, he said, would make for a perfect Jew.
Implicit in that statement is a beautiful acknowledgment that Jews of different stripes and backgrounds have a lot to learn from one another, if only they took the time and made the effort to do so without cynicism or contempt.
The third area where Orthodoxy should strive to improve is in gaining greater familiarity with Tanach. It may sound hard to believe, but it is possible to spend copious amounts of time in many yeshivot without ever systematically studying the complete Hebrew Bible.
With all due respect, listening to the haftarah – the portion from the Prophets read on Shabbat following the reading of the Torah portion – hardly constitutes true study or results in deep comprehension.
The Jewish view on everything from injustice to eschatology is given powerful expression in the words of the Prophets, touching the heart and inspiring the soul in a manner that supplements and enhances the study of Halacha and Jewish custom.
For various historical reasons, the study of Tanach does not receive the time or attention that it deserves in most Orthodox educational systems, and we are poorer for it.
After all, Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s stirring visions of Israel’s return and redemption, Haggai’s rebuke of the people for living in luxury while the Temple, the house of God, remained unbuilt, and Zechariah’s powerful reminder that we must show mercy and compassion toward others were written down and canonized for good reason. We must make more of an effort to take the Tanach off the shelf and incorporate it and its messages into our lives.
THERE ARE, of course, other areas in which Orthodoxy can and should renew itself, ranging from the institutional level to communal discourse to personal responsibility.
But in the 36 years that have passed since that first precious Shabbat that I sought to observe, I have come to appreciate the power of our tradition, which has sustained us collectively even as it has elevated us as individuals.
When I took those first tentative steps toward Orthodoxy, I had no idea of the depth of thought, the richness of character and the nobility of ideals that I would encounter along the way. Nor did I imagine some of the disappointments and human failings that I would come across, both in myself and in others.
But at the end of each day, I am grateful to God for guiding me and enabling me to feel closer to Him while also challenging me to improve myself and my character.
Orthodoxy has its faults, but they are far outweighed by its many merits. And so, my journey continues. 
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other hidden Jews to return to Israel and the Jewish people.