The Tragedy of JOFA
A little over a week ago, JOFA had a conference here in Chicago. Now, I'm definitely a supporter of women's davening groups (so long as they're done according to halakha), but JOFA stands for a lot more than that. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was founded by Blu Greenberg (of "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halakhic way" fame), wife of Yitz Greenberg (founder of CLAL, and the ostensibly Orthodox rabbi who publically declared that due to Hashem permitting the Holocaust, His commandments are no longer binding on us).
I attended part of this conference. Why? Well, my first reaction was that of course I wasn't going to go. Why on earth would I add one more person to the headcount so that they could claim to be representative of Orthodox Jewish women?
Well, someone very close to me was going. And I knew she was going to have all sorts of things to say afterwards, and I decided that it'd be a lot better if I could hear what the people actually said, rather than a second-hand account.
This was a Very Bad Idea.
The conference took place at Anshe Shalom Bnei Israel synagogue. When I was a kid, my family wasn't observant, and we used to drive down there on the High Holidays, because my grandparents belonged there. My aunt was actually the first woman to be shul president there. I hadn't been in the building for something like 15-20 years. It hasn't changed at all.
The rabbi there is Rabbi Asher Lopatin. I knew Asher when he was an undergrad at Boston University. He was active in the Mechitza Minyan at the Hillel House there, and ran the Israel Action Committee. Until I moved back to Chicago, I had no idea how far to the left he was, socially and ideologically. But you know, as a lesbian couple, we must have heard a dozen people telling us we should try Asher Lopatin's shul. Which, I suppose, should have given us an idea of where he stands now.
When we got there Sunday morning, we heard a talk by Sara Hurwitz, the madricha ruchanit of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which is an ostensibly Orthodox synagogue in New York. Her position, as we were told, was pretty much that of an assistant rabbi, in all but title. She spoke to us about ordaining women as rabbis. She told us all about how she'd gone and studied for years, learning all the things that men learn to become rabbis, and how when she graduated, she was crushed to find that there were no jobs available for her to use her skills.
I'm sure many of you have heard this joke. "A guy goes into a doctor's office and says: Doc! It hurts when I do this. The doctor looks at him and says: Nu, so don't do that!" That was all I could think of while I listened to her sad story.
The speakers there all seemed to have a problem distinguishing between women as shul presidents and women as rabbis. Between women learning texts and women being ordained. One mark of extremism is attempting to blur the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable.
I recognize that I'm an extremist as well. It's not extremism, per se, that I have a problem with. It's wrong extremism. And it's extremism on the part of those who decry extremism.
At one point in her talk, Ms. Hurwitz mentioned that many friends of hers had asked her why she didn't just go to JTS or HUC and get ordained. I hadn't realized until that moment how much I really wanted them to prove me wrong about JOFA. How much I wanted to find a way to defend them. Because the thought that ran though my mind was, "Please, please, please. Say it's because they're wrong. Or at the very least, that their ideas are not yours." Over and over.
She didn't. She said that her response was, "That's not my community." Ghah. And it's not as though I didn't already know this. I know that people like the Greenbergs, David Hartman, Steve Greenberg, and so on, only continue to claim that they are Orthodox for social reasons. Well, that, and because it gives them the ability to try and move us to the left from within. I remember when Alice Shalvi "came out" as Conservative. She'd been the same as those I mentioned above, but she finally decided to be honest about where she stood.
But even though I knew it, it was still incredibly disappointing to hear her say it. And even more disappointing to note not a single negative reaction from the audience, the other speakers, or from Asher Lopatin.
A friend of mine went up to Asher's wife Rachel later, and asked her what she thought the difference was between Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement. Rachel Tessler Lopatin has a masters in Judaic Studies from JTS, so her response wouldn't have surprised me. But it certainly surprised my friend. The rebbetzin told her that there isn't much of a difference. That there are Conservative Jews who are more observant, and ostensibly Orthodox Jews who are less observant. She clearly did not see any ideological difference between them.
The reason she didn't see any ideological difference between them is because there is no difference between the ideology of her version of Orthodoxy and the ideology of the Conservative movement. The only differences seen by the leftist extreme "Modern Orthodox" are ritual and social. They've completely lost the "dox" in "Orthodox".
The Conservative movement was born when a group of Reform Jews felt that the Reform movement had gone too far and too fast in its abandonment of Judaism. That, incidentally, is why it's called "the Conservative movement". Because they were conservative in relation to the Reform movement. Those who broke away joined up with the far left fringe among self-identified Orthodox Jews and created the Conservative movement.
Today, it honestly looks as though we're about ready for another such split. The Conservative movement has been drifting pretty steadily leftwards for its entire history. Yet there is a small "right-wing" presence among them which feels uncomfortable with it. Some of those broke away years ago when the Conservative movement began ordaining women (savor the irony) and created the Union for Traditional Judaism [sic]. There is already considerable overlap between the Edah/CLAL/JOFA leftists and the folks at UTJ. I think it's only a matter of time before these groups merge into a new movement.
The tragedy is that all of these groups have some ideas that are good. And by championing them at the same time that they champion utterly unacceptable ones simply delegitimizes the good ones. One of the speakers at the conference made it clear that he considers it proper to reevaluate things in Judaism if they conflict with our personal values. Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, said something very different in Pirkei Avot 2:4:
He used to say: Do His will as if it was your will that He may do your will as if it was His will. Make your will of no effect before His will that He may make the will of others of no effect before your will.
That's what Judaism is about.