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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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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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9 replies

  1. I completely agree with your comment “Just because Orthodox leaders say something is so–anything at all–does not make it so.” Having grown up Catholic with an actively Catholic extended family, I appreciate the notion that religious leadership may not reflect the views within the flock, tribe, etc. Witness the current inane Congressional discussion about contraception. The Catholic bishops don’t want people to use it yet the vast majority of Catholics use it. Patriarchal authority applies only to the point where it doesn’t make sense to people in their intimate lives. Then, they just don’t buy into it. But they still consider themselves Catholics. (Of course, as a Jew by choice, I rejected Catholicism entirely…) I’ve read Laura Cooper’s post and feel her anguish over the question of what “fits.” I agree with the other commenters who note that there are different types of Judaism with different interpretations of Torah and Talmud and different levels of tolerance about many things, including sexual orientation. There is also a lot of variation shul to shul. Perhaps there aren’t a lot of choices in Williamsburg?

  2. Very interesting blog post, I have not read the Crystal Decadenz blog yet, so this is just an initial reaction.
    Denominationalism withing Judaism has done more harm than good, personally, a Jew is a Jew and Jewish is what Jewish does. If a person chooses to convert O, well that is fine, if the choice is C, that is fine too, Reform, fine. You personally have to be happy with your choice.
    Saying that though is qualified, because within Ortodoxy there is a very strong reaction regarding homosexuality, MO try to be accomodating, but is also a long way off in their journey of understanding and acceptance, even of FFB and born Jews, being a Convert, just makes is much much more difficult. There is a place of gay converts within Judaism, maybe not just yet within Orthodoxy on a pragmatic level, even if an individuals belief reflects Orthodox belief or practice.

    My opinion is you have to live you life, you have to be comfortable with your Judaism within your skin, having a community that recognises you as a Jew, will go a long way in doing that. Whatever denomination. I prefer to be in a community where I could be fully out and not hide parts of my life, celebrate with the community and share with them too.

    Perhaps some people are at ease with the contradiction of being Orthodox (or Orthoprax) and gay, accepting that they would not be accepted in their chosen communities. Perhaps this is not so much about the brand of Judaism but more about self acceptance or self castigation that plays a role in peoples motivations.

  3. Can I just say I’m glad you exist on this big planet of ours? To articulate ideas that I’m not sure I could form coherent senteces about but feel deeply?

    That’s all.


  4. Heya
    So yeah. Obviously, it’d be easier if I only wanted to convert to Orthodoxy because “They say they’re the only right one” or “They’re brainwashing me,” but I happen to believe in torah mi-sinai that’s not opt-in, opt-out…no matter what label is on it, Orthodox or otherwise. Of course, we could argue to the death about how Ortho rabbis interpret it this way and Reform rabbis interpret it that way, but even if I did end up converting Conservative, I’d still have to face my own ideas of what the Torah (and, I guess, the rabbis) meant. That’s sort of how it went from “Should I convert O or C” to “Should I convert at all.”

    But anyway, I agree with your overall statement, I just don’t think it’s totally honest for me to just say “there are lots of options out there, so I can therefore just pick the easiest one.” I know that’s not what you mean, but when I consider resigning to a non-halachic community when I consider myself halachic, it seems like a cop-out.

    1. “That’s sort of how it went from “Should I convert O or C” to “Should I convert at all.””

      In that sentence you’re basically saying you want to be Jewish, but you believe that the only valid movement of Judaism is the one that doesn’t want you. If that’s the case, you might as well not join the Jewish people.

      On the other hand, struggle is part of what makes a Jew a Jew. So converting Orthodox and fighting for inclusion within Orthodoxy or converting Conservative and wrestling with your own beliefs about Torah are both equally valid Jewish paths. There is no cop out in either case. And no matter what you may believe, at this point you still aren’t Jewish. So it’s a little early to be forming hard opinions about other Jewish denominations when you aren’t yet affiliated with any of them yet.

      Either way, you better be clear on one thing: it doesn’t get any easier. Judaism is hard. It forces you to be and remain self-aware about your relationships with God, Torah, and other people. If you think there’s anything especially unique about the decision that you’re facing, think again. As Jews, we encounter weighty decisions that drag us often unwillingly through the mud of our own beliefs and hang-ups all the time.

      Seen in that light, it’s probably a good thing you’re facing this right now. Soul-searching like this is exactly what it means to be Jewish. This situation has upset you, I know. But the feeling of it is Jewish. That has to count for something.

    2. Laura, I’m not going to tell you to just suck it up and choose another denomination. I know that Orthodoxy is where you had your heart set so to speak and it was important to you. You may decide to go elesehwere or you may choose not to convert. That’s something you’ll have to figure out over time. I did want to mention that there are very observant and religious Jews within the Consevative movement. People you wouldn’t be able to tell apart from the Modern Orthodox. I just don’t want you to feel like there isn’t any place on earth for you where you can be who you are fully and completely.

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