Today, I am in 10th grade at a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school and I again feel stuck in the middle between two widely differing extremes. Many of my classmates are frustrated with the strictures of an Orthodox lifestyle and want to throw it all away in exchange for a normal high school experience. They want the dances, proms, short days, and lax dress codes of regular American teenagers rather than the prayers, strict laws against touching the opposite gender, and dry teachings of Jewish tradition. Rabbis tell them that Judaism is beautiful, that their religious tradition is inspirational, rich, and true. But they do not listen, nor do they believe in that which they practice. Every day, I see groups of kids sneak out of shacharit (morning prayer)- the most intimate moment of the day when we are allowed to grasp on to the Soul of the universe and better understand Him/Her/ It and ourselves- in order to text and play iPhone games. Every day, I see Modern Orthodox high school students who are supposed to take pride in balancing Torah and openness to modernity together choose one over the other. Hint: they did not choose Torah.
Those classmates of mine who are serious and interested in Torah and observance lean to the right of the Orthodox world and are uncomfortable with the height of the mechitzah (barrier between men and women during prayer). They remind of me of the yeshiva students I knew years ago, their pale faces constantly reading holy books, their bodies moving awkwardly to avoid bumping into women at a crowded Kiddush. One of them is a good friend of mine, and we debate endlessly about the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the state of Modern Orthodoxy, and halacha in contemporary times. Listening to him rant against the dangers of all things ‘modern,’ I smile bitterly as I remember witnessing another Modern Orthodox classmate of mine break Shabbat because he hated religion and embraced modernity. For most people, it is one or the other, black or white. I again have that familiar feeling of being stuck in the middle.
Sometimes I think of my Rabbi from the past, a lonely figure in black that inched his way through the crowded hallways of my school filled with immodestly clan women, foul language, and normal American teenagers, in order to give me a drink from the everlasting fountain of Torah. But of course, I cannot follow in his footsteps. For admittedly, I do enjoy learning English, history, and math, listening to rap music, and watching television shows. In stark contrast, I also love with a deep passion the rigor and challenge of advanced Talmud study as well as the power, raw emotion, and meditative nature of personal prayer. Chassidut, with its emphases on joy and unabashed love of God appeal to me, even as I am repelled by the idea of living in a closed Chassidic community full of wild-eyed children and covered women.
Oftentimes, I feel like the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Meir, who witnessed his teacher Elisha ben Avuyah become a heretic due to his readings of Greek philosophy and struggle to understand the grand scheme of divine justice in this world. Despite Elisha’s apostasy, Rabbi Meir continued learning from him, ignoring the protests of his rabbinic colleagues by responding with the statement: ‘ochel tocho vezorek klipaso,’ ‘eat the fruit and throw out the peeling.’
Out of the environment that I came from, I have been able to form a strong, unshakeable core identity comprised of commitment to Jewish practice and teaching, tolerance of and respect for beliefs I disagree with, and most importantly, love of all people, who after all, were created in the image of the God. I feel confident in respecting all people because I have been blessed to have had passionate, profound disagreements with atheists, ultra-orthodox Jews, and reform Rabbis over fundamental questions of our existence and the universe, and as a result, I am positive that these and these and these are the words of the living God. No, I am not stuck in the middle, I am merely one of an enormous chorus of voices speaking the words of the living God, and maybe you are too. Let’s talk sometime.