Elana Sztokman: I'm joining Reform but not taking sides

Elana Sztokman was a leading Orthodox feminist, but now she's training as a Reform rabbi. It's all about compassion, she explains.

October 03, 2017 13:06

Miriam Shaviv’s pained response to my announcement about becoming a Reform rabbi (JC September 29), offered a courageous and honest window into the lives of many Orthodox women. The harrowing exchanges that religious women experience, some of which she described, contributed to my decision. We may be making different choices but our struggles are similar, if not the same.

Still, I understand that, to some Orthodox feminists, my decision may seem counter-intuitive, or even constitute betrayal. Ms Shaviv used the metaphor of “fleeing the cage” but others may see it as jumping ship. It seems like a drastic shift, following more than 40 years immersed in Orthodox Judaism, and dedicating my entire adult life to Orthodox feminism. After all, I wrote a dissertation, three books and hundreds of articles on gender in Orthodoxy; I have spoken around the world passionately advocating for change, arguing that feminism is a reflection of the most essential Torah values, and that transformation is happening slowly but surely.

I haven’t changed my views. I simply relocated to a place where these ideas are the consensus instead of something to constantly fight for. The Reform movement is where compassion comes first. And while I recognise that, in the past 20 years, there have been tremendous, positive changes for Jewish women, I am now taking a different path towards the same goal — building a Jewish community where all people are equal before God and humanity.

To be clear, I still fully support Orthodox feminism as a movement, and I do believe that systemic change can and may yet happen. Ms Shaviv and I are talking about the same issues. And I hope that women of all denominations are likely allies in this. I certainly see Ms Shaviv as an ally in this effort, and I hope she feels the same. I feel connected to all the people across denominations and religions who share this stance, who place compassion before judgment and hatred, who believe that the world can be a place where all human beings are seen as divine creatures.

I am changing the fault-lines around which I build community. I am not, as some of the haters would have us believe, proof that Orthodox feminists are all “secret Reform Jews”, a twisted invocation of some of the most painful Jewish images in our history. Rather, I am saying that these denominational demarcations do not interest me at all.

In fact, fixations with gatekeeping, with defining who is “in” or “out”, are among the main factors that led me here. The Reform movement is the ultimate big tent — the only place where every single Jew is truly welcome, including halachically observant Jews — while the Orthodox community is probably the most boundary-obsessed culture we’ve got. Reform Jews are regularly described as having no Jewish future, no connection to Judaism and non-Jewish children. Reform Jews are called worse than Nazis, destroyers of Judaism, and a threat to Torah.

I know this dynamic well. Over the years, I have been called “Reform” every time I have dared to express an independent thought. In April, one Orthodox rabbi-blogger wrote that not only am I proof that all Orthodox feminists are Reform (used as a slur), but also that therefore my children and grandchildren will not be Jewish. In the awful Facebook thread that followed, people commented on my religious observance, on my appearance, and on my children, taking random swings as if I were a piñata and they were all blind. I was called the “wicked child” and told that had I been at Mount Sinai, I would not have been saved. Once you are labelled “Reform”, you are dehumanised, fodder for abuse and vitriol. This kind of discourse is reason enough to find a different home.

I am not switching “sides”. I am redrawing dividing lines. These denominational delineations are becoming increasingly irrelevant, reflective of an archaic value system about hierarchy and control and not of Torah.

Today, I see the world with a whole different set of dividing lines, not only in Judaism but in humanity in general. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who live by compassion, and those who do not. That is all. And we do not have to look far to see where the absence of compassion takes us. We are seeing the outcomes of fear, judgment, and blind hatred every day.

This week, as Jews step outside their permanent walls to dwell in fragile, temporary walls, we should reconsider the walls in our midst. Today, my borders are clear. I am aligning with people who live with an open heart. And I believe that this is the essence of what it means to be a Jew in the world.

October 03, 2017 13:06

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