What are the different forms of Judaism and what are the characteristics of each?

From my answer on Quora

This is pretty US-centric.

Secular/Humanist/Cultural: Kinda self-explanatory, it’s basically the culture of Judaism without the religion or halacha. Personally, I don’t really like the attempt to start “official” Humanist Judaism congregations, because I think religion is a central part of Judaism. Still, I suspect that the majority of Jews in the US are this. When someone who is Orthodox becomes non-Orthodox or “cultural,” s/he may be termed “Orthoprax” (that is, going through the motions without believing).

Renewal: I don’t know exactly what this is, but I’m pretty sure it was started as a reaction against the legalism of traditional Judaism, and an attempt to inject more spiritual elements. There’s a lot of singing/music, especially lots of acoustic guitars. Spiritual feeling is key.

Reconstructionist: This is a new branch started by Mordechai Kaplan’s followers. There’s not really an official credo out there to be found; you sort of just have to ask around. Basically, what you’ll hear most often is that it’s “what Jews do.” Halacha gets a “vote, not a veto.” That is to say that any law in Judaism can be voted down collectively by a community if they don’t want to do it. To use one example, Kaplan originally wanted to do away with Kol Nidre (an important prayer of Yom Kippur), but eventually the community decided that keeping Kol Nidre in the service was necessary to speak to their own condition. Similarly, individualism is rather important in Reconstructionism (a bit ironically, since its basic motif is “custom defines the law). If that Hebrew tattoo speaks to you, you can get it. The halacha that tattoos are forbidden in Judaism…gets a vote, not a veto (and it can get voted down!)

  • Halacha (Jewish law) gets “a vote, not a veto.”
  • Jews are only bound by the norms of the community.
  • The “peoplehood” aspect is central.
  • The view of God is very metaphorical and intellectualized.

Classical Reform: This is the Reform of the 19th century, which I’m pretty sure some older Reform Jews still follow today, whether or not they know it. ThePittsburgh Platform of 1885 outlines the basic beliefs. It was a product of the Enlightenment, and stood to do away with any “outdated laws” that would get in the way of full integration and acculturation, which was the main goal of the first platform. For instance, kashrus (keeping kosher) is now “archaic” and unhelpful.

  • Judaism is seem as mainly a code of ethics; supported by reason, not revelation.
  • Any practice that seems to get in the way of this should be discarded.
  • The peoplehood aspect is de-emphasized, in an attempt to encourage integration.

Modern Reform: Compare to the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. This is an outline of what Reform Judaism is today. The underlying belief of “ethical monotheism” and “being a light unto the nations” (via assimilation) is still there. Jewish practice is OK so long as it can be backed up with modern sources (this is my cynical take on it, although it’s not inaccurate). Recently though, some Jewish practices are being taken up by some who are starting to see their inherent value. Still, practices such as wearing tefillin or davening (praying) daily are not widespread. There is still a sense of ceremoniousness, which can be seen in subtle ways such as the idea that a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah during his or her ceremony, as s/he reads from the Torah. There is often a Confirmation ceremony that comes a few years after the bar/bat mitzvah, and is seen as a complement to it.

  • The main motif of Modern Reform is “individual autonomy.”
  • The ethnic aspect of Judaism is all but abandoned, and the idea of Jews as “chosen people” takes on a new meaning: rather than being “chosen” to receive the Torah and follow the commandments, Jews have been chosen to be a “light unto the nations,” spreading moral values, or “ethical monotheism.”
  • Practices long since forgotten since Classical Reform are now starting to be taken up again by some.

Left-leaning Conservative: Conservative Judaism is infamously seen as having two sides, the layman’s perspective and the rabbi’s/academic perspective.Conservative Judaism by Neil Gillman is a great book which (inadvertently?) lays out the building blocks of “layman’s” Conservatism. It looks a lot like Reconstructionism in thought; that is, “Judaism is what Jews do.” In practice, Left-leaning Conservative Jews (i.e. the majority of Conservative Jews) save their observance for inside the synagogue. This has been the case since at least the 1950’s. Women who would never cover their hair outside the synagogue do so inside, for instance. This isn’t surprising, given that the movement was founded around the “synagogue center,” with “ethnic solidarity” as its main focus. People gathered around the synagogue, and that was the ideal. (See Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare for more details.) In this sense, Left-leaning Conservatism resembles Reconstructionism almost completely.

  • Women can participate in the synagogue, and are able to be called to the Torah and count in a minyan. (See “Women and the Minyan” by Rabbi David J. Fine for more information on this.)
  • There is a concept called Catholic Israel, coined by Solomon Schechter, that is similar to Reconstructionism in that it defines Judaism as “what Jews do.” In effect, it replaced the desire for traditional rabbinics by the majority of congregants. With Catholic Israel governing laymen, rabbis and academics realized that the traditionalist approach was no longer respected. Therefore, around the 1950’s, a “responsa” ideal began, with key rabbis voting majority against minority, replacing the traditional Talmudic method. Importantly, both majority and minority opinions could be enacted for any individual congregation by its rabbi.

Right-leaning Conservative/Conservadox/Traditional: This is the other, more traditional face of Conservatism. It is the “rabbis’ Conservatism” or “academics’ Conservatism.” Which one is more “authentic” would have to depend on your view on whether “cult religion” or “official religion” is more authentic. Right-leaning Conservatism seems to be the ideal, according to Conservatism itself. While in reality, most Conservative congregants have a fleeting knowledge of Conservative ideals at best, Right-leaning Conservatives would like to see these ideals put into practice. They include:

  • Modeling Jewish practice on the “science of Judaism.” This is a vague concept, more of a method than a real ideology that can be put into practice. it involves using Biblical criticism along with the historical value of Jewish practices to model the community’s practice on.
  • An egalitarian community, with women having not only rights but responsibilities. In a fully egalitarian community, women would commit themselves to davening three times a day rather than the traditional two. I believe this is the norm at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Women would also voluntarily assume upon themselves the obligation of tefillin, for example. Interestingly, the above are requirements for women rabbinical candidates, although I am not aware of any real, tangible push from USCJ for womencongregants to assume such responsibility, further widening the gap between Conservative theory and practice; congregants and rabbis.

***All of the above is considered “Liberal Judaism.”***
(Not to be confused with “Liberal Judaism” of Europe, which I *believe* IIRC is synonymous with a slightly stricter version of American Reform Judaism.)

What distinguishes liberal Judaism from Orthodoxy:

  • Women and men are seated together (no mechitza), and may perform the same rituals in the synagogue.
  • Women may be ordained as rabbis, with the exception of Traditional Judaism, which is a very small institution (UTJ) without much influence.
  • Gay men and lesbians may be ordained as rabbis. The official answer to homosexuality in Orthodoxy is to “remain celibate,” as the halacha does not allow relations between men and does not look favorably upon relations by women (although it is not explicitly forbidden). Nonetheless, the culture in mainline Orthodoxy seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell” until further notice.
  • Only Reconstructionist and Reform allow patrilineal descent. They are also open to intermarriage, and rabbis may elect to marry interfaith couples if they wish to do so.
  • With the possible exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, halacha is not seen as unwavering–it is seen as constantly changing and adapting with the times.
  • Therefore, with the exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, the majority of congregants are not observant “to the letter of the law,” although this doesn’t mean that they don’t participate in the practices of Jewish life. This view of halacha is the main reason for the two “types” of Conservatism; for instance, driving a car to the synagogue on Shabbat is officially OK. However, on one hand most congregants will drive their cars not only to the synagogue but everywhere else, too. On the other hand, many Conservative rabbis still don’t drive on Shabbat. The fact that Conservative rabbis find their own halachic responsa too liberal says a lot about the movement (a lot of these decisions were made for pragmatic and historical, not halachic, reasons.)
  • The Torah is, in general, not taken literally, and Biblical criticism is accepted.
  • There is not an emphasis on rabbinical authority, and the idea of “daas Torah,” or rabbinical knowledge on all worldly matters, is all but unheard of.

