Making a Commitment to More

By Avital Morris Avital is an editor for Diyunblog and a first year at The University of Chicago

Erev Shabbat, 23 Sh’vat, 5774 Friday, January 24, 2014

CHICAGO — Reading the comments on the many articles published in the past few days about SAR’s exciting decision to allow two girls to lay tefillin at school (full disclosure: Ronit is my sister, and I am incredibly proud of both her and Yael), I have come across several forms of the question “If they want to be Conservative, why don’t they go to Conservative schools?” Those comments were clearly intended as obnoxious rhetorical questions, and there are obvious good answers to them, such as: “This is where they are enrolled, and they’re doing a totally halakhic thing that the school is allowing them to do, so please mind your own business.”

But taking that question out of the spirit in which it was meant, it is worth considering. There are plenty of Jewish high schools in the New York metro area, including several Conservative and pluralistic-with-lots-of-Conservative-Jews ones, where there would have been no negotiating with the administration; being allowed to lay tefillin would have been a given.

Despite that, I currently know more girls laying tefillin in Orthodox high schools than in egalitarian ones. So here is the question again: why are girls who take halakha seriously and want to fulfill all of the mitzvot choosing to go to Orthodox schools?

Of course I think that, once they do go to Orthodox schools, they should be allowed to lay tefillin. It’s clearly permitted (if not compulsory), and the commonly-given reasons to forbid it, such as beged ish and guf naki, have major logical and textual problems. But those schools are not mine in the way that halakhic egalitarianism is, so they can make their own policies.

I was raised by the Conservative movement. I attended Schechter Manhattan (to my knowledge, the only school anywhere that requires girls to lay tefillin) through middle school, and have spent a total of twelve wonderful summers at Ramah camps. I grew up in a minyan populated largely by JTS faculty, many of whom were amazingly willing to engage in historical or theological questions with a curious eight-year-old. I love all of those institutions dearly, and they all taught me a real love of Judaism and Torah. By the time I was ready to apply to high school, if there had been a school where I could have put on tefillin with other women in an egalitarian minyan and then gone to my equally-engaging gemara and history classes, I would have been there in a minute.

Writing on the Internet about the ways in which Conservative Judaism has failed its most engaged young members is nothing new: we all know that kids who grew up with mitzvot as an important part of their lives often do not find that value in Conservative communities and move toward Orthodoxy. I wonder, though, how it came to be that those people, especially the women, find that an adequate replacement. If they had been raised to feel as obligated in tefillin as in Shabbat, would they not have felt even more uncomfortable in a place where they were not allowed to lay tefillin than in one where they were the only person keeping Shabbat? And if their love of mitzvot were supported in the communities in which they grew up, would they even consider a place where they were forbidden to perform some mitzvot?

I think the Conservative movement, especially its educational branches, needs a serious conversation about mitzvot: in what do we think we are obligated? Who is obligated in those things? Who or what obligates us? What are we willing to give up for those obligations? In my aforementioned many years of Conservative Jewish education, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have talked about those questions other than with people educated in Orthodox institutions.

Without those questions, I do not know what this project we are all doing is about. Some people are doing mitzvot entirely because they feel connected to them, and by and large, that’s worked well for Reform Judaism. And some people (myself included) are doing mitzvot because they feel obligated in them, and many communities based around that also seem to be thriving. What does not work though, is talking about mitzvot to the exclusion of doing them, which is most of what I have done in Conservative settings. We talk a lot about Shabbat and some about kashrut; people more involved in the movement talk about meta-halakha.

I love those conversations. I’m happiest in a Beit Midrash and would talk about mitzvot all day if I didn’t have to go to class and be a college student. But communal spiritual life is driven by ritual and holiness; without those things, it doesn’t feel compelling. The conversations on their own aren’t enough because Torah is most beautiful as a life-practice, not only as an academic discipline. And egalitarianism lets more people share in the experience of learning and living Torah to its fullest extent.

No one wants to be a member of watered-down Orthodoxy. People who want to be Orthodox will be Orthodox, and people who don’t want to be Orthodox won’t want to be Conservative either if it’s just Orthodoxy but less.  But I want the opposite. For me, Orthodoxy isn’t enough. It gives me some mitzvot and some Torah, but I think I’m obligated in all of them and want a community that’s excited about that, not one that somewhat grudgingly permits them, the way SAR and Ramaz did this week. The movement I want to be a part of is Orthodox but more: more inclusive, more committed, more thoughtful about mapping halakha onto our contemporary lives. If everyone thought of the Conservative movement like that, wouldn’t all the people who love Judaism want in?

Laying tefillin as a woman in an Orthodox setting is hard, even when it is permitted. It was scary for me as an eighteen-year-old midrasha student when strangers’ only association with me was that I was weird and laid tefillin, and I can only imagine how much harder that would be in high school, where every social situation is that much more challenging and most students are just starting to feel out their social and religious boundaries. But despite the challenges, I felt very much a member of the community in my Orthodox midrasha at Ein Hanatziv, or at least no less than I do in an average Conservative shul. Being enveloped by Torah and people who care about it felt good, and most of the time, it did not make very much difference that there are a few mitzvot that most girls didn’t do. Honestly, a lot of the time, I felt more at home there than I do in some Conservative settings where the assumption is that no one minds not doing mitzvot.

Girls who lay tefillin do not study in Orthodox institutions because it is easy or because it affirms all of their values. But mitzvot and ritual tie people together, and performing them all of them alone may be even harder than performing some of them while being told not to.

I have not used “we” to talk about the Conservative movement in years. I owe so much to the movement, and I felt really guilty about dropping the label, but it was a useless descriptor: saying that I was Conservative did not tell anyone any information about me and usually made them assume things that were false. But I am using it right now because we are fighting the same fight, for a vibrant, compelling, egalitarian Judaism, and there are not all that many people with us.

If you are reading this, I assume you have some stake in Masorti on Campus or something related to it. I am asking for your help in this project. Not to make any concessions to Orthodoxy — we are not being less ourselves to lure people back into the fold. Let us be more ourselves. If people love Torah and mitzvot, give halakha enough credit to think seriously about its applications in contemporary life, and are willing to take risks and make sacrifices for it — if they want to be Conservative — why can’t they go to a Conservative school?

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