Special note: It’s always a great honor to learn that your writing made a difference in someone’s life. So this one’s for you, Ed! Wishing you much happiness and a smooth ride on the road to full recovery!
I am closing in on Blueberry Hill, the St. Louis landmark where the original Chuck Berry still performs on Wednesday nights.
I’m walking fast. My heart is pounding, my eyes wide. For the first time in my short life as a Jew, I am about to cross an imaginary line into the Orthodox world.
The occasion is “Torah on Tap,” a monthly study session sponsored by Bais Abraham, a Modern Orthodox congregation just a few minutes’ walk from Blueberry Hill and the hip hustle and bustle of the University City Loop.
I’m going because the Orthodox world always seems to be where the textual action is. Torah, Talmud, the gorgeous mess of commentary and debate that have grown around them over the centuries. And lots of people to study with.
I’m going because of what happens when I’m deep in prayer, just one cell in a vast, ancient body resonating with G-d’s presence. I want to know the world that has immersed itself in those prayers, three times a day every day, going back at least as far as the early Middle Ages.
But it’s only because this event is on neutral ground that I have the courage to go. That and the promise of beer.
Why the Nerves?
There were so many reasons that night, at least in my head.
First was the looming presence of halachah. This word literally means ‘going,’ but it refers to a code of Jewish law built up over the course of the last two thousand years or so. Halachah fleshes out the many, mostly schematic directives of Torah, sorting through apparent conflicts and figuring out how to apply them in novel situations. Like the prohibition against doing ‘work’ on the Sabbath — Doing dishes? Riding a bike? Halachah has something to say about all those things and more.
Until about the late eighteenth century, Jews either lived strict halachic lives or they left the community and ceased to identify as Jews. But then, in response to the waves of modernity sweeping across Europe, liberal-leaning Jews started to think about a different way. Eventually, they wound up creating a stream of Jewish life in which halachah is guiding but no longer binding.
The modernizers loosened many of the boundaries that had defined Jewish life for centuries, allowing women and men to sit together in synagogues, allowing musical instruments to be played during Shabbat services, prayers and sermons in local languages. By the late nineteenth century, they had gone much further still: services on Sunday, church-style organs and choirs, pork and shellfish, you name it.
These moves eventually led to a three-way split in the Jewish world. The communities that held fast to halachah started referring to themselves as “Orthodox.” The modernizers started calling themselves “Reform.” And in the middle, those Jews who held on to halachah but loosened it up just a bit became the “Conservatives.”
Back to Me.
The Orthodox have a history of only accepting converts who join the tradition under Orthodox supervision. So as a Reform convert, even from a community that has swung back around to traditional observance, I don’t count as a Jew in strictly halachic terms.
I’ve always been keenly aware of this, and I’m really quite fine with it. You see, one of the provisions of halachah is that communities aren’t supposed to scrutinize the Jewish credentials of people who walk in the door. If they say they’re Jews, they’re Jews, and that’s that.
It’s only in specific settings in traditional communities that someone’s halachic status is supposed to be assessed. Chiefly, these are things like getting married, being called up to read from a Torah scroll, or being counted as part of a minyan, the minimum number of Jews needed for certain communal prayers. Only someone who meets the halachic definition of a Jew is allowed to do these things. Short of that, no one is supposed to ask.
But They Do.
About a year ago, I came across an online learning opportunity that sounded too good to be true. And it was.
Here was the pitch on a slick, AJAX-driven site, jnet.org.
JNet helps people like you take time out of a busy workweek to explore their Judaism. Professionals, students, and homemakers of every age and background use JNet to study the weekly Parsha, discuss the history of Judaism, analyze the Talmud, and discover Kabbalah’s spirituality and man’s purpose on earth.
How could I possibly miss out on something like this? I filled out the form and within hours, a nice guy, who we’ll call Yoni, phoned me and started the intake process.
Among his first questions was, ”Are you Jewish?” Would he have asked me that if my name were Goldblum instead of Getty? I’ll never know. When I said I was Jewish, he asked, ”So what kind of Jewish education did you grow up with.”
