Crossposted at New Voices
I sense that my readers probably believe that I’m pretty liberal. In fact, I sense that it’s simply taken for granted that if we can all agree on anything, it’s on how archaic, naive, and altogether hateful Orthodoxy is.
And that’s why I’m sensing it’s time to lay down the law on why I’m thinking of choosing an Orthodox conversion.
This list is supposed to be read all together; I tried to impose some sort of emergent order to it.
1.) This campus is slightly anti-Semitic (if you’re paying attention). When we were discussing Zionism in class, one girl spoke up to say she just could never understand how the Jews could “take away someone else’s happiness for their own happiness.” I’m not an expert on the subject, but it seems that the default position is that “the Jews took the land away (ideally, forcefully) from the defenseless Palestinians and they just want what’s rightfully theirs.”
Next, I am writing a paper for another class, given the following instructions:
The paper will focus on the question of relating to other peoples.
Read Nehemiah 13. How does Nehemiah attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why does Nehemiah act the way he does? Now read Ezra 9-10. How does Ezra attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why is intermarriage such a big deal?
Read Jonah. Are the foreign sailors and the people of Nineveh depicted positively or negatively in Jonah? What is YHWH’s relationship with foreign nations according to this book?
Read Ruth. While set in the days of the judges, Ruth is almost assuredly a story from the Second Temple period. What is the primary purpose for telling this story? What does the characterization of Ruth tell us about ethnic boundaries? Reflect on the difference between the attitudes toward the foreign wife in Ruth and in the post-exilic writings of Ezra (Ezra 9-10) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:1-3; 13:23-28). Could the book of Ruth be read as a protest against the extreme emphasis on purity in the post-exilic period?
It’s clear to me that Nehemiah 13 and Ezra 9-10 are commentating on the subject of foreign nations to show that intermarriage is causing the Israelites to sin (particularly Nehemiah). There’s no “racial superiority” element. However, I’m fairly certain this is what my Protestant teacher is getting at, because we were told to write about how these texts promoted “Jewish ethnic identity”—not to mention the fact that he considers these writings evidence of “extreme emphasis on purity.” His idea, I suppose, is that the Israelites were insular, particularist, and simply couldn’t stand outside influence. I wonder how he feels about Jewish law against intermarriage today. Those Jews, why can’t they just be normal and Christian like everyone else.
Third, and less noticeable, is the way the Jewish students on this campus think of themselves. I often hear stereotypical jokes about how “Jews are good with money” among them all the time, or how “The Jews are serving FREE pancakes!”, or how they refuse to host pro-Israel events or speakers on campus, or how they are more concerned with promoting intercultural dialogue (and hosting Shabbat dinners with the Muslim Students Association) than with understanding their own religion.
The saddest thing was when we watched a short documentary film called The Tribe in my Judaism in America class, which went through the fact that Jews are 0.3% of the population, and it dramatically listed all the pogroms through the centuries, but it was awkwardly mixed in with humorous bits on how there are hippie Jews and yeshivish Jews and all the different types, and ended with this lady reading her poetry about how the Jews were attacked in every generation “now tell me I don’t look Jewish” and I was like “Whoa” and all my friend Hannah had to say afterwards was “LOL all those stereotypes are true!”
“Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.” -Jonathan Sacks
2.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to the French Enlightenment. As I learn more about the history of the splits, the more obvious it is that the Enlightenment had everything to do with it. Truth comes from reason. Look, there is nothing wrong with this statement. I’m in a symbolic logic class, after all. I know a thing or two about truth. But this “reason” came with a price—anything that couldn’t be immediately deduced via the scientific method was considered of an older, lesser era; and Jewish ritual—non-rational as it is—went along with it. The Enlightenment, along with its emphasis on reason, also emphasized universal brotherhood, “beauty,” “decorum,” and “elevated minds and spirits.” Judaism, then, started to be seen as dirty, base, and in need of revision.
Particularism, of course, had no part to play in this fraternité and egalité. This, along with the newfound freedom of the Jews in tolerant America, led them to feel assured that the ultimate way to continue living in non-persecutory lands was assimilation (i.e. universalism), and that the natural way to attain that goal would be to get rid of all those Jewish peculiarities that were impeding it. I suspect this happened without premeditation. “Reforms” happened, and only later on did an ideology attach itself to those reforms. It would be a mistake to assume that a group of enlightened people came along with new ideas of “individual autonomy” and the like and constructed reforms forthright. It’s likely that the reforms were simply emulation of Christian surroundings rather than a conscious effort to repudiate Judaism, but before long that is exactly what the reforms appeared to be. (Rabbis dressing like Protestant clergymen and calling themselves “reverend” helped.)
