Reportage style shot of protestors at a rally.

Why The Orthodox World Should Be Grateful To Its Detractors

A month ago or so, I was attending Limmud New York, a pluralistic Jewish conference.  I was on a panel on the first night called, “Diversity In The Jewish World.”  My perspective was about how to increase diversity of thought in the Jewish world.  How to foster communities that do not seem to require agreement as a prerequisite to joining or staying.

While I was talking, I looked out into the crowd.  And like many of these pluralistic events, the vast majority of people involved were Reform and Conservative.  I could tell that my message, while interesting to the audience, was not striking a chord.  It was not something they deeply worried about, but was more of an interesting look into another person’s experience.

A woman came up to me afterwards.  She said, “I was so moved by your story.  But you know, the people in my community have the opposite problem.  You’re trying to get included.  We want other people to be included, but they aren’t interested.”

There was something about the way she said that that struck something in deep inside of me.  Yes, that was exactly it, wasn’t it?  One community that is big and accepting, but is losing its members.  Meanwhile another that is small and struggling with accepting some of its members.

As I continued speaking to the woman, I could see the enormous pain she felt watching her community shrink and the young people she cared so deeply about disengaging.  There was a pain there that I hadn’t thought about in ages, maybe because I was one of the people who had disengaged.  Maybe because I was, in a way, one of the people she lost.

But maybe also for another reason.  Because, as she said, my frame of mind is focused on the exact opposite problem.  What I deeply, deeply hope to see in the Jewish world is more acceptance, more diversity, more ability to handle those who are different or who have differing viewpoints or who look different or who have struggles others can’t even comprehend.  That’s what the Jewish world is missing, in my mind.

But that’s my Jewish world.  The orthodox one, and particularly the Hasidic one, the one that I’ve now left for one that I feel has created a better balance of pluralism and halachic boundaries.  I’ve left it, but the pain of that separation is enormous.  Enormous because I miss it, but also enormous because I still see so much potential in it all, still so deeply believe that the Hasidic world holds so many of the secrets the world needs to hear, so deeply believe that the culture itself has something so important to share with the world.

I didn’t leave because I wanted to.  I wanted to stay.  I want to stay.

And I know so many others who feel the same way.  Who may not express it in so many words, who many not even want to admit it to others (or even themselves), but who left their communities not because they don’t like their communities, don’t love their communities, don’t wish they could still be there.  But because if they wanted to live a life that was true to their inner selves, it was simply no longer tenable to stay in a community that does not truly accept people who diverge in thinking, experience, identity.

In other words, I needed this woman to come up and tell me that I wanted to stay in the Hasidic community for me to realize it.  I had internalized a narrative that wasn’t true, that I had wanted to leave.  But no, if that was the case I wouldn’t have created a fuss in the way I did.  I wouldn’t still be creating a fuss. I wouldn’t be writing this article now.

I would be like one of those young people this woman’s heart is breaking over.  Just gone, just not interested, just moving on.  We don’t raise a fuss over things we don’t have a stake in.  We just let them go.

What I mean to say is this.  I remember a few years ago, I’d look at the people who “complain” about the orthodox world, and I’d think of them as outsiders trying to take down the system.  And for sure, there are the bitter ones who help create that impression.

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But now, now I have my experience, but more than that I have seen Neshamas, a sister site of this one where Jewish people, largely orthodox, anonymously share their struggles. I have seen the guest posts submitted here. I have seen my friends, the baalei teshuva and others, who have gone through similar struggles.  I have seen people finally actually let go, finally get to that place which that woman described, the no-longer-caring, numbed-to-it-all feeling.

And I see now.

I see that while many in the orthodox world see the people who raise a fuss about the way things work as a threat, those people are actually the people they should be the most grateful for.  Those are the people who feel the most pain about their communities and yet are so heavily invested in those same communities that they would rather raise a fuss than leave and/or give up.

Like the Kabbalistic idea that the farther something falls, the higher it came from, the orthodox Jews who are so critical of their world are in many ways the ones who have the deepest connections to it.

But sadly we live in a world where conformity is prized over people.  That’s why those people are accused of being against “Jewish unity.”  Because in the worldview of people for whom conformity matters more than anything, anyone who challenges conformity is against unity.

And, ironically, the very same people who so deeply want conformity are the ones who are making unity impossible.  To demand everyone thinks the same is to then encourage anyone who wants to be true to themselves and has a different opinion to leave.

Soemone recently challenged me about Neshamas: he said that there are already places for these people to speak: the Forward. Lillith. Why did I have to make one that was within the orthodox world, where orthodox people would read it, and run by orthodox Jews?

My reply: that is the exact reason it was created.  If the only place a person can express their difficulty with belonging is in a place outside the orthodox world, then the orthodox world has by definition made itself only accepting of insider perspectives.  This need to have the expression of the pain of others literally placed outside of the community itself is a metaphor for these larger issues.

And so I say this: if it pains you to see orthodox Jews speaking up or criticizing or even criticizing our entire world, realize that they are part of the ultimate story of the Jewish people: that we are one.  One in a sense that goes beyond agreement, beyond morality, beyond conformity, beyond even “unity.”

They are invested in us as a people, just as you are.  They are part of your story, invested in your soul.  And perhaps if you see it that way, you may even realize how blessed you are.

After all, would you rather be the woman who is broken-hearted that people don’t even care?