Which Judaism is the Authentic One?

Last week I met one of my neighbors, an Orthodox Jewish woman. She asked what I do for a living, and I said I’m a rabbi. She hesitated for a moment, digesting the information, as other Orthodox neighbors have done when they first hear this (my family moved recently, so we’re still meeting our new neighbors). Then she asked where, and whether it is a Reform synagogue (it is).

She asked if I grew up religious, by which she meant Orthodox Jewish. Deliberately misunderstanding, I said I did, and then it was my turn to hesitate. Did I want to tell her I converted to Judaism? I would be lying if I said I grew up Jewish. I’m terrible at lying. So I clarified that my upbringing was religious, but not Jewish. “Oh,” she immediately responded, “So you’re not Jewish!” “Of course I’m Jewish,” I said. She said, “You converted. A Reform conversion?” “Yes, and I went to the mikvah. They don’t let you be a rabbi if you aren’t Jewish!” She shrugged, “Well, Reform, you never know.” She asked if I had ever considered Orthodoxy. I said I had, but it wasn’t for me. She nodded. “Reform is easier, right?”

So there it was. She wasn’t trying to be mean or belittling, but to her, Reform Judaism isn’t the real Judaism. There’s one kind of Judaism that’s authentic, as far as she’s concerned, and it’s hers. That’s part of her belief system. Last week Rabbi Shmuel Goldin wrote an op-ed in The New Jersey Jewish Standard addressing this issue. He makes the distinction between believing all Jewish practice is right vs. believing all Jews having a right to choose their practice, though he might vehemently disagree. Rabbi Goldin also said that just as he believes his Reform rabbi friend’s practice is wrong, he is sure that his friend believes his practice is wrong. This, he says, is a way to be pluralist, and I agree with him. I do think pluralism is harder for someone who necessarily believes that if he is right, everyone else is wrong, and I respect him for finding a way to get there.

I don’t tend to use the words “right” and “wrong” when it comes to this topic. I prefer the word “authentic.” And I don’t think Orthodox practice is wrong — I believe it’s authentic Judaism, and I believe that my Reform Jewish practice is authentic. I don’t believe that if I am right, you must be wrong, and recommend Rabbi Brad Hirshfield’s book You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.

It stuck with me that my neighbor’s assumption was that I’m Reform because it’s easier. It certainly is in some ways, but that’s not why I’m Reform. I like the autonomy of Reform Judaism, but as a Reform Jew I have the responsibility of learning about the ritual and ceremonial halacha (Jewish law) that I don’t consider binding, and taking on commandments that will bring more holiness to my life. (Ethical commandments are still binding on Reform Jews, which many people don’t know.) I actually think that’s as difficult as following the commandments in an Orthodox mold, but in a different way.

In the course of the conversation with my neighbor, I mentioned events coming up in the next couple of weeks that I needed to prepare for: two b’nei mitzvah, two weddings, sermons, hospital visits. “Wow,” she said, “You really do everything, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said. “It must be a hard job,” she said. “It is,” I said, “and very rewarding.” It seemed to me that, while she was friendly the whole time, her respect for me increased over the course of the conversation.

I’m glad to have met her and talked to her. She’s a mensch, a good person, whose life is very different from mine. I don’t expect we will really be friends, but I hope we’ll have the opportunity to increase understanding between us.

Photo by Flickr user cazleavey.

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