Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Reason for my Treason

I used to be a Conservative rabbinical student. I switched to Modern Orthodoxy.

I originally became a Conservative rabbinical student because I wanted to perpetuate a certain kind of religious life. I wanted to build community that was committed to halachah, committed to deepening spiritual awareness, committed to learning Torah, and working to make the world more justly and compassionately run. I wanted to study and teach Torah with the freedom to see it as having been written and formed by human beings; the freedom to see Torah tradition in a broader world context. I wanted to be able to serve as a spiritual guide, counselor and teacher in a community that would care about those things, but in an atmosphere that would not support fundamentalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other kind of small-mindedness that too often accompanies traditional religious community.

After a while, I started to feel like it was only fellow rabbinical students and rabbis who really shared that commitment to open-minded traditional living. Most of the rabbinical students, as intelligent as they were, came in with no previous exposure to Talmud or Midrash or commentators. Some of them still had trouble leading minchah or shacharit in their second or fourth years of rab school. Laypeople who called themselves "Conservative" would not prioritize learning Hebrew well enough to read a Jewish text. They would get indignant towards my own halachic observance. They felt uncomfortable with my wearing a kippah and tzitzit, with my not driving or answering the phone on Shabbat, or with my eating only at kosher restaurants. They would rarely go to a synagogue, but if they did, then it had to be egalitarian! I have met a handful of traditionally observant lay Conservative Jews, but they're few and far between.

I also strongly disagree with the ways that the Conservative movement has tended to respond to its lay constituency's lack of Jewish education or commitment to halachah. Because too many people felt uncomfortable in an all-Hebrew Torah reading, they diminished it to a triennial cycle. Because the services were too long, and people felt uncomfortable with them, musaf is almost never heard in Conservative shuls anymore; it's always the hechi kedushah. People feel uncomfortable with Kohanim and Leviim always getting the first two aliyot because it's heirarchical, even though Kohanim and Leviim have absolutely no power over anyone in the community. Kohanim have the two heirarchical, patriarchal, dynastic priveleges of blessing the congregation and of being limited as to who they can marry. Leviim have the royal privelege of pouring water over the hands of the kohanim. This makes people uncomfortable, so they do away with yet one more millennia-old tradition.

If Jews are uncomfortable with Judaism, diminishing Judaism so as to cater to that discomfort is not a justifiable solution. Education, acculturation, and the familiarity that comes with personal experience and relevance are all that can effectively mitigate that discomfort.

I started to feel that my concern with traditional living and halachic observance was only relevant in the Orthodox world.

I've also come to find that being narrow or open-minded, intellectually honest or not, sexist or not, bigoted or not, has nothing to do with denominational affiliation. I know plenty of Orthodox feminists who are accomplished scholars, and I know plenty of Reform and Conservative racists and homophobes. I know Conservative women who assume that it's the norm for women to take their husbands' names in marriage, for women to do more of the housework, that men must be high-powered and "successful", but despite all this, call Orthodox Jews sexist because they daven with mechitzas.

And I also know plenty of self-styled Conservative Jewish women who work on Saturdays and eat Domino's pizza, but demand that they be counted in the minyan. I have no problem with a woman being counted in a minyan, except that to see it as a matter of "counting" or "recognition" without taking into account the halachic structure of Judaism undermines the importance of the minyan itself. Women are not traditionally counted in the minyan (which, I of course agree, unfairly diminishes their standing in the religious community in some serious ways) because of their level of halachic obligation. If Conservative women wish to voluntarily take on the obligations to the time-bound commandments of saying the Shma, wearing t'filin and tzitzit, praying three times daily, etc. then, as according to Rabbi Joel Roth's ruling, they can be counted in the minyan. The problem is with women who demand to be "counted" without accepting the whole paradigm of halachic obligation in the first place. Egalitarian traditional davening is fine for rabbis and rabbinical students, but in the average Conservative shul, where the majority of congregants don't think in terms of halachah, it's halachically problematic.

David Golinkin allows women to be counted in the minyan by going back to the rishonim, saying that women already have a d'oraita obligation to pray the amidah, and therefore, their obligation is equal to that of a man. As for their not being obligated to say Shma, he says that there is no mitzvah to hear the shma, and that kriyat shma is an individual obligation. A shaliach tzibbur cannot discharge the congregants of their obligation to say the Shma or its blessings. As Conservative halachah, which does not hold by the concept of "halacha kevatrai" (the law goes according to the latest authority), this is a perfectly valid ruling. It does not work for Orthodoxy. An Orthodox woman would have to take Joel Roth's route in order to be counted in the minyan.

If enough Orthodox women start demanding to be counted in the minyan, and to take on the time-bound mitzvot traditionally binding upon men, then it will be time for Orthodox rabbis to start moving in a more egalitarian direction. So far, Orthodox feminists are looking for less halachically drastic ways to achieve equal respect, even if not necessarily equal ritual obligation. Women are also being trained as Torah scholars and yo'atzot, who function in similar roles to rabbis in most ways already (teaching Torah, counseling, answering halachic questions); taking that a step further is only a matter of time.

So instead of a Jewish movement whose rabbinic leaders embrace halachah and traditional learning, but whose laity does not, I've decided that I'll be more relevant in a community where Torah learning and Torah living are for everyone. Rabbis are not like Catholic priests, who take vows and live lifestyles that their parishioners don't. Rabbis are simply ordinary Jewish people, who have studied a great deal of Torah, and are able to interpret and teach to their communities.

I don't have to work outside Orthodoxy in order to keep an open and critical mind towards what I study. I don't have to work outside of traditional Judaism in order to fight hate, misogyny, and other kinds of prejudice. I also won't have to put up with truncated Torah readings, microphones on Shabbat, or musical instruments that I don't feel have a place in a Jewish prayer setting. I can be religious, traditional, open-minded, and relevant, all at once.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

An Orthodox woman would have to take Joel Roth's route in order to be counted in the minyan.

I've never heard an Orthodox rabbi agree with R' Roth on this mechanism, even theoretically. But then again i haven't asked any Orthodox rabbis about the Roth mechanism lately, so i may be missing perspectives.

kokusai yudayajin said...

I see Joel Roth's route to egalitarianism as one that can work within the framework of the Halachah as it's been recieved. (not having a beit midrash at my disposal here in Seoul, I can't back that up right now, but when I get back to NY, I'll look at Roth's citations.) David Golinkin's tshuvah involves rejecting all of the acharonim, and relying on the theoretical structures laid down by the Gemara and Rambam.