Orthodox to Reform: Losing my neshama?

By Melchett Mike
December 31, 2009

I attended a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem on Saturday. At Kol HaNeshama, the Reform synagogue in Baka where I used to pray – or, more accurately, join in the singsong and close my eyes and pretend to meditate while other congregants were meditating (or pretending to) – after making Aliyah, 14 years ago.

And it really was very pleasant.

The "bible" Bible for Reform Jews is apparently W. Gunther Plaut's The Torah: A Modern Commentary. And its preface, describing the Torah's origins, certainly made a lot more sense to me on Saturday morning than any account I ever heard during my Orthodox upbringing, either in Britain's United Synagogue or (even more certainly) at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys.

Plaut asserts, I think (an attractive congregant was interfering with my concentration), that while the Torah is neither the word of God nor written by Moses – it is a continuing source of amazement to me that so many, otherwise normal, friends and acquaintances actually believes that it is – its several authors chronicle the Jewish peoples' perceptions of and relationship with (their notion of) the Deity.

Progressive synagogues – or temples, as they often seem to be called – possess an air of serenity, goodwill and even universal love that, if not entirely absent from their Orthodox equivalents, is far less apparent. The difference in atmosphere is best summed up by the split-screen dinner scene in Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer juxtaposes the decorum at the Halls' table with the noisy vulgarity at his family's (though I do not employ the analogy to suggest either that Progressive Jews are more akin to WASPs . . . or that Orthodox Jews are coarse!)

On Shabbes mornings at Raleigh Close (Hendon United Synagogue) – where congregants would continually approach my grandfather, considered something of a "stag", for tips on new share issues – I would learn more about the stock market than Torah. And the backbiting and intrigue for which Orthodox shuls are renowned was one of the primary factors in the continual refusal of my father, a constitutional anti-macher (big shot), to accept nominations for its board of management.

Progressive synagogues, on the other hand, have always felt to me fundamentally un-heimish (homely and warm) and – in spite of all the meditating and happy-clappyness – seem to suffer from a deficiency of true neshama (soul). In fact, they cause me to feel a sense of alienation similar to that experienced by Alvy at Annie's parents.

Indeed, for those of us who are "FFB" – Frum (Orthodox), or in my case frumish, From Birth – the transition from Orthodox to Reform may be fraught with difficulty and discomfort. So, whilst I am far more ideologically aligned with Progressive forms of Judaism these days – even experiencing a sense of dissonance in Orthodox shuls – I have found the conversion process to be far from straightforward.

Whilst I haven't yet concluded whether being able to hug one's partner or give them a back massage as they recite kaddish (the memorial prayer) – which Progressive synagogues' mixed seating enables – is beautiful or unnecessary (I am veering towards the former), I am now entirely used to increased female participation in services (which even some Orthodox shuls are now fostering).

But, on Saturday morning, there was the odd appearance of a mobile telephone (perhaps Hashem now accepts text messages), and – just when I had thought that that was as inappropriate as it could get – the woman in front of me pulled out a pen and paper, and started scribbling away frantically (perhaps the winning Lotto numbers had come to her during her meditations).

Whilst a Kol HaNeshama regular later assured me that such behaviour could only have come from a visitor, the same cannot be said of the female congregants who had donned a tallis (prayer shawl) and/or – what, for some strange reason, winds me up more than anything else in Progressive synagogues – a kippa (skullcap). In fact, the latter appears no less alien to me on a female head than a strap-on protuberance does – or rather would ("I have never seen one, Your Honour") – between her legs.

But who am I, a self-declared and unabashed apikores (heretic), to judge any of my coreligionists? Especially since, at the same time on your average Saturday morning, I can usually be found on Rothschild Boulevard doing nothing more spiritual than indulgently licking the foam off my hafuch (latte).

What it boils down to, I guess, is that while you can take the dat'lash (acronym for dati le'she'avar, formerly religious person) out of Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo (and notionally Gush), it is far more difficult – perhaps impossible – to take the Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo out of the dat'lash (for a recent, interesting article on the dat'lash, go to http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1117338.html).

And, to all readers of melchett mike – whatever you practise or believe . . . or not – a happy, healthy, and healthily irreverent 2010!

Join in the debate at http://melchettmike.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/orthodox-to-reform-losing-m...



Thu, 12/31/2009 - 11:47

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Why did you leave the Orthodox synagogue?

Melchett Mike

Thu, 12/31/2009 - 15:17

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Hi Lanne,

I think the answer is in my third paragraph above: the Orthodox world-view just doesn't really make sense to me.

Anyway, shul doesn't perform the same communal role in Israel that it does in the Diaspora . . . so, even a shul-free life here can be quite Jewish enough!



Fri, 01/01/2010 - 12:37

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I have to hand it to you, Mike - you're one of the most enjoyable bloggers in cyber space!


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