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What can Jewish Orthodoxy teach us?

Engaging my ancestral Judaism enriches my Unitarian Universalism, despite Orthodox Judaism's condemnation of partial Jews like me.
By Elizabeth Lerner Maclay
May/June 2004 5.1.04

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I am a Unitarian Universalist in the same way I am an American—born to it, out of a colorful ancestral stew. My ancestors arrived here from Poland, Russia, and Italy within the same twenty-year span. Roman Catholic on one side of the family, Jewish on the other, I am a perfect candidate for Unitarian Universalism—which is exactly why my parents chose this faith and raised me and my sister in it. Unitarian Universalism’s religious pluralism, as so many of us have found, is a good match for American cultural pluralism.

For a long time, becoming an American meant that people shed their old family traditions and cultures and put on the glad rags of a new American self. And for a long time, becoming a Unitarian Universalist meant rejecting the religious traditions of one’s parents and grandparents. Lately, though, many of us have been trying to renew connections to our roots and honor them in our lives. But just as an interest in genealogy doesn’t mean someone is moving back to their ancestors’ homeland, Unitarian Universalists interested in older religious traditions aren’t necessarily backsliding. We simply want to know where we came from, and to integrate parts of that heritage into where we are now.

My father’s religious upbringing was very different from mine: He prayed three times a day, knew Hebrew very well, and grew up among Yiddish-speaking aunts and uncles. As an Orthodox Jew, he wore a tallis, the fringed prayer shawl, and used tefillin, small leather boxes containing text from the Torah worn on the forehead by men in prayer. Through him I am descended from a long line of rebbes, dynastic rabbis, the last of whom was crucified by White Russians in 1922 during the Russian civil war.

Raised UU, I celebrated Jewish holidays with my relatives and learned songs and stories, but that was it. As an adult, I wanted to know more. In divinity school, I took classes in Jewish history and theology and began studying the Talmud, the fifth-century compilation of rabbinic reflection and opinion considered almost as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible itself. I even learned ancient Hebrew. So it is ironic, but not surprising, that at one point my parents worried that I was becoming “too Jewish.”

But I have found that this engagement with Judaism enriches me as a UU—despite Orthodox Judaism’s condemnation of partial Jews like me. To my joy I have found other UUs with similar backgrounds. Some, like the Rev. Lynn Ungar, produce works of reflection and meditation that are among the most beautiful Jewish expressions I know. (Parts of Ungar’s 1997 meditation manual, Blessing the Bread, are available in What We Share: Collected Meditations, Volume Two, Skinner House Books, 2002; $15.) And to my sorrow I have learned from others’ stories how hard the journey from Judaism to Unitarian Universalism can be—complete with estrangement from family and friends and profound guilt about “betraying the tribe.” Lately, three books have deepened my understanding of my Jewish heritage and offer insights for Unitarian Universalists of many heritages.


Might we find ways to let some of Orthodox Judaism’s wonder, depth, and commitment inform Unitarian Universalism? Although I want to avoid the prejudices and injustices of Orthodoxy, its thousands of years of scholarship and passionate debate make me hunger for a similar richness in our own young religion.

Judaism, like Unitarian Universalism, has a reputation for intellectualism, but some of its most valuable gifts to me have been simple opportunities for action. For instance, there is the Jewish New Year phone call tradition. At Rosh Hashanah, Jews look back on the year and atone for their wrong-doing. And so every fall, right around the Jewish New Year—and the start of the UU “church year”—I call up or visit the people closest to me and apologize for anything I’ve done in the past year that wronged them. I ask for their forgiveness and if I can do anything to make it up to them. Sometimes these calls are a joy; sometimes they’re tough—especially the ones I go into blithely, thinking all is well, only to find out all’s not well at all.

Judaism treats atonement as a High Holy Day obligation, not just as an important, healthy practice; atonement is a sacred act that regards relationships as essential to the balance of the world and to our capacity to be moral, loving, creative beings. Nothing matters more. And so those phone calls are holy acts.

