Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rule #42 of Orthodox Conversion: There ARE Double Standards. Get Used to It.

One common problem for the newly-observant conversion candidate is when another "orthodox Jew" doesn't do what you've been taught "the law" is. Or worse, the first time you see an "orthodox Jew" drive to synagogue on Shabbat. We get so upset - "How come that person can still call himself orthodox? And why am I held to a higher standard than he is?" Yes, the Jewish authorities can't take away that person's Jew card, while you fear the specter that someone will take your Jew card away. And to a point, that's a valid fear. What is the result? A kind of double standard. It hurts, but with the choice comes the responsibility. But at the same time, by choosing the responsibility, hopefully you will find more meaning in it than someone who didn't have a choice. If you're more of a pessimist, think of it as one more thing you can't change. Either way, there's no point in getting upset.

Worse than the "halachic" double standard is the community double standard. You can't be the lowest common denominator of your community, whatever the place or movement. Converts are great inspirations to their communities. And, for good or for bad, you will be considered an example. You will be held to a higher standard. When you mess up, people will take more notice than if a born-Jew messes up. It's better to make peace with this now, long before a conversion. Converting to Judaism isn't worth it if you end up hating Jews.

As a more basic root of the problem, converts and BTs seem to enter the Jewish world with the idea that orthodoxy is monolithic. At most, we divide it into 2 groups (there are 2 variations I've seen): either (1) modern orthodox and chassidic OR (2) orthodox and ultra-orthodox.

Get that idea out of your head this minute! Nothing is farther from the truth. There are dozens of subdivisions within orthodoxy. And like with any human group, there is a great deal of inter-orthodoxy Jewish politics (even on the conversion issue, which many paint as an "orthodox v. liberal" issue). On the bright side, whatever "kind" of orthodox Judaism you could want, it exists. There is a place within Judaism that will bring out the very best Jew in you. You just have to find it! And honestly, that might be the hardest part of the orthodox conversion process. Correctly, conversion rabbis want to make sure each candidate finds the right "fit" before they convert them. We converts have a hard time with that requirement, in my experience, because we're willing to go with "good enough" of a community so long as we can be a Jew already! But when you're looking at a decision for the rest of your life, those rabbis want to be sure that you find your perfect place first. Like babies, we need the strongest possible start to our Jewish lives!

Here is a short list of the more common orthodox groupings. I apologize if something is incorrect or if your group has not been listed. This list has been compiled based on my (limited) experiences.

Modern orthodox: This is a philosophy that one can keep the mitzvot and still be a part of the modern/secular world. There also tends to be an emphasis on equality between secular and Torah education.
  • Modern orthodox liberal: These folks keep at least the "big 3" commandments: Shabbat, kosher, and the laws of family purity. Besides that, they may look and act like anyone else you know in the secular world. As an example, Esther from America's Next Top Model would likely fall into this category.
  • Modern orthodox machmir: These are the folks who thought the original modern orthodox took it too far, so they created a stricter version of modern orthodox, thus creating the split within modern orthodoxy.
Yeshivish: Also known as "black hat" Jews. Apparently they've also had a split within the yeshivish community where one side is more "modern" than the other. I don't know of any other way to describe the yeshivish community other than its strict emphasis on Torah learning. The men may study Torah full-time or at least part-time. This is one of the groups I know the least about.
Carlbach: These are followers of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach. They tend to be ex-hippies, especially in Israel. Carlbach focused a great deal on music, which means the services are very long, and you either love them or hate them. I adore them. Carlbach folks tend to be super friendly. Even liberal congregations will often have a "Carlbach Shabbat" every so often, and just about every orthodox congregation uses some of his tunes for prayers. Going to a Carlbach service is a rite of passage in the Jewish world, and every one of you should go at least once.
Syrian Jews: As you might guess, these are transplanted Syrian communities. The thing for converts to note is that Syrian communities will perform no conversions and will not accept conversions.
Indian Jews: Yup, Jews in India.
Ethiopian Jews: Supposedly, just about all the Ethiopian Jews have finally left Ethiopia. There are very interesting and bothersome integration issues in Israel with this community.
Kai Phang Jews: Jewish community in China.
Chassidic: There are approximately 40 or more active Chassidic dynasties today; many were eliminated by the Holocaust. I once heard someone describe chassidus as the philosophy of emphasizing the spiritual/emotional side of the mitzvot and observance, thus increasing joy and happiness. This is very different from the secular portrayal of chassidim as ultra-strict, closed-minded, and judgmental. Sure, those people exist (more so in some groups than others), but chassidim tend to be the most passionate Jews you can find. Here is a sampling of some of the larger dynasties active in the US today:
  • Belz
  • Breslov
  • Chabad Lubavitch
  • Ger
  • Satmar
As you might note, that's a lot of Ashkenazim. I don't know very much about the Sephardim or other communities, which I think it just a by-product of living in America.

