It's not the roof above my heaď that's keeping out the rain
It's not the doctor's medicine that takes away the pain
It's not because of my hard work that I'll do well again
It's the One who was, and the One who is, and the One who will remain.
(Pulling Strings by London Girls' Choir)
People think the line of demarcation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is Shabbat observance. And for the most part, at least on a practical, obvious level, this is true. But there is another philosophical aspect at play that I have found to be huge line of demarcation as well. Granted, the line is not drawn as clearly in the sand (some non-Orthodox Jews believe in this too, whereas some Orthodox Jews have a really hard time with it) but I've found it to be a barrier in conversation and understanding.
True story a friend told me:
My daughter went to Israel after graduating high school, like so many Jewish day school students do. I did not have any kind of a formal Jewish education and knew nothing about seminaries or yeshivas. I had heard many girls talk about different seminaries, but had no idea how one was different then the other. So when it came time to choose a seminary, my daughter did the investigating on her own. She decided on a seminary in Har Nof that turned out to be a great fit for her. It was a small school and the girls were very close with a lot of the faculty. My daughter often had Shabbos meals at her Rabbis’ or Rebbitzens’ homes. My daughter also forged a close relationship with her Aim Bayit (dorm mother), which was like an RA (resident advisor) when I was in college.
My daughter had been accepted to a college in New York City, deferred for a year and was planning on starting her college years right after her year in Israel. It was getting towards the end of her year in Israel and she asked me if I would be open to her returning for another semester. I was so glad that she was enjoying her seminary and seemed to be gaining a lot from the experience. I was happy to send her back for another semester.
First year ended and she was home for the summer. It turned out that the college which my daughter planned on attending in NYC had a campus in Jerusalem. My daughter decided to take two college classes in addition to her seminary classes when she first returned to Israel. The class schedule worked out fine and she was all registered. The only problem was that the college classes started earlier than the seminary classes and the seminary apartments were not going to be open until two weeks after she got back. She didn’t know where she was going to stay for those two weeks.
The dilemma was solved quickly. The Aim Bayit, Sarah Leah Silverman, lived two blocks from the school and said she could live with her until the seminary apartments opened. My daughter was just about to go back to Israel and an old friend of mine from 7th grade saw on Facebook that my daughter knew Sarah Leah Silverman, so she asks her how she knew her. My daughter explains the relationship. My old friend then tells my daughter to ask me if I remember Shari Teitzman. I said “Sure. We were friends during my high school years. We knew each other through a youth group and had friends in common. We spent a week of our summer at a camp together and we even sang a duet in a talent show together."
Well, it turns out, Shari Teitzman became observant about 30 years ago and started using her Hebrew name. Years later she got married and was known as Sarah Leah Silverman. So the woman who my daughter had built this relationship with, was an old friend of mine from over 30 years ago. There was no way of me making the connection, and Sarah Leah had no idea that the young woman she befriended was my daughter.
My daughter finished seminary, made a life direction change, and ended up making aliyah. She now boards at Sarah Leah’s home and they are extremely close. What incredible hashgacha pratis.
This story expresses how a [fill in your favorite term: frum, Orthodox, religious] Jew thinks. It's the belief in Divine Providence, called in Hebrew "hashgachah pratis/t." In Maimonides' epic Thirteen Principles of Faith, the generally accepted list of philosophical bylaws for an Orthodox Jew, it's #10. It includes:
1. The belief that God is aware of the small details of your life (omniscient)
2. that He has the power to intervene and manipulate events just for you (omnipotent)
3. that He cares enough to do so (all-loving)
4. that everything He does is good (all-good).
(In fact, as Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith of aish.com observes, anyone asking "why do bad things happen to good people" is using these four truths as a premise. If any of these are not true, the question disappears. More on this later.)
There does appear to be, at least according to some, a "sliding scale" on personal attention that any given human being will earn. Leviticus 26:21 warns, "If you act toward me with an attitude that everything happens by chance, I will respond and allow the forces of nature take their toll on you without any intervention on my part" (SR Hirsch's explanation). Meaning, that if you try to see God's hand in your life, He will show it more and give you more personal intervention.
What I've found interesting is two-fold:
One, the angst that some Orthodox Jews experience with this philosophy and its corollaries, and two, the instinctive nature of some non-Orthodox Jews to embrace this (it's for sure popular, in fuzzier form, in yoga), despite the fact that the Conservative and Reform movement officially reject it [addendum: the Conservative Movement does not officially reject it. See comment section below.].
At least I think they do. You won't it find it here or here (except briefly in Reconstructionist Judaism), the top two Google search returns to "reform, orthodox, conservative beliefs." When I tried to find out more I got a lot of Christian sites and stuff about George Washington (?). I base my words on things I have heard Reform and Conservative rabbis publicly state, although I do have a hard time figuring out why this information is so elusive on the web. It seems from what I've observed in my own life, Conservative Judaism deals with the question by stating that #2 above is untrue - that God cannot actually control everything [note: this may be the views on individual rabbis, and not a movement-wide belief. Again, see comment section.].
In any case, I live my life with this belief. The parking spot that just opened? God loves me! The store that closed right as I approached? It was meant to be. Everything happens for a reason. The investment that went sour? It wasn't determined for me on Rosh Hashanah; it was never mine. That guy that dropped my friend when she though they were getting engaged? His basherte is someone else.
You can see where this philosophy has the potential to bring a lot of serenity its wake. And to the really tough questions, like cancer, holocausts, and mental illness, what can I say other than I've seen adherents to this philosophy pull through and draw immense strength from this belief. To those who feel it strongly, it's a balm for life's ills.
I would like to request that this post not become a forum to angrily address where God has wronged you in your life. I will not publish comments that speak disrespectfully to me or to God.