I should probably begin by saying that if my mother were ever to see this title she would have a conniption. Come to think of it, she’d probably be mortified if she knew I had a blog. My friends and family as a whole would also probably be pretty shocked by this title. But, read on and draw your own conclusions.This is a post that I should have written a while ago, but one thing led to another and I ended up pushing it off until Am I A Frum Feminist (Check it out!) reminded me that I was advertising for all the world to see that I am Orthodox, rigidly halachic, and yet not frum, without any form of explanation. I owe the idea for the title to her latest post Why Am I Still Frum?, although, to be clear, we’re not disagreeing. So here is my explanation.
The first reason that I don’t identify myself as frum is a simple matter of definition. Orthodox has a fairly straight forward meaning. It is derived from the Greek word orthodoxos which means "having the right opinion" (from orthos ("right", "true") + doxa ("opinion"). According to this, I am not only Orthodox with regards to my Judaism, but Orthodox in all respects, including my views on true humility. However, regarding my Judaism, I think most would agree this refers to believing in Rambam’s Sheloshah-Asar Ikkarei Emunah (13 Principles of Faith). Rigidly halachic is also fairly easily understood. It means that I keep halachah to the best of my ability. And I don’t use that phrase in the sense that Karl Marx used it (“From each according to his ability”, which invariably leads to no one truly contributing according to his ability.), I honestly mean to the absolute best of my ability. Are there areas with which I struggle? Obviously…as there are for everyone, but when it comes down to it, I keep halachah.
To adopt a gemara phrase, tzrichah, it was necessary to write both “Orthodox” and “Halachic” as I know individuals, and I’m sure you do too, who are Orthodox but not currently halachic, and some who are halachic but not Orthodox. And those categories are deserving of a post themselves, but back to the gist of the matter.
The term “frum” is not so easily understood. Technically speaking, it derives from the German “fromm” meaning devout/pious. But, in common usage it seems to refer to a quality above and beyond that of Orthodoxy or halachic adherence. Having searched the shulchan aruch and the gemara, I feel fairly confident in saying that the term appears in neither, nor, to the best of my knowledge, is it defined in any work belonging to the Rishonim. What this means, is that it is a word lacking a clear definition that has become a tool used to slander people who are both Orthodox and halachic. Now, fine, upstanding Jews who are Orthodox and halachic can be pejoratively labeled as not frum because they do not subscribe to the latest meshugas, whether that be the Indian sheitel crisis or the New York drinking water scare. So, simply speaking, I refuse to identify myself by an indefinable term. From Migdal Bavel (The Tower of Babel) to George Orwell’s 1984, the power of words and common definitions has always stood at the root of a functional society, and to ignore breaches is both foolish and dangerous. John Milton predicted, "When language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and degradation." The same holds true for a religion and society.
The second reason that I don’t identify myself as frum is that I believe that authentic Torah Judaism has been replaced by a vague and ephemeral fashion, namely frumkeit. I could write whole tomes on the subject of how frumkeit differs from authentic Torah Judaism, but this post is already reaching a dangerous length, so I will identify only one point of difference.
As explained at length by Rav Hirsch among others, authentic Torah Judaism encourages active involvement in the world. Hebrew uses the same shoresh (root) for the word “holy” (kodesh) as it does for words referring to our relationship with women and wine (kedeishah/kiddushin and Kiddush). The message is that unlike Christians, we do not flee from physicality and involvement in all aspects of the world, rather we are mikadesh the world, elevating it. The holy man of Torah is one who relates to the whole world passionately in a holy way. Not one who does not relate to it the world all.
Compare the "Mainstream" vision of the yeshiva bochur with that of the Torah. Yakov is the Tora's yeshiva bochur-the ish tam yosheiv ohalim, sitting in the beis midrash, a masmid and a yarei shamayim. But look at Yakov's other abilities. He defeats his more worldly brother reclaiming the birthright that should have been his. Executes and enforces a brilliant and binding contract with wicked uncle Lavan and becomes wealthy. Wrestles with an angel (he must have worked out at a health club!) and negotiates a peace with Eisav. If there is one underlying theme of Yakov's life, it is the ability to handle any situation by challenging it on its own terms and subduing it until it conforms to a Torah blueprint. He meets Eisav on the level of politics, diplomacy and warfare. Lavan on the business level, the peasant shepherds with sheer physical strength and courage, Pharoah with dignity and wisdom. Each time he displays competence and produces a kiddush hashem. This is why he is the first to bear the name Yisrael. Because he could grapple with human situations and with Godly situations and emerge victorious. You will probably agree with me that the picture of the mainstream yeshiva bochur you envisaged at the beginning of this paragraph doesn't quite match up to Yakov.
We in the "frum" world take the general bumbling incompetence, the affectation of complete ignorance of the secular world as a mark of a Tzaddik. That's not a tzaddik--it's a "wimp"! Can you see many of our so called yeshivishe people walking into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange without making total fools of themselves. Yakov avinu could have, and he is the Torah's paradigm of the yeshiva bochur. Can you see a yeshiva guy take on a few New York street hoodlums? Yakov could. Could a rosh yeshiva emerge a millionaire from a transaction with a Wall Street tycoon? Yakov did. We have absorbed a non-Jewish image of a Tzaddik. We can no longer tell the difference between a tzaddik and a "wimp".
To personalize this, I am kovea itim every day and daven with a minyan three times a day. To be honest, with the demands of medical school and running a small business this is not always easy. However, I will admit that several days a week I show up to minyan wearing jeans and riding a motorcycle. I'm an avid fan of country music and the opera, I do not wear a black hat, and I work out daily. In much of the frum world’s opinion, this is enough to classify me as frei (not frum). I hope you will agree with me that this is insanity. What relevance should my mode of conveyance, style of trousers, music choices, headgear, or physical fitness have on my status in the Jewish community? But this mindset is precisely what frumkeit and the usage of the poorly defined “frum” encourage and enable.
Rav Amital, of Gush, recounted that his grandmother would say that frum stood for fiel rishus uveinig mitzvos, full of evil and few mitzvos…I think this is a bit extreme, but really lament that it’s no longer good enough to just be a God-fearing, Orthodox Jew who is shomer torah u’mitzvos.