Indy minyan/Trad egal: This is a newer phenomenon, harkening back to the havurah movement of the 1960’s. They are purposely not connected to any specific denomination, although the demographics most indy minyans appear to be made up of mostly ex-Conservative Jews. The practice could be placed along the liberal Orthodox spectrum. The other main camp of indy minyans seems to be more Renewal in practice. I’ll focus on the former. Some are egalitarian, allowing women to take part in all parts of the service, and others are “trad egal”–traditional egalitarian–and allow women greater roles than traditionally given them by Orthodoxy, though they are still bound by halacha (albeit liberal readings of it). An example of this difference might be: While a fully egalitarian minyan would let women lead Maariv, halachically speaking a woman cannot say Maariv for a man. Therefore, a trad egal minyan would likely have a man lead that particular part of the service.

  • These are small, community minyanim not connected to any denomination.
  • They are often characterized by egalitarianism and social justice.
  • Many participants come from educated, day school backgrounds.

Open Orthodox: This looks a lot like trad egal in theory, with its main emphasis on greater women’s participation. It is a fairly new development, led by Avi Weiss et al. It is characterized by an “openness” to secular education etc. Biblical criticism is fairly well received, with organizations such as the Drisha Institute teaching it alongside traditional Jewish sources. Women are tentatively beginning to serve in official capacities resembling that of ordained rabbis, with the most “controversial” title being rabba, given to Sara Hurwitz in 2010.

Modern Orthodox: This is a slightly less “open” Orthodoxy, which is less insistent on more inclusive roles for women. Its flagship institution is Yeshiva University in Manhattan.

  • Modern Orthodoxy is currently grappling with its place in the secular world. Two current examples of this are how to face the presence of the large amount of singles in a marriage-heavy culture, and how to face homosexuality.
  • Secular knowledge and education is valued.

Yeshivish: This is a very traditional form of Orthodoxy, often known as “Black Hat.” Its emphasis is on traditional yeshiva education for men, and the role of wife and mother for women. Men often wear suits and women wear long skirts, although even within this subculture there is a large amount of variation. Halacha is strictly kept.

  • Innovation in halacha or lifestyle are not seen as positive, with many refraining from reading secular books or listening to secular music.
  • Secular education is less valued, although some may attend more Jewish-friendly colleges such as Touro College in Brooklyn.

Chasidish: I admit that I don’t know much about this. Chasidism is often seen as the more “spiritual” counterpart to Yeshivism, although compared to Modern Orthodoxy they are similar to each other. One main difference is that Chasidic Jews often follow a rebbe, who serves as a kind of spiritual leader. Within Chasidism there are many groups, the most well-known being Chabad Lubavitch.

ohel sarah: a break in our regular programming

The majority position is that women don’t say kaddish yatom. The minority position is that they may. ArtScroll ‘paskens’ that it’s ‘generally frowned upon’. They are adamant enough about this that it’s mentioned at every opportunity. The thing is, there’s this book that I have called the Torah. In it there’s this commandment (Shemot 22:21-23) that God seems pretty serious about. It’s called not tormenting widows and orphans. Isaiah (Chapter 1 – it’ll be the Haftarah in a few weeks, and it’s a pretty ugly one) had a lot to say about people who were concerned with their own personal worship (in those days, sacrifice; today, prayer) to pay too much attention to the widows and orphans. Isaiah compares their insensitivity and selfishness to that of the destroyed city of Sodom. I don’t know about you, Reb Art, but I try to make it my habit not to ‘frown upon’ orphans. You want to take a position that women shouldn’t say Kaddish? Fine. But to generate a sense that one who does is doing something wrong, and to insure that any woman who does will draw the glares and frowns of everyone in the women’s section who happens to be using this siddur, well, read your own commentary on Chumash. I know, the Stone Tanach isn’t up to Yeshayahu yet, so we can’t expect your readership to be familiar with it.

