Respect the Right to Practice Judaism Differently
In today’s ever-polarizing religious landscape, we need to stop foisting our own beliefs on others.
by Rebecca Honig Friedman
On a recent episode of The Salon, the women’s conversation TV show that I produce for The Jewish Channel, the ladies on our panel got to talking about the controversy over women’s prayer groups and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall as well as the sometimes violent reaction by ultra-Orthodox Jews against such prayer. Men have been known to throw chairs over the mechitzah [partition] into the women’s section, for example.
The host of The Salon, Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of The Forward, asked one of the Orthodox members of that episode’s panel, artist and educator Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, to take on the issue. Her answer: “I think that wherever you are in the community – Orthodox, non-Orthodox – we have to find ways of respecting each other, recognizing differences and respecting each other,” she said. “I like tradition, I like that things don’t change, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect people and practices that are different.”
I thought about this exchange on Simchat Torah, the holiday during which we complete the yearly Torah reading cycle and begin the new one. The words “simchat Torah” literally translate to “rejoicing over the Torah,” and the holiday is traditionally celebrated with much good cheer, including lots of dancing and singing with the Torah in a ritual called hakafot.
Where I live, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – a historically Jewish neighborhood that’s now more well-known as a hipster hangout with trendy restaurants, bars, and nightclubs – we have a yearly Simchat Torah tradition of welcoming Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidim, who walk over from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, across the Williamsburg Bridge, to join in hakafot at our neighborhood synagogues. While the black-suited, white-shirted, fedora-donning, bearded young Hasidic men stand out amid the non-Hasidic Lower East Side congregants, there is nothing different about their basic religious practices since all of the neighborhood shuls are Orthodox. Some veer more to the right, some more to the left, but all hold services where men and women sit on separate sides of the mechitzah, and where men lead all the prayers and layn Torah. Differences between congregations’ prayer rituals are subtle enough to be chalked up to different geographic and ethnic traditions rather than different value systems.
The one exception is, predictably, the synagogue that I attend; the Stanton Street Shul is also Orthodox, but leans the most to the left of any of the shuls in the neighborhood and has made women’s participation – within the bounds of Orthodox Jewish law – a priority, especially on Simchat Torah.
Women are encouraged to dance with the Torah during hakafot (albeit in a separate circle from the men), to lead hakafot by chanting the liturgy aloud, and to read Torah and get aliyot in a separate women’s service. While these practices are accepted in some liberal Orthodox circles, they are still seen as quite controversial in more traditional Orthodox synagogues.
And so, each year on Simchat Torah, when the Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidim show up, I wonder how these ultra-Orthodox men will react to the public inclusion of women in the ritual. And every year, to my continued surprise, they seem largely unfazed. They do not leave in protest, they certainly don’t throw things, and, most importantly, they keep coming back.
What a difference from the reaction to women’s prayer groups at the Kotel! To be sure, a cultural clash at the Stanton Street Shul is not comparable to the extremely charged situation at the Western Wall. But it got me to thinking, what if the idea of respecting differences in religious practice was an inherent value of Judaism? How much more peaceful and unified might the Jewish people be?
As I was considering this idea, I recalled the work of the psychologist and theologian William James, whose book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, I read with a mixture of admiration and skepticism as a college student. James argues that religion has value regardless of its origin. That is, whether or not there is a God who wants to be worshipped in a specific way is pretty much beside the point of the value religious practice adds to society and to individuals. In James’ view, no single religion or way of practicing is more valid than another, as long as it benefits its practitioners and doesn’t harm others.
I said I read James’s argument with a mixture of admiration and skepticism. Admiration because it felt to me to be true and to be articulating ideas I had grappled with on my own, but had struggled to put into coherent terms. Skepticism because, having been raised Orthodox, the idea that any religion could be equally as valid or correct as another seemed to undermine the whole basis of religion. I’ve often heard it proclaimed that Judaism is an action-based religion, not a faith-centered one; and yet, isn’t belief in God and the Commandments (and that God had commanded those Commandments) the very reason we practice in the first place? I was taught in yeshiva that “because God and/or the Torah says so” is sometimes supposed to be the only and most satisfying answer to why we do what we do. And, if I believed that, then didn’t I necessarily look at people who practiced other religions as being somewhat misguided, if not flat-out wrong?
As I’ve gotten older and experienced more of the world and of people, I’ve learned to be less rigid and realized that what works well for one person doesn’t always work for another, and that this is true of religion as much as anything else.
But when one believes fervently in something, it can be hard to abide, let alone to respect, when other people believe differently. (Witness the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the vitriolic and sometimes violent battles over evolution and abortion rights in our own time, etc.) That’s why I think a lot of trouble could be avoided if the 614th commandment were something along the lines of “Respect your neighbor’s right to express his or her spirituality differently than you do.”
This is surely a very Western, liberal idea, and many would argue that religious tolerance has no place in the Old Testament. But I’m imagining a more perfect world here, not looking for biblical consistency.
In today’s ever-polarizing religious landscape, I think we can all use a reminder about the value of moderation and of not foisting one’s beliefs on others. Whether it’s Christian fundamentalists in America trying to restrict women’s access to abortion or ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel using social pressure and worse to restrict women’s dress in the name of modesty, people with extreme views tend not to accept those with different ones. And though it so often is women who are oppressed by religious fundamentalism, the inclination to stifle differences affects men and women alike. One need only glimpse the sea of black and white at a gathering of Hasidic men to know what I’m talking about.
But I’m not as concerned with fashion as with ways of expressing spirituality. Too often, Jews don’t respect each other’s ways of practicing. Orthodox Jews tend to think Reform and Conservative Jews are simply irreligious, while liberal Jews tend to think Orthodox Jews are crazy, brain-washed, or oppressive.
So, what if the Torah commanded us to respect differences in the ways we approach God? It’s not an easy task, but if it were, it wouldn’t need to be commanded.