3.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to Protestant values. Did you ever wonder why universalism is such an important value (does “we are all one in Christ Jesus” mean anything to you?) I have a feeling that a lot of our progressive values are really just Protestant values. You can’t really tell because, as we know, America itself was founded on these timeless virtues. Case in point: Modern Biblical criticism is quite distinctly a Protestant affair, and although they are far too professional to conclude that “it was all leading to Jesus,” they have no trouble claiming the “cult” was solely meant to “keep the Israelites’ identity separate from the Canaanite nations” and that a distinction must be made between Temple “cult worship” and unregulated worship outside of Jerusalem. Moreover, these scholars greatly enjoy shutting down opposing arguments by citing other scholars and claiming that “they know the Hebrew” when only a cursory glance will show that indeed they don’t (our History of Ancient Israel teacher once wished us a “tova shana”). But I digress.
Look, the Torah isn’t meant for everyone. (I’m looking at you, 1999 Reform platform.) Its ethics, yes. Its truths, fine. But I don’t think we should pursue universalism as a Jewish value. Nor is “ethical monotheism”—”shucking the husk”—desirable. It is a Protestant value to suppose we can get to the core of the matter without ritual, commentators or authorities; by scripture alone. We shouldn’t eliminate what makes us peculiar because it’s offensive to the untrained ears of Christian neighbors (this is why the Talmud and Aleinu were abridged, and also why the early reformers decided to change some words of the service around in English). I think this is the first step in allowing ourselves to completely synopsize and compress our religion into something palatable for everyone—and the 1999 Reform platform, which explicitly encourages spiritual seekers to find their home in Judaism, does just this—which is easy when it’s pared down to universal ethics. But that’s not what Judaism is.
The most noticeable instance of this is the separation of ritual and ethics, popular in Reform Judaism. I’m still surprised that no one noticed that this is probably the most Protestant idea ever, yet it is a central tenet of Reform. The ethical mitzvot are obligatory and the ritual are not (I wonder how they came up with that?)
4.) Liberal Judaism is about concessions. This doesn’t sound very nice, but think about it. Both Reform and Conservative platforms are written so as to appeal to what the largest amount of people want to hear. It’s as if they are trying to sell themselves to the largest amount of people, offending as few as possible. The Reform platform is extremely vague, and oddly although it doesn’t allow for people who believe the Messiah will be a person, upon inspection it would seem to allow for a Jew for Jesus to join its ranks.
The Conservative platform itself is better, at the very least setting ranges, but still in practice it seems forever condemned to making mainly utilitarian decisions. Its practice for issuing takkanot for non-dire situations seems quite impetuous at times. For instance, the driving teshuva was not only made during a time when, strangely, clergymen were actually encouraging their congregants to live closer; but also it was worded in such a way so as to apply forevermore. Gone, therefore, was any impetus for a person to one day move to be closer to the synagogue. Some say that this teshuva was a good thing because people just are moving away, but that’s what I mean by concession. It’s one of the more useful “descriptive” teshuvot, if you will. But others, of course, make all sorts of efforts to allow electricity and even television on Shabbat, “provided it’s tuned to an educational channel”! This is a real teshuva, and although our Conservative rabbi didn’t agree with it, a Conservative rabbi could choose to advocate for that teshuva. This concession was absolutely not necessary.
Orthodoxy doesn’t generally provide concessions. Although with less amicable rabbis it may be a painful three-mile walk to shul on your cane, unlike Conservative responsa that allow something like driving for an entire community of Conservative Jews—truly needed by any given individual or not—Orthodoxy seems more wont to consider such cases on an individual basis. I often say that I don’t want to affiliate with a denomination that tells me I can be less observant than I know I ought to be. Where a liberal Jew, emboldened by the true spirit of Protestant values, might decide to forgo a certain observance because details don’t really matter—maybe say kaddish without a minyan or something—but if a person doesn’t make such decisions he thereby claims that Judaism is his most important valuable, and comfort or convenience is not (which confuses Americans, I think).
