So I asked this rabbi what kind of a rabbi he is, and he said: Unorthodox. Unorthodox! Yes! The most descriptive term I have heard for real Judaism! The belief that nothing is the way it is supposed to be, that everything in the world has to change, that we have to be different from everybody else. This is what Jews are all about-the recalcitrant, insurgent, revolutionary kvetchers of history-and what could be more unorthodox than that?
Didn’t Judaism begin with the paradigm of all iconoclasts? Imagine Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s house, defying King Nimrod and all the social norms of his day. Imagine Moses defying Pharaoh, or Rabbi Akiva and the sages defying the massive Roman Empire. Is this something you would describe as “orthodox” behavior?
To be Jewish is to rebel. Refusing to answer the phone on Shabbat is a rebellion against technocracy. Keeping kosher is a rebellion against consumerism. Getting up early in the morning to wrap oneself in a large, white woolen sheet, twist leather straps and boxes upon one’s arm and head, join others in mystical incantations and read from an ancient scroll, is an outright rebellion against anything considered normal in modern life.
Do you know the story of the rabbi standing out on the street looking for a tenth for his minyan? Finally, he finds a Jew. But the Jew says, “Sorry, I’m not into organized religion.”
“If this is organized religion,” the rabbi exclaims, “what on earth am I doing out on the street harassing pedestrians?”
Have Jews ever been orthodox? Has there ever been a time when their views and behavior were considered normal? Pharaoh thought they were crazy because they demanded workers’ rights. The Romans thought they were nuts because they would not dispose of unhealthy infants. The Church thought they were perverse because they wouldn’t surrender to the faith of the majority. The rationalists thought they were off-the-wall because of their mysticism, and the romantics considered them obtuse for their rationalism. The United Nations resolved that Jews are weird just because they insist on existing. In the meantime, everybody ended up adopting our mindset, yet we still remain an anomaly among peoples. There’s just too much catching up for everybody else to do.
Judaism can never be called old-fashioned, because it was never in fashion to begin with.
So, who came up with this oxymoron, “Orthodox Judaism?”
I’ll tell you: Two hundred years ago, when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decided that he was the Messiah and the Jews were to be liberated, he appointed several leaders of the Jewish community to form a Sanhedrin, a high court of rabbis and scholars, such as had existed in ancient times. So honored, they went about convincing their buddies to join. After all, Napoleon was the wave of the future. This was progress.
But some rabbis didn’t think it was such progress. Napoleon, a Messiah? And Paris is Jerusalem, right? So they declined. And for this stubborn refusal to understand just how backward and narrow-minded they were, they were labeled, “you…you…you ORTHODOX RABBIS!”
“Orthodox, schmorthodox,” they replied, “but the little guy with his hand stuck in his shirt is not the Messiah!”
It’s something like the way hippies started calling themselves “freaks.” Some homesteader at Woodstock looked upon these fine, American youth and spat out this epithet in front of the cameras. So they said, why fight it? And they called themselves freaks.
My Rabbi once said: “Labels are for shirts.” Okay, there are other things that can take labels. Like Reform temples, Conservative synagogues, Reconstructionist pine groves. But the Jews that you’ll find in these places have all just one label: Jews. Because “Jew” is not a behavioral term. It’s an essential state of being. It’s not where you’re at, it’s where you belong.
So if anyone should ask you to describe the three kinds of Jews today, answer as follows:
There are three types of Jews:
1. Jews who do mitzvahs.
2. Jews who do more mitzvahs.
3. Jews who do even more mitzvahs.
And that’s about it, because a Jew can hardly breathe without doing a mitzvah. They’re just too unorthodox.