The Advantage of Being Stuck in the Middle
By Michael Weiner
For as long as I can remember, I have been stuck in the middle. At the non-denominational Jewish elementary and middle school I attended, I was the only Orthodox student, doing homework and taking notes alongside my intelligent, cynical, and proudly non-religious classmates.
Every Shabbat at my Orthodox synagogue, I was the only kid who did not attend the local ultra-orthodox yeshiva populated by the wild children of black-hatted, black-bearded rabbis who learned and taught Torah and their demure, bewigged wives who raised children and made excellent kugels.
On weekdays after school, my brother and I studied various masechtot (tractates) of Talmud with our Rabbi from shul, and my worlds collided. My Reform and Conservative classmates walking through school hallways wearing shorts and t-shirts would stop and stare as a man decked out in a white dress shirt, black hat, and thick leather volume tucked under his arm would lead my brother and I into a quiet room in the corner of the building to study 1,500 year old Jewish legal arguments pertaining to questions of finding lost objects, the laws of public Torah reading, the intricacies of the Jewish calendar, as well as fanciful Talmudic legends and stories.
I loved it all: the challenge of reading foreign script, the winding legal analysis, the Yiddish phrases my Rabbi would pepper his questions with, and finally, the strange, surging emotion of connectivity that I felt to ancient commentators and arcane ideas. I wanted more.
Outside in the halls, my friends passed the time waiting to be picked up by listening to rap music, playing basketball, and contemplating asking out girls they liked over Facebook. Meanwhile, just a few hundred feet away, my brother, the Rabbi, and I were engaged in a passionate argument over whether one who finds a bundle of purple wool indiscriminately scattered on the sidewalk is required to announce this discovery even if the original owner has already given up hope on finding the object.
After the hour-long study session, I would get up, pocket the kippah I wore on my head, complete homework problems far more boring than discussions of purple wool, and talk to my friends about basketball, dances, and upcoming tests.
In middle school, my classmates began asking me questions about my Orthodox faith, practices, and upbringing. One boy couldn't understand how I could keep Shabbat and therefore not use the Internet for a whole day. Another girl had questions about kashrut and why God would care what we ate. A close friend of mine was an Asian Jew and an outspoken atheist.
In 7th grade, we would sit for hours at lunchtime discussing basketball and dances as well as science, god (or lack thereof) and philosophy. I didn't have the answers to all of my classmates' questions, so I asked my black hatted rabbi, an English major at Yale who became observant in his 20s and today rails against secular college, homosexuals, and television.
He gave me some answers I liked, others I didn't and a bit later on, I went home and asked my modern orthodox, college-attending, television-owning parents the same questions and they gave me different answers. And it was then, as a confused 7th grader, that I discovered that one question can have many answers.
I later discovered that this concept has rich precedent in Jewish tradition. While learning the Talmud with my Rabbi, we stumbled upon the famous statement "eilu v'eilu divrei elohim chayim" (Eiruvin 13b); these and these are the words of the living God.
Ultimately, the wisdom of the 1,500-year-old Talmud proved to be true as ever. I learned a tremendous amount about basketball, dances, life, and its purpose from my atheist friend, the wife of the conservative Rabbi who taught me Jewish Studies, my parents, and the ultra-orthodox yeshiva-educated Rabbi who tutored me for all those years.
All of them taught me something about how to navigate through the world using Jewish values, Torah, my own intellect, and a sense of humor as my guides.
Being stuck in the middle was difficult and alienating at time, but in the long run, I am so grateful to have been able to learn from Jews of all stripes and colors. Pirkei Avot teaches: "who is wise? One who learns from all people." If nothing else, I have merited to fulfill that teaching time and time again.
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" 'I eat what is ripe and throw out the shell.'
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.
from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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