I am not the likeliest person to write a critical response to Jonah Rank’s March 31st article “Opening up about Open Orthodox Misogyny.” I am neither a rabbi nor a rabbinical student, nor have I ever considered becoming one. More to the point, perhaps, while I have never firmly identified with any of the main Jewish denominations, my trajectory of affiliation has followed a fairly straight course from Orthodox to non-Orthodox communities, a movement motivated largely by my dissatisfaction over the role of women in Orthodoxy.
My parents, both of whom grew up in the conservative movement, joined an Orthodox shul in part so that my brother and I wouldn’t be the only children around when Simchat Torah fell out on a school day. By the time I was a teenager, however, I wasn’t staying around for Simchat Torah dancing anyway, resentful of trying to make the most of a half-hearted women’s circle while the men danced joyously with the Torah. If my parent’s decision reflects a failure of the conservative movement, my own reflects a failure of Orthodoxy: while I always enjoyed a rich Jewish family life, it wasn’t until I started attending traditional egalitarian minyanim as an adult that I really felt comfortable in a larger community.
Faith and Consequences
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to respond to Jonah Rank’s piece, because there is something left out of the above account. In discussing my own and my parent’s choices, I’ve mentioned community and comfort; family and observance. What I haven’t mentioned is faith.
Perhaps this is unsurprising – because Judaism places such emphasis on practice and law, one can spend years, maybe even a lifetime, as an active part of a Jewish community without paying much more than lip-service to the theological underpinnings of his or her actions. Most readers of this post have probably read essays and books by ex-Haredi Jews that speak about the cognitive dissonance of living a life of such oppressive restrictions while questioning the most fundamental assumptions behind that lifestyle. But there must be many more, in Haredi communities and outside of them, who never ask the question at all, who find fulfillment (if not always uncomplicated fulfillment), in the world they’ve grown up in and the practices they’ve embraced without asking whether or not God really wants them to keep refraining from kitniyot on Passover because Ashkenazi leaders once worried that we might confuse lentils with barley.
In saying this, I do not want to disparage the value of practice for its own sake, and of course the absence of conscious acceptance of a specific theology does not imply that there may not be theological, as well as cultural and sociological, benefits to practice. I am far from sure that the prohibition of work on Shabbat is a divine decree, but my observance of Shabbat has nonetheless been an important part of my relationship to Hashem, not to mention my relationship to my family and community.
Yet, the particulars of belief are important precisely because they do and should influence our practice.In my own case, I remember, around the age of my bat-mitzvah, first being struck with the awareness that I didn’t believe in Judaism and the Torah in the way the discourse of my Orthodox shul seemed to take for granted that I did. I believed in God; I valued our traditions; I saw in the stories of the Torah a combination of foundational myths and what I hoped desperately was a historical record of human encounters with some form of the divine. But I just couldn’t accept that the word of an omnipotent and eternal G-d would be so coincidentally aligned with the values of the ancient world, especially on issues involving women and homosexuality. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t like what God was saying – I don’t particularly like Yom Kippur either, and I still fast – but that I couldn’t believe He had said it.
To some Orthodox people, this doubtless represents a failure on my part, and I accept that. But I hope that those people also understand, even if they pity me for my lack of faith, that I cannot be faulted for following the beliefs I do hold to their logical conclusion: absent a belief that I am acting in accordance with God’s commands, there are not only practices that I won’t follow, but that I can’t.
I keep Shabbat for a complicated set of reasons, one of which is, simply enough, that I love it. I daven with my minyan, if I’m being honest, more because I value being part of a community than because it routinely makes me feel closer to Hashem, but I say the shema before bed each night, and the traveler’s prayer when I fly, and the shechehiyanu during certain new experiences because I do have a relationship with and a desire for Him. And I don’t eat kitniyot on Pesach because I am, as my recent 23andme results tell me, 94.1 % Ashkenazi, and it would just seem strange to me to eat rice at a seder after all these years of not doing it. But I will not deny myself the opportunity for full participation in the ritual world because of premises I not only don’t believe in, but that violate my secular sense of ethics.