- ADDeRabbi, 2005

don’t judge me i’m on rumspringa

I’ve been doing this since I was about 18 or 19. That’s really weird to think about! So far “all of my adult life,” as they say, has been Judaism-themed. Or, at the beginning, philosophy-themed and philosophy of religion-themed. It’s very strange! I wonder if other people’s lives have themes. Probably not. I mean, if you got really into your major your life could become themed. I was really into theater for a while and I guess that kinda became a theme. I just assume that people pick majors that they don’t care about that much (English is a popular default), and that’s it.

I’m just more into Judaism, academically speaking at least. That has been exponentially exploding into an all-consuming hobby. Jewish sociology. I asked for Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism for my birthday, and The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World and Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution for xmas. (Last xmas I asked for some halacha book I’d found on feldheim or something.) It feels quite strange to still be reading so much about it when I’m all otd now. The BORDERLANDS! It’s like cultural appropriation now.

It’s kind of stressful because I am still a Jewish Studies major. Well ok, it was still weird even then. Especially when jews would ask me: “So, what’s your major?” “I’M STUDYING YOU PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Just awk.

So I’m on rumspringa. I mean i know I haven’t made a completely clean break, as evidenced by the fact that I’m reading Orthodox by Design right now. But no one’s really mentioned it as much as I thought would happen. Of course, there was my friend’s “So you’re not Jewish anymore?” which couldn’t have been worded more terribly but whatever. I guess if people see you wearing pants they pretty much assume and don’t have to ask questions.

I’m feeling the pressure both to go back as it were (because of my jewish studies degree like what else am I gonna do), and to never do that again (which is both external and internal, mostly internal because I don’t know how I got to the way I was and I don’t know how I’d go back to the way I was…also, not being FFB is a huge strike against your future happiness and integration, at least in new york).

I always kept saying I “didn’t like institutions,” but I have to admit that without certain institutions (drisha, hadar, and i’m just assuming NHC and perhaps pardes among others) I wouldn’t really have much reason to try anymore. And maybe that would have been a good thing.

Might as well keep plowing on and stop over thinking it..

Kratsmach post: Three year anniversary!

This leads to the obvious question at this time of year as to whether there is a heter to pronounce the name of Xmas, as opposed to Kratzmach or some other such corruption. It is exceedingly difficult to function in the modern workplace without uttering this word.

Aishdas. I love it.

Anyways, I started blogging Dec. 25, 2009. It was a fateful day. It was a philosophy blog on posterous.com. I didn’t know what blogging platforms were then, apparently. Here’s my first post! Maybe it was my second. It’s from Dec. 27, and I could have sworn I started on Dec. 25. Oh, well.

And I wondered why no one read it.

I am such a shape-shifter I don’t know when it will end. My sister told me a couple of days ago: “You always change your interests!” The RCA rabbi told me: “People your age frequently change interests.” Well, he was right. I’ve changed my major like 6 times and I’m still in the middle of changing my minor. From Music to Women’s Studies to Computer Science. I didn’t even like Computer Science until a couple of weeks ago, and now apparently I like it enough to make it my minor.

 

Language at Drisha (Language for all)

Crossposted at Jewschool

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lot of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

“i got no choice, i got no choice at all”

I said I was gonna leave Judaism forever. That’s pretty funny. I was hoping to avoid all the questions. It didn’t really work. How could I even begin to explain? I don’t even know how to explain it to myself. Then I decided I would just be cultural, you know like the people I used to think were so lazy, I made latkes.

