DeaRAbbey’s First Post: Religion, Reality, and Bizarre Questions

by Yaron Gottlieb

Since leaving school, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life learning in Israeli Yeshivot (Jewish religious seminaries). This was interspersed with studying for tertiary degrees in Australia, and I always seemed to survive the culture shock between the places.

But returning to Australia, a newly ordained rabbi, after spending last year in a Jerusalem Yeshiva (seminary), I felt the shock for the first time.

I had moved from an Ivory Tower (or at least a Jerusalem Stone Tower) back into a community where the Jews were vastly different from the ultra-orthodox and religious Zionist people I had interacted with all year. It took a while to remind myself that Australian Jews, for the most part interact freely with the world around them.

I had come from a place where the Yeshiva’s ISP carefully filtered out nasty sites before they got to the end user. Sites like the Australian Open were considered unclean, although the other Grand Slam websites were considered kosher.

At least the filter kept me away from abominations that could pollute my mind, such as The Sensible Jew blog (no really: it was blocked!)

Of course, living in Jerusalem, there was a world outside the walls of the yeshiva and I could have engaged in all sorts of naughty activities, but there never seemed to be a good reason for me to leave the building.

My room was on the top floor, and was essentially a greenhouse. The roof was plastic, the walls were flimsy, and the summer heat was encouraged to build to something like the inside of a volcano. But I could escape that easily by simply going downstairs to the heavily air conditioned study hall on the ground floor.

The kitchen and dining halls were also on the ground floor, so that if I had wanted to use the lift to and from my room I could have lived the ultimate life of the philosopher, never having to do any real exercise ever.

Then Australia happened.

I returned here from a place where I was just another student, who felt dwarfed by the immense knowledge of my rabbis (one of whom I was convinced knew the entire Talmud by-heart) to become a leader.

It was no longer about working in an ideal surrounding, but rather, how to navigate the reality.

It is obvious why so many people wish to remain in the yeshiva system and not have to face the world. The ideal is tempting: access to the best available knowledge, nothing to worry about except study, no distractions, and nothing to challenge the Yeshiva worldview.

It is comfortable.

It is easy.

But it is not real.

On arrival in Australia reality had to be dealt with.

The reality is that not everyone keeps Shabbat (Sabbath) according to Jewish law. Not everyone takes extraordinarily long times for prayers, if they take time at all. Most people are not even familiar with the most basic Hebrew-Aramaic terms.

Oh yeah: and women exist in reality as well… and here there’s acknowledgement of GLBT people.

This sudden burst of what actually exists in the world has done nothing to dampen my feelings about the religion.

I remain devoutly Orthodox, and nothing can shake that. But the way my beliefs manifest themselves in response to actual events or people is remarkably different. In yeshiva there is no need to compromise. Here, there is no alternative but to find ways to accommodate a variety of experiences within the Orthodox framework.

I’ve had to learn that there are ways to embrace the world without abandoning religion. If anything, the two work best hand in hand.

Challenges to any system (including a religion) can do one of two things: If that system isn’t strong enough, that challenge can exterminate it. But if that system has internal strength (as I believe Judaism does) questions actually illuminate the path to a better understanding of the issues.

This is what coming back to Australia has helped do for me.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am open to questions and challenges to what I believe, and I would be happy to answer some of them here on the blog, just as I’ve had to in real life since my return. I’ve really enjoyed chewing over questions from Jews and non-Jews alike.

Some questions are more bizarre than others (for example, a group of drunk non-Jews in a bar were interested in the Jewish laws of sexual purity, and were very creative in their suggestions for how to get around such laws).

I love asking and being asked questions, because it’s only through dealing with such challenges that we can grow and strengthen ourselves as Jews in the real world.

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7 Responses to “DeaRAbbey’s First Post: Religion, Reality, and Bizarre Questions”

  1. Daniel Levy says:

    Hi Yaron!

    I have a question that might flesh out a good bit of debate.

    What do you think we can do to repair the rift between the secular and orthodox sections of the Australian Jewish community?

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  2. Simple Jew says:

    very well written …

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  3. confused says:

    Dear Rabbi,
    I bet you’ve heard these before but I never got a good answer to any of these questions. Could God make something heavy enough that even he couldn’t lift it. I’m a good person so why is God making me go bald prematurely.And why would God design girls so they only like assholes.

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  4. Benji says:

    Dear Rabbi,

    You raise great points about the role of Jew outside of the yeshiva environment. What can be done to help better intergrate yeshiva boys into mainstream society?

    I for example am uncomfortable around GBLT Jews, and I blame my insulated orthodox background. How can I confront the issue if I still live in a closed orthodox community?

    Shabbat Shalom

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    • Interesting. What makes you feel uncomfortable about us? How is this discomfort exhibited? Do other things make you similarly uncomfortable?

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    • benji says:

      To Michael…

      What makes you feel uncomfortable about us? How is this discomfort exhibited? Do other things make you similarly uncomfortable?

      The fact that the Torah explicitly states its opinion of gay sex. I’m uncomfortable as to how to relate to others with a belief system so different than mine.

      On a personal level, a friend of mine who told me he was gay, proceeded to grab my inner thigh and ask me if I wanted to experience everything. I’ve barely attracted a girl until I was married, and having a friend make a move on me, made me think that he was a little off his rocker. I’ve projected my uncomfortable feelings on an entire population of gays.

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  5. Yaron Gottlieb says:

    I am sorry to all those who have commented, that I have not responded, but I have been working on a post to respond to each of the questions.
    I hope to have the first one up any day now, with the rest to follow

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