Men being “nice”: another look at partnership minyanim

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
The Men’s Section

Crossposted at Jewschool

The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!

Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.

Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.

Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”

Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:

  • Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
  • Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
  • Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[…]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[…]may be democratic and tolerant[…]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
  • Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
  • Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.

“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[…]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”

  • A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
  • Idealization of masculinity (224):

“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.

More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[…]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[…]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[…]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.

[…]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”

Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.

Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles (222), men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice'” enough to give women a “corner” or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go. Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of tefillah.

how much does it cost to be jewish? (reprise)

I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life
Jewish Women Watching

Crossposted at Jewschool

Original, lesser post here

I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.

“Store closing! Store closing!”

blue_ribbonI wandered around, people rushing past me. Yogurt? Should I buy yogurt? Cheese? Tuna fish? There were no prices on anything. I had been putting off food shopping until the last minute, and I was paying for it. Blue Ribbon was the last place open that late erev Rosh Hashana.

I had to think pretty quickly. This particular year, I was going to have three days to fill with food. Imagine coming up with a 3-day menu for one on a budget…when there are no prices on anything. And I had to buy something.

I hastily went over to my safe zone–the challah rack–and picked up a round challah and a pack of six rolls, deciding which would be a better buy. Could the round one really be cut into six equally substantial pieces? People were pushing up against me while the “Store closing!” character kept bellowing somewhere in the depths of the store.

I picked the rolls. They’d last me about two days. A $4 choice, cash only.

The fact that there were no prices said to me that I was the only one worrying about the cost of things. Figuratively, though, everything has a price tag. Who knew that Jewish living could have so many material trappings?

On Yom Kippur, I heard enough pledges to the shul in the amount of $613  (or “eighteen times three,” very clever, guys) to last me a lifetime.

And Sukkos made completely transparent what had been perhaps inadvertently hidden. My street was lined with people selling esrogim and tinsel and bird cages. There was a sukkah store competing with another sukkah store across the street. And of course Eichler’s was right there, too. You got the sense that if you wanted to participate, really participate, in Jewish life, you had to be ready to shell out a whole lot of money for the requisite commodities.

The 2001 NJPS study shows that the median income of Jewish families was about $54,000 (compared to the $42,000 national average), with over one-third of households having an income of over $75,000. I can’t be certain, but I think my own family’s income growing up probably hovered around $25,000. The basic line is that “the Jewish working class has all but disappeared,” but that’s not true. Unfortunately, the Jewish community seems to be set up as if it is. Of course there is aid available; yeshiva stipends and gemachs and the like. But being the recipient of such aid, just like in secular society, puts you in the periphery of Jewish life. In other words, if you’re constantly eating in someone else’s sukkah, you’ll never have a sukkah to call your own!

Most of the discussion has centered around the costs of synagogue membership and day school. Indeed, the required costs of day school etc. for a family with children is estimated to be about $30,000 a year. But the costs go well beyond this into everyday life–particularly where it can. You can wear a hair covering or you can wear a $2,000 sheitel. You can buy your clothes at department stores or you can buy them at the special fancy $30-per-one shell store. I’m sure there is community pressure, at least I sensed it by living off Avenue J and trying to walk down to the subway with my ripped denim skirt from Goodwill when everyone else got their nice new clothes from Tznius Princess or who knows where.

Same with food: I could buy it at Blue Ribbon aka No Listed Prices R Us, or I could go all the way down to the secular store in Union Square instead. Oftentimes, a regular, national brand would be missing from the kosher store in favor of its more expensive Israeli counterpart.  I can’t afford a $16 lasagna just because it has a special hechsher from Israel. I can’t afford to be selective with hechshers! If that’s not some kind of community pressure I don’t know what is.

But I knew if I had wanted to participate, really participate, I’d be buying those Israeli brands, not going to Union Square.

So how much does it cost to be Jewish?* Here’s an answer:

Another dimension to be measured is the cost of Jewish living as a percentage of total income. The members of the Orthodox Jewish community, which comprises about 10 percent of the total Jewish population, have on average accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other Jews. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast in their commitment to day school education, trips to Israel far beyond the frequency of other Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camping experiences. At the same time, they have more children per household than other Jews, keep kosher with its concomitant higher costs, buy special clothing free of shatnes, and, for the Ultra-Orthodox, purchase wigs for women’s hair covering. Given all these additional expenses, the Orthodox or traditional practitioners spend 25 to 35 percent of their available income for Jewish living, often at a sacrifice of more adequate housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, and the acquisition of savings.

-“The Costs of Jewish Living,” 2008

The community sets the standards.

American Sociological Association: United Jewish Communities. 2003. National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01. New York, NY: United Jewish Communities [producer]. Storrs, CT: North American Jewish Data Bank [distributor].

Bayme, Steven. Bubis, Gerald B. The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers. American Jewish Committee (AJC). 2008:

*I know, “How Much Does It Cost to be Orthodox” is more accurate, but it doesn’t sound as good.

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.