I wasn’t thinking on my toes. When I said I had converted as an adult, he flat-out asked me within which movement that had happened. When I said “Reform,” he come back with a polite reply that boiled down to ”Our service is meant for Jews, and you’re not a Jew.”
Had I done my homework prior to signing up, I would have noticed this, in teensy-weensy font in their site’s footer: “A Division of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch – The Educational Arm of the Worldwide Chabad Lubavitch Movement.” The Lubavitchers are chasidim, very pious Jews who live in a rarified halachic world. Programmatically speaking, they wouldn’t touch a Reform convert with a ten-food yad.
I was caught totally off-guard. I wrote this to Yoni afterwards:
I was very upset and angry after our conversation today, and I want you to understand why. My hope is that if you do, there will be a little less hurt and wasted time in the future.
I went to the mikvah knowing full well what awaits a Reform convert, and I give wide berth to organizations and settings where I think my halachic status will be an issue.
I do this out of respect but also because it is intensely painful to just about every Jew by choice to be told, however indirectly or politely, “You’re not a Jew.”
I implore JNet to consider how easy it is for someone like me to stumble across your site and mistake it for a welcoming environment. The only hints to suggest otherwise are in the fine print below the fold, and they rely on people to draw the correct conclusions from “Chabad” and “Lubavitch.”
Yoni told me he was sorry I was hurt, wished me all the best, and said he would pass along my concern.
So what did I learn? And why did it hurt so much?
I learned how fragile my young Jewish identity is, how reliant I am on the safety of my Reform world. I hadn’t ever had to confront halachic rejection except on an intellectual level.
It’s hard to be intellectual when you’re caught unprepared by someone who has something you desperately want. And it’s hard to be intellectual when someone of superior learning regards your whole Jewish identity and deems it, without even saying a word, to be a non-thing. Not disapproved of, not looked down upon — simply not.
The Next Encounter
A week after the JNet episode, Brian and I took a very large Jewish leap together, flying off to Connecticut to take part in a weekend-long retreat for gay, bisexual, and transgender Jewish men. The retreat was one of many hosted by Nehirim, a GLBT advocacy and support organization founded by Jay Michaelson.
It was the first time Brian and I had been together in a Jewish setting far outside our sheltering and loving community, CRC. In all practical terms, I was still wet from the mikvah, and Brian hadn’t even decided on a date for his conversion. I had no reason to believe we’d face any halachic issues, but I was still so shaken from the Jnet episode that I contacted a staff member and went through a list: Reform convert? Check. Not-quite-Jewish-yet? Check.
The retreat was a joy. It was also an immersion in the culture of a faraway land. Most of the men there were from New York, that all-encompassing home to something like a third of the Jewish population of the United States. Most of them had grown up Orthodox, and lots were still part of Orthodox communities.
Oh, how those guys could pray and sing and dance. You could tell they were used to all-male religious settings, and their energy was intoxicating. So much love! So much Hebrew with such grace and fluency and melody. I felt like a teenager at his first rock concert.
I was also in a state of mild shock. I think Brian was, too. Many of the men had been in ‘reparative therapy’ of one kind or another meant to turn them straight, and a few still were.
From what we could piece together, many of these lovely men had double lives waiting for them back home — wrapped in the tradition but closeted with their families, out but lonely and Jewishly adrift on their own.
Another case of the heart catching up with the head. We knew about the tension over sexuality in the Orthodox world, but here it was, breaking bread with us, with names and beautiful faces and stories that shocked and saddened us.
More on the Gay Thing
The Orthodox posture on homosexuality emanates from Leviticus 18:22, for which I’ll give you a mostly literal translation suggested by Rabbi Steve Greenberg in his trailblazing 2005 book, Wrestling with God and Men.
And a male you shall not bed as in the lyings of a woman. It is abhorrent.
Over the centuries, the rabbinic tradition has built a tall fortress around this verse, encompassing all forms of same-sex intimacy. Some parts of the halachic world, particularly the far-right ultra-Orthodox, have been quite vicious about it.
