Unlike many other people I know who grew up in but have since left the Modern Orthodox community, I don’t look back on my childhood religious experiences with sadness. Instead, many of the decisions that I have since made in my religious life have been because of — not despite — having been raised in the Orthodox world.
My leaving the Orthodox world was due not to disdain, but because I couldn’t imagine a life for myself in the Modern Orthodox world as it is exists today. One of the major reasons for this, as I have written about before, is my being queer.
There are some things at which Modern Orthodoxy excels. One of this is creating a much-needed dialogue between the Modern and Orthodox parts of the community. That was one of the goals promoted at PORAT’s launch last week, where the importance of dialogue and debate were highlighted as hallmarks of Modern Orthodoxy. (PORAT is an organization that aims to bring together lay and religious leaders “to advocate for thoughtful halachic observance and progressive education.”)
However, at a certain point, talking only goes so far. It’s important to amplify the voices and narratives of those previously unheard, but listening only goes so far. Debating is what Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on: It’s not just a simple, hierarchical system where a rabbi in a position of knowledge opines. However, the need for constant debate and evaluation has consequences for those who find themselves the subject of debate.
What Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on is also its biggest weakness: It can debate and argue, but much of that remains an elitist exercise that rarely results in the substantive change that those debate subjects need. A constant search for the “right answer” is a luxury that many of us who don’t fit into the Modern Orthodox mold simply don’t have.
I left the Modern Orthodox world because, at the end of the day, my needs were not being met. My life as a queer person was being used for a debate that existed solely for the sake of debating, with no direct effect on me or any other queer person. And so I made the choice to leave Modern Orthodoxy — not just because I felt then that I had no place there, but because I felt like I never would have a place.
That wasn’t a function of there not inherently being a place for me in Modern Orthodoxy. I didn’t, and don’t, have a place due to leaders continually debating. The reluctance to give a strict “yes” or “no” answer is the reason that I left. There is nuance that must be addressed — for example, the fact that most of the conversation revolves around cisgender gay men and lesbian women, and completely ignores bisexual or queer and transgender members of the community — but the need for debate is a privilege that those who face the consequences of the debate just don’t have.
Now that I’m finishing my junior year and beginning to imagine a life outside of a university campus, I can no longer be content as the subject of a debate with no conclusion in sight. One day, I’ll need answers — answers I can’t count on Modern Orthodoxy to give me. I want to be a part of a Modern Orthodox community, but I can’t live the Modern Orthodox life that I was raised to want — because of the fact that I can’t sit in a synagogue and be a member of a community that treats me as a second-class citizen.
I don’t just need debate: I need substantive change. I need rabbis to create formulas in our legal tradition to see me, and my eventual family, as full equals in the community. I don’t just want marriage ceremonies, anti-discrimination policies in synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and youth movements. And they’re not just wants — they’re needs. I needed them when I was in high school; I need them now as a college student. I will need them when I leave college in a year.
The time and patience that I, and many others who grew up Modern Orthodox, need to have in order to stay is not something I can afford. Patience wasn’t something I could afford when I faced the delegitimizing experience of being told that I had no place in my community. Nor can I afford the patience now that I am graduating in a year and hoping to, one day, build a family in a Jewish community. I am still traditionally observant, and I want to continue living an observant life — but I also need a religious life that doesn’t view me as second-class purely because I am not heterosexual.
The discomfort my narrative gives religious and lay leaders in the Modern Orthodox community must result in something, and what I want is a systemic change. When leaders constantly talk about the need for change and ask for patience, we, the ones of whom the patience is asked, need something in return. We need change that gives us the space in the community. We can — and should — expect much more from our leaders than just debate, no matter how lively it might be. We need the systemic change that is meant to come from that debate.
New options for queer Jews — as well as for other marginalized groups — have begun to emerge in the last decade. Some communities have responded to the debates and not only debated, but begun to act. Those were options that were open to me, and ones that I took not just because I felt out of place, but because I needed a place in the Jewish community that saw me not just as a Bible verse or a narrative object of debate, but as a full person.
I left not out of choice, but out of necessity. I left because the leaders and the communities that I would, one day, want to join do not, and will not, see me as fully equal. But I keep on looking back, because I want to one day live a life in which my traditional observances and my queerness are not mutually exclusive.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.