When Religion Isn’t Black and White

I’ve been asked a lot recently what my favorite thing about Judaism is. Each time, my answer is some variation of the following: “there are so many different interpretations of Judaism that, with a little seeking and soul-searching, everyone can find their place in Judaism, tradition, and the Jewish community.” However, more and more recently, I’ve realized that is the naive answer of a lucky college student who has had every Jewish experience handed to her on a silver platter.

Nearly three years ago, I completed a five-month study abroad in Tel Aviv, a city somehow both completely secular and completely Jewish. I was fascinated, intrigued, and in love with my heritage and my culture. However, despite living in the Jewish State, I felt that somehow the “Jewish” aspect was missing from my experience. Everything was out of a textbook and, though interesting, felt impersonal. As someone who grew up Conservative and identifies as religious, I felt there was a disconnect between studying and experiencing Judaism. I was in love, and I wanted more.

Just the other week, I completed a very different 5-month program. This was a gap year program based in the Old City. We lived in a house that was a two minute walk from the Kotel, took strictly Orthodox classes, and were exposed to only a very specific Orthodox perspective. I was interested to learn, but this conflicted with what I had always been saying was my favorite thing about Judaism. How can a religion that values questions, loving-kindness, and happiness be so single-minded? How can the religion that I love so deeply call several of my identities into question, and even assert that I am not a “good Jew”? I came here to better understand my place in the community, and I am leaving feeling even more confused than when I arrived.

In the past, I have been denied opportunities to speak in class, and professors and teachers for as long as I can remember have singled me out because I am “too Jewish”; meanwhile, men in the Old City cover their eyes as I pass and women call me a slut on the streets because I am “not Jewish enough”. I’ve sat through classes in which rabbis lecture about how denominations other than Orthodoxy aren’t really Jewish; I’ve listened to conversations about how anyone religious is brainwashed and missing out on “real life”. Incidents such as these are not rare, and affected me deeply. They showed me the very black-and-white view that so many people hold of religion, and make me feel as though I can never be fully accepted by my own community. What of those of us who fall somewhere in between this very black-and-white perspective? Where do we fit into our community when our identities are being denied by other Jews on both ends of the spectrum?

I am a Jew, and I am proud. So why is this not enough for so many people?

We all received the Torah from Sinai. It belongs to all of us, to each of us. “Put two Jews in a room and you’ll have three opinions”; “there are seventy faces of the Torah”. These are just different variations of the same idea: Judaism has countless perspectives, and they are all valid. Any legitimate interpretation of the Torah and of Jewish tradition has a place in our community, regardless of the label we throw on it for our own worldly sake. Why should others have the ability to tell me how I should identify myself? Isn’t G-d the only one with the right and the ability to judge us? Or, for those who find themselves somewhere else along the spectrum, how does my self-identification affect you?

I grew up in a Reform household, going to a Conservative synagogue, created connections with Reconstructionist rabbis in university, and then participated on an Orthodox program. My interest in doing a gap year in Israel was to understand my connection to Judaism as a college graduate, out in the real world where I am forced to search out experiences and connections on my own. My program may have created more questions than answers, but it made me stronger in my faith and more grounded in my identity: I am Jewish, and I am religious, and nobody – Orthodox, secular, or anywhere in between – has the right to tell me otherwise. My Jewish journey is still in progress, and for the first time in my life, I am excited to not have the answers. I will continue to learn, to question, and to seek truth with all of my heart. Because this is what it means to be a religious Jew.

About the Author
Nikki is a Hillel professional, a proud Jew, and an Israel advocate. She loves travelling and learning about other cultures, particularly how Jews around the world experience their Judaism.
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