Follow The OTDers

A few things have inspired me to revisit the Jewish faith I was long tempted to abandon.

But before going down this path, it happened that I started reading the memoirs of people who were virtually imprisoned in the Jewish community, and who made their way out. These are disparagingly referred to by religious Jews as "OTDs" - meaning "off the derech" or "off the path" of religious observance. 

They shouldn't be referred to as "off the derech." To me it looks like they are "on the path" - their personal path - a good path for them, and for the Jewish people.

I am inspired by their courage in getting out and telling their story. I am inspired by the fact that they tell the truth about what's happened to them, the humiliating truth.

It might be curious to some that I would celebrate those who have given up Jewish observance altogether. 

But it makes a lot of sense to me. In their commitment to getting out and telling others about the evils of fundamentalist religion, the OTDs are fighting a war that we should all fight. 

They are waging a war that will benefit all those who live in its aftermath.

OTDs are rescuing the Jewish religion from itself.

And they are lending strength to others, religious or not, Jewish or not, fighting related battles. 

"Look not at what people say, but what they do," my husband always tells me. 

The OTDs may say they don't believe in religion. But by shedding light on the ways in which Jewish people are oppressed by their very own Jewish clergy, they are furthering our spirituality in ways the ordinary rabbis can only pray to do.

The role of anti-religious or non-religious Jews has been critical to Jewish history. These were the Jews who founded the Jewish state, who acted to save our people from extinction and restore to us the freedom to practice religion as we choose in our Holy Land.

These Jews also saved Jews from extinction during World War II. The movie Defiance portrays this, through the different paths of two brothers. One keeps a group of Jews alive in the forest. The other joins the famously anti-religious Russian partisans who in real life played a critical role in overthrowing the Nazis.

Though they disavow religion themselves, or at least say they don't know what the truth is, OTDers are helping the Jewish religion get back to authenticity anyway. A lot of people don't know this, but "Torah" comes from the Hebrew root word, "Yareh," which means to shoot an arrow in such a way that it successfully hits the target. 

Though they don't preach any observance, OTDers in effect play the role of Rabbi Hillel in a Jewish world that has devolved to heavily on the side of Rabbi Shammai.

Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel were both what we would call nowadays "observant." However, their basic approach to the Jewish religion was diametrically opposed. Shammai emphasized the purity of ritual observance, whereas Hillel focused on the purity of human relationships.

A frequently-told story from the Talmud makes this point. 

A non-Jew is interested in Judaism but frankly is overwhelmed by it. He approaches Rabbi Shammai and says, basically, "I'm interested in converting, but I need a version of the Torah that is easier to digest than the one you've reportedly got."

Shammai, whose entire life is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the Torah, is irritated by the seemingly non-serious nature of this request and "chases" him away.

Outwardly, the rabbi's behavior might seem difficult to understand. Maybe the man was mocking him? No, he wasn't - the rabbis were clear on that.

Then what? Well for one thing, Jews are supposed to turn away potential converts, because frankly the religion asks a lot of a person. For another, we don't want to dilute authentic religious practice.

But still - "chases." That is a very strong word, and a close read suggests that Rabbi Shammai went too far. 

So the Talmud contrasts Rabbi Shammai's response with that of Rabbi Hillel. Confronted with exactly the same question, the rabbi says: 
'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.'" - Talmud (Shabbat 31a)
The conventional understanding of this answer is that we should treat each other nicely because it's the right thing to do. On a superficial scan, the Talmud offers it as if to say, you can't call yourself religious and simultaneously be mean to people.

This interpretation seems to be supported by a rabbinic discussion of the grounds for dismissing a rabbi. Ordinarily you cannot do that: A rabbi once is a rabbi for life, even if someone comes along who is technically "better."

There is an exception to that rule, though: The congregation can fire a rabbi if he is non-observant or if he is cruel, if he behaves in an "irreverent and mocking manner" (Meishiv Davar, Siman 10, via
"Rabban Gamaliel sat and lectured and Rabbi Yehoshua remained standing on his feet until the people protested and said to Hutzpit the Turgemon, “Stand!” and he stood. They said, “How long will he continue to persecute him?"- Talmud (Brachos 27b-27a), translated at 
The question comes up whether Rabbi Hillel is offering only a partial version of Judaism here. Is he dismissing that part of religion which concerns our obligations to G-d?

The rabbis say that he is not.

On a deeper level, Rabbi Hillel is saying that you should not sin - either against other people or against G-d - because your actions directly affect other people. When you sin, you cause evil to proliferate in the world. (Rabbi Yisroel Ciner via Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman) 

In other words:

If you are bad, we are all going to pay for it. 

Once you understand that, says the rabbi, everything else is just the "how."

The Jewish community is starting to wake up to the fact that abusive rabbis have run rampant for far too long, and have left massive collateral damage in their wake. 

It is as if we are waking from a very bad dream.

When we do achieve a modicum of normalcy again, when we hit that magical middle of the road, we have the "OTDers" to thank for it.

We ought to do that, and acknowledge their place in putting the rest of us back "on the path."


"Defiance" movie poster via All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.