First Person / sIngular
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Second thoughts on "The Keepers of the Flame"

by Judy R. Gruen

ON MY LONG AND BUMPY ROAD to living a religious lifestyle, one conversation stands out. I was having coffee with a friend from college when, apropos of nothing, she blurted out that a man had come into the art gallery where she worked wearing a black leather kippah, instantly conjuring feelings of rage within her.

"Patricia" had never been abused in any way by a religious Jew. She, along with her entire family, was staunchly Zionist, having been raised ideologically by the Left-Zionist Hashomer Hatza'ir movement. But nowhere along the line had she ever learned why she should have even a glimmer of respect for traditional Judaism. Its very existence offended and repelled her.

Startled by her passionate outburst, I asked her how she could feel so angry simply by seeing a man whom she had never met before. In fits and starts, Patricia explained that his kippah symbolized the patriarchal, anti-feminist philosophy of Orthodox Judaism.

At the time of this conversation, we were both in our early 20s. I, too, tended to steer clear of Jews wearing some type of religious "uniform": a sheitel (wig), kippah, or tzitzit dangling down trouser legs. While I never shared Patricia's visceral reaction or vehemence, I had to admit to feelings of antagonism towards these keepers of the flame. Deep down, I believed that they were right to live according to halacha (Jewish law). Exploring their lives more deeply risked discovering an uncomfortable truth about my own life: changes -- which at the time I considered sacrifices -- would have to be made. I chose to remain distant.

In retrospect, my own skittishness is quite clear. Shortly before this memorable coffee kvetch, I had met the man who would become my husband. Jeff had already decided that an observant Jewish lifestyle was central to his life's plan. I, on the other hand, still had my button that said ".59c" and a small calligraphed sign in my apartment that read, "She who waits for the knight in shining armor cleans up after the horse."

Despite our theological disputes, Jeff and I continued to date. From the start, we were like old friends, never lacking for comfortable, meaningful conversation. We enjoyed the same activities, laughed at one another's jokes and wry observations, and increasingly loved being together.

It took about two years of dating, discussing and debating before Jeff and I decided to marry. During that time, my struggles with Orthodoxy, and what it represented to me, continued. Slowly, exposure to traditional Jewish teachings began to chip away at my psychological armor. But here's the irony: while some of my secular Jewish friends, including Patricia, made remarks that served to push me away from Jeff and the life he envisioned for us, my religious Catholic friends encouraged me towards traditionalism.

At graduate school in Chicago (the second year of our courtship), I befriended a curly blond-haired, blue-eyed Notre Dame alumna who never missed Sunday mass. I shared my feelings of ambivalence about religious observance with her, as well as my dilemma about my relationship with Jeff.

"I think Judaism is a great religion," Kathy said. "If I weren't Catholic, I would definitely want to be Jewish." Her respect -- even from the comfortable distance from which she held it -- taught me a thing or two about preconceived notions. Kathy was also friendly with a Jewish student who wore his atheism like a badge of honor. Once, during a heated discussion with Kathy about the existence of God, he challenged the Almighty to reveal Himself by performing some minor miracle, such as a thunder clap.

These portraits may seem extreme, but they are all too common. Jews who aren't observant often shamelessly denigrate their own religion based on little, if any, real knowledge of what Jewish tradition is all about. This is even more likely to be the case with Jews who have had some religious education, such as Hebrew school, but nothing in greater depth and little or no back-up for their religious training at home. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

It's easy to parrot cliches and slogans about Judaism's anti-woman bias and other supposed inequities. It's a lot harder to attend classes taught by religious Jewish men and women and learn from traditional and authentic transmitters of our heritage what Judaism has to say about life's issues, great and small. Doing so involves risks to one's self-satisfied notions, and the possibility of confronting compelling truths and the need to change opinions and practices.

Here's more evidence for my point: About 10 years ago, I worked for a Jewish publication which employed both Jews and non-Jews. At that time, I was still in the throes of my anxiety over my future with Jeff and Orthodoxy (it was a package deal). Ironically, it was Carol, a Catholic co-worker, whose own respect for Judaism contrasted starkly with the belittling remarks I often heard from my Jewish co-workers about the Orthodox community. What's wrong with this picture? I wondered.

In fairness, I can recall one Jewish friend who encouraged me. She is a rabbi, ordained by the Reform movement, and I am grateful to this day for her intellectual honesty and support. But she was the exception.

It's not surprising that secular Jews would dissuade me, yet non-Jews could encourage me towards a spirituality rooted in tradition. I don't consider myself superior in any way to secular Jews. I have learned that wearing the religious "uniform" is no guarantee of truly righteous behavior, any more than the fact of a person's secularism is proof of their lack of spirituality or morality. But I challenge secular Jews who are biased against Jewish traditionalism to think twice before making a caustic comment to a fellow Jew who is considering a higher level of observance.

Secular Jews who don't observe any of the basics of Jewish life, such as Shabbat, kashruth, and mikvah, may never choose to become ritually observant, but at the very least they should not dissuade other Jews from doing so. It's sad to think of these confirmed secularists staring at a beautiful set of Shabbat candlesticks in a glass case in a museum instead of feeling the joy and beauty of lighting those candles themselves.

It was difficult for me to be willing to discover the depth and profundity of Torah Judaism -- I was not, admittedly, a spiritual seeker. I had to confront and demolish the demonic stereotypes about a Torah lifestyle that had scared me off for so long.

Fortunately, I had my Catholic friends to encourage me.

Judy R. Gruen is a writer living in Venice. Her work has appeared in the Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Jewish Times, Jewish Parent Connection and other publications. She and her husband have four children, ages 8, 7, 5 and 3.


© 1998, Judy R. Gruen