Monday, 4 April 2016

What if my partner's family are orthodox?

Is there really much difference between Progressive Judaism and orthodox?

Dear Rabbi,
I have been married for 10 years. My wife is Jewish but I'm not. In the time we've been together I have become very interested and enjoyed the Jewish festivals and customs and foods - except for chulent (slow-cooked meat/bean stew!). Faith means a lot to me and I do want to convert. We want to start a family in the next few years and I would like to raise my children believing in something. Even though my wife is from an orthodox background they are not practising and I don't feel like I would fit in there.  So it seems that converting within Progressive Judaism would be much more appropriate to our lives and needs.

Rabbi Jonathan responds:

That sounds a sensible response, but you'll need to understand that some in the orthodox community, though not necessarily very (or at all) observant themselves, still consider themselves (and orthodoxy) superior to progressive Jews!

We even have a name for them - 'SONO' as in Strictly Orthodox - Non-Observant! (which is of course impossible!).

Let's try an unpack this further:  Many Jews in Australia (and UK, South Africa) are members - or at least their family were members - of orthodox synagogues.  They may consider themselves 'orthodox' - but, if they don't go to shul regularly, if they drive on shabbat, if they use money on shabbat, if they eat in regular (not exclusively kosher ones) restaurants, they are not orthodox - the best that they could argue is that they are 'selectively orthodox'!  Unless they believe that God dictated Torah to Moses, and it is therefore 'true', they are not orthodox.

My experience is that most members of orthodox synagogues believe in God as an inspirational power or support or solace in their lives, and that the Torah is not to be taken literally as God's word.  They may prefer a traditional service, all in hebrew, with no organ and only men leading and singing.  But they are not regular synagogue attenders, they will happily wear shorts or bathers or bikinis, and married women do not keep their heads, arms and ankles covered. In the rest of their lives they recognise that women have abilities at least equal to men, can be university professors or judges or surgeons, and that they can listen to a female singer without lusting after her (orthodoxy considers a woman's voice is her nakedness).  They may not always gather for Friday night, with full kiddush and Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals), and probably do not usually - or ever - conclude Shabbat with Havdalah on Saturday evening.  They probably believe that ethical behaviour is more important than rituals - and are probably proud of Israel's achievements, feel a connection and pride, but also concern with some of the challenges that Israel faces, not least from the part of the ultra-orthodox community who don't even recognise the State of Israel's authority.

In other words, in most regards, these members of orthodox synagogues have much more in common with Progressive Jews than with truly observant and serious orthodox Jews!

We really have some significantly different ideas from orthodoxy as you'll see in the second half of our reader 'Judaism for the Twenty-First Century'. Key differences are that a) We REJECT the idea that God wrote Torah - instead we believe humans wrote it, trying to answer the question 'What does God want us to be and do?  (which they inevitably answered for their own time and context, over 2500 years ago).
b) We REJECT the idea that the Temple should be rebuilt.  This would mean a return to animal sacrifices (which we don't believe God wants or needs), priests (we have done without them for 2000 years, and Rabbis, chosen for their wisdom and learning, have replaced them), and centralisation in Jerusalem (Judaism is today democratic and localised - wherever there are Jews, there is a Jewish community with its own leadership, interpretations and traditions). Of course it would also not go down too well with the Muslim world since the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa Mosque now stand on the Temple Mount!
c) we believe in EQUALITY - that all are created equal - men and women, Jews and non-Jews, heterosexual, homosexual, gender-fluid... we all reflect 'the image of God' in our diversity.
d) We accept a child as Jewish if they have a Jewish mother OR a Jewish father - and a Jewish upbringing (reflecting biblical as well as Rabbinic periods of Jewish history).  This means YOU DON'T HAVE TO CONVERT. We'd love you to, and we'll help you, but it should be for your own reasons and conviction, not for any family reasons or pressures.
e) Our services are shorter and in English and Hebrew, and hopefully more accessible and understandable, and families sit together.

It is worth bearing in mind that, though we are a dynamic and active minority in Australia ( Progressive Judaism is the largest grouping of synagogues in the world (

However, because orthodoxy does not accept our Rabbis as Rabbis, it therefore does not accept those who convert with us as Jewish.  This means you will not be accepted as Jewish by the orthodox authorities - and, if you were female, they therefore wouldn't accept your children either.  You will inevitably therefore become involved in a power struggle! We believe we are legitimate, and indeed that we are part of the developing, progressing understanding of Judaism, the world and God's wishes for us within it.  The orthodox Rabbinic position is that only they are authoritative, and the guardians of true Judaism.  Of course if you look back 100, 1000, 2000 or 3000 years, it is quite apparent that Judaism - and indeed every religion, is changing and developing, in response to worldwide experiences and understanding, as filtered through its own traditions and scholarship, but this is not an argument anyone is going to win any time soon (within Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religious tradition.  They all have their orthodox and their progressives, but uniquely, we have a powerful Progressive Jewish movement, already 200 years old!).  

Because of these differences, it is important for you to have your partner's understanding and support - and hopefully also that of her family, though this may take time.

It is also useful if your own parents understand the process, if they are around, and they are always welcome to come along and visit a service with you at any time. Discuss and explain your rationale and the process with them if possible.  Remember that it may seem as if you are rejecting the faith they brought you up in (if any - or secularism or atheism!). 

Good luck!  L'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan