Emma Barnett

Reform? Orthodox? I'm not sure where I belong

November 24, 2016 23:13

Over the last five years I've swung both ways. With and without my husband present. So don't worry, dear reader, he knows of my promiscuity. In fact he's actively encouraged it.

So who are these two suitors duelling for my affections? Reform and Orthodox Judaism that's who. And so far, no one has won.

It's an odd quirk of the religion I was born into that the synagogue subscription your family chooses can bear no relation to the form of Judaism to which you personally ascribe.

Non-Jewish friends, colleagues and Wikipedia contributors alike, have mistakenly thought of me or described me as an Orthodox Jew. It is true I grew up with that, and it was the form of Judaism showcased to me on infrequent synagogue visits, but it does not, and never has, described my liberal and largely secular life.

That said, it was to Orthodox Judaism I turned when booking my wedding, and we were thrilled with our wise and witty rabbi.

In Orthodox services I feel like an ill-educated fool

Regardless of this and many other positive experiences, sitting in my balcony seat a few weeks ago during Rosh Hashanah, and despite the warm smile of the rabbi and his team's best efforts, I couldn't have felt more separate from the service going on in the Orthodox synagogue.

I know how to read Hebrew, but I've still got no idea what it means. I recognise certain tunes, but have no clue as to the order of the service. And while it would be easy to blame my seating arrangement, I'd still have very little idea of what was going on if my gender permitted me a ring side pew.

So I have flip-flopped my way to a few Reform services. And while hearing more passages read in English and regular page number announcements are a comfort, I find myself feeling similarly isolated there. Reform Judaism's ways feel foreign because they lack the familiar rhythms of the Orthodox Judaism I grew up with.

However, in Orthodox services I feel increasingly like an illiterate and ill-educated fool, suffering imposter syndrome.

The dissatisfying result is I feel at home in neither branches and consequently less tethered to any formal community.

My story is not unique. Far from it. And in some ways it mirrors how many of my 30-something generation, who grew up under the great Blair fudge, feel about politics. They have no perfect political fit so slip further from the established parties.

And yet religion isn't politics. While it's understandable political parties demand tribal levels of loyalty, I shouldn't feel guilty for trying out different arms of my religion.

I studied the emergence of Reform Judaism. I know the fault lines and its complicated history. In Manchester, one half of my family were early members of Jackson Row and were proud to have their daughter, my mother, Batmitzvahed there. The other side never left their Orthodox backgrounds, but were never strictly Orthodox.

I am married to someone whose family have been members of both Orthodox and Reform Judaism; whose Barmitzvah was presided over by a woman; whose strictly observant maternal grandparents survived the horrors of Auschwitz. And yet, we still had to "prove" his Judaism to the United Synagogue when we married, due to a lack of sufficient paperwork.

The point is this: I know I could seek out further Jewish education if I wanted to better acquaint myself with how a synagogue service works. Perhaps I will, when children, please God, come along. My love of theology was such, I nearly pursued it as a degree after a happy two years of spirited A-level debates. But I still fear I won't fit in. In either wing. Not fully.

I know I will never reach the highs demanded in Orthodoxy and I worry Reform Judaism is too different to the Judaism I associate with my roots.

I have been ruined by the counterproductive dichotomy that exists between two wings of the same religion. And the result is uncharacteristic inertia.

The editor of this column has kindly invited me to a Masorti synagogue. It sounds like it could be the Middle Way, positively Blairish if you will. I plan on accepting.

But Jews need to stop judging each other on how Jewish they are - based on where they pay their subs. We have enough issues as it is.

And while I can happily muddle along feeling Jew-ish in my soul and roots, something is broken when somebody like me can feel most comfortably Jewish in a room full of non-Jews than one filled with praying members of supposedly the same community.

Just as Brexit means Brexit, Jewish means Jewish.

November 24, 2016 23:13

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