The Conspiracy

On Non-Binary Jewish Identities and the Future of Traditional Judaism

CC via Pixabay user geralt

I have a hard time answering the question, “So how do you identify? Like, Jewish-ly?”

On the one hand, I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and attended Modern Orthodox schools since kindergarten, but, for most of my life so far, was part of a haredi community in southern Brooklyn. On the other hand, I’m studying at the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism in the United States, and, when given the option, often find myself in egalitarian prayer communities as opposed to the traditional, Modern Orthodox communities in which I was raised. And, even if I’m praying in a traditional Conservative community on campus, I am still committed to Modern Orthodoxy as a theology.

So, the short answer is that I don’t have an answer. I am all of those things at the same time, and somehow manage to thrive. The long answer, however, is that I see three different aspects to my identity: my beliefs, my personal practices, and my communal practices. Ultimately, those are the three that are going to inform how I act as a Jew, and each has its own label.

The first is my theology. I identify most closely with Modern Orthodox or Open Orthodox Judaism. I believe in the validity of the Jewish legal, or Halakhic system, but also see a reasonable amount of flexibility to operate and innovate within the given framework of Jewish legal tradition. (For more on this, see Rabbi Avraham Weiss’s essay, “Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Plea.”) Modern Orthodoxy demands a commitment to the Halakhic framework that has been followed by generations of Jews that allows me to see the value in preserving said framework. At the same time, however, it also charges me to innovate within that same framework to create spaces for Jews who previously were excluded from the Orthodox community, either because of their gender or their sexuality, or a number of other reasons.

Indeed, this is possibly because to me, Modern Orthodoxy can only be seen as a belief system, not as a set of practices and rituals. Modern Orthodoxy dictates that we straddle the line between tradition and modernity, and see the spiritual from the mundane. How we do that, however, is up to us to decide, which means that there are so many ways for a Modern Orthodox-identified Jew to exhibit his or her Modern Orthodoxy.

At the same time, there are my personal practices, which most closely resemble Modern Orthodox or traditional Conservative Judaism. I keep kosher and Shabbat, am committed to traditional observance, and grapple with trying to find ways that I, an openly queer man, can navigate the myriad of heternormative practices set forth in rabbinic literature.

Thus, every Friday night (and again on Saturday morning), I enter the traditional Conservative group’s Shabbat services, and consider myself part of that community. I pray alongside fellow progressive Jews, some of whom are observant, and some of whom aren’t. Yet, for the two-and-a-half hours we are together, we all agree to abide by the communal standards of egalitarianism and traditional Conservative Judaism. I go here not because I find Conservative Judaism more right than I do Modern Orthodoxy, but because I find myself simply more comfortable in that community than I do elsewhere.

Ultimately, these are three almost independent but also interrelated aspects of my Jewish identity. I am Modern Orthodox, Conservadox, and Conservative at the same time, and I see all of those come through at different times. Ultimately, when I talk about straddling the border between Modern Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, I am able to do so because what is expected of me is not to be identical philosophically or theologically, but to instead uphold the norms of the space I am in.

I see my Jewish identity as all-encompassing, and it informs how I see the world and why I act the way I do. I see Jewish values in LGBTQ activism, Israel activism, social action, and I try to use those values, too. At the same time, my Jewish identity is portable. I can pick it up and move it to where I feel comfortable, and I can innovate within, depending on when the situation warrants. True, there are some aspects of my practice that cannot — and do not — change. However, I can still find a way to subscribe to Modern Orthodox philosophy while praying in an egalitarian service.

At the same time, I realize that I cannot be Modern Orthodox in a community that demands me to see through the world through a distinctly non-Modern Orthodox lens. However, I can afford to see the world through a Modern Orthodox lens because I live in a community that expects me to hold by their practices, not by their theologies. I don’t see being part of a Conservative community as antithetical to my Modern Orthodox beliefs specifically because I am not expected — or even asked — to sacrifice my beliefs. And, true to my Modern Orthodox beliefs, I am able to find spiritual meaning in that which is not Orthodox.

One of the critiques of my first blog post for New Voices was that I, as someone who proposed filling in the gap between Modern Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, did not provide the framework to do so. I believe that, now, I might have begun to find an answer to the question through my personal religious journey. There is a way to build a community that fills in that gap, and that can be built outside of the big-tent, institutional Judaism, through independent communities.

I believe this is the future of the “gray space” between Modern Orthodox and Conservative Judaism: the construction of communities that are based on shared practices, not on shared beliefs. If nothing else, my generation of Jews (I cannot speak for others) has proven that, intellectually, it is too diverse to sustain communities that demand such philosophical homogeneity. Instead, we can build new communities that center around our shared practices, through which we can each derive our own meaning and find our own purpose as traditionally observant, progressive Jews.


Amram Altzman is a student at List College, a joint program between the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Columbia University.


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