But life with religion is much stranger. Judgmental OCD people who use religion as an excuse to boss you around. Ladies who daven weird next to you in shul and you make fun of them in your mind but then you feel guilty but then they look over at you with glaring eyes cause you’re not singing the songs and you go right back to making fun of them in your mind. Feeling like EVERYTHING that happens to you must have a rhyme and reason…but trying to figure it out gives you an angry headache. Feeling guilty all the time over everything. Wondering why you put yourself in a community that’s 70% retired people and 30% really, really “normal” people who like to wear earrings and floral print dresses on shabbos. And sometimes velvet house robes. Not being able to cook for three day yontifs because your roommate takes over the stove, even though you don’t care at all and would cook all yontif long if she wasn’t home. And being with people who literally can’t stop talking or thinking about religion for ten minutes was really a culture shock, even though I was and possibly still am that person.

-Me, circa October 2012

I found myself wanting to go around the block for another round. I don’t know why. Maybe cause I’m in the same environment I was in where this all started; if I couldn’t handle New York then how do I know it’s not just me being an exhibitionist where I know I’m the only one so I can really do whatever I want all day long? It’s a different set of rules when you’re somewhere where there are, like, other Jews who actually know what they’re doing etc.

Here’s something stupid. I know this is stupid; that’s why I’m saying it actually. I remember when I first came to W&M and I was still trying to find a room; I remember deciding the logistics of davening in front of a roommate. (And by roommate I mean roommate, not housemate.) Would I wait till they left? Would I tell them what was going on? I had decided I would just daven in front of a roommate. And I thought about it a lot. And I started to get pretty excited about it. I don’t think I knew how to differentiate “being a complete religious exhibitionist like the worst of the worst” and “doing necessary administrative details because there is no private realm and there is no public realm.” And I decided I was a terrible showy ostentatious person, look at me not only being a flaming BT but being a flaming BT in front of the goyim like that is just plain pointless really, and then I wondered why the christians tried to talk to me about it all the time.

I guess it was disgusting but necessary part of the journey to be like that, I look back now and I was really flaming and judgmental, at least I know I wasn’t the only one in the world. It’s always extremes with me. Of course I was gonna try to leave Judaism forever. (EDIT: I was so hilarious though!!!)

I kind of knew immediately that wasn’t going to happen.

It’s weird to think about.

I’m writing a book, by the way. No, really.

It sounds so dumb. I know it does. For one thing, why am I so sucked in? Also, I think I had a pretty solid theological reason for leaving religion forever? How can I just crawl back cause I’m remembering how good it was? What about the bad times, eh? Do I have to feel bad now about all the bad things I did before?

Does this mean I’m back on the derech now? I’m not keeping kosher or anything. I’m really not doing much except for a bunch of solitary contemplations.

I want to daven again but I don’t know if or how I could go back just like that. Would the whole cycle start all over again? After all, I’m about to start W&M in January…aaaaaaaaaaall over again. (Well, OK, i’ll be a senior this time.) Why am I doing this?

So I want to daven again but when I get in the mood it’s not even zman anymore. How do you deal with that one? I don’t know what to say without my siddur, man. I’m not gonna start saying maariv anyways. And then what? If I do that do I have to start getting up for shaharis all the time again? I can just see it all over again…the cycle of guilt (“oh no I didn’t get up for shaharis!”) At least it’s not like last time where I didn’t know what I was doing so I felt like it had to be more methodical. I really, really, wanted to get into the habit of getting up for shaharis. Maybe that was what was stressing me out. Well nonetheless, I’m not so methodical these days of course.

And then what? Do I have to start keeping kosher again? Maybe just sort of (I like those steamfresh vegetable and cheese sauce packets, dammit). Should I, like, bentch again?

I already did hanukkah, really just cause it’s like the light of my childhood, not cause I’m trying to be religious. I don’t want to rush into things. After all that, you know. I don’t even know what I’d do first if I wanted to try to be frum again. What’s even the point anyway. I live in RURAL VIRGINIA!

I like Nick Cave; I don’t even care.

I love tzitzis and glitter and skateboard helmets, I love them especially all at once

“Where are my presents?”
“You got your present.”
“What present?”
“That the Hanukkah Man gave you.”
“That thing from last year?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve been gypped by the Hanukkah Man!”

