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Yes, The Orthodox Are Exclusive – But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Be

A follow-up to an essay published last week, “Do Pluralistic Jewish Organizations Stop At The Orthodox?

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by an acclaimed academic, an Orthodox Jewish female leader. She recounted a story: Highly credentialed with degrees from Ivy League institutions, she was invited to be on a panel discussion at an Orthodox synagogue. Despite her pedigree, despite her doctorate, on the promotional literature she was listed as “Mrs.” She was seen through the lens of her marital status, fully actualized not by her hard work but with the existence of her husband. This woman is a principal of a large school, an accomplished person in her own right. But she will always be behind a man.

Orthodoxy has many spaces where women aren’t welcome. Women can’t hold the title “rabbi” without causing a controversy. They can’t sit on the other side of the mechitzah. They can’t be single and still be seen as complete people.

Orthodoxy is not pluralistic. Few leaders can honestly claim that it is. They might hem and haw and make compromises and assert that there is beauty in separation. That keeping the sexes segregated leaves room for growth for both men and women. That each has their role and each should fill that role to the best of their ability.

Having acknowledged that, at least there is intellectual honestly in Orthodoxy’s exclusion. No one claims that it’s an all-inclusive movement. No one thinks that a woman would be allowed to be a Rosh Yeshiva of an Orthodox Yeshiva. No woman would even dream of being a Yentle-like student in a Yeshiva like Lakewood. There is not even a single all-day program in America for women to simply study Torah for reasons of self-edification. The apologists and explaining notwithstanding, the leaders’ intellectual honesty is admirable.

Most Orthodox organizations are not open to non-Orthodox rabbis and leaders. Very little intrafaith work is done continually and sustainably, with the exception of the students and graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox Rabbinical school. There are other minor exceptions as well. Last November, I attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh where I heard a Reform rabbi and Conservative rabbi speak after hearing the rabbi of the congregation speak, during a Seudah Shlishit meal. I have never witnessed that before.

But pluralism isn’t quid pro quo. There are many reasons to be inclusive. If an institution claims to be pluralistic, leaders should open their doors because they believe it’s a virtuous standard to reach, not so that Orthodox institutions should open for you. They are playing pluralism chicken. Each side is waiting for the other to capitulate. Orthodox people complain the rest of the Jewish world is not open. But if an organization is transactional, it is not actually pluralistic. It is only accommodating as a means to a self-serving end. No one will claim that they should not accommodate vegans because the vegan lobby isn’t open to Orthodoxy. Be open because having numerous voices and points of view makes your experience richer. Whether or not Orthodoxy responds in kind is relevant, but should not affect your bottom line.

Pluralism is a virtue for many reasons.

Some people might believe that it’s virtuous inherently, that any house of worship or community should be open for all. Some might believe that Judaism in particular should have a big tent approach. Others might believe that having and hearing more voices in a community makes it a richer experience for everyone involved. Many would argue that pluralism brings about Achdut, togetherness. All of these motivations have one thing in common. These primarily possess intrinsic value, without the contingency of any other factors.

Regardless of result, there is a reason to uphold these ideals. It is not reliant on the cooperation or compliance of other Jewish groups. That would be great, if a member of every gender or religiosity would feel welcome at the Lakewood Yeshiva and Orthodox people would be welcomed in less observant spaces.

But waiting for the other side to make the first move leaves us at a stalemate. If the goal of pluralism is supposed to bring us together, to create a sense of Achdut, then it should not rely on others to make the first move. Open your doors to make others feel welcome, not to be accepted by other groups based on some sort of contract.

This isn’t to reject or write out those who are hurt. There are women and gender non-conforming people who feel invisible, rejected, and denied access to the basic freedom and agency bestowed upon men based on a chromosome they were born with. The skilled women who can quote Talmud with more intellect than any man. The gay man who can’t get an Aliyah or name his child at the Orthodox synagogue he is a part of. The trans person who sits on the side of the mechitza that does not align with their gender identity. These are members of the community whose needs are not met or recognized.

Everyone is firmly in their trenches. Orthodoxy is waiting for everyone else to convert to their belief systems. Liberal Jews want the same, for Orthodoxy to be more open and progressive just like them. Each party is waiting for the other, so togetherness is at a standstill. It seems that people in power aren’t willing to listen to opinions that they disagree with, leading to something worse than infighting: a lack of connection and communication between communities.

When peace becomes a game of chess, we all lose.

Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer living in New York. He hosts and produces the long-form storytelling show “Long Story Long”. Comments can be sent to the author directly at [email protected].


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