Agreeing to disagree: the value of religious doubt

by Brian on September 18, 2017

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Rabbi Eli has been a friend of our family’s for almost 30 years. Originally from the United States, he’s an aliyah success story – 5 children, 16 grandchildren, all still living here.

There’s one thing that bothers Rabbi Eli, though: not all of his kids have stayed religious. At least not the way he would have liked.

Rabbi Eli has always been mainstream Orthodox: solidly national religious, not haredi but definitely keeping strictly to halacha (Jewish Law) in an Orthodox understanding.

One of his children however went the “datlash” route – that’s the acronym for dati l’she’avar – a formerly religious person. (Dati is Hebrew for “religious.” She’avar means “in the past.) In the U.S., the more alarmist initials “OTD” – for “Off the Derech” (derech is “path”) – are often used.

Rabbi Eli’s datlashit daughter, Na’ama, found her way back to the Jewish world recently through a Conservative congregation. That wasn’t Rabbi Eli’s kosher cup of tea, but he was happy for her.

Until it was in his face: His granddaughter’s bat mitzvah was coming up and Na’ama wanted her father to participate.

At the bat mitzvah, both mother and daughter would be called up to the Torah and the bat mitzvah girl would read from her portion of the week. There would be mixed seating and the service would be entirely egalitarian.

Rabbi Eli was thrown into a halachic conundrum – one that’s becoming more and more a part of the Jewish world: Can Jews who practice their Judaism very differently still come together for family simchas?

I’ve seen it go different ways. My wife and I were recently at a wedding where the groom’s Orthodox family insisted on a traditional chuppah complete with a Rabbinate-provided officiator who mumbled through the Sheva Brachot as perfunctorily as possible, even though the bride and groom were completely secular and seemed eager to move on to dinner and dancing.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also attended the wedding of a totally datlashi couple earlier this year. It was clear that some of the bride’s still religious family really had to hold back their judgment as the wedding party danced down the aisle to the music of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (an odd if inspired choice). There was no rabbi officiating at all, but plenty of tattoos.

It’s not just the simchas. I know several stories where one side of a family won’t attend another side’s simcha at all (let alone eat the food at the party afterward) because it’s not frum enough. And I’ve written in this column about my own frustrations where guests have not been comfortable with me making some of the Shabbat evening blessings.

But there’s a solution. And it comes from my old friend Rabbi Eli himself.

Rabbi Eli decided he would attend his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. He took care to pray the morning service before he got there at an Orthodox early minyan, and he didn’t say a blessing over the Torah himself at the bat mitzvah. But he came. He sat together with his wife and family; his very presence gave everyone great nachas (joy).

Afterward, during the celebratory Kiddush, Rabbi Eli and I talked. He told me about how he got comfortable enough to attend the bat mitzvah. What he said surprised me.

“I disagree with pretty much everything they’re doing when it comes to their Jewish practice. But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

I thought about that for a long moment. What Rabbi Eli was saying is that we don’t have to agree on everything – with the old saying “two Jews, three opinions,” we probably never will – but that doesn’t mean that the other side is theologically or philosophically incorrect.

Rabbi Eli wasn’t compromising on his personal beliefs. But he opened up his heart to a tiny window of uncertainty, allowing in the possibility for doubt – and coming together with family.

Imagine if that same principle were applied to the religious and political battles that are raging in Israel these days – in the Knesset, the Interior Ministry, the Rabbinate, at the Kotel. If we backed off the hubris and the insistence that one side is right and other must be wrong, think of what this country – what the Jewish people – could achieve.

Agreeing to disagree is the easy part. Usually when we do that, though, there’s still a bit of us that believes there’s an ineffable Truth out there with a capital T – and we’re the side that’s got it.

Rabbi Eli went beyond that black and white box. “I don’t agree, but I’m not so sure of myself that I can say with absolute certainty that you’re wrong. It’s not right for me, but it seems to be right for you.”

That’s my kind of truth – with a little t.

I gave Rabbi Eli a bear hug right there in the Kiddush, herring and crackers in one hand, the other grasping Eli on the back. If I still were interested in having a rabbi, I thought to myself, Eli would be the one.

As we head into the High Holiday season, with the themes of renewal and repentance rife in the air, I’ll be thinking about Rabbi Eli’s words. I hope you will, too. The Messiah may not be picking up the telephone anytime soon, but if she did, I’d hope that this is what she’d say.

I first wrote about Rabbi Eli at The Jerusalem Post.

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