Halakhah, the Hebrew word for “the way,” refers to Jewish law, encompassing both religious and civil law. There are rules for everything from how to bless to how to divorce to how to conduct a legal transaction to how to observe each holiday. Study and observance of halakhah is a profound, illuminating, frustrating, and complicated way of living and thinking—those latter qualities make it easy to dismiss. These days, who has the time and attention to worry about the lawful way to clean lentils before cooking? And yet, who doesn’t wish for the time and attention to do things carefully and well? Who doesn’t enjoy the sense that nothing is more important right now, no matter how small, than doing a thing as it should be done? This is the essence of halakhah—knowledge and mindfulness.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic book, Halakhic Man (1944; translated from Hebrew in 1983), presents a spirited philosophical defense of Orthodox life. The leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America and head of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University from 1941 to 1985, Soloveitchik argues that through living halakhah, observant Jews make the world more sacred. Mixing ancient rabbinic teaching with modern philosophy, Soloveitchik cites everything from non-Euclidean math to the mechanics of God’s entry into this earthly plane in order to illumine the workings and significance of halakhah. He writes that creation, by which he means faithful human action, “is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.” Because halakhah regulates almost every sort of action, it brings transcendence to even the humblest activity. Holy living makes for a holy world—and this, he says, is the ultimate creative, relevant, religious act available to humankind.

Despite its brilliance—and gender insensitivity—Halakhic Man intrigued me most with its examples of talmudic thinking. They reminded me of a rabbinic discussion on this question: If a jug that is ritually pure and contains ritually pure liquid is poured into a vessel that is ritually impure, can the impurity travel up the downward flowing stream and contaminate the liquid and thereby the jug from which it pours? There were, as always, a number of opinions. Part of me thinks: What a ludicrous thing to debate! What an utter waste of the rabbis’ time! But another part thinks: That’s just the kind of thing I would wonder in an idle moment—especially if I were pouring one thing into another. What a blessing to have the time, and even more the charge, for serious wonder.

What important, transformative UU ideas might we formulate and share if we had time and encouragement for such thinking? There is more than whimsy in the talmudic model; for me there is beauty and possibility, and I yearn for a UU corollary to rabbinic experience and obligations.


Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, is a 24-hour period of holy, mindful living. Though it includes time at the synagogue for congregational worship, much of Shabbat is experienced at home. It is a weekly opportunity to behave as if the world were filled with sacredness, perfection, peace. The rules for observing Shabbat can be constricting or freeing, according to your perspective, but observant Jews feel that the many regulations make the day uplifting and precious. Shabbat dinners are part feast, part worship, with rituals, prayers, and songs, and central roles for women, who light the Shabbat candles and preside over the celebration.

When I was in divinity school preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I attended a Shabbat dinner with sixty fellow students and the renowned Jewish scholar Bonna Haberman and her husband and children. (Haberman was a visiting professor that year, teaching a class on feminist aspects of what I call Liberal Orthodoxy.) I was struck by the joy and deep spirituality Haberman exuded as she pronounced the opening blessings and blessed each of her children with her husband. She seemed a very holy person, and I was moved beyond words witnessing her experience of Shabbat. Even though she was the guest of honor of our Jewish student group, I felt almost as though we were all her guests.

In addition to her scholarship, Haberman is also the founder of Women of the Wall, a group that seeks to worship in the Orthodox manner with tallitot (tallises) and a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Though the women’s goal is entirely within the bounds of halakhah, it clashes with Orthodox Jewish custom—which restricts tallitot and Torah scrolls to men—and their prayers have generated riots, lawsuits, and a national controversy in Israel and throughout Judaism. Jewish Lights Publishing, a liberal and creative publisher with a long list of excellent works to its credit, has just published Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site. The book, a compilation of writings by women who have participated in the Women of the Wall movement, ranges from prayerful meditations to essays on gender and tradition in Judaism. The women’s words and their courage offer a compelling vision of what liberal, egalitarian Orthodoxy might look like.

