Free to Be Jew and Me

Not that I didn’t put a fine enough point on the matter in my previous post about taking ownership of your own Judaism, but after reading a recent post from a blog I follow written by a Jewish conversion candidate, I feel the urge to sharpen that point a bit more.

In this post from the Crystal Decadenz blog, blogger Laura expresses her profound sense of disconnection from the Orthodox community under whose aegis she wishes to convert. Why? Because she’s a lesbian, and the stridently literal interpretation of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) by the Orthodox movement leads the movement, essentially, to shun her–along with all other LGBT Jews or conversion candidates.

I’ll reserve my larger criticisms about Orthodox Judaism, its interpretation of Torah, its opinions regarding non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, and the widespread hypocrisy within the movement regarding public actions that don’t match up with private deeds for another time. Suffice it to say, if I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, I would be one.

But it’s a very wide world and we’re a very vibrant and varied Klal Yisrael (Jewish community.) Just because Orthodox leaders say something is so–anything at all–does not make it so. Not within Orthodoxy and certainly not within Judaism as a whole–which, no matter how histrionically Orthodoxy jumps up and down, stamps its feet, and yells and screams that the opposite is so, Orthodox Judaism does not encompass or represent.

It’s like the joke from the musical, Gypsy, when one character says, “New York is the center of the world!” and Mama Rose responds, “New York is the center of New York.” Orthodox Judaism is not Judaism as a whole, no matter what its self-press would like the rest of the world to think. Orthodox Judaism represents Orthodox Judaism. No less, and certainly no more. Judaism’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements are equally valid interpretations of Judaism. And no matter the movement of Judaism with which one affiliates, any Jew can be as observant (or in-observant) as they want to be.

You don’t “need” to be an Orthodox Jew to be a highly traditional and observant Jew. And while you certainly don’t need to affiliate with a Jewish denomination that violates your sense of values, ethics, and personhood, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other Jewish options out there. There are. There always are. That’s part of the beauty of Judaism.

Here’s what I commented under Laura’s post:

“Judaism is not the issue. Your problem is you think Orthodoxy owns the definition of Judaism. Judaism precedes denominations. Orthodoxy is just really good at making people think (bullying people into thinking) that somehow the Orthodox approach to Judaism is the only authentic one. That is, to be blunt, a bunch of bullshit.

You can be as observant as your personal relationship with Hashem inspires–or requires–you to be in ANY stream of Judaism. And all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism will accept you as a gay person–even to the point of ordaining you as clergy.

“You write like you don’t have a say in this. You’re wrong. The choice is yours. You are the responsible party for your own Judaism, not anyone else. If Orthodoxy violates your personal ethics, go be a Jew in a denomination that your heart can agree with. I’m a gay Reform Jew with strong traditional tendencies. Why can’t you be the same thing in the Conservative movement? Of course you can!

“I also want to point out that my partner and I are both members and regular worshippers on Shabbat in our mainstream Reform shul. I sit there on Friday night with my arm around him listening to the rabbi’s sermon. No one bats an eye. Two dozen people from our congregation expressed concern on Facebook when he was in the hospital over Shabbat a couple of weeks ago. Everyone keeps asking when his conversion journey will be complete. After he decided not to go last year, this year the congregation is demanding that he come with us on our spring congregational retreat.

“At the same time, I am a deeply devout Jew in terms of prayer and observance. I daven in the morning with tefillin, try to pray three times a day, never miss a bracha, got my shul to adpot a silent Amidah (almost unheard of in Reform congregations), and can find myself on the verge of tears during the prayer’s final blessings.

“There’s no contradiction in there between my [last two paragraphs]. My sexuality and my deep spirituality coexist in a Jewish community that accepts and supports both. That’s how it should be.”

And that’s how it can be, too. Right now. Because you–yes, you, and no one else–are in charge of your Judaism. Every Jewish choice you will ever be faced with is yours to decide, not your movement’s to decide for you.

For prospective Jews-by-choice, that absolutely includes being in charge of deciding on the movement with which you want to affiliate and the type of Jew you want to be.

So choose wisely. Just remember, individual denominations did not stand before God at Sinai. Individual Jews did.

We still do.

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