Why I do not call myself Orthodox

The last couple of months I have been asked several times if I am Orthodox. It happened when I was telling someone that I will be studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem next year, and he asked if the reason I had chosen Jerusalem over Tel Aviv was because I was Orthodox. It happened with acquaintances who learned that I had become more observant in college and wanted to know what movement I now identified with. In every interaction, I hesitated, unsure what to say.

I wasn’t unsure because I felt more drawn towards another movement in Judaism. Though I had been involved with the Reform group on campus, I had started to feel distanced from the movement when I first felt drawn towards Jewish learning and observance. And the Conservative movement didn’t feel like home either. Both in Conservative synagogues and campus groups I had met few people who were observant and whom I could relate to in terms of my Jewish identity.

Wasn’t it my Modern Orthodox friends who had inspired me to spend a summer in Jerusalem learning Torah? Hadn’t I been praying mostly in the Orthodox minyan this past year at college? Weren’t the places of learning where I felt the most comfortable dominated by Modern Orthodox people? Why then can I not honestly call myself Orthodox?

There are values that I still hold on to that make me an outsider in most Orthodox communities, even liberal ones. Although these values are not rooted in Torah but rather gained from being part of Western civilization, they have become so ingrained in me that to reject them would be to reject a part of myself.

Gender equality is one of them. And not just in respecting women (I think in most Modern Orthodox communities, women are respected by men and are not treated as second class citizens), but in opportunities for egalitarian tefilah and religious leadership. At this point, I do not know how I will ultimately practice Judaism in terms of egalitarianism, but I want to be part of a community where I feel safe to explore different ways of participating. A women’s minyan is simply not enough for me. Even minyanim such as Shirah Hadasha that incorporate some levels of egalitarianism leave me wanting more.

In addition, I want to be part of a community where tolerance is not just an idealized value but actually the practice. I cannot imagine being a member of a community where gay people do not have the same rights as straight people. Yes, gay marriage is problematic halakhically, but I cannot imagine denying my child the right to happiness and love if he or she were gay. Solutions need to be worked out within a halakhic framework, but there also needs to be a level of tolerance and compassion. Gay observant Jews should not be forced to either become secular or to hide their true selves.

These are two of the main issues (but not the only ones) that make me hesitant to identify with Orthodoxy. I’m not completely giving up on Orthodoxy though. Institutions such as Yeshivat Maharat (an Orthodox-identified quasi-rabbinical school for women) are making progress. But there has been plenty of push back, and the Rabbinical Council of America (the Orthodox rabbinical association) recently condemned Maharat as “a violation to our mesorah (tradition).”

On the other hand, I have been fortunate enough to spend a little bit of time in some of the nondenominational communities, such as Yeshivat Hadar and Drisha, that are balancing a serious commitment to Torah and mitzvot with an openness to change.

A year ago I remember feeling hopeless that I did not have my perfect community, but now I feel excited about the future. While it would have been easier to be born into the next generation, when some of these issues will have been reconciled, I know the struggle will be worth it. I look forward to being a member of my future community, wherever it will be and whatever it will call itself.

About the Author
Josefin Dolsten currently lives in Jerusalem, where she is pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies from Hebrew University. Previously she studied Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about religion and politics.