Me'avdut L'cherut

This is a few days old, but it’s too juicy to pass up. Hella Winston, author of Unchosen : The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, reminisces about a Seder with a former Hasid who compared the liberation from Egyptian bondage to his own liberation from Orthodox Judaism. Yeah, baby!
It reminds me of a story told of my own grandfather, who started each Seder with the declaration, “We used to be slaves and now we are free. And as free people, we are able to do what we want.” Then he would produce a tray of freshly baked bread, devour the first piece and distribute the rest to his guests. The Seder had begun.
Winston’s essay is slightly less antinomian. Instead, it grapples with the conflicting emotions that can arise after leaving the fold, and questions whether Jewish institutional involvement is a worthy barometer of Jewish identity.

Strictly Orthodox Jews are taught that their Judaism is the only “authentic” Judaism — all other interpretations of the religion are characterized, at best, as rationalizations for laziness and worthy of little more than derision; intellectual and philosophical challenges to Orthodoxy are dismissed out of hand. Because of this, I have found, many who reject the values of their former communities are still unable to shed the belief that there is no other way to practice Judaism. From their perspective, celebrating a Jewish holiday when you are no longer “religious” makes absolutely no sense.
… Still, as ambivalent as former Orthodox Jews are about their religion, their hard-earned freedom obviously comes with a great price: a profound sense of loss, often felt with particular potency during the holidays. None of this is to say that everyone who leaves a strictly religious community wants nothing more to do with Judaism — just think of Moishe’s Seder. For those who are uncomfortable — if not outright unwelcome — in their families’ homes, having an alternative community can be invaluable and the chance to experience a way of being Jewish reflective of their values, a revelation.
Indeed, that Moishe, the Deutsches and all their friends celebrated Passover together attests to something that many in the institutional Jewish world fail to grasp — namely, that formal affiliation with a synagogue or movement is not always the best measure of a person’s Jewish identity. Often wary of institutions in general, many who leave strict Orthodoxy are unlikely to rush into anything “formally” Jewish. But while people like Moishe might be happily stepping down as the ostensible “defenders of the faith,” they are not in any way abandoning their Jewish identities. Instead, they are refashioning them, forging their own Jewish path, freely, together with others who have shared the same experience.
What could be more in the spirit of Passover — and of Judaism — than that?

Full essay.

3 thoughts on “Me'avdut L'cherut

  1. Great to read this in the paper of record! But as for your pull-out quote, it’s not really news. At this point most Jewish communal professionals understand that “affiliation” is not the only or even the best measurement of “Jewish engagement.” The problem is, they don’t care: the bottom line is still the bottom line… membership dues and/or campaign goals. If every Jew celebrated Shabbat, Passover, and Hanukkah, but never showed up at synagogue, how does that help the Jewish community? Rabbis gots ta eat too, ya know.

  2. How many times did the same newspaper tackle this exact same subject? Someone up there is really trying to get the word out.

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