David Seidenberg
David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

Digging wells: The Open Orthodoxy “controversy” and being a (sometimes) Conservative Jew

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac re-digs wells that his father Abraham had dug. When I was in college, I started keeping Shabbat. I became observant, a baal t’shuvah. I started to see myself as Orthodox, and it felt like I had dug for myself a well that nourished my ancestors.

The recent debates ignited by the Rabbincal Council of America’s declared ban on women rabbis, and Agudath Israel’s condemnation of open Orthodoxy as not Orthodox, stirred up my memories of why I left Orthodoxy — not the practice, but the ideology.

In 1988, sometime after college, I let go of this ideology and identity and began, ever so gingerly, to attend egalitarian services. I felt like had to leave — I couldn’t keep supporting the gender and racial prejudices of the Orthodox community I was in. But I was also a baal t’shuvah who didn’t grow up Orthodox or observant — it was a huge struggle for me to claim that identity, and it wasn’t easy to let go of it. I had dug a well, and I didn’t want to abandon it.

It was a hard transition. The fact was, I usually didn’t feel nourished at egalitarian services — there was then, and still can be, a lack of passion, a dryness, in the typical egal service. It’s partly because people at a non-Orthodox service tend to be less practiced at davening. But it’s also because people in liberal Jewish communities typically feel less bound by mitzvot, by obligations to Hashem (God) and to the rules of halakhah. You see, obligation doesn’t only create discipline, it creates passion. But the passion one can feel in many Orthodox settings comes with a price — not just the obvious disempowerment of women, but also the conformity, and the prerogative other people have to tell you what you are allowed to think, that disempowers everyone.

I made it my mission to stir up that passion in the non-Orthodox world when I founded the first Chasidic egalitarian minyan in 1995 in Manhattan. I sought the passion without the conformity. That’s also why I created neohasid.org in 2005, even though its mission has expanded to include a lot more than nurturing passionate davening. As the spirit of the Messiah told the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism: “I will come when your wellsprings flow to the outside (chutzah).”

The Chasidic egalitarian minyan worked — the wellspring flowed! That was the first time I felt the same level of passion in egalitarian davening that you could find at the Carlebach shul, which met only blocks away. The truth is that the majority of people that came to that Chasidic minyan either were Orthodox or had been Orthodox at some point in their lives. They knew what it meant to be tied by ropes of love to der Abishter (an intimate name for God); they knew why the Talmud says that one who acts out of obligation can reach a greater spiritual height than one who acts out of simple desire. So the minyan worked because of Orthodoxy. But it also worked because the people there knew not only the obligations of halakhah, but also the obligation to be authentic to who they were, the obligation to dig within themselves, to become what God was calling them to be.

That was the obligation that fueled the passion we felt when we danced to greet the holy Shabbat bride.

At the time that I organized that minyan, I was still studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I had already been ordained. Of all the rabbinical schools, I had gone to JTS for one simple reason: I felt it would be an aveirah (a sin) for me as a man to accept ordination from any place that didn’t ordain women. JTS was simply the frummest (most observant) place that ordained women. But the passion in our Chasidic egal minyan was mostly missing from JTS, whether one attended the egalitarian service upstairs, or the traditional minyan downstairs, where only men counted and only men read from the Torah. The well seemed dry. The Chasidic egal minyan seemed to prove to me then that I was not really a Conservative Jew.

I still davened in Orthodox communities frequently, and even taught in them (and I still do), so I would go feast on the passion (using my male privilege), and then try to figure out how to make the springs flow chutzah, beyond the boundaries of Orthodoxy. And sometimes I could even find the passion without the conformity in Orthodox settings — for example, at some Chabad Houses, which typically welcome all comers, and at the Carlebach shul, which was and still is chock full of ex-hippy non-comformists. It helped that you didn’t have to look or act right to get a handshake or hug and an invitation to Shabbat lunch. I didn’t forget that you still needed to look like the right gender to get an aliyah (despite the Mishnah’s declaration that women may be called to the Torah), but I needed the wellspring.

I used to feel that the Conservative movement was empty because it had no strong ideology, no passion. If the person I was in 1989, when I started rabbinical school, were choosing today, I probably would go to Chovevei Torah instead of JTS, to the fount of Open Orthodoxy, because Chovevei has a sibling relationship with Yeshivat Maharat that ordains women. I would still be in the thick of the struggle, arguing passionately that women becoming rabbis could be halakhic (because it can), while at the same time having to argue that my point of view was validly Orthodox. My power to change the world would have depended on my ability to stay inside Orthodoxy.

But I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older (in the way that being older can make one wiser) that I really do have a home in the Conservative movement, because no one there will ever be able to tell me what I have to believe. Because even though I like re-digging the old wells, using in the best way tradition and halakhah, I also think it’s a grave sin against human dignity to tell anyone else what they are allowed to believe, and it’s a grave sin against God to believe that there is only one way to find holiness. I’ve realized that our Chasidic egal minyan proved that I actually was a Conservative Jew, or at least, a Conservative rabbi, because I didn’t worry for a second about whether I would be expelled from school or from the Rabbinical Assembly when I started to dream of a different kind of minyan.

Some years after I left New York City for the West Coast, the Chasidic egalitarian minyan moved into JTS. In the same period of time, I got a second ordination, from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, the zayde and rebbe of the Jewish Renewal movement (where no one would even dream of telling anyone else what they can think).

In the Jewish Renewal world, as in the Conservative world, I am on the right-wing ritually, and the left-wing politically. The truth is, I still sometimes think of myself as orthodox (with a small “o”). I still believe in following halakhah as a way to connect with God and holiness. And I love to daven with people that really know how to daven, people that are passionate about davening, no matter what movement. The well we need to dig isn’t in a movement, Orthodox or Conservative or Renewal (or Reform or Reconstructionist); it’s inside each of us. If I’m in a community where that digging can happen for everyone, where we can support each other and share what emerges, I don’t care what label it carries.

As egalitarian davening comes of age, I have found passionate prayer in more places outside of Orthodoxy, like the Havurah Institute or the Shtibl minyan in LA, or in Jewish Renewal, and sometimes I find it when I get people up and dancing at the Prayground minyan, the monthly service I run in Western Massachusetts. And, truth be told, I still sometimes find myself at Chabad House or at Carlebach, because to me chavershaft (fellowship) and building bridges between communities can be as important as egalitarianism.

I look forward to a time when the women and men leading open Orthodoxy are fully accepted in the Orthodox world. But whether or not that happens, I also look forward to a time when they can embrace me as a colleague as readily as I would embrace them, without having to look over their right shoulder to see if they are going to be ostracized. Maybe then I would go back to that old well and reclaim the identity of Orthodox baal t’shuvah that I once cherished.

The Sefer Bahir tells a parable of creation: there was a king who wanted to build a palace. He was cutting stones from the earth when he cut into a great living wellspring. Surprised and delighted, he decided to plant a garden, which the whole world could delight in. Just so, goes the teaching, God dug a well to create the world. Abraham dug a well to tap into that source of creation, and each generation has to re-dig the wells, make them our own. Even in one’s own life, I’ve learned, you have to re-dig the wells your younger self established. Let’s not worry about the labels, and get digging.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and a well-acclaimed English translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer.
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