Motion Without Movement

Rabbi Amitai Adler
February 24, 2014
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Of all the ways to be unsettled as a Jew in America few are less comfortable than realizing that the movements into which our society has separated itself have no place for you.

I was raised Modern Orthodox, but not the Modern Orthodoxy most would recognize today. My father was a talmid (student) of Rav Eliezer Berkovits, one of the last creative and progressive thinkers of Modern Orthodoxy, and he (my father) got smichah (rabbinic ordination) right around the time Orthodoxy began its sharp veer to the right. But my father just kept on going in the direction “his” Orthodoxy had been headed, and got shut out by his movement with ever-increasing force over the years.

My mother was an Orthodox rebbetzn when I was born, and by the time I became a bar mitzvah, she wasn’t any longer, but she was one of the mothers of modern Jewish feminism. For nearly thirty years she has been one of the foremost Jewish theologians that Reform Judaism can boast.

The Judaism I got in my childhood was progressive and yet traditional (houseguests ranged from local Orthodox rabbis to Reb Shlomo Carlebach and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to various young feminist activists and gay university students), rich and diverse, nuanced and beautiful, and deeply steeped in loving observance of mitzvot, cherished care for minhagim (customs), and Jewish sacred text in thorough abundance–not in an onerous sense, but in a joyful, appreciative sense. It made me love Jewish living, right up until, as an adolescent and teenager, I ran into those difficult philosophical questions that everyone has to answer for themselves–for which my parents gave me room to explore and seek for answers as I saw fit.

It wasn’t until I got to college and afterward, and began interacting with other young Jews who were not the children of rabbis and professional Jewish scholars in my parents’ circle that I discovered that while I got an absolutely stunning Jewish upbringing, it did not in any way resemble the Jewish experience of nearly anyone else in the world.

I stopped being Orthodox as an adolescent. For several years I did the usual teenage/twentysomething meandering around the angsty corners of agnosticism, atheism, “spiritual but not religious,” and that whole scene. I found my way back to Judaism in part out of a discovery of Kabbalah, and in part over the recognition that any rebellious youth needs to do, that for a society to function, there must be definable borders, a nomos, a set of rules to live by, to make order out of chaos; and Judaism is not just a religion, it is a culture and ethnicity– it is a socioreligious ethnicity, with elements of different kinds of identity inextricably intertwined with one another. So though I never returned to Orthodoxy, I came back to Judaism clearly defining myself as a halachic Jew.

Eventually I decided to be a rabbi, and settled on the Conservative movement as the movement that I felt held the most promise. None of the movements felt like home to me. But I felt like the Conservative movement had a good shot at turning into something in which I might feel at home: it claimed the mantle of halachah, but also claimed to be progressive; and most importantly, I fell in love with the wonderful faculty of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. The rabbis and professors there were everything I might have hoped for: brilliant, creative, inspiring teachers of Torah, and not just talmidei chachamim (great Torah scholars) but mensches. If the rest of the movement had reflected those classrooms, I would be entirely settled and shouting about Conservative Judaism from the rooftops.

But it didn’t. As far as I could see, it turned out to be just another Liberal movement. I looked for prioritizing education of young Jews and kiruv (outreach to help secular Jews become more observant), for doing thoughtful and spiritually rich work to challenge Jews and set a high bar for learning and observance; I found catering to the Least Common Denominator, seeking to preserve outdated institutions, and playing a numbers game, trying to retain or increase synagogue membership. I looked for the movement to concentrate on helping uneducated Jews become more educated and observant, on helping already educated and observant Jews have richer and deeper spiritual experiences. Save for a few instances on the most Jewishly educated and traditional fringes of the movement, I didn’t find what I looked for. As far as I could see, for all the brilliant halachic work being done by some Conservative rabbis, the movement as a whole is not in fact particularly notable for halachic observance and knowledge. And in my experience, 99.9% of standard Conservative “main sanctuary” services are spiritually dry as dust. These things, and all the other issues like them, are, of course, hardly unique to Conservative Judaism. They plague all the Liberal movements, and Orthodox communities also. I just happened to find them in the Conservative movement.

But I hadn’t grown up in a movement: I had no idea what the status quo in the real Jewish world was. All I knew, from my return to Jewish observance on through to today, is that no place ever felt like home to me in modern Judaism.

I was raised for a Jewish world where learning and tradition were the life’s blood of the home. Where mitzvot were rich experiences. Where exploration was encouraged, with deep rooting in traditional observance the perfect counterweight to learning about other people’s beliefs and stories. Where tefillah was a lovely journey through the poetry of the liturgy, combined with a wealth of nigunim (melodies) from all over the Jewish world. Where theology was discussed and was a matter for questions and creativity from earliest childhood. Where halachah was understood as the guidelines giving shape to Jewish life, the way in which observance was transformed into a rich pageant of emotional and intellectual experiences as well as spiritual discipline. And where social justice was a primary value, and social action a primary venue for doing mitzvot; where egalitarianism and acceptance of LGBT Jews was understood not as cultural phenomena but as social justice issues within Jewish tradition. And where all these things lived together not in tension with one another but as natural outgrowths of one another.

I was raised for a Jewish world that doesn’t exist. It never has, though I hope it will someday.

I love my Conservative teachers, and many of my fellow Conservative rabbis. I love my Reform wife, my Reform mother, my Reform teachers, and my many Reform friends. I love my Orthodox father, my Orthodox teachers, friends and colleagues. But I am not really Conservative, any more than I am Reform or Orthodox. The halachah I do is mostly Conservative in style, though my ritual observance tends to be a bit more Orthodox (I might be the only person I have ever heard of who davens nussach Sfard but adds the Imahot to the Amidah); when I get to shul, I go to Modern Orthodox minyanim; my social action agenda is fairly Reform. The truth is, I am a deeply committed halachic Jew who lives and breathes tradition, observing the mitzvot, studying Torah, and davening, while being fiercely egalitarian and committed to social justice as an outgrowth of halachah and mitzvot– and I still find myself shocked that I am apparently part of a tiny minority in both Liberal Judaism and Orthodoxy in America today. The feeling of displacement never really goes away.

I teach wonderful young Jewish students, and sometimes wonderful adult Jewish students; and I am doing my very best to raise my son with the beauty and richness of Jewish experience that I got; and to me, that is the best I can do to create the Jewish world in which I would want to live. But even if I am successful, it will come after me. I no longer believe that I will ever see the Jewish world that has a true home for me– not in this lifetime.

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