Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I won't join your denomination or synagogue

Every so often - and more often than I would like - someone tells me to leave the orthodox community and join their synagogue/denomination and all my problems with patriarchy and religious misogyny will be solved. Despite asking people to please don’t tell me to belong somewhere else, it keeps coming up. so here I will try to articulate why telling me to join to another community is not an answer. not at all. Warning: this will get personal. very very personal. 

It will get personal because this is partly about intellectual decisions, but the hurt and pain is because there are a lot of emotions flying around this issue. and in order to express my opinion on this I am going to have to be emotional, and talk about my personal experiences. My very very personal experiences. Not yours, although some may resonate with you, but mine.

(a quick word about the gender inequality that is very obvious in orthodox circles. it is particularly bad there and is part of my sense of alienation and unease about being part of a community. But I also look around the world and see misogyny and gender inequality everywhere. In the visual art world, in the cinema, in advertising... and I see it in other denominations of Judaism) 

In Anglo-Jewry the mainstream Jewish communities are organised around synagogues and communal prayer services. Synagogues of different denominations and communal prayer of varying types. Be it Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, Liberal - the synagogue is a place for prayer. There is a lot of talk about the traditional name for a synagogue is Beit Knesset - House of Assembly, not a Beit Tefilah - House of Prayer. And there are other activities - social, educational. But the main headline activity is the praying bit. And it is the differences in how to do communal prayer that practically, if not ideologically, distinguish between the denominations. 

I don’t like communal prayer. 

I have tried to like it. To find it meaningful & spiritual, and I don’t. I am impressed with anyone who does like it. and i wish I did. it would make it so much easier. I would just go to a synagogue that would include me in the communal prayer.... but I tried that. and I didn’t like it. perhaps it is because I can’t sing, and feel self-conscious in a group of people singing beautifully. I can’t add my voice to group as it would be a mangled note of discord to otherwise harmonious and uplifting atmosphere. When I lived in Israel I went to an egalitarian minyan. it was lovely. women were counted and respected. women led the prayers. But I hated it and realised my discomfort in communal prayer was not to do with lack of equality... God may dwell in the multitude, but God is also found in the still small voice. The times when I have found the strange act of praying to be meaningful and transformative, were all in private. Just me. my thoughts and the siddur. the prayer book....

the siddur... that has not been something which I have been able to open. when I lost my baby it was silent as to the appropriate words to say. this book that tells me what to say when I see blossom for the first time. hear thunder. when I wake up. before I eat. and what to say before I die. all scripted and prescribed. all experiences of life . except for this one. which is the only one that I needed someone else to give me words to say as I had nothing. so I looked in the siddur and it gave me nothing. but not only did it give me nothing on this situation, every word was now alien and suspect. The prayers are not written from the experience of a woman’s body. Translations may try to be gender-neutral but the hebrew isn’t. Avenu Malkanu... Our Father, Our King.... The God in words is male. But private prayer is modeled by Hanna, who whispered unspoken words that cannot be heard. Take this siddur away from me. it has too many words in it and all of them are wrong and they stick in my throat. I have tried many times to pick up the siddur and I cannot find a reflection or articulation of the mess of my internal emotions. I have looked at various siddurim at all different types of communal prayer experiences. It is an act of great self-restraint that I am not known in different denominations as the crazy lady who throws sacred prayerbooks on the floor. Why would I join another community, another denomination only to be faced with the same prayerbook or variant of the same?

Hanna prayed silently, wordlessly out of great emotion and longing. A longing that I sadly have experienced. Jewish communities are very family-focused. Being a married woman of a certain age people would begin conversations with me with “how many children do you have?” - they were trying to be friendly... Communities are great if your life-experiences are in step with the acceptable stages that are marked and deemed important. If for any reason you fail to hit those targets then you find yourself in the margins. A community may try very hard to be inclusive but I definitely felt an unease about being in a place where I was seen as lacking. When I did eventually have a child the community was great. sort of. We found ourselves on the rota for meals, receiving food from strangers who had never spoken to us in the years we had been going to the same synagogue. We had achieved what was expected of us and were only now really being welcomed. They saw and welcomed a mother, not me, and the welcome was hollow. Now I was socially acceptable I never felt more distrustful of how groups treats those who don’t fit. 

I don’t think the synagogue and community are supreme values. They are reactions to the trauma of exile and destruction. The Temple was gone and new unifying systems were needed. Torah and identity was in danger of being lost.  So the group needed to be important and the maverick individual with dissenting opinions is ostracised. Run, don’t walk, to pray in a synagogue! God dwells in the multitude! Do not separate yourself from the community!  Follow the majority! Rabbinic Judaism is a political act of keeping the people together and it uses halachic rhetoric to as a method of control.

