Agreement vs. Acceptance

As a Jewish woman raised in a Conservative home, a Reform synagogue, and who has been Modern Orthodox since the age of nineteen, I have been blessed with being exposed to the various streams of Judaism, all of which, I believe, can learn from one another. What prompted me to identify as Orthodox was the simple desire to be part of a community where the majority of the laity observed Judaism on a daily basis, where Judaism was a prism through which they made decisions, decided moral questions, and in general, lived their lives. The issue of women’s active participation in many things, particularly Jewish ritual, was always a sticking point for me, but I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and trusted that a way could be found.

Thank God, a way has been found, with the advent of JOFA, women’s tefillah groups, partnership minyanim, and most important, women’s incredible strides in higher Torah learning, of which I have been privileged to take part. These practices, though halakhically permissible, have not been part of the Mesorah, or Jewish tradition, a term which includes Jewish law and customs. Historically, particularly in the Ashkenazic community, custom has been accorded the same status as law, and even today, one’s minhag, or custom, is tenaciously preserved. In general, I love tradition, hence my decision to become shomer Shabbat, Shabbat observant. However, I struggle with those aspects of the tradition that feel unjust. My personal relationship to God, which has given me great peace and heartfelt joy, becomes seriously marred if I have to believe it is God’s eternal will that women be barred from performing certain rituals not for any halakhic reason, but simply because Jews in the past felt it either unnecessary or uncomfortable to engage in such practices.

Judaism has never been immune from, or blind to, the world which surrounds it. I could give many historical examples, but the fundamental question facing the Orthodox community (and many religious communities in general), is this: Do we believe that certain values in secular culture, such as gender equality, are important and fundamental enough, reflect basic Jewish values of human rights and dignity enough, to do our best to incorporate them into our ancient tradition?

For some the answer is no, and though I don’t agree with this approach, I must accept the fact that others do very strongly. I can only imagine how I would feel if I had been raised in a fervently observant home that went back generations, and I personally know many women who are truly spiritually fulfilled by the role established by Mesorah. If I wish to be accepted by those in the Orthodox community who disagree with me, I must reciprocate and accept them too.

However, I also need to accept the fact that the status quo feels wrong to me, and I cannot agree with it, and I know others feel as I do. Is it advisable, then, to form yet another branch of Judaism, perhaps dubbed “Liberal” Orthodoxy, where it is a priority to integrate modern values, such as feminism, into a halakhic framework? Though I dislike fragmentation, I would support such a movement, since the alternative is alienating those like me who are devoted to Jewish law and tradition and yet feel that where it is halakhically permissible, women should be included as much as possible.

shutterstock_204409438There are Sephardic Jews, Hasidic Jews, Yeshivish Jews, Yemenite Jews–all within the rubric of Orthodoxy–why can’t the “Liberal Orthodox” community be part of this tapestry? Like the other subgroups of Orthodoxy, which differ widely on customs and even on approaches to determining halakha, Liberal Orthodoxy can, and should, be accepted as a legitimate part of the Orthodox community, rather than condemned as a threat to it.

Our Sages have famously interpreted Proverbs 3:18—Eitz hayyim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar–“It is a tree of life, to those who hold it fast, and all of its supporters are happy,” as referring to the Torah. Just as a tree with many branches is considered to be alive and well, the plethora of options within Orthodox Judaism is a sign of the vitality of Judaism, not the disintegration of it.

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