When it comes to questions of religious observance, I am a live-and-let-live liberal. This attitude sometimes brings me into conflict with hard-liners. Some of them are Orthodox religionists and some are part of the “secular orthodoxy” — secular Jews who are intolerant of any approach to religious practice other than their own. The second category is my subject here.
As a devotee of Jewish renewal, I have prayed many times in circumstances reflecting our movement’s commitment to pluralism and tolerance. Picture a large tent filled with motley davveners: on the bimah, leaders guide most of the kehilla in a chant based on the first lines of the Ashrei, while off to one side, a group of worshipers move their bodies in a form of holy yoga based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and near one wall of the tent, the members of an Orthodox contingent shuckel with heads bent over their Artscroll siddurim, chanting the prayer in its entirety.
Of course, there are limits to tolerance in any setting. Jewish renewalists will never accept practices that put whole groups of people outside the pale. For instance, a group challenging women’s right to be rabbis would never be comfortable with our inclusive values and customs (and vice versa), nor would a group that denied welcome to gay and lesbian Jews and their partners. The guiding principle is to allow each individual the maximum degree of freedom so long as it does not impair the freedom of others to participate fully.
Most religious Jews I’ve met — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, post-denominational renewalists, and to a lesser extent, Orthodox — are willing to tolerate a range of personal practice as legitimate within K’lal Yisroel, within Judaism. I’ve studied Talmud with Orthodox rabbis and davvened at Conservative shuls and been made to feel warmly welcome each time. But there are too many exceptions to this general tolerance, too many people who feel entitled to dictate to others what is legitimate for Jews and what is not, rather than leaving this intensely personal matter between each Jew and the Source of Being, where it belongs.
In the circles I frequent, everyone has had such experiences with Orthodox Jews. The funniest one in my repertoire happened over the phone. I once purchased a gift from an online Judaica store in New York. When it did not arrive, I phoned to track the order. The man who answered engaged me in conversation while we waited for an update from the shipping department. He asked me if I belonged to a shul. I had already been able to discern that his own orientation was far more Orthodox than mine, so I dreaded the reactions this line of questioning might bring. But I did my best to give short, friendly answers. My interrogator quickly established that my congregation did not have a mechitza (a barrier that separates male from female worshippers). “Let me ask you something,” he said, in a mild, bantering tone. I consented. “Why can you not accept the Torah as it was handed down from Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher), perfect and complete?” I said the Torah was open to interpretation: we didn’t follow the instruction to put people to death for wearing wool and linen together, or make them sleep in the wild for a week if they had a skin rash, did we? “Interpretation?” he replied. “We don’t use that word!”
To that man, my understanding of what it is to be a Jew is so flawed I might not be allowed into the category at all. But who appointed him to vet my spiritual life? I choose not to cede power to the strictest constructionists among my people. I believe those who say they find in adherence to traditional halakha (religious law) an encompassing discipline that illuminates their lives. I respect their right to make such choices so long as they are not imposed on others. And I want them to respect my choices in return. I even hold out hope that some day they will.
But in the last few years, my more serious complaints have been with members of the secular orthodoxy. I would no more say that all secular Jews are intolerant than that all Orthodox are. But clumped at both ends of the spectrum of religious observance are groups of Jews who feel entitled to force their own customs on those whose personal practice is different. They lack the generosity of spirit and open-mindedness to tolerate divergence from their own customs when they encounter it. Consider these examples of secular orthodoxy, all of which I know either from direct personal experience or from first-person accounts.
¶ My husband is a convert to Judaism, having been granted his conversion by a Conservative bet din (rabbinic court). Most religious Jews he’s encountered — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and post-denominational renewalists — have followed the tradition of welcoming the stranger, gladly accepting his membership in the community. In contrast, there is tremendous controversy in the Orthodox world over the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions. But there’s another issue that doesn’t get as much attention: the peculiar treatment of conversion in the world of secular orthodoxy.
For secular Jews, being Jewish is a fact of cultural and genetic inheritance, so it puzzles them how precisely it is possible for someone to become Jewish. Could I wake up in the morning and declare myself Asian or Native American? Then how can the descendent of generations of WASPs declare himself a Jew? Many times I have seen secular-orthodox Jews tell my husband — who takes his spiritual practice seriously— that he is not a Jew at all! At a party a few months ago, a senior member of this contingent approached my husband, whom she had just met, to declare in a voice loud enough to heard by everyone present, “You’re not Jewish!” “Yes I am,” he replied. She insisted more loudly: “You’re not Jewish!” “Yes I am,” he retorted, “and I have a certificate from my bet din to prove it.” She renewed her assertion a third time: “You’re not Jewish!” “Yes I am,” he replied, “I’ve even been circumcised twice (medically at birth and symbolically through the brit dam at his conversion)!” I doubt she found this convincing, but it did end the assault.