So this is why I don’t join another denomination. I don’t want to change orthodoxy from within. I want to get rid of all of them. Or at least break the spell of The Synagogue and find alternatives. If you find communal prayer meaningful and spiritual, then great. Good for you. What consenting adults want to get up to together is fine. Just lose the smugness and superiority that what works for you should work for all. And all the denominations are guilty of seeing themselves as superior. A plague on all your houses for that attitude. 

There are times when we do need other people to help us, and we need to be there for others. I believe in friendships and creating connections. With all sorts of people, not just those who are the same age, the same life-stage, same interests, same opinions, same political affiliations, same sexual orientation, or have chosen to be in the same ethnic grouping. It is convenient to attach oneself to others who are similar to us, but our lives are poorer for it. 

I do not live alone. I have a husband - who has the title of Rabbi, from an orthodox institution. He also has a doctorate in theoretical physics. He worked hard for both of his titles, neither of which has anything to do with me. And we do have children. As a family we are members of a synagogue that I don’t go to. Or go to as little as possible. He finds communal prayer meaningful and spiritual. (We don’t have the same taste in music or films either) Our daughters, at the moment, also like it. The synagogue being the child-centric place that it is has excellent children services run by professional educators. And it has become especially good for girls. We as a family benefit from this and so we pay membership. Although I do regularly push the conversation about leaving, and I would like to have the burial-only United Synagogue membership. (having seen a close friend face financial strain when his father died without being part of a burial scheme, I do urge everyone to be member somewhere for burial. It’s a horrible thing to burden your relatives by having to organise your funeral. And because we are members of United Synagogue, when I lost my baby they dealt with it all with much care and consideration. One phone-call and they organised everything.)

The school that we have chosen to send our daughters to is a modern orthodox school. I do not presume to know how they will lead a meaningful life as adults. I don’t want to create that for them. it’s their life’s work to do that for themselves. My task is to make sure they have the knowledge, literacy tools, social skills and confidence to be able to make informed decisions and walk their own path. And in this country, when we were applying for schools, the school that best fitted this was a modern orthodox one. Having experienced their educational programmes for parents to learn with their children, seen how they dealt with a potential bullying situation, and I know that they encourage my daughters’ enthusiasm for all types of knowledge and activities. I think we made the right choice. For us.

I realise I am very fortunate in that I could be a real insider if that is what I want. I have the luxury of being able to choose. I know the right jargon to fit in. I have connections to what may be seen to be the right people. But I don’t really fit into the traditional mode of belonging. My voice is one of discord within a otherwise harmonious choir. In my way, I do lead a very Jewish life. I don't need to go to public Torah readings to engage with Torah. I learn every day and go to a shuir twice a week. I have a rich and wide network of people to talk to and who challenge my thinking. I am still grappling with and exploring different modes of private prayer. My artwork reflects that my internal thoughts are in constant engagement with Torah - sometimes a conversation, often an argument. But I feel embarrassingly parochial and value my friends of other backgrounds and hope that they will always remind me to expand my horizons as how I see the world. 

The Orthodox attitude to halacha is not the only authentic way of interpreting The Law. I am very fortunate. About twenty years ago I studied at a women’s yeshiva in jerusalem (an orthodox and deeply religious institution) where I learnt how to read and directly engage with traditional texts. The rabbi who taught the halacha classes had a very refreshing approach. His attitude was that all Jews should write their own personalised code of Jewish Law. Halacha is essentially an oral tradition of case studies, and so only you know your own situation intimately and can weigh up what is relevant in the literature. But in order to do this, you have to know how to read the sources and make decisions. it’s not easy. it is takes time and commitment to study. It takes a lifetime. It is much simpler to ask a rabbi the question and follow the answer. But if any students approached my rabbi with halachic questions he would respond with a list of sources. He expected us to be familiar with the parameters of the case studies and to apply it to our own scenarios. Thanks to him, and my other teachers, I have a strong foundation in these texts and treat rabbis as teachers and guides but not as authorities. I do not seek permission from rabbis to live my life and make my decisions. Asea lecha rav - “make yourself into a rabbi” Halachic rhetoric can only be used as a method of control if there is widespread ignorance and rabbis demanding their title alone earns them respect, holding themselves apart and aloof from the non-rabbis. I have many teachers of different backgrounds, some of whom use the Rabbi title. Most do not. and none of them insist I call them Rabbi, which makes me respect them and want to call them Rebbe - my teacher. Halacha, the word for Jewish law, means ‘the way’ - we are all walking our own path, writing our own shulchan aruch and creating our own way to be. We can’t do all of it alone, some of the journey we need guidance, and fellow travelers. But it is our life, our path we are walking. Not anyone else’s. 