By itself, this halachic posture might be reason enough for a proud gay Jew to never come within a mile of an Orthodox setting. It certainly is for many.
But a lot has been happening in just the past few years. Rabbi Greenberg’s book was a breakthrough moment, as was the founding of the first gay advocacy organization in the Israeli Orthodox world:
And just this past summer, Orthodoxy was shaken up by a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” The statement’s authors described it as “a consensus document arrived at after hundreds of hours of discussion, debate and editing.”
As halachically centered documents go, it is a deep expression of love and inclusion:
[I]t is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them…
Jews struggling to live their lives in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve our support. Accordingly, we believe that the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden …
Accordingly, Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community …
No one in the Orthodox world is going to let go of Leviticus 18:22 and its immediate emanations anytime soon. But it’s clear the signatories to this letter are trying to carve out a safe space in fully halachic communities for GLBT Jews and families to belong, even as the Torah prohibition hangs in the air above them.
Meet Me in St. Louis
This town is home to at least one of last year’s signatories, Rabbi Hyim Shafner of that very same Bais Abraham, who has written quite publicly about building inclusive halachic communities, not just for GLBT Jews but for intermarried familes and others as well. I’ll let the Rabbi describe this in his own words:
I am not suggesting we change the Torah or Jewish law, rather I am pointing out ways we can view things in order to better welcome the entire Jewish people into communities that study and observe the Torah …
I’m not saying we should be cavalier. I am not saying all of a sudden we should have engagement parties for gay couples, but what if we had a cake at kiddush one Shabbat (albeit a big cake or one with small writing) that said “Mazal Tov on your commitment to each other forever to raise a Jewish family!”?
I think it’s wrong to think of Rabbi Shafner and the other signatories — like many apparently do — as simply ‘liberals’ playing fast and loose with halachah. To understand why, you have to read this from Rabbi Shafner. Maybe you will even weep, as I did.
I believe we must err, in an extreme way, on the side of welcoming. I learned this from one of my long time mentors and teachers, the saintly Rabbi Abraham Magence …
No matter who walked into our shul, Bais Abraham, Rabbi Magence hugged them, and truly loved them. A non-Jewish homeless person, an intermarried person, or a Jew convicted of crimes. I will never forget that our first week in St. Louis 13 years ago Rabbi Magence invited myself and my wife over for dinner with one of the pillars of the shul and his wife. This pillar was a humble man who spent many hours fixing parts of our (at the time) crumbling shul building with his hands. I saw the man in shul after that every Shabbat, he always received aliyot, and was treated like any other member of the shul.
It was only years latter when this man’s wife passed away and I asked if he needed me to do anything for the funeral when he answered that he did not since his wife’s priest and her church would be taking care of it. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised. …
As one of Rabbi Magence’s children told me so correctly, “People think he was lenient with halacha. Just the opposite was true. He was machmir (strict), but more so in the realm of laws between us and others than between us and G-d.” Indeed when the two realms are in conflict, laws between us and others and between us and G-d, I have no doubt we must be machmir (strict) on the bain adam lichavero (those between us and other people) and lenient on the one between us and G-d.
I think there are maybe only two reasons why modern-day Jews put halachah at the very center of their lives. One is traditionalism, tribalism, conformity, habit. Whatever you call it, it’s not for me.
The rabbis of Bais Abe show me the other reason. And I tremble as I write the words. How powerful, how very sublime.
I honestly thought the Orthodox world was closed to me, the gay Reform convert with a husband. I really never expected to look into this bright room in Orthodoxy and find my own highest values waiting for me. And so, for the past year or so, I’ve been going from time to time to pray and study and eat with the community at Bais Abe, often with Brian, and have always felt welcomed.
I know only a handful of other people who cross the Reform-Orthodox border with any regularity. And in truth, I still get nervous. You should have seen me the night I went to another Modern Orthodox community to start an intermediate Modern Hebrew class. I was a wreck.
