There is quite a lot of talk about denominational unity.
“Let’s draw together as a Jewish community!” “Let’s build cross-denominational ties!” “Denominations are irrelevant and we live in a post-denominational era!” It is almost as if we, the eternally factional and rather divisive Jewish people have discovered a magic, unified, cohesive land beyond the rainbow, filled with trans-denominational mixing, unity (often termed as achdut), and readily available, free-range, Magen-Tzedek, kosher unicorn milk for your coffee. It is so tempting to pretend that this epoch has arrived! I sometimes wish it has.
Then you hear something along these lines:
“Those Reform Jews don’t really know what Judaism is! They take in anyone and feed them their bullsh*t.”
“Oh my gosh, those Orthodox girls who keep shomer negiah are so annoying! Like, can’t they loosen up or something? We don’t have cooties!”
“You Conservatives don’t really keep kosher; we should teach you how to keep real kosher.”
(I have personally heard all of these uttered in the past two months.)
Folks, this isn’t unison. This is arrogance.
Let us walk through how each direction is problematic: traditional to less traditional, and then vice-versa.
Firstly: to those who rag on “Reform” kids – I understand where you’re coming from. As a somewhat traditionally-minded (Conservadox-ish) Jew, I can understand the confusion that less traditional practice causes – and the frustration that might come from practice gaps. I myself have thought quite toxic things during English-language prayer recitations.
That does not make insulting their traditions OK. What might seem to be “fake” Judaism to you is “real” Judaism to them, your “not acceptable” is their “acceptable,” your “weird practice” is their “spirited and authentic practice. When you call someone’s kashrut “kosher style,” you both delegitimize their own practice and imply that you keep perfect kashrut – which, as we all know, is probably bull in someone else’s view. These insults, jabs, and meanness not only undo any sort of interdenominational unity, they also make those who do not follow Orthodox, shomer(et) mitzvot, or Conservadox practice feel unwelcome in the very spaces where they should. Finally, such practices ward many people away from a Jewish world that they feel is split into an all or nothing dichotomy, in which anything new is seen as forbidden or heretical (à la foundational Haredi thinker, the Chatam Sofer). Do we want that?
Furthermore, you do not “own” Judaism – you practice one form of it. And those bent on tradition should remember that the Tanakh urges us v’hatznea lekhet im elokeikha – to “walk humbly with your G-d” (Micah 6:8). Claiming ownership of the tradition, absolute rectitude of practice, and excluding others is certainly not humble walking. (Neither, perhaps, I admit, is this article.)
You don’t get off if you’re the “liberal” person either. If you’re a secular person in a secular institution, then, buddy, you’ve got privilege and you need to realize that. It is not easy to be traditional in the secular world: you have to take off odd strings of days for work, kashrut is awkward all the time, and isolation from traditional peers is a very real social concern. Every time you make a snarky comment about “the Orthodox” being “backward,” “self-righteous,” or “insincere,” you are actually being a patronizing snob. I think it should be noted that so-called backward Orthodox communities have often proven far more welcoming to Jews of color, Jews with financial disadvantage, and converts than supposedly “progressive and liberal” secular communities.
An additional note: there are special layers of problems that arise when you – especially if you are a male speaking of/to a female– call those who follow shomer negiah, the practice of not touching the opposite gender, backward or oppressed. Sure, it is often paired with questionable philosophies, but at the end of the day, for many observant Jews it is an important and meaningful spiritual and daily practice. Now, here’s the thing: one should also examine why one is annoyed that one’s new acquaintance is shomer negiah. Are you annoyed because you really wanted to shake their hand, or are you annoyed because you are *accustomed to assumed privilege of access to another person’s body?* As much as shomer negiah seems patriarchal, the assumption that a secular man might have that he has a right to shake the hand of, poke, tap, or hug any female is also patriarchal. Patriarchy, like a hyperactive octopus, has tentacles everywhere: it is not simply sitting over yonder. To smash it, one has to check inside one’s self too. I have had to check myself too. I think this also serves as a general note of caution for assigning all problematic tendencies to “them frum folk.”
So we – across the spectrum – all engage in problematic behavior. How do we address it then?
Start with words: because sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can make someone feel awful for longer. The kindergarten rules of course continue to apply: think before you speak. But some of this thinking requires some reading. Learn about the diversity of meanings terms have – one author found that “kosher” could mean ten distinct – and perfectly Jewish – things. Perhaps go a step further and learn about differences in liturgy. It totally blew my mind that Reform practitioners don’t always do the full blessings before the Shema, while many a Reform friend of mine has been wowed by the poetry of the normally “Orthodox” An’im Z’mirot. The more you know, the less likely you are to say something stupid or offensive. (Furthermore, you get to learn more about Judaism!)
But there’s also the realization that tolerance-failure can reflect other patterns in your life. Again, what does anger about a woman being shomer negiah say about societal influences in a man’s life? When one calls strict observance of Shabbat “extreme,” is it only a reflection of perceived extremity, or also of distrust of observance more traditional than one’s own? Is gender separation in prayer services only bad, or does the removal of mekhitza, or gender separation at services, create other problems – as R’ Steven Greenberg so eloquently argues? Thinking these things through also prevents the utterance of stupid and offensive comments.
In thinking of our speech and actions, denominational unity comes closer as a reality. Will we ever get there? I am skeptical, but I do think that if one thinks about attitudes, the tolerance talk becomes a tolerance walk. And that – even if it only happens a bit – is a very good thing.
Jonathan P. Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.