5.) Judaism shouldn’t need a “platform.” You may have noticed that there’s no Orthodox “platform.” There’s also no Orthodox central authority akin to the USCJ or CCAR. Reform probably gets it the worst here, with their many different (and how!) platforms, ranging from “we believe all ritual is archaic” (1885) to “we believe in studying the whole array of mitzvot” (1999). Their platforms are highly reactionary, and it seems that their goal is indeed to fine-tune their belief system with each passing generation—in as condensed a phrasing as possible. Is this discomfiting to you?
Similarly, although Conservative Judaism only has one platform, they seem unsure on where they stand—possibly they aren’t entirely sure what their stand on halacha is. (The example I always bring up is the fact that women are included in minyan even though no one’s really sure whether women are actually obligated in fixed prayer.) They too could not resist summing themselves up in a pithy saying, as if they were a sports drink—”Tradition and Change.” Conservative Judaism has also taken the strange step in distinguishing itself not only as a way of practicing Judaism, but quite consciously as an entirely autonomous branch of Judaism. As I’ve said elsewhere, a Conservative Jew would have to look at the texts through the lens of the USCJ, and that makes me uncomfortable.
My Reform professor unwittingly said it best while we were discussing the different branches and their platforms—after reading the Reform platforms and the Conservative one, we skipped a discussion on the Orthodox platform because “They don’t need a platform; their platform is the Torah.”
6.) Orthodoxy is not really the enemy here. It’s easy to believe that the Orthodox are looking down on everyone else, but I have two observations in my experiences as someone trying to be more observant in a liberal community. First, it’s very hard to accept halacha and to concurrently accept those who openly reject it; and more so since these people are encouraged by an entire institution saying that this is all right, which is unprecedented.
Second, liberal Jews certainly look down on the Orthodox as well. This is almost exclusively true for Reform Jews, I’ve found. I’ve spent time in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, and I know that the Reform people spent a lot more time disparaging our Conservative synagogue than the other way around. And they saved their worst for Orthodoxy. In Hillel, I overheard someone telling a non-Jew that “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two different religions.” It seems that the less someone knows about Orthodoxy the more they have to say about it.
But apropos to the Orthodox “looking down on everyone else,” I’m now in the position to comment on this from personal experience as well. As someone who believes that Orthodoxy is the closest thing we currently have to how the sages envisioned Judaism ought to be practiced, I find it frighteningly easy to call Orthodoxy, as the Orthodox already do, “Torah Judaism.” Still, I entirely understand that observant Conservative Jews aren’t practicing their variation out of deviancy or laziness—I simply believe that their compromises with the modern world are far too casual with regard to their handling of halacha to deal with it. One thing to be said about Orthodoxy is that it takes an extreme sense of intellectual honesty to be able to say “halachic precedent doesn’t allow us to do what we want.” (Needless to say, there have been many dishonest instances, but they haven’t been institutionalized as far as I know.)
For me, dealing with the majority of people who don’t consider halacha binding is the difficult part. Stranger still, the majority who are secular. I have a hard time separating Judaism from mitzvot and mitzvot from divine obligation; and frankly I’m a little offended that I now have to. The idea that Judaism can legitimately exist without mitzvot is new and unprecedented and came straight from the 19th century. Needless to say—and I’m personally a product of what happens when that system breaks—I strongly disagree. I find halacha obligatory, and therefore I cannot find Jewish practice that considers halacha personal and voluntary a legitimate practice. Nor can I find a system that encourages this a legitimate system. As for “looking down” on people; I wouldn’t say I consider myself “better than them,” so much as I’m just very sad about it all. (I also have to admit that I think some of it must be laziness.)
This, interestingly, combines with the fact that many liberal Jews may consider someone who is sufficiently observant “too observant,” and so every time I hear an inquiry including the phrase “I don’t have to be religious on this trip, do I?” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to be observant,” or a brazen admission that “I will never stop eating bacon/driving on Shabbat/etc.” I feel just a little more lonely in life.
I also often hear that Orthodoxy has brainwashed us all into believing that “their way is the only way” and that “there is a linear system culminating in Orthodoxy, when really liberal Judaism should have its own narrative entirely separate from Orthodoxy.” I am convinced that the idea of a linear system may be a myth; still, it is not meant to be disparaging to believe that one’s beliefs are true. That is called moral objectivism. To say that different authorities are authoritative for different communities is a good argument; to say that those authorities can legitimately and suddenly call halacha personal and non-obligatory is not.
