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Bagels, Yiddishisms, and tikkun olam

An open letter to non-Orthodox Jewish movements

Naturally, as an Orthodox Jew, I spend much of my time reading about and discussing what’s wrong with Orthodoxy today. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of material, and it’s easy to get caught up in that undeniable fact. But Josefin Dolsten’s blog post, “Is Orthodoxy the future for American Jews?” hit home in a variety of ways. It was, of course, refreshing to get a reminder that yes, Orthodox Jews are doing something right. Her post also made me think about my own journey, how and why I ended up identifying myself with the Orthodox community, and whether or not Orthodoxy has anything to offer other Jewish movements.

My first exposure to Judaism outside of my own home was within the Conservative Movement. They probably could have reeled me in because I was a really easy target. I grew up in a family with a meager Jewish identity, I had essentially no knowledge, and I was thirsting for more. Problem is, they never really tried. Their attempts to engage me in the Jewish community involved ice cream parties with other Jews and putting in some volunteer hours with other Jews; only the new term for volunteerism was “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, because that’s how Jews referred to such noble activities. I liked ice cream and was interested in volunteering, but that’s not why I was on the mailing list of a Jewish group. I signed up because I had big, philosophical questions. I signed up because I wanted to believe that Judaism had more to offer than cultural commonalities that I couldn’t relate to anyway (my mom wasn’t overbearing, I didn’t integrate “schlep” into my vocabulary until I made aliya, I didn’t have a $20,000 bat mitzvah, and I never went to summer camp). But they didn’t offer me anything other than the opportunity to make friends with other Jews.

Eventually, I encountered Modern Orthodoxy, and it was there that I found a home. The totality of it all appealed to me: Judaism wasn’t an extracurricular activity or a superiority complex, it was simply everything. Judaism was what you ate, what you said, who you loved, what you read, what you turned on and off, what you longed for, and what you dreamed of. In the Orthodox community, I met people who, yes, still talked about overbearing mothers and overpriced bar mitzvahs, but they also talked about God, the Bible, and the significance of Jewish texts. They had emotions about these things, they struggled with them, and they found strength in them. It was then that I realized that my suspicions had been correct: Judaism had more to offer than what I’d been exposed to.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working for the Conservative Movement for a year. I took the job for a lot of reasons, none of them being that I was interested in embracing Conservative Judaism again. My experience there surprised me a bit because I figured out that really, in my heart, I’m a Conservative Jew. In theory, Conservative Judaism offers a life that strictly adheres to Jewish law but is still firm in its stance that the Talmud and other Jewish texts are there so that we can continue to grapple with them, such that adhering to Jewish law is an intellectual endeavor that sometimes results in unprecedented conclusions. The idea that the Torah is a living and breathing document, a term that I heard a lot from Conservative leaders, is something that I believe with my whole heart. I found the Conservative leaders that I met over the course of the year to be extremely knowledgeable and passionate, no less so than the Orthodox leaders that I admired. I disagree with a lot of the halachic stances posed by some Conservative rabbis, but the fact that they’re engaging in a halachic process that only some Orthodox Jews engage in is something that I found myself yearning for.

That being said, frankly, the communities that these religious figured led looked nothing like them. They weren’t knowledgeable; they were more interested in camp than in prayer; they mostly believed in God, but saw no reason in exploring His existence much further; and their moral and political views were much more influenced by Western values than Jewish ones.

It’s not for me to figure out why there is a discrepancy between the Conservative leadership and the majority of their communities. I have no idea, and there are some brilliant minds trying to figure out the answer on their own. But I do want to attempt a partial answer to Josefin’s question: What is it that Orthodoxy is doing right?

From my own experience, I think that what Orthodoxy is doing right is that, for the most part, it’s less concerned with fitting Judaism into the confines of Western lives, but rather the opposite. This applies not only to Orthodox leaders, but to the communities themselves. I do believe that this is possible for non-Orthodox movements as well. Why not give your community members the credit that they deserve rather than trying to make Judaism and Jewish life easier to swallow? It seems that finding tools to inspire people to engage in a lifelong intellectual and spiritual pursuit has more staying power — and is more likely to fill up a minyan — than trying to make it all sound simple and cool. Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that eating food with other Jews is not more fun than eating food with non-Jewish friends, and that a minyan with no philosophical or spiritual context is not more fun than going to a party on Friday night.

Over the years, Orthodoxy has taken a few lessons from more progressive movements of Judaism. The Torah-egalitarian movement has taken root, and more and more Orthodox people are open to different forms of egalitarianism when it comes to Jewish ritual and prayer. More and more Orthodox women are questioning what they need to wear in order to be tzanua, or modest, and seeing someone who identifies as Orthodox and wears pants is no longer totally bizarre, at least not here in Jerusalem. I would implore the Orthodox community to continue to do this, and  the more conservative streams of Orthodoxy to engage in this exchange as well. Though Orthodox Jews are generally perceived as less tolerant, it seems like the rhetoric in progressive communities prevents them from asking the very important question that Josefin asked: what are they doing right? What can we learn from them?

My guess is that developing movement-wide strategies for engaging Jews in a spiritual and intellectual pursuit that is presented as what Judaism really is — life-altering and never-ending — and allowing one’s movement to be influenced by other, more Orthodox streams of Judaism in ways that don’t violate their own principles will benefit the Reform and Conservative Movements in the way that these practices benefit Orthodoxy. Jewish diversity is only valuable if we all cash in on it; it’s strictly detrimental if it only serves to divide us to the extent that we’re more concerned with being disassociated with the other than with using one another’s strengths to be the best versions of ourselves. Jewish thought and Jewish law are only valuable when they’re presented honestly and with all of their complexities; otherwise, it’s just a bunch of bagels and Yiddishisms.

About the Author
Cori works and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Shalev and baby boy Kaveh. The views expressed here are her own and not those of any organization.