The Other Side of Tolerance
Yet, my expectation that others respect my beliefs and the ritual consequences of them cannot be entirely one-sided. I don’t fully understand people who believe that the Torah is the direct and unerring word of God at Sinai, but then, my atheist friends don’t understand my faith either. And so I ask myself, what if I did believe it? What is a person to do – a decent, compassionate person, with genuine love of both God and the people of His creation – if he or she believes, absolutely and completely, that an omnipotent God is the sole author of the Torah and remains unconvinced by the most permissive of modern halachic rulings?
It is not an easy question. But every time I consider it, the answer I arrive at is something that comes very close to Open Orthodoxy, a movement that seems to be trying to stay true to a sincere faith while also accounting for the lived experiences of its practitioners. That doesn’t mean that I assume that every one of the movement’s positions is theologically pure – in fact, in the case of the decision to grant women the title of “maharat,” we have clear evidence against any such assumption. Yet, these concessions to the complex realities of Jewish denominational life should not detract from the worthiness of the effort to mindfully reconcile traditional belief to the realities and ethical understandings of the modern world.
I am not by any means trying to let Orthodoxy, Open or otherwise, off the hook, here. First of all, if certain otherwise indefensible behaviors can be justified by faith, it also follows that they can be justified only by faith. I’ve known people who define themselves as modern Orthodox who daven once a week at best, do not keep Shabbat or kashrut particularly stringently, and dress more or less indistinguishably from the average non-Jew. If those people are all fervent believers in the divine origin of the Torah, let alone standard Orthodox doctrine, they have a peculiar way of showing it.
On an institutional level, there are plenty of “modern” Orthodox shuls in which modern seems to mean everything but making the slightest, most halachically permissible concession to female participation; my hometown’ shul, for instance, still won’t allow women to hold the Torah on Simchat Torah even though no less a source than the Shulchan Aruch holds that the practice of forbidding it derives from custom rather than law. Minhag is a good reason for davening with a certain nusach. It is a terrible reason for doing something that risks alienating and undermining a full half of your congregation. If you really believe that women are divinely prohibited from engaging in a certain practice, you may have no choice but to reluctantly bar what you would otherwise wish to permit. But if you don’t, then what you are doing isn’t Orthodoxy; it is just sexism.
There are also, of course, limits to what an and cannot be justified by faith. Plenty of people have committed unconscionable and horrific acts in the name of sincere belief, and there is a point at which, no matter how absolutely you believe that your God wants you to do something, it is your obligation as a thinking being to rebel against Him.
But if we as egalitarian Jews strain the definition of “unconscionable” so far that it includes practices like letting women lead Kabbalat Shabbat, but not Ma’ariv, or using the title “maharat” instead of “rabbi,” we will have so diluted the term as to rob it of all meaning. However “open” Open Orthodoxy may or may not be, drawing the parameters of tolerated behaviors and opinions in a way that includes only the practices and beliefs to which we ourselves have subscribed and nothing else is the definition of narrowness.
The Gaps in the Story
I opened this argument by confessing that I had, in neglecting the role of faith, left something out of my initial, severely truncated account of my path from nominal affiliation with Orthodoxy to committed membership in a traditional egalitarian community. The truth is, I left much more out of it as well.
As someone pursuing a degree in English Literature, I know that narratives, from the personal to the communal, must always struggle against their impulse to simplify and smooth over their inherent complexities. I could frame my development as a Jew as a progress from Orthodox oppression to egalitarian liberation, could focus on the role of the egalitarian minyanim I’ve been part of, and the experience of davening with Women of the Wall on a day that a member was arrested for carrying a Torah, and the two women who, just two years ago, taught me to leyn for the first time. That story would be accurate, as far as it went.
It would also, however, leave out the fact that the first Jewish community I felt fully at home in – and the home of that first egalitarian minyan – was not Hadar or the Conservative Yeshiva, those bastions of traditional egalitarianism, but Pardes, with its multi-denominational student body and mostly Orthodox faculty. It would leave out, too, the many other rabbis and rebbetzins, some of them decidedly un-modern in their Orthodoxy, who have inspired and moved me with their sincere and compassionate faith.
I may no longer choose to daven with these teachers and leaders. I may, on certain issues, disagree with them profoundly, and sometimes angrily. But I hope I will never do them the injustice of declaring, in my arrogance, that the God who has enriched their lives, and mine through them, is nothing more than a God of hate.