Being Unorthodox in an Orthodox World

By: Chaviva Freedman  |  May 9, 2017


It’s a Monday afternoon. I sit in the cafeteria, drinking my second cup of coffee for the day and catching up on the latest episode of Madam Secretary that I missed the night before. As I take a sip, I look around at my surroundings. Everywhere I look, I see the “same” girls sitting down, eating their salads, talking about the stereotypical young, Jewish girl issues—their GPAs, who is dating whom and which girl from their seminary just got engaged or married. It shouldn’t bother me that they are all dressed alike, but for some reason, it does. There’s nothing that seems strikingly different about each girl I glance at, although I’m sure there’s something there if I took the time to talk to them.

It seems to be a recurring theme that not one girl in the Orthodox Jewish community is different from one another—emphasis on the word seems. It seems like they are all Bio majors, looking to get the grant for Stern College students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They all seem to worry about their best friends getting engaged before they do. They all seem to want to be the picture-perfect “Good Orthodox Jewish girl,” but failing to adhere to all the rules, although they give the impression that they are upholding them. But is it so wrong to not be the perfect person? Is it alright to be a little unorthodox while still maintaining your values?

I start to think about who I am inherently. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home, with a TV and access to movies and theater. I went to a Modern Orthodox yeshiva for my formative school years. My father received semicha when I was seventeen, so I am technically a rabbi’s daughter. I am shomer shabbat and shomer kashrut. Although my twin brother studied in Israel for the year, I chose to go straight to college, something that some people in Yeshiva University can’t fathom doing. I have my struggles with trying to figure out what religious level of Judaism I choose to live by, something that ironically didn’t start until I came to Stern. I choose to wear pants, something that a small group of people at this university physically turn the other way for. I don’t worry about getting engaged, because frankly, I’m not ready to start dating. I’m more concerned about getting a job after graduation than about what ring I am going to receive for my non-existent engagement. I choose to be accepting of all types of people, rather than surround myself with the same type of person. I could go on forever about my choices, but either way, I’d probably win the same prize: “Bad Orthodox Jewish Girl.”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one definition of the word orthodox is “conforming to [an] established doctrine, especially in religion.” The Orthodox Jewish community has come to believe that the word refers to how tzniut your outfits are, whether you keep Shabbat, the laws of kashrut, or whether you go to synagogue every week. The Orthodox community has come to accept that, in order to be a practicing Orthodox Jew, you need to live by an arbitrary set of rules that you only follow because you need to keep up with the people surrounding you. It’s a contradiction that we really need to consider. I think about this concept a lot, probably more than I should. I don’t know why this bothers me so much—it shouldn’t. I grew up in it, and I should see no problem in being Orthodox… But I do. Every day, I question what it is to be an Orthodox Jew while still being me.

I learned to view Judaism as something that shouldn’t be “black or white”—you either do this or you do that. I wouldn’t have a great relationship with my dad’s side if I did. Our religion shouldn’t have any labels, although we often thrive on what level of Orthodoxy we’re on, or where our family is from, or who our family knows that could help us find the perfect shidduch. We shouldn’t conform to what we know/grew up with and never question our beliefs. What we really need to do is be unorthodox while still being Orthodox. We need to question what we think we know. We need to be accepting of everyone and their ways of believing in God. We need to be supportive of one another, despite our differences. In a world that often hates others for being different, we should form a community and protect our fellow brothers and sisters, despite clashes on world or religious views. Although I will admit that I’m not a saint, I do try (keyword: try) to be understanding of everyone’s methods of religion, even if I personally don’t agree.

Back in the cafeteria, I hear my name from a distance and I glance away from my TV episode. I see one of my closest friends approach me for our planned lunch date. From the outside, we couldn’t be any more different—she is dressed like the girl I described previously, and I am in a pair of jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, with no patience to put together a nice outfit for the day. But underneath appearances comes a friendship forged from the first day of our university years. We look past our differences and look at what makes each of us unique, which is exactly the type of person I need to be around. Our views on religion may be different (she is a little more “to the right” on the religious spectrum than I believe I am), but our friendship was never based on that. It’s based on loyalty, trust and acceptance of the other’s beliefs, without questions or expectations to be different.

Maybe at some point there will be a way to merge the unorthodox and the Orthodox views. Until then, I will continue to question my values and go through trial and error until I gain my own beliefs.