Orthodoxnormitivity is by no means a new phenomenon, but recently it is becoming recognised and called out as a major issue concerning progressive Jews in the UK.
This is in no doubt largely due to matter being platformed (and indeed the term itself being coined) by the Eran and Annie Cohen, that Jewdas campaigned for in the past two years for the Union of Jewish Students presidential elections.
As the subject is starting to be discussed more widely, it is worth taking time to deconstruct what progressive Jews mean when they talk about orthodoxnormitivity and how it can be overcome.
In short, orthodoxnormitivity is a set of structural prejudices which oppress progressive Jews within the wider UK Jewish community. Orthodoxnormitivity is both a consequence and cause of inequalities of power within UK Jewish communities which need to be urgently tackled.
While the idea that Reform, Liberal or Masorti Jews are not ‘real Jews’ is still fairly ubiquitous among Orthodox communities, it has drifted out of mainstream communal discourse.
However more subtle prejudices are deeply entrenched within many communal structures. Progressive denominations are viewed as less ‘authentic’ and less religious than Orthodox denominations. The idea of ‘authentic Judaism’ is too bizarre to begin to challenge here, but the assertion that progressive Judaism equals secular Judaism, needs exploring.
A religious-secular spectrum is, albeit to a limited extent, a somewhat useful framework for understanding an individual’s relationship with their Jewish identity. However, the spectrum operates within, rather than between denominations.
For example, there are ‘secular’ Orthodox Jews and ‘religious’ Progressive Jews. Furthermore, Jewish denominations are often ranked on their ‘level of observance’. Some efforts to tackle orthodoxnormitivity have attempted to remove the hierarchy by placing denominations on a spectrum of observance rather than a ladder, but this too defines progressive denominations by their relationship to Orthodox Judaism, rather than viewing them as distinct and valid entities in their own right.
The consequence of progressive Judaism being understood as less observant or ‘religious’ is that supposedly ‘cross-communal’ spaces push Orthodox Jewish practices on everyone, as they’re perceived as a ‘lowest common denominator’. Progressive Jews are expected to practice orthodox observance of kashrut and Shabbat and assume the gender roles dictated by Orthodox Judaism. The narrative is that Orthodox Jews have a more legitimate religious reason to feel uncomfortable participating in progressive Judaism than Progressive Jews do in practising orthodox Judaism.
As progressive denominations are seen as less observant deviations from orthodox Judaism, Orthodox communal organisations are not expected to identify themselves as Orthodox. University Jewish Chaplaincy claims to support all Jewish students and does not mention the word ‘orthodox’ at all on its website, yet all its Chaplains are orthodox rabbis. It is hardly catering for all Jewish students.
Many supposedly cross-communal organisations e.g. Limmud, Board of Deputies of British Jews and Union of Jewish Students all operate with an unchallenged acceptance of orthodox Judaism as the norm. In reality true pluralism or cross-communalism means accepting all Jewish denominations as equally valid.
It means asking Orthodox Jews to accept progressive practices as often as we ask Progressive Jews to accept orthodox practices. And it means creating different spaces for Jews to practice Judaism where our denominational differences are irreconcilable.