In part, it might look more like Unitarian Universalism. Women of the Wall members are a diverse bunch: “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated and secular, rabbis and rebbetzins (rabbi’s wives), politicians, lawyers, professors, scholars, feminist activists, artists, writers, a religious singer, a dance therapist and a filmmaker.” Women active in the movement to secure a just peace with Palestine pray together with settlers who occupy land contested by the Palestinians. With such essential differences bridged, Women of the Wall is a model for dialogue, respect, and cooperation.

How might we UUs look more like them—in beauty, in spirit, in commitment, particularly in the challenge of keeping united across our own significant differences? Would that all UU congregations could hold their theological and identity differences as respectfully and lastingly. Would that UU congregations were better able to engage with faiths vastly different from ours, to work for better mutual understanding and cooperation in our country and the world.


Where Halakhic Man is philosophical and Women of the Wall documents a movement, Blu Greenberg’s classic book, How To Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Fireside, 1985; $17), is exactly what it sounds like. This is a how-to book, covering everything from what happens at a mikvah (ritual bath) to how to cook tcholent (Sabbath dish) to how to pick a yeshiva (religious school) to the challenge of refraining from physical intimacy during menstruation. Greenberg contends with all the trying aspects of observant Jewish life, and the result is an honest, humorous, and even surprisingly feminist book. Her tone is appealing and helps to lift up the beauty in halakhic household details. She writes: “Process and preparation are part of the spiritual payoff. . . . Or, more accurately, preparation is also celebration—of life, of spirit, of family, of community, even of the holy.”

The household life of observant Judaism is arduous. So when Greenberg claims it’s part of the celebration, and you’ve read what all that preparation really entails, that’s impressive. But as striking are the details she notes about halakhic awareness. In her chapter on daily prayer and blessings, Greenberg notes the many blessings that sustain and honor mindfulness on any ordinary day:

for noting the wonders of nature (Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe), on hearing thunder (. .  . whose might and power fill the world), on seeing lighting (. .  . who does the work of Creation), on seeing a rainbow (. .  . who remembers the Covenant, is faithful to the Covenant and keeps his word), on seeing the sea for the first time in a long while (. .  . who has created the great sea), on seeing beautiful animals or trees (. .  . who has such as these in His world).

The world of religious Judaism is vast, with towering figures of rabbinic authority and regional traditions and interpretations as old as the Bible and as diverse as one can imagine. I wish we UUs had world enough and time to grow as deeply and diversely as Judaism. But the blessing of our modernity is also our challenge. We are a religion largely of the here and now, and here-and-now people are forever rushing and multitasking to beat the band. Making time for reflection and discussion and resolution and documentation such as comprise the Talmud seems impossible. We don’t need our own Talmud, but we do need to acknowledge that our faith deserves more reflection and development than we are currently giving it. We cannot rely on Emerson and our other few giants forever. A faith is a living thing, and it lives and grows only as much as we feed it.

It is easy for Unitarian Universalists to consider halakhah briefly and see only its apparent constraints and contrivances, so antithetical to the autonomy we prize. These three books taught me to look beyond the rigor to see the value and beauty that are also part of halakhah, and to appreciate how Jewish law sustains two precious aspects of faithful living: community and mindfulness.

There is no Jewish movement like the desert asceticism of Christian tradition; Judaism is not about going alone into the wilderness to commune with God. Jews go as a people, the whole tribe, into the desert—not for forty days, but for forty years. And the desert is not even the point: it’s just there to be got through, together, to the life that will be shared together on the other side. Relationships are essential, sacred. Even mindfulness is experienced as a group—in the home, in the community, in the synagogue. Holy living, like the Torah, is for all. And yet Judaism also reminds me that mindfulness, even community united in mindfulness, is not the point—a truth that we UUs lose sight of when we seek just to be a successful community, just to cultivate mindfulness for its peace, wisdom, and calm. By living well and mindfully, we make the world better, we bring transcendence into this life, we bring this world closer to what it should be.


This article appeared under the byline Elizabeth A. Lerner in the May/June 2004 issue of UU World (pages 55-58). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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