The One Way Street

By Dana Braunstein (from her blog the Jewish Poetess)

I’ve been puzzling through why this situation at the Western Wall upsets me so deeply. I’ve lived as an Orthodox religious Jew for 18 years. Why do I feel so compelled to defend the rights of secular and religious Jewish women who are not Orthodox to pray as they choose – at the holiest site the Jewish people have? Over 19 years ago I set out to study all the great religions of the world and find the common truth. I determined that living a Torah life was the truest life.

But now that I’ve lived this way for nearly two decades, I’m no longer sure that it is. Even more, the underlying premise of Women 4 The Wall, and the underlying belief system of the majority of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Haredi, Lubavitch, etc. is that the Orthodox understanding of the Torah is true – and everything else is not.

And even within these parameters, there is a lack of tolerance for diverse ways to observe Torah as an Orthodox Jew – and everyone within these subsets believes they possess the best, most excellent understanding of Torah. And if they don’t, they assume their rabbis do. And this belief system may be couched in flowery, spiritual, beautiful language. But at its heart is the idea is that we know the path of light, and if you follow me, I will take you there…

And not once, not ever, is there the thought that the way non-Orthodox Jews practice Judaism and spirituality is the absolute right path for them. How many times over the years did I hear in Chabad…”she/he is not frum…yet!” The Kiruv movement believes they are helping Jews discover their souls. Condescension toward other Jews? No, I just love them so much I want them to have what I have! Nothing surpasses the beauty of living according to Torah! I want them to become closer to God… to partake in the wonder and glory of bringing their Jewish soul to life!

But does it occur to anyone that secular or non-Orthodox religious Jews are not less than Orthodox Jews? That their neshama’s expression of Judaism is absolutely perfect for them – and has a place in God’s huge world? Is it possible for the Orthodox Jew to simply recognize that other Jews are not lower on the proverbial ladder, that they are not missing out? Can you meet them, teach and learn from them, as spiritual equals?

The idea that anyone would use religion to oppress – to prevent a Jewish woman from praying any way she pleases… all this does is show that Torah must not be true enough – not if this is what it induces. Because if you believe that Torah is true, then you would be secure in the idea that there is a place for every Jew, just as they are, and that you do not deserve to be closer to the Wall than they are.

This tenet you take for granted, that Hashem and Torah want women to be hidden – that you have the right to hide them away, persuade them to hide away, push them away, or shove them to the back – this is not a universal truth. If you believe that your understanding of what it is to be a Jew is more right than someone else’s, then I put to you that you have missed out on the essence of Torah. Because it is not possible to hold both this premise close to your heart – and still have authentic love of every Jew.

Love of every Jew means not wanting to change them to become more like you. I had to enter an almost entirely foreign world to become religious. I had to embrace tolerance for tremendously different cultural lifestyles and standards when I became religious.

The reason the Orthodox Jew will not do the same for the secular or Conservative or Reform Jew and others is because Orthodox Jews believe it’s a one-way street. And as long as the Orthodox Jew refuses to see other paths in Judaism as valid and equally precious to Hashem, there will never be true Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jew.

Can you find a way to practice your Judaism, without believing there is only one truth? Can you hold your truth close, while allowing for someone else to have their own Jewish truth? Can you place one hand on your heart, with the other outstretched in peace?

When you can open your mind, your heart, your soul to this, then perhaps we will stand together, am yisrael chai… We will be a nation aglow for all others to see at the Third Holy Temple, and no longer fight over just one outer portion of a retaining wall.

7 thoughts on “The One Way Street”

  1. I can’t breathe. This piece is heart stoppingly original. We all can learn from it. Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Yes, of course. Now it is so obvious. “That their neshama’s expression of Judaism is absolutely perfect for them – and has a place in God’s huge world? ”

  2. Far be it from me, a Reform Jew raised pretty much secular, to defend orthodoxy’s intransigence. But I think that part of the reason why Orthodox Jews consider religiosity a “one-way street” has to do with the basic conundrum of monotheism: If there is only one God, then who is responsible for evil? Answer: I am (pun intended). Just as you so eloquently defend a heterogeneous Judaism as the “truest” kind, a Jew who believes the Sh’ma with all her heart and soul and might will probably feel just as strongly that any deviation from Torah (as she sees it) risks the ultimate destruction of the world. I don’t think it’s possible, or even necessarily useful, to try to arm-twist the Haredi into believing that it’s OK for some Jews to serve bagels, cream cheese and chicken fingers at the same oneg (as my temple’s kitchen once did). But Israel does not exist as just an aspiration anymore. It is a nation of laws. The opposition to the Women of the Wall belongs more rightly to politics than theology, and as such it should be dealt with politically. In a democracy, my right to move my fist ends where your nose begins. Anyone creating a ruckus at the Kotel – not by being female and praying with a tallit, but by throwing hard-boiled eggs or screaming at the top of your lungs to drown out someone else’s prayers – should be taken into custody and charged appropriately.

  3. Kol Hakavod!! What a wonderful (Jewish) world it would be if all of us could treat each other with the respect and dignity that Dana has written so poignantly about. As a long time supporter of WOW I KNOW that their desire to pray at the Kotel is a genuine expression of their Judaism and not some “provocation” as has been suggested by others. As we so often sing: Hinei mah tov u’manayim shevet achim (v’achot) gam yachad! [parentheses mine, obviously :-)].

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think you have a very succinct view of the way many Orthodox Jews look at other Jews, and appreciate your clarity of statement.
    However, I would like you to consider the word “religious.” Based on your article, you were already religious when you went searching for a new path. I think you mean “observant.” The difference between these two words emphasizes the point you were making about Orthodox believing in their “one-way street.” People can be religious is many different ways. Because the Orthodox have tried to co-opt the term “religious” to describe their way of life is no reason for the rest of us to allow them to do so. They are not any more “religious” than many other people of faith — they simply are observant of the rules of their believe system. I believe we should not grant them that word.
    Thank you.

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