Over the past week Jonah Rank’s article about his disappointment with YCT and his frustrations with the Conservative movement has been the talk of the tiny shtetl of the Rabbinical school world. Rabbi Maurice Applebaum’s response speaks to a hidden core of this issue of seeing Judaism as a spectrum of observance. It is almost a default position in the Progressive Jewish world to view the contemporary Jewish condition in this way. We’re presented with the image of a blending range of movements and practices from nothing to everything. If one were to bring this idea up in casual conversation, no one would bat an eye. This view has gone so far as to have made “Reform” synonymous with “non-practicing” in many peoples’ minds. Who hasn’t heard someone say “Oh, I’m from a really Reform family,” when what they really meant was “I’m from a totally unobservant family?”
An unfortunate byproduct of this vision of the Jewish people is the level of observance being tied to the level of authenticity. Due to the performativity of traditionalism, be it in dress, prayer, eating, or other rituals, and the mystery attached to this traditionalism in the minds of so many unobservant Jews who are undereducated on these traditions, traditionalism has come to mean authentic in the eyes of many. Orthodoxy of all flavors has been benefiting from this view. Due to the Liberal Jewish world’s struggle to define the boundaries of Jewishness, that which most outwardly appears Jewish, which would be some form of Haredi Orthodoxy, comes to be viewed as the most authentic form of Judaism Therefore, as one slides on the spectrum towards Haredi, one grows ever more close to the “True” Judaism. Orthodox kiruv has leaned heavily on this narrative of being the authentic Judaism, while everything else is just a pale reflection of a once vibrantly unified Jewish world.
During orientation for our first year of HUC-JIR, we were asked to not attempt to “Out-Rashi each other,” meaning to not use our knowledge of traditional Jewish text and thought to lay claim to greater authenticity than our classmates. A fear of looking inauthentic due to lack of knowledge or practice in comparison to our JTS and Ziegler peers looms in the background when we are all thrown together. Many within this conversation speak of Conservative Judaism as simply being more authentic.
I sense a hint of this same feeling underlying Jonah Rank’s article. The anger at YCT’s lack of egalitarianism is, in many ways, no different than my being put off by the fact that I was recently told by an Orthodox Rabbi that were I to want to study at an Orthodox Yeshiva, I would have to convert. Apparently my mother’s conversion, authorized by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly prior to my birth, was not good enough. In spite of some of my Conservative counterparts’ protests at being lumped in with Reform Judaism as “Liberal” or “Progressive” Judaism, the majority viewpoint of Orthodoxy views them as undeniably linked. We and the Orthodox are viewing Judaism as two completely different things. In point of fact, many Orthodox communities already do not view Reform or Conservative Judaism as Judaism at all. As Rabbi Appelbaum so diplomatically put it, “The first mistake that one can make when thinking about YCT is that somehow if we go a little farther left we’ll turn into Conservative Judaism. JTS and YCT are not two points on the same spectrum.”
Like Jonah, I also find much of the value system of Orthodoxy misogynistic, not to mention homophobic, and often xenophobic. I’m not particularly concerned with the values or narrative of Orthodoxy’s authenticity outside of the effect it has on my community. This idea that being more machmir makes you more authentic is a total sham. Even earlier than and outside of the different minhagim of the fractured branches of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions one finds an incredible diversity of Judaism throughout Jewish history. Were the Essenes of the Second Temple period, who were so stringent with their observance of Shabbat that they would not defecate during the holiest of days, the most Jewish people of all time?
The other side of the coin of viewing Judaism as a spectrum of practice is an American generational movement away from Orthodoxy to Conservative, from Conservative to Reform, from Reform to “none.” The Pew Report displays this quite clearly. Why, as Liberal Jewish leaders, are we concerned with validation from the Orthodox world when the numbers show us that the laypeople are moving towards us anyway? The conception of authenticity tied to the idea of the spectrum of Judaism is dividing an already incredibly small house. Wishing that Orthodoxy were not so Orthodox is unfair to both Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox movements.
Instead of focusing on how we can perform our way into a form of Judaism that the most observant of Jews will respect, we should be focusing on how we can create meaningful Jewish communities within our own movements. There are many ways to do this, and, yes, some people brought up Reform will end up Orthodox, and vice versa, and we shouldn’t view either as a problem. We can openly disagree with other forms, while looking to them for new ideas and concepts to implement in our own ways; we needn’t delegitimize each other, or ourselves. Allowing individuals to decide for themselves what is meaningful while guiding them to work at exploring their options will lead to the strongest Jewish people, one in which individuals themselves choose which form and community is most meaningful to them.
Battling each other towards a form of Progressive Judaism that the Orthodox will recognize, accept, or authorize is a mistake. So long as we pray in mixed gender settings, focus on inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and, most importantly, question the view of Torah, both written and oral, as binding in its most literal, strict, and traditional interpretation, they never really will. We will end up looking like cats chasing after the laser pointers of their masters, only to have the light shut off at the last moment. Valuing the narrative of Orthodox authenticity over our own is an even bigger mistake. We will end up alienating our constituencies, and selling out the values our movements were founded upon. Instead, let us turn inwards, and focus on what we can do to lead the “nones” to want to be the “somethings,” no matter what that something may be.