Why? Because living a halachic life requires immense dedication, knowledge, and awareness of one’s actions. And almost every time I’ve walked into an Orthodox setting, I’ve wound up doing or saying something that revealed, at least in my self-doubting mind, how little of these I had.
Please, Darling! Not In Front of the Orthodox!
If you’re thinking of dipping your toes in the Orthodox world and want to come across as respectfully as possible, here is a list of important do’s and don’ts.
- Do research. Find an Orthodox community that presents itself as welcoming to outsiders and matches your values as closely as possible. Shuls that identify as “Modern Orthodox” can generally be counted on to get a number of things right: equal space and opportunity for women to pray, study, and lead communal affairs, resources for people starting at the ground floor of observance and learning, and the like.
- Do identify yourself as a visitor and someone who probably needs guidance on liturgy and observance. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t pleased to help out.
The Dont’s are more numerous. Many of these I’ve gone ahead and done one point or another and felt horrible about. While you’re sure to find people bending on one or more items, here’s what to keep in mind if you want to stay on the safe side.
- Don’t initiate mixed-gender touching (a handshake, for instance).
- Don’t bring food, plates, or utensils that aren’t from a kosher kitchen. If you bring store-bought food, make sure it is unopened and marked as kosher (and even then, there are no universally accepted kosher brands, so you’re taking your chances).
- At meals, don’t talk between the washing of hands and the eating of bread if you participate in the blessings both.
- Don’t keep snacking off food on the table after a meal is over and everyone has said grace after meals (birkat ha-mazon).
- Don’t allow documents with the four-letter name of G-d (the one starting with ‘Y’) to touch the ground or be seen going into the trash can or recycling bin.
- Don’t let your head go uncovered if you are a man. Even a baseball cap will do. If you’re a married woman, consider covering your hair with a hat or kercheif.
- Male or female, don’t wear clothes that reveal your bare shoulders, knees, or elbows. Elbows are less problematic than knees, knees are more okay than shoulders.
- Don’t use the common figure of speech “I swear,” or especially “I swear to G-d.”
- Don’t gossip or say bad things about anyone, especially a mutual acquaintance.
- Don’t drive or bike up to a gathering or synagogue on Shabbat. Park out of sight and walk the rest of the way.
- Don’t be seen carrying or distributing money on Shabbat.
- Don’t be seen writing or carrying a writing instrument on Shabbat.
- Don’t be seen using electronic devices or machines on Shabbat, including umbrellas.
Just So We’re Clear
I think some of my friends and even my husband worry that I’m going to go Ortho on them. I’m not. Here’s why.
For one, no Orthodox conversion authority would let an honest, sexually active gay man go much past first base.
Second, I’m miles away from entertaining the finality and divine origin of the texts at the root of halachah, which is arguably the only reason besides family tradition that one would choose a halachic life. The Levitical take on gender and sexuality is just one item in a box of scriptural edicts most liberal Jews, myself included, read as particular to long-buried historical strata.
Finally, the Orthodox prayer experience is a high barrier, especially if you’re partial to Renewal-infused, highly redacted worship. To a newcomer, Orthodox worship comes across mostly as high-speed mumbling, and I think if you don’t know the liturgy very well, the experience doesn’t offer a lot in the way of spiritual traction. And with all respect to those who do, I just can’t pray for the resurrection of dead bodies, the ‘smashing of enemies,’ or a resumption of animal sacrifice in Jerusalem.
But to share in whatever way I can in such awe-inspiring love of learning and tradition, such dedication to mindful observance of G-d’s presence in all things? And in a community that has taken such great risks to widen the circle?
I’d be crazy not to. And I’d be crazy not to thank G-d and the loving, courageous people who opened my eyes to it all. Baruch haShem.
To close, a note to all my readers who are ready to chime in with halachic disapproval of one kind or another. First, thank you for reading. Secondly, please try to be very, very respectful, and consider that by this point, pretty much everything that can be said has been said. And finally, please consider this an invitation to spend this time on better things — play with the kids, cuddle with the spouse (where appropriate), read a bissel Torah. And all my very best wishes to you and your families.