Lessons to Be Learned from All Streams of Judaism

When I was still a relative Chicago newbie, I blogged about the dangers of living your life in a box. In many ways, this is a follow-up to that long-ago post. In my pointed post about Jewish blogger bullying last month, several commenters decided I had an axe to grind with Orthodox Jews. One person who actually got where I was coming from, Rabbi Michael Zadok, left an eloquent comment on the matter. Not that he agreed with my approach to the matter, and not that I make any apologies for my post–because neither one of those things is the case–but R. Zadok challenged me to be sure in my heart of the difference between criticizing an individual and criticizing all of Orthodox Judaism.

But as with all Jewish questions, there’s a lot of middle ground there. As a Reform Jew, I have a completely different basic conception of and relation to the mitzvot (commandments) than would an Orthodox Jew. I see them as arriving from God via man and I don’t see them as absolutely binding; Orthodox Jews see them as arriving from God directly and as absolutely binding. This is where relations between our two denominations start to look a lot like interfaith relations between Christians and Jews–there are fundamental doctrines that neither one of us can accept and remain in good stead with our denominations of choice conscience.

It is this differing take on the mitzvot, combined with differing rabbinical opinions on the matter, that leads Orthodoxy to reject other Jews as Jews. How can you be a halachic (Jewishly legal) Jew without accepting the full yoke of the commandments? Other Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) differ on this matter, and of course that’s an enormous understatement.

But essentially, Orthodoxy believes that only Orthodoxy’s perspective makes you a valid Jew, and other Jews think that Orthodoxy’s perspective on the matter is meaningless. As someone raised in a Catholic household and surrounded by Christian perspectives through my parochial school years, to me, Orthodoxy’s view feels a lot like Christians telling Jews that if they don’t believe in Jesus they’re going to go to hell. From one side’s perspective, it makes sense. From the other side’s perspective, it’s untrue and insulting.

If I have an axe to grind with Orthodoxy, it’s that. But it’s my small part of a persistent argument between entire Jewish denominations, and I’m far from the first or last liberal Jew to express my exasperation over it. In that regard and based on my own denominational take on the mitzvot, I certainly don’t apologize for sharing that exasperation publicly.

Last month, several commenters implied that anyone criticizing a person who was justifying their actions with their denomination’s halachic perspective was, in effect, criticizing their denomination as a whole. And I can see how someone in the Orthodox community might see it that way. But saying “you can’t say I’m wrong because I and/or my denomination believe(s) I’m right” is not a defense. It’s self-immunizing your actions to criticism.

From a Jewish perspective, no one’s immune to criticism–not even God. In that light, I don’t think it’s valid for anyone to claim their actions to be above reproach based on their denomination’s interpretation of Jewish law. In my previous post, that was my point. You can live by whatever relationship to mitzvot your heart desires, but you shouldn’t use your perspective on the mitzvot to claim that you’re immune to criticism.

All of that said, that doesn’t mean Jews can’t learn from each other and be inclusive of each other, regardless of denomination. I fundamentally believe that our Jewish souls are primary. We are first Jews before we are denominational Jews. I may be critical of Orthodoxy, but it isn’t as if I think I fit into a neat little box in Reform Judaism either–and I have yet to find many Jews who have found a perfect denominational fit, either. How could we possibly? People and their needs regarding their relationship to the ineffable are much more complicated than mere ideological boxes.

As a Reform Jew, I cannot accept another denomination’s halachic perspective. But that doesn’t mean I don’t lay tefillin, say brachot, refrain from working on the Sabbath, daven daily or better, go to bed with the Sh’ma on my lips, or look to God for my guidance. It doesn’t mean I won’t ritually remove chametz from my kitchen this Passover. It doesn’t mean I ever leave the house with an uncovered head, yearn to wear tzitzit, or (unlike many Reform Jews), don’t feel left out that I’ve never had a Lubavitcher kid ask me to lay tefillin.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish I had more Orthodox friends, or that I don’t have a strong urge every now and then to attend a Chabad service, or look for guidance and learning to clergy outside my own denomination. It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish from the bottom of my heart that my own denomination was more deeply supportive of tradition and ritual than up to now has been the case, or that Orthodoxy was more accepting towards all Jews.

And very fundamentally, it doesn’t mean that I think anyone who isn’t a Reform Jew isn’t a Jew.

Because all of that is the case. I truly believe we have more in common than our denominational boxes have taught us to think we do, and my heart is more at home in tradition than some of last month’s commenters may believe. And I do not believe our tradition teaches us to delegitimize other Jews. If you refuse to peer beyond the edge of a box, how can you build a bridge?

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