Intermarriage: An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis

Crossposted at Frum Satire

An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis:

You say you’re against intermarriage, you know there’s a 50% intermarriage rate, and you know some kids who come out of those marriages aren’t going to be halachically Jewish–maybe 30-40%. So, about 15-20% of all Jewish marriages will result in non-Jewish children. You say you’re against intermarriage, but what are you going to do about it?

I’m one of those kids. I got lost in the system. To be told by someone that you’re Jewish one day and to be told you’re not the next, well it’s pretty disconcerting, if you can imagine. And as much as I’d like to believe the former, I’ve decided to convert. I’m tired of wondering in which contexts I can call myself Jewish, and in which contexts other people would be offended if I did. I’m tired of wondering whether the words of the Torah were meant for me or not. I’m tired of having it implied that the God of my fathers doesn’t want my davening. I’m tired of thinking that’s actually true. I’ve been trying to convert since I was nineteen, but I keep running up against you.

I like to think I’m doing the right thing, you know. Next to all the halachically Jewish kids my age, for whom you are happy if they just light some candles on Shabbat or something, I’m gladly taking on a whole lot more. I don’t know about them, but I have the extra burden of knowing I’m the only one in my family left to keep it going. I’m here. I’m ready. Heck, I’m even completely willing. And yet–I get no compassion. You don’t even notice. In the halachic world of categories and laws, I have no category. I fell through the cracks. Do you care what happens to me? Am I a part of klal yisrael? If so, what do I do about it?

Nothing would make me happier than having you tell me you’d like to see me convert because it’s my responsibility as a part of the Jewish people. Instead, it’s as if you hope I don’t mention it too much. It’s as if you simply cannot tolerate the subject, so instead you always come up with the same line: “You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish.” And the conversation ends. And I feel terrible. And you don’t notice. Your hands are tied, you say. Just be patient, you say.

My request isn’t that radical. I’m not asking that you accept patrilineal descent. Hey, I’m with you: my childhood was a perfect case study of the mixed messages kids get from an intermarriage, and therefore I’m against it because intermarriage caused this.

I’m only asking two things, and I think they’re pretty reasonable: Make it easier for people like me to convert, and stop reacting with such horror when you hear the term. It’s not a “death sentence” for continuity unless you make it one. Look, I’m on your side. I want to do this the right way. Why make it so difficult? There’s a lot of people like me out there, and I bet the number is growing. Ignoring it isn’t going to help you, me, or us. Telling me that I’m 100% a gentile and you couldn’t care less one way or the other whether I convert or not is pretty hurtful, you know. I know it’s easy to say it anyway, especially now that it’s an “issue.”

I want to know something. What do you suggest I do? What would be ideal? Do you want me to be Reform? Convert to Christianity, maybe? Would that be convenient for you? Do you really think keeping the children of 15-20% of married Jews alienated from Judaism is going to be a good thing? I didn’t choose the religion of my parents, but I am choosing what I do next. I love Judaism, I’ve never had another religion, I don’t want it to die in my family, and I don’t believe you really do either. So, can you help me out here?


A Patrilineal Conversion Candidate

The side of conversion they don’t tell you about

Crossposted at New Voices

With one day left of school now, I feel I must reflect. What they say about this school is true, you know — people really do sleep in the library, and it is hard to make friends. Really, two of my only friends here include the rabbi and the Catholic priest. It’s kind of interesting. They actually give me advice in life. For example, they agree with me when I want to graduate a semester early or do a Jewish Studies major instead of a Religious Studies major. And you know? Sometimes it’s good to have people occasionally reinforce your crazy ideas when no one else will.

I do have other friends; they just tell me I should wait to graduate and stick with a more marketable major. Nonsense! I know what I want in life. There are lots of things I could do next spring if I graduated early—why do I need to be here? Behold: there’s PardesWUJS, the Conservative Yeshiva, I could intern at a Jewish non-profit, I could move to New York. I could do a lot of things.

But you know what I hate? I’m chained. Why? Wherever I pick, I ought to be thinking about staying there for a couple of years. That’s what converting does. You have to pick a place and stay there. If I want to intern in Washington, DC next summer, the first thing I think is: “What if I finally find a good community there? Should I just stay and convert and just take the old Amtrak to school a couple days a week? Is that hasty? But I wanted to live in New York! (whine)” I’d feel like a bad candidate if I went to a rabbi going “I like this place, but I want to go to Israel in a year and maybe go backpacking and never come back, sorry.” (You get the feeling you can’t be Jewish and on the go.) It almost makes me not want to live in a city I know I probably don’t want to live in forever…even just to intern. And that’s a little morbid.

I don’t think those conversion books mention the horrid period of gestation wherein you’re in between “making the decision” and telling your rabbi about it. (For me, there is no rabbi.) I think I’m there. And it’s disorienting. It’s disorienting when everyone around me is telling me that it’s not so bad. It is bad. The only people who agree are an Orthodox rabbi and a Catholic priest.

