When I meet with a person who wants to convert to Judaism or a couple engaged to be married one of the things we discuss is who will accept their conversion or marriage if I serve as their rabbi. As a liberal American rabbi, there are many who will question my ordination and my standing as a mara d’atra (local religious decisor) worthy of overseeing major lifecycle events: Some in the American Orthodox community and the entire Rabbinical establishment in Israel, which is owned and controlled, part and parcel, by the ultra-Orthodox.
I tell those who come to me that while the vast majority, if not all, of the liberal Jewish world will have no problem with my service as a m’sader kiddushin or m’sader gerut (the organizer of weddings and conversions) there are some who will. Should they be blessed with children who grow up and choose a traditional lifestyle or decide to make aliyah (move to Israel) - there are some who will question their status. I don’t say this to call my abilities into question, but to make sure that those I serve understand that we, in liberal Jewish America, don’t live on an island. We are part of a larger ocean of Jewish communities, practices and beliefs. As a people we must respect those with whom we differ and honor the varied traditions and values that have made us the diverse, strong nation that we are.
Recently, however, I have come to question the advice I offer.
Diversity of opinion strengthens a people when that diversity is based on mutual respect. I have many Orthodox friends and colleagues who are well aware of my liberal tendencies, who disagree with me vehemently on matters of halacha (Jewish Law) and still respect my role in the Jewish community and value the Torah that I bring to the table. I can debate with them for days about the role of women in ritual life, the halacha (Jewish laws) of homosexuality and the difference between being shomer shabbat (observant of the Sabbath) and zocher shabbat (remembering of the Sabbath.) After all our debates, which will undoubtedly end without either side being swayed, we still see each other as friends and fellow Jews who care deeply about Torah and the Jewish people.
But recently in Israel, we have seen the uglier side of diversity. We have seen a diversity that is not built upon a foundation of Jewish values but instead on judgement, ridicule and a presumption of some objective truth known only to a select few. I have never agreed with the ultra-Orthodox but have always respected their right to practice Judaism as they understand it. I don’t need to pray in a mechitzah minyan (a prayer service in which men and women are separated by a divider) to honor the right to have one. I don’t need to follow the rulings of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and scholars to acknowledge that many of these rabbis are scholars with a deep love of Torah.
I also, though, don’t need to justify myself, my faith, and my commitment to Torah, God and the Jewish people. Those in the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel and abroad do not have ownership of Truth or God’s will. They do not represent all Jews and it is a shanda (shame) that the Israeli government gives them a platform from which they continue to demean and embarrass their fellow Jews.
Fundamental to any understanding of Torah is that it is a living text. It may have been given by God to Moses at one point in time on Mount Sinai but it is received everyday by every person who has an open heart and a serious devotion to hearing God’s word. Like my ultra-Orthodox brethren, I too can trace back my lineage to Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Deborah and David. Just as the Torah was passed from Moses to Joshua and then to the elders - so too it has been passed to every Jew. My responsibility, as a Jew and as a rabbi, is not to discover the Truth of how God wants us all to live, but my truth of how God wants me to live.
Every time I give my, “we Jews don’t live on an island” speech I participate in propping up a system that is built to shut diverse opinions and practices down. So I won’t be giving that advice anymore. Instead I will tell those who come to me as their rabbi that they need not worry about how other Jews will judge them. They need only be concerned with how they will judge themselves. When they look back at their lives will they see someone who readied themselves to receive the Torah. Will they see a person who respected diversity and appreciated how that which makes us different can also make us, as a people, stronger.
We can spend all of our lives trying to please others or we can live up to our highest ideals, defend our faith and love God with all of our heart, spirit and strength. The choice is ours. Don’t judge me.