So this is a very lengthy explanation of why joining another denomination is not an answer to my dissatisfaction with orthodoxy. And why I don't see myself as part of the Orthodox community. Perhaps if I could sing in tune, hadn’t experience infertility, hadn’t lost a baby, had been born a boy. Had neatly fitted into the box of what I was expected to be, I would have been able to conform. But those who know me well know that conformity has never been in my nature. These, and more, are my personal experiences that have shaped me. I hope to continue living, and expect as life chucks other stuff my way I will develop my thinking. As I said. I am walking my own path, but I am not there yet. You are welcome to join me for part of the journey but don’t tell me where I ought to be and I am no pied piper for anyone else. Don’t expect me to tell you where you should be going. Or else I really will tell you where to go...


Nick Gendler said...

Thank you Jacqueline.

knit1sell1 said...

I am so glad you wrote this. I think it is one of the best and truest pieces of writing I have read for a very long time. I didn't see anything in the least bit offensive in your thoughts or your ideas. To me this reads as a positive endorsement of Judaism and how it could and should be for anyone who chose to engage with it, however they choose to engage with it (or maybe this should be engage in it). Although this is your piece and you write not on behalf of others as you clearly articulate, this piece resonated with me in so many ways. I have similar feelings about communal prayer and the siddur. I have often spoken about the alienation that I feel with both of these (and many other aspects of Judaism) - only to be looked at as if I were indeed, an alien - and a non Jewish alien at that. Being the parent, of an only child, aged eleven, who is educated at an orthodox school here in Israel, the questions that come my way about my fertility, my perceived selfishness and my 'choices' go beyond comprehension. They stun me to silence most of the time although I am working hard on this one! Those who know me, probably know that silence isn't really my thing - except perhaps when it comes to prayer. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for sharing your words with us. There a so many people that can benefit from hearing what you have to say about why you, personally, will not be joining another community in the near future

Danny Newman said...

Thanks Jacq.

Am excited for us to be together on part of our journeys.

Shabbat shalom and much love


neil said...

Dear Jacqueline, thank you for writing this. My reasons for not wanting to join a different community are different and my experiences, choices and background are different from yours, but much of what you write resonates with me. Your honesty shines a light on us all.

Savtadotty said...

Jacqueline, i read your writing is a shared prayer because of the honesty.

Conforming has little appeal, and communal prayer does nothing for me: I concluded it is a Jewish male bonding thing and stay away from services, no matter how egalitarian. Study on the other hand, is my supreme value and I envy you your Jerusalem experience.

Shoshanna said...

Thank you for this. Your expression of alienation and not connecting via the exact ways we are meant to connect is strong, raw and powerful. We're discussing this on FB. Good thing no one owns God and we can take Her/Him back whenever we need to.

Shoshanna said...

Thank you for this. Your expression of alienation and not connecting via the exact ways we are meant to connect is strong, raw and powerful. We're discussing this on FB. Good thing no one owns God and we can take Her/Him back whenever we need to.

Beth Steinberg said...

Well said. I've struggled to understand why shul doesn't work for the same way it used to - my alienation is one also related to difference, that is disability and finding that shuls and people with disabilities don't really work. So much about the experience is about speed and less about including. I did feel that you clarified well, for me that is, why it's not about this denomination or that denomination. If it were that easy, maybe you would have switched. Thx.

Steve Finnell said...


Faith only advocates are very inconsistent when is comes to explaining the meaning of for the remission of sins that is found in the Scriptures.

Acts 2:38 The Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NKJV)

Mark 1:4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (NKJV)

Matthew 26:28 "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which shed for many for the remission of sins. (NKJV)

Faith only advocates proclaim that for in Acts 2:38 actually means because of. In other words the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost repented and were baptized in water because their sin had already been forgiven. Were they save by "faith only?"

Did John the Baptist baptized because those he baptized had already been forgiven? Did for mean because of? Were they saved the very minute they repented. Were they saved by "repentance only?"

Did Jesus shed His blood because the sins of men had already been forgiven? Did for mean because of? Are all men saved by the "the crucifixion of Jesus only?"

The same word, for, was used in Acts 2:38, Mark 1:4, and Matthew 26:28. The Greek word eis has not been translated as because of in Acts 2:38, Mark 1:4, or Matthew 26:28. There is not one single translation that translates eis as because of. Are all translations in error? Is God not powerful enough to have His word translated correctly?

Forgiveness of sins followed the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness of sins followed those who were baptized by John the Baptist.

Forgiveness of sins, under the New Covenant, follows being baptized in water.


Men are saved because of God's grace. Ephesians 2:8.
Men are saved because of the shed blood of Jesus. Matt. 26:28.
Men are saved because of faith. John 3:16.
Men are saved because of their repentance. Acts 3:19.
Men are saved because of their confession. Romans 10:9.
Men are saved because of their immersion in water. Acts 2:38.