Similar are my findings on how anti-religious and even anti-Semitic movements such as the LGBT and women’s rights movements are. You usually think of religion attacking the one, but never the other way around. Not so.
7.) Eventually, there is a divide between practice and ideology in liberal Judaism. Ideology can only get a person so far. It took me a while to realize this. Although Reform was never an option for me, I considered Conservatism for a long, long time (hence this post). It had occurred to me that many Conservative Jews aren’t practicing to their potential or even according to their beliefs, but I ignored this. When I was going to the Conservative synagogue back home, I quickly became one of the most observant people there…and I’d only been going for a year. After nineteen years of no Jewish education (I literally didn’t know mitzvah from mikveh). I’d envisioned better for those people. I simply couldn’t understand why they refused to learn rudimentary Hebrew or certain holiday basics or even the order of the service. It was all the more shocking because these were Conservative Jews, who ought to have subscribed to the position that to know those things was important. “Too busy,” they always said.
This is liberal Judaism. People are “too busy” to learn about Judaism—to practice Judaism—and that’s simply not me. Judaism has wholly and irreversibly taken ahold of every aspect of my life—how could I dare to say I was “too busy”? I am accustomed to asking myself first and foremost before ever embarking on anything how I would nourish my Jewish needs—when I buy foods, I always look at the ingredients or the kosher label. When I was considering studying abroad, the first thing I did was Google Map the nearest synagogues. I write “can’t work on Saturday” on my job applications. I deal with my caffeine withdrawal because I won’t use money to buy coffee on Shabbat.
This isn’t to say that Conservative Jews can’t do this, but I can’t imagine choosing a community where these questions don’t normally occur to people. I don’t like to have to guess whether my congregation will consider halacha important; I don’t want to feel that I ought to celebrate the “achievement” of actually finding that rare liberal congregation where people are very (and not just incidentally) observant. Nor do I especially wish to subscribe to a life where I constantly have to “teach” my peers Judaism. There’s something beautiful about living in a community where people know what to do with a negel vasser cup; and no complex theology or ideology will ever make up for the moment when a liberal rabbi has to explain to his congregants how to use it.
8.) Ultra-Orthodoxy isn’t the whole of Orthodoxy. For some reason this seems to be the biggest myth. I always hear “Orthodox” in a derogatory sense—”The Orthodox in Israel are bucking the system,” “The Orthodox don’t work,” etc. A good part of this, I’m sure, is the media. But it’s a myth that must be knocked down. I would likely associate with the Modern Orthodox crowd, namely because I am a womyn and wimmin don’t have many opportunities in Black Hatdoxy. There are bad apples making everyone look bad, really. Orthodoxy doesn’t preclude a person from being reasonable. I think that the thing that separates Modern Orthodoxy from Conservatism (and I admit I still find that the line is extremely blurred) is that in MO Torah comes first. And Conservatism, well, their motto is “Tradition and Change”—change inexplicably shares 50% of that core, and it seems that the only thing keeping “change” from being their choice dictum is that quaint and too-comfortable “tradition” is keeping them back. Orthodoxy can exist in the modern world too, but it doesn’t concede just to concede.
9.) I know there are problems with Orthodoxy. But I want to live in a community where difficult questions are answered honestly and deliberately. I know that many great books have been written by individual Conservative rabbis coming to very valid conclusions. Still, for all the above reasons I’m choosing, at the moment, to associate with Orthodoxy and face its problems from there. Although I agree with a lot of Conservatism’s outcomes (and disagree with just as many), I can no longer accept the process of how they come to such conclusions. My biggest concern, as you may very well know by now, is the role of women in Judaism. It would be so easy to simply accept the Conservative line of thinking and rejoice that I can count in the minyan and wear tefillin etc., but I can’t deny that I find the arguments wanting. I applaud such efforts as JOFA and Shira Hadasha in trying to come up with halachic opportunities for women. I’m not looking to be some housewife. But I have to be honest about it, and Judaism comes first. It’s hard to voluntarily set something as an authority and imposition over you—verily, it’s easier to say feminism comes first—but if Judaism is right than it can’t impede something from emerging if that thing is also right. I’ve been finding for the past few weeks how important Judaism is to me, how irrationally important Israel is, how hostile the outside world can be to both (sometimes inadvertently), and how outside (American Protestant) values are not necessarily conducive to my values.
Look, maybe it’s useful that all my Jewish friends are liberal. Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all the arguments against Orthodoxy; so now I can really say I know what I’m getting into.