Keeping it real.

On a recent post, Diplogeek commented:

 I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it kind of interesting that you’re investing this much time in tearing apart the movements that would happily accept an openly gay or lesbian person for conversion while defending the one that, at least right now, is least likely to do so.

It made me wonder: What or whom am I against? And do I owe something to the progressive movements for their stance on homosexuality? I’ll try to answer both of these questions.

I’m a pretty analytical person, so possibly what I see as “unbiased investigation,” others see as “tearing apart the movements.” What I might consider “thoroughness,” others might consider “investing too much time.” Recently, I’m getting a lot of complaints about my writing, and I don’t think I’ve changed. I don’t think my readership has changed. My subject matter has changed a bit. I used to write a lot on Orthodoxy and women, and now I write a lot trying to figure out for myself which denomination I align with.

And guess what? You’re along for the ride! You, my readers, get to experience every inconsistency and dead end as I do. This experience may make me appear quite hypocritical, “mean” even. “Why are you criticizing Conservatives so much when only a month ago you were about to apply to JTS Rabbinical School?!” My basic policy is “If you see something, say something.” What I think, about Orthodoxy or JTS or anything else, changes often, but eventually I’m supposing it will reach a synthesis.

And I also write about various aspects of this journey. Sometimes, when I say something about my synagogue, it really only is about my synagogue. And sometimes I say something about my synagogue, and it represents to me a broader issue. It can be confusing. It’s confusing for me too much of the time.

Now, then. Am I trying to “tear apart the movements”? I wondered. My first instinct was to say “Of course not! They are all useful and important, without any one of them their constituents would be astray!” But then I realized, Maybe I am trying to tear apart the movements. Maybe they’ve overstayed their welcome, and maybe they’re becoming vast bureaucratic American institutions with things like headquarters and Committees. And they are all against each other. And they’re all vying for numbers. And all they really want is survival and expansion, like any good institution, whether they’re doing any good with it or not.

I do want to tear apart the movements, in the sense that I want them to be able to be evaluated rationally without someone coming from behind and going “You just hate that denomination! You think it’s not real Judaism!” I want the movements to be made to evaluate themselves by objective standards. I want them to do better. Much better. I can’t take them as they are, and I can’t honestly say that “They are all equally good and all their specifics are equally valid.” Perhaps I’m biased in that I think there is one Judaism, and the movements are all sort of based on it. Platonically, I might even say none of them are Judaism, since they are all interpretations of that. (It’s sort of like how there’s this sense that to do anything Jewish on our campus, we have to ask our Hillel first. You don’t have to ask Hillel first. To do something Jewish, you don’t need to go through a denomination first.) Therefore, I find no problem in criticizing any and every movement as harshly as needed to get to the core.

It’s the difference between “pluralism and unity,” as Samuel G. Freedman puts it. One side is ready to accept almost any view for the sake of shalom bayit, and the other wants a unified group, so long as the group has an identical ideology. I think it’s dishonest to accept any movement no questions asked. If it’s leading people away from what Judaism is essentially, either by calling mitzvot an “obstruction” or failing to provide education or anything else, I don’t find it important to try to keep it alive against all odds. If you see something, say something.

So maybe that spills over and starts to sound like I’m criticizing Jews personally for my problems with their movements. But when I complain, for example, how the person next to me is reading so slow cause they never learned Hebrew, I know I’d take time out to help that person learn Hebrew in a second if they wanted (and I have). You guys don’t see that part. I’m not against the person, I’m against the fact that the movement doesn’t have proper Hebrew education, that it’s too busy emphasizing the synagogue center to educate its members. I note the fact that Sunday Hebrew school has proven to ultimately be a failure. The kids in the Hebrew school aren’t the failures. The system was.

I have no stake in the movements. If Conservative and Modern Orthodox become Conservadox, I will be fine with that. If Orthodoxy breaks in two, which I don’t think it will just by structure, I will be fine. Because, like I said, it’s not Judaism that’s breaking in two. The movements are labels people put on what they’re experiencing and putting a List of Principles on a package of their experience. The Conservative movement, for instance, went something like fifty years before it officially became a movement. Since they’re not living and breathing to me, I’m not frightened by the prospect of looking at them from every angle. I read books about them. I learn their sociology and their history. I see them as an outsider might. It’s nothing personal. They’re just constructions to me.