But alas, there’s an even darker side of conversion. I’m glad I got so many comments on my last post, but I started to see something that I sort of latently suspected anyway. When you convert, as you may know, you have to pick a denomination. If you’re not sure which, a good way to decide is to pit them against each other and make bad jokes and tongue-in-cheek observations about the ones you think you may not like. It doesn’t matter if they’re exaggerations or caricatures; that’s good! Conservatism is a country club! Orthodoxy hates women! If you’re wishy-washy, how can you ever pick one? And remember—you have to pick one.

Do you see what’s happening here? I can’t just pick an Orthodox conversion. I must implicitly say in turn that non-Orthodox conversions are invalid—otherwise, why would I go through the trouble? I must say there’s something wrong with the others; that those with liberal practices are metaphysically doing it wrong. No matter how I feel about that, there must be absolutes in conversion.

I think it’s hardest for Orthodoxy because Reform can use theology to get out of the argument, and Conservatism can use certain platforms such as egalitarianism, but once I pick Orthodoxy I must also be giving up anything good there might be in Conservatism. I must implicitly be saying that I don’t believe in women’s rights, right? Or that I agree with all the theology that guides Orthodox practice.* Someone once told me I didn’t seem “at peace” with my decision. I agree. I can’t be, because no denomination is a pure, unalloyed Judaism. There are good and bad features about each. I don’t like the idea of settling into a denomination. I’m picking the best option. I mean, geez, there’s only three (or four, for you sticklers…and two already accept me).

Picking Orthodox over Conservative was one of the hardest (yet clearest) decisions I’ve had to make, but in a sense it doesn’t matter that I’ve made the decision. My theology is the same! I don’t suddenly hate liberal Judaism. A friend asked me how I could still stand to go to JTS after I’d just said Conservatism is so wrong. You know what’s wrong though? The fact that I had to come up with a list of things that are wrong with liberal Judaism in order to justify my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. I stand by my list, but look at the divisions it causes! Conversion can do that. Conversion makes you pick one. It makes you pledge allegiance to that denomination—forever.

*I don’t mean Sinai. Hasidic thought, frighteningly, guides some normative practices regarding women.


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.

One of these things is not like the others / One of these things doesn’t belong

Crossposted at New Voices

Did you know? Hillel elections are coming up, and as per planned, I’m running. They’re a mess, as far as clubs are concerned. I even talked to our rabbi a few days ago (under the guise of interviewing him for our newspaper), and he confirmed that our Hillel is a “Jewish affinity club” and that I should run etc. It made me feel pretty validated. I called my friend and we came up with a game plan—her idea being to get enough friends to run to corner the market and overturn Hillel leadership and make it great. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger.

But then I started worrying about our current Hillel president and her possible dislike of me. Why? Oh, I know. She hates my tzitzis. I notice these things. Every time we go to a Hillel event, she tends to stare at them like they’re snakes and I’m not really sure if she’s aware of her utter distaste or what, but my friend suggested that possibly she—and other “Hillel Jews,” as I’ve taken to calling them—can’t handle someone who’s both religious and not a crazy Haredi, i.e. it’s outside her sphere of knowledge. To them, you must either be secular or, well, crazy. I did indeed overhear a Hillel member explaining to a non-Jew, “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two separate religions.” Reform, of course, being the normal one…and Orthodox being the unexplainable one, possibly involving witchcraft.

This explanation makes some sense to me, since the culture here is chiefly secular and I might even venture plainly anti-religious—”We can’t do that; that’s too Jewish!”—the same Hillel president who said that “We’re not like the religious groups on campus. We’re a different sort of group.” It doesn’t get plainer than that. Anyone who is “too Jewish” is either Haredi or insane, and in any case just not someone to be reckoned with.

I remember at the beginning of this year I was worried that my appearance would bar me from making friends. I mean you enter a college in the middle of the summer when everyone’s wearing shorty shorts and you’re wearing tzitzis, you start to become aware of things. But anyway, I’m realizing this is probably a longer-lasting struggle than how Hillel feels about tzitzis. The same friend and I went to some fancy restaurant a couple of days ago, and for this scenario just assume the fact that I’m unaccustomed to fanciness in the first place, so I was wearing jeans etc. and gawked at all the people who actually put the napkins on their freaking laps, but anyhow, behold.

I usually say my brachas and stuff and not feel self-conscious, because I don’t really hang out in fancy joints anyway, and I’m not too worried about what tourists in the coffee shop think of me, because they all love W&M students and I feel like we’re part of the scenery naturally anyway. But when you’re in a fancy place you kind of feel like you’re on display. You have to be decorous. You have to wear your napkin right and order right and so on and so forth. And it seems as if anything out of the ordinary should warrant a big spotlight, so yes when you whip out that bentcher the whole world is watching. Same for asher yatzar which I will never stop saying. It’s just not decorous. It’s like, save that stuff for home, you know? Oh, and tuck in your tzitzis because it might hit someone in the eye.

It’s odd, but I can see, even in 2011, how the striving for decorous reform in the 19th century easily led to a patterning of Protestant forms of worship and behavior. Where religion is inward and seemly and, well, no cause for fuss. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh no. Not here. It’s time to be dignified.”