Having grown up in an inclusive, tolerant Jewish world that made room for a wide variety of religious practices, moral values, and lifestyles, each return trip is another snapshot in an ongoing series depicting the erosion of the modern Orthodoxy I once knew. The saddest part, for me, is seeing how little-mourned it is.
Take my recent visit for Passover. My father and I went to dinner at a kosher restaurant. Looking around at the other diners, I was struck by the number of people who, through their garb (covered hair and ankle-length skirts for women; black velvet kippot ((skullcaps) and/or black hats for men) signaled their allegiance to right-wing Orthodoxy. Hardly anyone there looked like me, clad in jeans and a T-shirt and a knit kippah of my own. The clothing, always a priminent symbol of difference in the Jewish community, indicated to me that the neighborhood, once a gathering spot for observant Jews of all kinds, was Jewishly diverse no more.
Although I didn’t realize it as a kid, the constricting transformation of the Orthodox world was well underway in the LA of my childhood. Samuel C. Heilman’s new book “Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy,” which traces the religious and cultural battles Orthodox Jews have been fighting for the past 50 years, could serve as a history of my life and the lives of nearly everybody I grew up with. I can attest to the fact that modern Orthodoxy--what Heilman refers to as the “contrapuntalist” mode of Orthodoxy, which seeks to balance the religious and secular worlds--has increasingly ceded ground to what Heilman calls “enclavist,” right-wing Judaism.
This is not to unduly celebrate or valorize my childhood. The schools I attended had their own allotment of teachers and administrators; the synagogues were often rife with venomous internal politics over ritual and policy; and not every classmate I knew had an idyllic Jewish home. The range of religious practice in the community was startlingly wide:among my classmates at Hillel Hebrew Academy in 1991 and 1992 was a boy who took it upon himself to fast every Monday and Thursday, the days the Torah was read with morning prayers, as an extra stricture upon himself, and another whose mother insisted we could not read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” because its racy content made it inappropriate reading material for her impressionable young son.
At the same time, though, Hillel’s rosters included students from less-than-entirely observant homes, where the rules of Shabbat and kashrut were observed more in the breach than in the practice. Many of the boys and girls I attended elementary school with went on to public high schools, and many others were from immigrant families whose commitment to tradition was rock-hard and yet entirely different from that of my American-born classmates, and yet the religious differences, while ever-present, were downplayed in favor of the similarities.
The modern Orthodox world of Los Angeles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was far from perfect, and far from uniform. But it was precisely that lack of uniformity that kept it alive, and kept it fresh. Full-fledged agreement among my schoolmates, their families, or the community at large about what constituted Orthodox Judaism was rare; and yet, everyone agreed to disagree.
In the 20 years since then, the fragile bonds of the modern Orthodox world have been frayed by an increasingly vocal right wing that refuses to acknowledge or respect any Jewish practice other than its own, and the concomitant exodus from Orthodoxy of all the not entirely observant but Orthodox-affiliated families who made for a diverse, vibrant community. It is less the religious practice that has been affected (although that, too, has been noticeably altered, particularly in its adherence to ever-more stringent forms of dietary regulations) than the surrounding culture; the ideology of Orthodoxy has expanded and hardened, more interested in dictating appropriate behavior than in regulating spiritual affairs.
Modern Orthodoxy has thus become a prescription for proper thinking in every aspect of life from politics (vote Republican, support politicians on the basis of their Israel policy and nothing else) to the choice of profession (law, medicine, or business nothing interesting, please). It has no room for anyone who does not fit the narrowest possible description of Orthodoxy, or who refuses to acknowledge the community’s authority to meddle in every aspect of one’s personal, religious, and social life.
There is a notion in Judaism of putting a fence around the Torah of barring otherwise acceptable actions to protect ourselves from overstepping our bounds and violating the law. For example, we are entreated not to carry, or even touch, money on the Sabbath, to prevent ourselves from momentarily forgetting the rules of Sabbath observance and spending money This previously estimable concept has taken on a disturbingly rigid quality in right-wing modern Orthodoxy, which seeks to wall itself off anything unfamiliar and therefore unsettling.
Where in the years immediately following World War II, American culture was seen as a zone of promise, where religious Jews could embrace modernity without losing their own identity, modern Orthodoxy has turned its back on the secular world, grudgingly remaining committed to education as a path to economic success while relentlessly bad-mouthing the non-Jewish world as a caldron of temptation, immorality, and confusion, and viewing the Jewish community as the only safe zone.
For those Jews like myself who firmly believe in modern Orthodoxy as the integration of modernity and Orthodox--two equal and non-opposing elements--this condescension and fear directed at anything not Jewish is deeply alienating. As someone whose profession primarily consists in thinking and writing about products of American secular culture like novels and movies and rock albums, I find this attitude off-putting, not to mention strange.
I’ve felt the effects of this impulse in a very personal way. Last year I got married; a week or so before my wedding, I received a phone call from a rabbi with whom I had studied with in Israel several years ago and hadn’t spoken to since. He was calling at the request of a distant relative of mine, who wanted the rabbi to intercede regarding the religious content of my wedding ceremony.
My then-fiancée and I were planning to have a Conservative rabbi presiding over an entirely Orthodox service--a compromise between my family and hers. My former teacher was unsure of the details, and confused as to what the problem was, precisely, even after I explained it to him; but he’d made the call, nonetheless, having been convinced by others that my Orthodoxy was on the line. After we’d talked, neither the rabbi nor myself could see any legal reason why the presence of a Conservative rabbi at an Orthodox wedding should be taboo; yet the illogical consensus among those seeking to meddle in my wedding planning was that it should be avoided.
As I have gotten older, I have found it increasingly difficult to accept this reflexive set of controls on my religious life. These days, I simply can’t check my personal beliefs at the door of the synagogue, letting the ingrained sexism, political lockstep, and authoritarian intrusiveness wash over me without notice. In particular, modern Orthodoxy’s treatment of women, its purposeful banishment of half its practitioners to the margins, has grown even more entrenched as the society surrounding it grows slowly but noticeably more egalitarian.
Modern Orthodox women are not only banned from the rabbinate and prevented from meaningful participation in synagogue services. They are also fed a constant stream of propaganda about their subjugation, in the hopes that they will be convinced that the hugely uneven allotment of rights and responsibilities in modern Orthodoxy (women are generally not taught Talmud in schools and are implored to consider their primary task the rearing of children) is proper and fair.
Other Jews often ask me to explain myself, religiously speaking. I find it difficult, to say the least. I continue to think of myself as Orthodox observing Shabbat, keeping a kosher home, and wearing a kippah.
At the same time, intellectually and emotionally, I find myself having little in common with the overwhelming majority of the modern Orthodox world. I attend a Conservative synagogue on occasion, where I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the services on a visceral level five years of Orthodox day schools have their effect but soothed by the knowledge that I do not have to check my personal beliefs at the door. I am relieved to know that I will not have to have a knock-down, drag-out fight about whether a committed Zionist can vote for John Kerry without being a traitor to Judaism, as I once did with some Orthodox acquaintances.
Religiously speaking, I am condemned to a life in the margins, caught between the vibrant modern Orthodoxy I once knew and its unpleasant, deliberately exclusive face today. I am saddened to have lost the modern Orthodoxy I once knew, and the home I had within its capacious bounds, but I go on carrying its equal commitment to tradition and modernity, to shared values and shared difference, in my head, and in my heart.