That being said, what do I owe them? What do I owe Reform for accepting my patrilineality? What do I owe Conservatism for accepting homosexuality or equality for women (on paper, at least)? There are times when I want to reject Orthodoxy for knowing they will probably never really completely accept me, but when I think about it I know I wouldn’t want to be non-Orthodox, just for my own theology and frankly, for pragmatic reasons. (“In 2010, only 9% of adult members of Conservative congregations are under 40.” -2011 USCJ Strategic Planning Commission.) Should I stop criticizing the non-Orthodox movements just because I should be grateful they’re kind enough to tolerate me? I’m glad people do, don’t get me wrong, and I secretly love when people would confess that they considered me Jewish “despite what the rabbi thought,” but I know I can’t join a movement that accepts me when I don’t agree with the method by which they came to accept me. It’s the problem of an analytical person.

The reason I’m still “clinging” to Orthodoxy despite the imminent rejection is because it is my belief, basically. I won’t say any more than that, but if you continue with my idea that all the movements are just replications of the form of Judaism then how could I drift from my own beliefs (best, though not wholly, represented by Orthodoxy) just because the movement won’t ever fully accept me? It’s quite a predicament, as you can probably imagine. But joining the Conservative movement instead wouldn’t exactly solve the problem, though maybe superficially.

If I believe in patrilineality, I won’t convert at all, that’s only natural. If I believe that someone can be a feminist and still be functionally Jewish, I’ll do whatever I can to try to become halachically Jewish. My beliefs will always be mine no matter which movement does or doesn’t accept them. That in itself might be “hypocritical,” since obviously if Orthodox rabbis don’t want a gay or feminist candidate, just thinking you can legitimately be that and a viable candidate isn’t a very Orthodox belief. But is it a Jewish belief? That’s my concern. Does it make me suddenly Conservative? Do you see the arbitrariness?

Whatever rulings and laws we have RIGHT NOW that are labeled “Orthodoxy” are going to change. That will come and go. But Judaism doesn’t come and go, and I think what is Orthodoxy NOW best represents that Judaism. I know if you’re not Orthodox and you’re reading this you probably disagree.  I know you’re probably saying that “halacha evolved” and “all ways are equally valid.” And I can understand that viewpoint. This isn’t to say that you have to BE Orthodox to be Jewish or you have to BE Orthodox to be practicing “real Judaism,” though at the same time I do think that there are practices that don’t represent Judaism well. That doesn’t meant I want a cherem, it just means I don’t think it’s accurate to say that calling mitzvot optional, for example, or the way certain changes were made, is representative of Judaism. That is very different from saying “there’s only one way to follow the law.” There’s one law, and many ways to follow it. But not following it, for example, or being blithe about it, is another matter.

But basically, it’s not about the movements. It’s not about which community is more likely to accept me. I care about Judaism and I care about people. And I care about truth. And if I say something in the future that you think is “rude” or “elementary school” or “dickish” or that I “lack ahavat yisrael,” come back and read this post again. And if anyone else says I “lack ahavat yisrael,” I will refer them to this post. Cause arguing in a circle isn’t the way.

One thought on “Keeping it real.

  1. And do I owe something to the progressive movements for their stance on homosexuality?

    Not necessarily, but I do think you probably owe something (even if it’s just basic respect and common courtesy) to the non-Orthodox rabbis who have taken the time and energy to help you out, whether it’s with the bat mitzvah you had or by answering questions or by letting you crash their conversion course. I don’t think you showed a lot of that in your last post, frankly. And you keep saying, “Oh, I’m just joking around, it’s not personal,” but if I were one of your rabbis and stumbled upon that, I don’t think I’d take it that way. It probably would seem pretty personal. But hey, maybe they know you have a blog and have already read it and don’t care. As I said before, it just struck me as a dick move.

    And let’s be honest: would an Orthodox rabbi waking up one day and saying, “Hey, you know what? It’s totally in keeping with halacha for someone to be openly gay. Bring on the gay converts!” be consistent with the history of this one, true strain of Judaism that you keep talking about? For good or bad (almost all bad, IMHO), I would say no, probably not. But you don’t seem to have a problem with that, because ultimately, it’ll get you what you want. That’s the part I find hypocritical.