    In summary, be wary of using the phrase "the Orthodox do/say/believe..." It's the fastest way to dig yourself a very big hole, especially if you have foot-in-mouth disease like myself.

    I wrote this post well in advance of its posting, and a few days later, Lori Almost Live of the Aish website put up a video on this same idea. I particularly love the questions she ends with. Going back to What to Do When You're Craving Treif, we should be self-aware of our actions, minhag, and interactions with Jews different from ourselves.


      1. I think a defining point of modern orthodoxy versus yeshivish is an emphasis on torah u'madda, where yeshivish doesn't place any emphasis on the 'u'madda' part. This is why modern orthodox machmir kind of gained popularity, because people still believe they can be as frum as the black hatters, but still follow learning based on torah u'madda.

      2. I was pleasantly surprised at just how diverse the Orthodox community is. Beginning my journey to Orthodoxy (I'm still in the conversion process), I quickly dicovered the Misnaged/Hassidic divide that seems to have diminished somewhat in modern times. These were the 'Haredim' while everybody else was 'Modern Orthodox' (leaving aside the Sephardic community). Of course, it turned out there was a lot more to it than that!

        I was fascinated by the differences in Hashkafa between those like Rav Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz (whose work I have grown to love recently) and the Hassidic dynasties whose approach intrigued me also. Like all of them I see halakha as the a priori basis of Judaism - but I am sympathetic to the Leibowitzian view that the sole purpose of the commandments is to obey G-d, and they are beyond man's understanding and attributing any emotianal/ethical significance is misguided and irrelevant. It seems like a world away from the Breslover guys I used to hang out with in Israel - I loved the dancing around and the meditation, the mysticism and the spirituality. I still like indulging in that stuff with local Chabadniks sometimes - it seems like a Jewish counterculture to me. Then the Lubavitchers and the Breslovers are so, so different from the Satmar - to the extent Lubavitchers I know say they really, genuinely dislike eachother.

      3. Breslov is about as opposite of me as you can get, but I still love them!

        The diversity was also something I was pleasantly surprised about. But of course, being the Jewish world, you inevitably discover those internal politics and stereotypes :) Maybe I'm a closet Breslover because I think we should all love each other and just be happy!

        Thank you for contributing; that was a great comment!

      4. There is a great book that will help you understand Orthodox Judasim and the "Yeshivish" that you understand the least. It is called:

        One Above and Seven Below: A Consumer's guide to Orthodox Judaism from the Perspective of the Chareidim . It's a real eye opener.

        He also has a blog and a recent post called: What it means to convert.

      5. Thank you for a very useful comment! That sounds like a great book! It's certainly one that needed to be written :) And I'll get to the blog post right after class!

      6. Hersh, I just re-read your comment and noticed that it has yeshivish in quotes. Is that not the right term? Is there another one to use or is just plain "orthodox" preferred?

      7. Yeshivish is a perfectly acceptable term and it did not really need to be in quotes. In my opinion the "yeshivish" (quotes again) is actually a subset of the Chareidim who also include the Chassidish. I think "chareidim" should have been the term to use so that's why I put "Yeshivish" on quotes but it's really not much of an issue.

      8. Hersh: Thank you for following up! I always hesitate to use the word chareidi because the tone in which I usually hear people say it made me wonder if it has a negative connotation! Just part of only living in small communities without much Jewish diversity, I suppose! Also, the convert community doesn't always speak well of the chareidim, as I'm sure you know! I'm glad to know it's a word I can use!

      9. two jews, three shuls because there is always one that you don't go to.

        don't forget the long running argument between LItvacks and Hassids.

      10. Syrian Jews do accept sincere converts performed by other beit dins. They do not consider conversion done for the purpose of marrying a Jew to be legitimate.