So, I came across this picture:

poo

Those were good times, yet terrible times. They were the best of times and the worst of times.

I look at myself and think: “Why didn’t they ship me to hadar immediately?” Then I think: “How did I get to a place like w&m?” Then I think: “How did w&m get someone like me?”

Want to know what those pins say? They say: “Moshiach, we want moshiach now” and “Tzitzis, we want moshiach now.” They were a gift, OK? (Once, a guy in Prospect Heights saw one of my pins and said, “So, you want moshiach, huh?”)

I don’t try to be eccentric, you know? I am a walking collection. For instance, my mom got me a skateboard helmet for my birthday and so I was sitting there like derp listening to Matisyahu wearing my skateboard helmet. And now I have glitter because the “hanukkah man” aka my mom gave it to me aka she re-gifted it from when I didn’t want it last hanukkah. Also, I collect stickers on the back of my computer. Look closely and you can see a real live leopard.

DSCF0152

DSCF0154

I don’t want tzitzis to be a fashion accessory. I don’t want it to just be a part of my collection of things I seem to acquire. But I know from experience that–unless you’re a halachically jewish orthodox man–there’s absolutely no threshold you can cross where you won’t still be questioning your motives. (I say orthodox cause it’s not really expected so much outside of orthodoxy.)

Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether I’m just trying to have a fashion accessory, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. When I look at a woman with tzitzis I don’t think: “She just wants a fashion accessory.” I think she must be really dedicated to put herself out there like that. I look at that picture of me and I think “Why was I so hard on myself?!” If it were someone else in my situation, I would have judged them favorably. If they showed that kind of dedication, I wouldn’t have done all that, like, pilpul. I wouldn’t care what their lineage was, either.

I’ve had friends who consider themselves gentiles converting to judaism, and I’ve had friends who consider themselves jews converting to judaism. I think the way you see yourself makes you see your conversion quite differently. Maybe it was being in new york, but I don’t think you can dismiss subjective experience so easily anymore. There’s no “official answer,” which I was in denial about for a long time. Of course, though, not having a right answer doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. I’ve known people who wanted to convert–who believed they had jewish lineage, even–but whose resolve and tenacity I doubted. Oh, don’t think I don’t still judge people! If someone told me they wanted to wear tzitzis and then in the next breath told me they’ve decided to follow Jesus/the Buddha/whoever, I will probably doubt their dedication.

But I also have friends who are converting, whom I wouldn’t doubt for one second, and whom I treat as jewish.

This, so far, is working better for me in everyday life than my outdated system of judging people solely by halachic standards as if I were their conversion rabbi. A conversion rabbi, of course, is concerned with the integrity of the system, but this is sometimes to the detriment of a person’s psychological well-being. I know this well. I can’t know which way of looking at people is the right one. Maybe I really am compromising the integrity of the system. But if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, all we can do is guess. And if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, we can’t exactly feel bad about making a best guess. That goes for anything, really.

And that’s all well and good.

I don’t know what all this means for me, though. I don’t know my own motivations most of the time, but I tend to believe that I should (like most of us, I presume?) And so I analyze it to death, a sound and fury signifying nothing. If I wanted to wear my tzitzis again, it’d have to go beyond “which mitzvos a non-jew can do” and “what does patrilineal mean philosophically.” It would have to go deeper. I’d have to enter a whole new system. I know I can’t be orthodox, and I know I can’t be conservative, reform, or recon either. It’s kind of an open field right now. Everything is free for the taking. I could be anything. I could be renewal (I’m not). I wish I didn’t have to convert (and therefore pick one…currently it’s RCA and currently I don’t want to change that). I wish I could just be. You know, in the margins. Like I do. I don’t feel like a convert. I don’t want to continue acting like I’m converting. I don’t want to be a gentile. I don’t want to be a righteous gentile. I davened like a jew. I learned gemara like a jew. I went off the derech like a jew. I came back like a jew.

Something has to change here.