    Sometimes, when I say something about my synagogue, it really only is about my synagogue. And sometimes I say something about my synagogue, and it represents to me a broader issue.

    And sometimes, you don’t have any way of knowing whether what you think is the latter is, in fact, only the former, because your experience with the broader community is limited. That’s my main point. Again, take the post that prompted my comments. It’s not titled, “Stuff my rabbis say.” It’s titled, “Stuff liberal rabbis say.” You’re taking things you’ve heard from, what, two rabbis? Three? And attributing to the whole of the liberal Jewish community. When multiple people who live in other places posted saying, essentially, “Uh, never heard any of my rabbis say that stuff!” you tried to attribute it to “midwestern tolerance,” whatever the heck that is- I’m hoping it was a joke. But this is what people have been saying all along: it’s great to read and research and come to conclusions based on that research. Hell, I’m reading Kitzur Shulchan Aruch right now, and I’m certainly running into some… interesting stuff. But if you never see how it’s implemented on a larger scale, if you never actually experience it firsthand (or acquire a sufficient range of experience to know what’s just your rabbi and what’s a community-wide problem), it’s going to be a little hard for people to take you completely seriously.

    The Orthodoxy stuff is the same; one of the commenters on your New Voices post said something like, “Your understanding of Orthodoxy is incomplete and dreamlike,” and that was someone frum! And I think he’s right. You’ve never been in an Orthodox community, last you mentioned it, you’d never davened at an Orthodox synagogue, and while I get that you’re saying that on a theological level, Orthodoxy makes the most sense for you, I notice some of the same problems there that I see when you discuss liberal movements. Sort of, “If I can just get to Boro Park, it’ll all work out!” when realistically, there are some major complicating factors here that it seems like you’re happy to gloss over in favor of remaining in Orthodox fantasy land. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s part of what I find disingenuous.

    Since they’re not living and breathing to me, I’m not frightened by the prospect of looking at them from every angle. I read books about them. I learn their sociology and their history. I see them as an outsider might. It’s nothing personal. They’re just constructions to me.

    Except when you say, for instance, that you wouldn’t accept Reform conversions as valid (which you said in your comments a while back, I think the ones on the Orthodoxy post), it becomes personal to a lot of your readers. When you post something that reads like, “Oh, Liberal rabbis are such idiots, aren’t they, with the way they have to overpronounce Hebrew and explain every little word to their am ha’aretz congregants,” people read that and think about their own rabbis. That’s personal. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that if someone printed out that list and handed it to your rabbis, they might take it a little personally. Sure, the movements are just constructions, but there are some major issues (conversion amongst the biggest) that are tied up in those constructions, and not just because Reform and Conservative Judaism made it that way.

    It’s the problem of only a very analytical person.

    So the people who disagree with you or point out that whatever your intentions, you often come across as much meaner and more hypercritical than you might think just aren’t sufficiently analytical to understand what you’re about? Come on. You’re not the only well-read person when it comes to Jewish subjects. People can have legitimate reasons to take a step back and say, “Wait a second, that doesn’t match my experience at all.” Which is the point people have been trying to make: it may say XYZ in a book, but that doesn’t mean that every single community is that way.

    I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s bothered me so much about this stuff, and I think I’ve figured some of it out. Aside from questions of tone or whatever, the one thing that every rabbi has said to me about conversion, irrespective of movement or hashkafah, is that in order to convert, you must like Jews. Not just like them, you have to love them. And a lot of time when I read this blog, especially when you talk about Jews with attitudes more liberal than your own, you sound like you love Judaism, but you don’t sound like you love your fellow Jews very much. I don’t think that’s actually the case, but that’s how it reads to me (and it’s possible I’m entirely alone in that perception). I’m not someone for whom everything is rainbows and skittles all the time, so I get it, but if everything is negative all the time, if everything is a criticism, I don’t think that’s great, either. That person with the slow Hebrew? At least they’re there. At least they’re using the Hebrew to try and get better. And while you say you’d help them, do you actually offer? Do you start a Hebrew class at your shul? You’re very impatient with people who aren’t as erudite as you when it comes to Jewish knowledge, but the logical question that comes from that is what you’re doing about it. I mean, honestly, I wouldn’t want to sit next to you in shul for fear of doing something wrong and turning up in your next blog post as a poster child for the inadequacies of my denomination, and I daven every damn day, just about.

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