A friend of mine recently challenged me to name my biggest problem with the Orthodox community. I told him he had two choices: he could take me out to the bar and pay for my drinks while I ranted and raved, or he could give me a few days to think about it and then check my blog. In a display of fiscal discipline that I both envy and regret, he chose the latter option.

While I’ve spent lots of time on this blog and many others debating Jewish philosophy, the problem of evil, challenges to Divine authorship of the Torah and the historicity of the Tanach, these pale in comparison to another issue. My biggest problem with Orthodoxy is the requirement that everyone be the same, have the same relationships to one another, to their community, and to God.

The central assumption that Orthodoxy rests upon is that there’s really only one way to be Jewish, and that’s by following Halacha – or rather, by following a system of rules that is based in halachic thinking, but which has clearly evolved beyond it to encompass many extra-halachic rules and requirement. Put another way, it is the equation of Orthodox culture with Jewish validity.

One of the best features of Jewish learning is that it is so personal. Attributing what we’ve learned to the person who taught it to us is redemptive in our tradition. It turns our attention not only to the words themselves, but to the men behind them, and when we look at these men we discover a tremendous diversity in their religious expressions.

Even as they reveal this diversity, the Midrash and Talmud also try to paper it over. In many passages they struggle with Biblical figures violating contemporary halachic norms, and they introduce novel, apologetic interpretations that recast the characters, most frequently, as ingenious halachic acrobats. Mordechai, for example, is questioned over why he refused to bow to Haman, which would have been halachically permissible. The Midrash posits that Haman wore an idol, thus putting Mordechai in a predicament. An interesting idea, but it suggests that Mordechai’s only appropriate lens for choosing his actions is the halacha.

My sense is that the Midrash and Talmud were not engaging in revisionist history and asserting that halacha was indeed the driving force in th thought process of Mordechai or any other Biblical character. I think they were engaging in an imaginative exercise to bring these long-dead figures into focus. The question is whether the the lens they used was the only correct one, or whether it was the right one for their situation. I woudl go further and say that Midrash and Talmud were ‘inside baseball’, not intended for mass consumption. The modern-day Orthodox conception of halacha as the sole arbiter of values was not even shared by the master halachicists themselves, and movement from Mussar to Kabbala to Hassidut explored other soruces of value and other normative traditions that do not emerge from the Talmud or the Shulchan Aruch.

I’m probably going to be posting more critical thoughts on Orthodoxy, but I think that they all stem from this point. Orthodox Judaism today equates normative value with halacha, and halacha with Orthodox culture. Both of these connections are suspect, and they leave me yearning for something real, something true, something that gives religious significance to my own sense of right and wrong, to my own sense of sacred and profane, to the soul within me that finds no nourishment in the Orthodoxy around me.