“The Conversation” provides a bimonthly opportunity for discussion on topics of interest to the entire greater Rhode Island Jewish community. Every other month, we will offer a topic and ask our readers to write an Op-Ed of approximately 750 words. “The Conversation” is not a point/counterpoint or pro/con feature; it is our hope that readers will think about the topic, consider their own experiences and comment online at jewishrhody.org, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Editor, Jewish Rhode Island, 401 Elmgrove Ave., Providence, RI 02906. We hope you’ll join in the conversation.
JUDAISM HAS always been a complex, evolving organism with multiple perspectives that often resist one another. The priestly Sadducee literalists resisted the democratization promoted by the Pharisees. The rabbinic age was rife with conflicting opinions (Hillel and Shammai, anyone?). Maimonides and other medieval philosophers scorned the kabbalists’ mysticism. The Talmud-focused Mitnagim opposed the rise of the spirituality-focused Hasidism. And in early modernity, those representing what would come to be known as “Orthodox” railed against the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and the Reform movement that came in its wake. And so it is with Judaism – we are a complex and multi-varied people and our tradition is likewise complex and multi-varied.
When thinking about my own experience as a member of klal Israel, I find our complicated history comforting. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to struggle with how I “fit” with the Jewish people, customs and practice. At various times in my life I haven’t felt judged for my Jewish practice, as much as I’ve felt misunderstood. Others seemed to have a preconceived idea of the “Jewish box” that was supposed to fit me and were surprised when it pinched in all the wrong places. The first time I encountered that poorly fitting box was in rabbinical school.
After a career in psychology, and after having recovered from a significant injury, I was excited to pursue the vocation that had been calling me since I was 12 – the rabbinate. But the challenging question was: where to apply to rabbinical school? This was a harder question than you might think; it proved to be my first big “pick a box” moment. I considered both the Reform (HUC) and Conservative (AJU) seminaries in Los Angeles, and both appealed for different reasons. Like most people, I am a multifaceted mix of characteristics, including how I approach Jewish life. In many ways I’m a traditionalist; our tradition is what binds us as klal Israel and deserves care and respect. While Jewish tradition has necessarily evolved, I believe the innovations we make for our communities should be thought out, careful and purposeful. At the same time, I have been a voracious student of Jewish history, theology, mores and practice. The more I learned about the theology that undergirds certain elements of our tradition, the more I saw the need for thoughtful innovation. A congregant recently described my approach as “scholarly and critical, yet clearly inspired by respect and affection.” I think that’s accurate, but it made choosing a school challenging.
After spending time on both campuses, I chose HUC [Hebrew Union College]. The Reform movement’s focus on inclusion and social justice resonated, and I was excited to learn from some of the exemplary scholars – such as Rachel Adler, Tamara Eskenazi, and Lewis Barth – whose work I had been reading for years.
The Conservative responsum that allowed for openly-LGBTQ clergy had just come out and I didn’t want to be a part of the first class to have out rabbinical students. I had fought those battles years before in college and grad school, and I wasn’t interested in my orientation being a primary focus again.
In many ways HUC exceeded all of my expectations. I received a truly wonderful education from rabbis and scholars who cared deeply about their students, I developed a cohort of colleagues and friends whom I respect and love, and I came away with the beginnings of a manuscript for a book that was finally published last year.
What I didn’t expect was for my approach to Judaism to surprise (and sometimes shock) my classmates. Some assumed that I was on the ultra-liberal end of the progressive Jewish spectrum. They assumed I supported avoiding problematic Torah verses such as Leviticus 18:22 (I don’t). Some were shocked to learn that I laid tefillin. Others were perplexed that I saw value in diving deeply into our liturgy. I’m just not what some expected from a queer Reform rabbi.
And, at this point, I am very grateful that I’m not. In my experience, many progressive Jews yearn for a deeper and more textured connection to our tradition. Teaching aspects of our tradition that are sometimes neglected in progressive circles (Mussar, Kabbalah, Talmud, liturgy), in a way that dives deeply and is accessible and inviting to learners, is one of the most enjoyable parts of my rabbinate. Ultimately, I made my own box.
RABBI GAVI RUIT teaches adult education courses at Temple Beth-El and regularly lectures on the implications of her book “The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition” (New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019), including ways we can improve congregational culture in light of the #Metoo era.
AS A PERSON with very strong convictions about my Judaism and my Jewish practices, I have to say that I do not feel judged. I wear my convictions quite literally on my sleeve, I am proud of them and own them! Having said so, I would like to present what is perhaps the other side of the coin. That is, quite often I do feel, and sometimes I am even told, that I am judging another person. It is not what I say, not a gesture or a facial expression. It is just there, an elephant in the room that somehow will not go away.
Perhaps there is a natural defensiveness when something is different. Maybe the beard or the conservative mode of dress set me apart, make me look like I am different or is it something else? When I first arrived in Rhode Island over 15 years ago, I would take off my jacket as soon as I entered a meeting room just to make others feel more at ease. Even so, there was always something that made people uncomfortable. Is it my adherence to a strict set of formal, traditional practices that govern every aspect of my life that somehow intimate that I think fellow Jews who are not doing the same are somehow inferior? Truly I am not sure what is, but it makes no difference. Let me explain why:
I try to live my life by the following aphorism, and when I am successful in communicating it I think that people feel a lot more comfortable. In “Ethics of Our Fathers,” a repository of amazing insight into human nature and relationships, the sages taught, “Who is the one who is wise? Somebody who learns from all those around him.” It is true, my Judaism has very defined boundaries, unyielding measures of what is right and what is wrong. This does not give me or anyone else license to pass judgment on another person. It does open the door for meaningful discussion. Sometimes we may come to agree with one another and sometimes we may agree to disagree. This is an inevitable truth of life, just as G-D created people with different facial features so are peoples’ views and perspectives on life going to be different. Life is about a meaningful pursuit of the truth, so that all perspectives count and are helpful in arriving at that goal.
Over many years of teaching and reaching out in an effort to inspire people to explore their Judaism more fully, I have been blessed to form many meaningful relationships with people from across the spectrum of this beautiful community. I have inevitably walked away from these encounters enriched in one way or another. We should put aside our preconceived notions and open ourselves up to one another because even if we are unable to agree we are one family. Genuine love and concern as well as respect for one another is what we should all be striving for.
A final thought on the subject of judging, based on our ancient traditions: The sages taught, “You cannot judge your friend until you have stood in his place.” The reality of the material world is that no two objects can coexist in the same space, which means that no individual can subject someone else to their personal qualifications. We can share ideas, debate them and come to agreement or respectfully disagree, but we cannot judge another from our own perspective. We have to open the door to hearing, seeing and feeling other perspectives. When that does not happen, consider that it may not be because we are being judged but rather because we are judging.
Measuring another by my standard prevents me from making a real connection with what he is expressing. The feeling we have when we feel judged; is that what we wish to project onto someone else? Feeling judged is often the result of our judging. Let’s pause and stop the cycle so that positive energy and understanding can flow, and we finally build the kind of unity we all so deeply desire.
RABBI RAPHIE SCHOCHET is the rosh kollel of the Providence Community Kollel, an organization that provides programs to enhance and enrich Jewish life in Rhode Island.