The Ashkenazi world has been split into different denominations with their own definitions of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Jewish law. The gaps are sometimes as wide as between Protestants and Catholics. The result is a very clear demarcation between those who accept traditional halacha and those who do not. The Orthodox position has tended to be “my way or the highway”. The non-Orthodox position is been more negotiable. The Sefardi world, never having had Reform, accommodated every degree of commitment to Judaism under its broad umbrella without asking awkward questions, and its rabbinate tended to be more accommodating. Sadly, even they are increasingly being eroded as the Sefardi world is being dragged to the right.
Many Persian Jews, when they came to America, like generations of immigrants before them, found Conservative Jewry more to their liking, a bridge between modernity and tradition. Now the chickens have come to roost, and they will have to choose. Because there is always a tipping point. You simply cannot have your cake and eat it too forever.
Orthodoxy has come a long way in recent years in modulating its stance on different sexual standards and preferences. Its policy has been to welcome individuals rather than to change its value system, and to avoid invading privacy on a range of issues. It has tried to adapt to civil society without sacrificing tradition. Instead of changing the law, it preserves it as principle but in principle if not always in practice, deals caringly with those who choose to make their own decisions. Others choose instead to change the law. Two models. Two choices. Those who fear that society has permitted too much are still subject in public to the law of the land. But they are fortunate in a free society that they can religiously preserve their own standards. The traditionalists of Los Angeles, indeed anyone who feels uncomfortable with the way their church or synagogue is going, can simply walk. There are options. I am not sure we should be framing this in terms of right or wrong, but rather in terms of preferences.
My community (the Persian Jewish Center) welcomes everyone. It does not apply religious tests. Everyone knows that the majority has compromised in one way or another. We only ask that our standards be respected. We adhere to traditional Jewish law even if our membership fails to live up to it. If the weight of halachic opinion changes, we will go with the flow. But until it does, we stand for caution and traditional values. It’s like being caught up in a moral tsunami. When in doubt, as the torrent rages around you, hold on. Some may say that that is a cop-out. I would argue that sometimes “discretion is the better part of valor”.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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