¶ A friend was called on the carpet by his employer, the chair of the Board of an organization with the word “Jewish” in its name. Her complaint was that “I’ve heard from a couple of people who saw you make presentations and you were coming off too Jewish. Everyone knows we’re Jewish, you don’t have to mention it all the time.”
¶ When a spokesperson for one secular-orthodox organization welcomed participants to its flagship event, he alluded to the value of welcoming controversy: “In our tradition,” he said, “questioning and debate are positive practices.” He was reprimanded for using the phrase “in our tradition,” because it was alleged to create discomfort for those who did not see themselves in that light, both non-Jews and the secular orthodox in the audience.
¶ The director of a secular-orthodox organization reported on the results of focus groups with young people, convened for the purpose of learning how to increase participation from their demographic segment. “They loved everything about it,” she said, “except the word ‘Jewish’ in our name. Maybe we should consider changing it.”
¶ A friend working for a major secular-orthodox organization outlined plans to promote the group’s events by partnering with synagogues and other religious organizations, getting them to cosponsor and help to publicize events that might interest their memberships. (The group had successfully entered into such arrangements with social-service and issue-based groups.) This was rejected on the grounds that it endangered the organization’s real mission, which — despite many public claims to serve the whole community — everyone knew was to serve the unaffiliated. When my friend protested that the organization’s declared mission was to be inclusive, he was accused of attempting to move it in a religious direction. The dominant feeling was that there was a risk of contamination or domination in any association with religious Jews.
¶ An employee of a secular-orthodox Jewish organization was reprimanded for including a small, abstract Magen David in a poster. The grounds? That it was a religious symbol and therefore offensive to the secular.
The intolerance of groups at the extremes of the religious spectrum tends to be justified by its perpetrators as a necessary defense. They cultivate a skewed world-view, in which the group practicing intolerance toward others is depicted as oppressed, marginal, in need of special protection. Even though secular Jews make up by far the largest sector of the Jewish population, the secular-orthodox view portrays them as some sort of endangered species.
Some Jews choose a secular path out of a conviction that what others see as supernatural or divine is merely deception, or out of a critique of organized religion. Some make that choice because they have never been able to get over a repressive or hypocritical religious upbringing, throwing out religion as a whole with the bathwater of their childhood wounds. The reasons may be as various as those for choosing a path of faith, but what separates the secular orthodox from the merely secular has nothing to do with such reasons: it is simply that they’ve succumbed to the pitfalls underlying all intolerance, stereotyping and scapegoating, generalizing about a whole group on the basis of specific individuals or worse, based on nothing more than propaganda.
I’m certain that someone fascinated by psychological motivations could unearth the roots of the secular-orthodox mind-set, but I’m not as interested in explaining this harmful behavior as I am in bringing it to light so it can be changed. Like all forms of intolerance, secular orthodoxy is damaging to the believer as well as the object.
By segregating themselves from their religious brothers and sisters, secular orthodox Jews deprive themselves of essential challenges and opportunities. They have a lot to learn about cultivating hope and possibility — and about articulating common values that build community — from faith-based organizing efforts. It’s hard to beat tzedakah v’chesed (justice and loving-kindness) as a platform. And in a time when progressive forces are sadly in the minority, none of us can afford pass up opportunities to learn.
Secular Jews are the majority of Jews, and it is a fundamental principle of civil society that majorities should behave well toward minorities. Many secular-orthodox Jews espouse progressive politics, yet see nothing wrong in meting out dismissive, disrespectful treatment to members of their own ethnic group. How can this stance be in secular Jews’ own enlightened self-interest? The world progressives are trying to help into being is pluralistic, egalitarian and diverse. Compared to the enormous differences in belief and practice common among the peoples of the earth, the differences between religious and secular Jews pale to insignificance. What does it say about the world’s prospects if we can’t work together in a spirit of tolerance and respect? How can just societies be built on such foundations?
The secular-orthodox insist on their right to be included in the Jewish community, and I agree with them: there should be no litmus test of belief — or unbelief — that stands in the way of respect and inclusion in K’lal Yisroel. Those who erect such obstacles deserve to be rebuked and given the opportunity to change their damaging behaviors. I am grateful for this opportunity to try.