Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur - Don't separate yourself from the community

Our beginning question is: So how do I define the Jewish community from which I do not separate myself?

For those of us who are Modern Orthodox Jews, which more people now call Open Orthodox, we live with the challenge of simultaneously maintaining our own religious standards and practices while being part of the larger world. Admittedly, for me personally, inside the cocoon of my own mind, this is not only not a problem but makes perfect sense. However, the reality is that I live with and in the larger world and it is here that this balance becomes increasingly difficult and challenging given what I often call the “black and white world in which we live.” Years ago, I was at a lecture given by Rabbi Adin Steinhaltz, who looked at his American Jewish audience, and began with words along the line of the following: Mazel Tov, you have caught up. You have become as rigid and intransigent and as divided as Israel. People laughed, I began to cry internally. I thought of titling this entry “I stand in one place and they just keep changing what they call me,” but now that I have shared this, it is probably clear why I chose the indicated heading.

Some years ago, there was a lead article in The Baltimore Jewish Times about successful members of the Conservative movement of the 1960’s who were now within the folds of the Orthodox community. I read the article with particular interest as the story told by the people interviewed was my story. Yes, I am identified by all who know me as Modern Orthodox but the reality is, to rephrase Robert Fulrrum’s book title, “Everything I know and am, I learned in USY.” Growing up in a Conservative synagogue with a Rabbi whose Semicha was from Yeshiva University (and there were many such communities in those days!), and as an active member in USY, I was schooled in a way of life that was that of being a shomer mitzvot. As a USY officer, we all had to sign a contract indicating that we were shomer Shabbat, shomer Kashrut, and engaged in full time Jewish learning. The same was required in the home in which I grew up. I learned texts in my classes at Baltimore Hebrew College with Orthodox identified teachers and with classmates who were members of Orthodox as well as Conservative communities. Occasionally USYers and NCSYers would join together for activities. One of the Conservative affiliated synagogues in our region actually had a mechitza.

Now granted, I was one of the more observant members of my group, but those of us in this group now meet occasionally in Israel or in any number of communal Orthodox settings. We were so successful at continuing to live the way that we learned, the Conservative movement eventually had no use for us. In fact, I was actually fired from my position as Educational Director of a region of United Synagogue of America in the mid-eighties for “being too religious, and therefore not a good role model for the community.” The two things that were cited as my misdeeds were that I would not eat in a non-kosher restaurant and that I did not use forms of transportation on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On the other hand, I am not accepted by many elements of the Orthodox world, and in years of consulting with schools and communities throughout the Jewish spectrum, much of my work has been rejected in the Orthodox community because I am “too controversial,” so I find myself trying to figure out to which community I actually belong.

I do not separate myself but am put into a type of pariah status too often. I have suffered personally and professionally through the years as a result of this. Nonetheless, I subscribe to the notion that “G-d understands, it’s the neighbors who don’t quite get it.” The right side of the larger spectrum of the Jewish community considers me “too open” because we embrace all Jews of Klal Yisrael and figure that if Ribbonu shel Olam has Ahavat Yisrael for all B’nai Yisrael, who am I to set parameters for a more exclusive club??? The people in the identified “non-observant” (ritually speaking) corridors do not completely trust me because I am “one of them, you know the HaShemites…” So, I continue to consider myself part of the larger Jewish community and have taught my children and students to do the same, even though as one person in our Orthodox community said to me years ago, “Sunnie, you do 99% of everything correct, why don’t you just give up the other 1% and then you can be one of us?” I really don’t think that any explanation is needed, regarding my reaction internally.

I have often used the phrase, “Its hard to be an Or LaGoyim from the corner of Meah Shaarim,” meaning that we are the ones who are “out and about” both within the larger Jewish community and within the even larger world community. I am definitely a Judaism/Torah junkie… I do think that contained within the wisdom, practices, and thinking of this system, is all one needs to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. I am awed daily by our four children who have taken up this charge as well and maintain their balance on the same tricky beam on which I have teetered and tottered all these years, though have never fallen off of it. I really do believe that G-d wants us to live with and inside of this balance. In the Vidui, we find the following phrase: For the misdeed we have committed by judgment (b’fililim). I have always found this so meaningful. There is so much in Jewish texts and practices that tell us to not embarrass each other, to not judge another person until one is in their place, and of course…. to not separate from the general masses. Yet, in the real lane in which we live, this happens all of the time. There are people who are so meticulous about Kashrut, what goes into their mouths, for example, yet are rather cavalier about Shmirat HaLashon, what comes out of their mouths. Within the community that observes Taharat HaMishpacha, one would like to think that there is no sexual, physical or emotional abuse in trying to attain a true sense of Shalom Bayit. To be sure, this desired consistency is clearly not the case for all members of any group. It’s just that it seems to me that when one is identified by others and self-identifies as a Shomer Mitzvot, all of the above count.

I guess this is the community to which I ideologically belong – the one that is composed of those of us who are committed to those actions of ritual and religious deeds and are equally committed to those dictated actions that are clear about honesty, not cheating, being kind and caring, giving the other the benefit of the doubt and acknowledging at the end of the day that what is between a person and G-d is not for another to glibly judge in too many instances. This is the community in my head to which I belong. In terms of the community of which I am physically a member, this is not as easy.

I often explain that I spend half of my time explaining and correcting the inaccurate caricatures people hold on to about the Orthodox community in the non-Orthodox world and the other half of my time doing the same in the Orthodox community regarding the caricatures people have regarding those who are non-Orthodox. In the meantime, because I daven with a mechitzah, dress a certain way, am identified as a Shomeret Mitzvot and live inside of my Orthodox community, clearly I am identified as Orthodox. Yet, because I have friends, colleagues and relatives who run the gamut of the continuum of Jewish ideological and practice options, as well as those who are outside of the pale of Judaism altogether, I am the one who is not quite “normal” in the community in which I reside. Whereas in my formative years of the late 60s and 70s, this composite picture was consistent with my identity as an observant Halachic Conservative Jew, my children grapple with what they should say when they explain themselves to others. The phrase I have adopted is “Halachic, accepting, pluralistic Torah observant Jew.” I guess that about covers it…. that is the name of my community of choice.

The problem that remains is: None of the established movements in today’s American Jewish community truly reflect their roots and the thinking of their founders. Even more so, these labels are not as meaningful in the rest of world Jewry. Given that, aren’t we all left with the task of figuring out what our own Jewish identity is, no longer relying on the default position of this or that title?


  1. Yasher Koach, a great beginning.
    Wishing you much success!!

  2. I was engaged the whole time! Fantastic work.
    Love Ya,

    Choosing a profile for the computer illiterate - not so easy!

  3. This post is very Sunnie :) and very thought provoking.

    Feeling both isolated and a part of a community is a pretty difficult position to be in. However, over the past few years I have also realized it has its unique perks. Once someone establishes him or herself as someone who sits on the fringe of multiple communities, that person can do things that other people will not be surprised by.

    Sure, there will always be the critics who call you out you for "poreshing" min a particular tzibor, BUT I bet there will also always be people who wish they were in a position to do the same thing but cannot. Maybe because they are afraid, or unsure, or don't know how to go about it. Considering that hypothetical group, I believe having the strength or the flexibility or the knowledge to straddle the boundary between a community to which you "ideologically belong" and a community to which you "physically belong" can be a wonderful gift.

    One of your "grappling children"