Sunday, December 10, 2006

Gunfight at the OU Corral, or how I made myself unwelcome in my own synagogue

"I don't get it. Why are you making such a big deal about me going up on the bima to lead Ashrei? This is a Conservative synagogue. Once you take down the mechitza, what difference does it make whether I stand in the front of the room or on the bima?

E.J.: "This is different. You might be menstruous."

"So? A Torah scroll can't be made tameh [ritually unfit], can it, Rabbi?"

Rabbi: Actually, I heard a rabbi tell his wife not to touch a book."

[Stunned into temporary silence, I considered his response. Okay, maybe, because contact between a niddah wife and her husband is considered something of a no-no by many in the Orthodox community, she couldn't touch his book. But what does that have to do with a sefer Torah? To the best of my knowledge, anyone who goes to a cemetery is tameh [ritually unfit] for the rest of his or her life because, since the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash (Holy Temple), we've had no water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer with which to purify ourselves from tumat mavet (?), the ritual unfitness that results from contact with a corpse. Therefore, the sefer Torah, being handled by people 95% of whom are probably tameh from visiting a cemetery, would always be tameh itself! That's why I believe that the friend who told me that the rabbis had ruled that a sefer Torah cannot be made tameh is right. (Feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm off base).]

[Change of tactic required: Whether I'm right or wrong, I know perfectly well how it'll go over if I question the rabbi's statement in the middle of a Ritual Committee meeting].

"But what does that have to do with me going up on the bima to lead Ashrei? I'm not touching a scroll."

At this point, E.J. and H. (both female, by the way) were raking me over the coals, while I protested, again and again, like a broken record, "This is a Conservative synagogue, this is a Conservative synagogue."

So the rabbi, in his inimitable fashion, stepped in to break up the fight, and only made it worse.

"Sometimes, even when you're right, you have to cede for the good of the group . . . blah, blah, blah."

That's when I lost it. Feeling that the rabbi was, essentially, giving E.J. and H. carte blanche to attack me, I got up and announced, "I might as well just leave now." To the best of my recollection, this is the first time in my life that I've ever stormed out of a meeting in a huff, and it's certainly the first time in my life that I’ve ever cursed a blue streak at the top of my lungs in a synagogue building. (Oy, there's one for my Al Chet list--such disrespect!) I just grabbed my stuff and stomped out, with a final "Everything I do offends people" shouted over my shoulder.

Later that evening, I spoke to M., who told me that she and S. (also both female) had come to my defense after I stormed out, protesting that I was being attacked personally : They said that, if it had been another woman who had gone up on the bima to lead Ashrei, no one would have cared.

Here's a chunk of the e-mail I sent to M. the next day:

"[My husband] and I had a nice long talk, and this was my conclusion: I'm being attacked for the small stuff because I can't be attacked for the big stuff. The decision to allow women to chant haftarot, though it was originally proposed as a means of giving Bat Mitzvah celebrants a larger role, now functions as a way to compensate for the fact that there are almost no men chanting haftarot anymore, so the oldsters can't complain, because they--the males, anyway--are part of the problem. The decision to count women [for a minyan] was made because of demographics--there just aren't enough men, at this point, so no one can complain. The decision to allow women to be gabbaim, lein, and/or lead weekday Shacharit was also made due to a combination of demographics and the lack of men willing to learn these skills. (There's also the major detail that weekday Shacharit takes place out of sight of most of the people who would be offended.) My decision to wear a tallit and tefillin, though not everyone's cup of tea, affects only me. To sum up the problem, the only egalitarian practices for which the traditionalists feel absolute free to attack me are the minor practices that have no affect whatsoever on the ability of the congregation to function. Therefore, someone--I forget who--complained to the rabbi that I had the unmitigated gall to honor my father by adding his name to my mother's name when saying a misheberach for my sister (a fact that he hadn't noticed at all until it was brought to his attention). Therefore, E. B. attacked me for daring to use new tunes for Ein Kelokeinu and Adon Olam. Therefore, the Naysayers Chorus--D., H. D., E. J., etc.--ketch and, as of last night, attack me for going up on the bima to say Ashrei. And, of course, the rabbi supports the traditionalists--what do you expect from a black-hatter?

As I said to [my husband], my membership in this shul is rather like a bad marriage in which the wife assumed that she could make her husband change, instead of accepting the fact that most of what she saw was what she was going to get. In retrospect, I suppose that I should have seen this coming at the point at which I realized that most of the members my own age were moving out of the neighborhood. (Concerning E. J., who's in our ballpark, age-wise, I've said this before and I'll say it again: I truly believe that if she'd had a daughter instead of a son--that is, if she'd had a child with whom she could have sat on the same side of the mechitza [as a single mother]--she would have joined Young Israel instead of [our local shul, the only Conservative synagogue in a neighborhood that once had three Orthodox synagogues, and still has two].) It could legitimately be argued that, once it became clear that the egalitarians would always be in the minority, I was arrogant to have thought that the whole shul would change its ways simply because I wanted it to do so."

It doesn't help that I've often been publicly disrespectful of this particular rabbi. I asked for his forgiveness before this past Yom Kippur, and have been working very hard on behaving appropriately toward him. I cannot honestly say that I’ve haven’t brought on some of the flack that I’ve been getting in the past year or so by arguing with him about just about everything. (My husband reported that my attackers’ reaction to me storming out of the meeting was, “She can dish it out, but she can’t take it.”) It doesn't help, though, that the rabbi has encouraged a turn to the right that, in some cases, actually goes against established minhagim (customs) of the congregation that have existed for at least the 21 years that we've been members. For example, it's always been the minhag of our shul to do Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) as a group, and it's always been the practice of the rabbi, cantor, or congregant leading it to ask for quiet until Birkat HaMazon was completed. Why has the Ritual Committee ruled, only since the arrival of our current rabbi, that the leader of Birkat HaMazon must now ask those who wish to participate in Birkat HaMazon to join with him or her rather than informing them that the congregant will now chant Birkat HaMazon, as if we now have to apologize for praying b'tzibbur (as a community)? Reciting Birkat HaMazon as a purely private prayer is more typical of the Orthodox community, but not necessarily of the Conservative community, in which practices that were traditionally done privately and/or at home (such as having a seder) are frequently done as a group in synagogue. Our current rabbi has not even attempted to conceal the fact that he has no respect for the Conservative Movement, its rabbis, its interpretations of halachah/Jewish law, and/or its customs, and he is simply imposing on an apparently-increasingly-willing congregation the approach that he learned as a rabbinical student at Chofetz Chaim Yeshivah.

I realize now that I’ve shot myself in the foot by being so openly hostile to our current rabbi, because my behavior has caused some of the more traditional members to circle the wagons around him. But I’ve been going to Conservative synagogues since childhood. If I wanted an Orthodox rabbi, and were willing to abide by an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law and tradition, I would be a member of an Orthodox synagogue. Why should anyone be surprised that I resent the fact that I can’t ask my own rabbi a question because the answer is going to be so far to the right of my own haskafah/religious viewpoint that I’d be hard pressed to think that we’re even speaking the same language? Here’s an example of a typical conversation (paraphrased): “You know, I’ve heard that Tashlich was originally a pagan ritual, but the rabbis, since they couldn’t seem to get people to stop doing it, added psalms and a new interpretation and made it Jewish.” The rabbi’s response: “What are you talking about? Judaism has never been influenced in any way by any other religion. Everything that we do was given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai.”

We always assumed that we'd have to leave this neighborhood sooner or later, because the odds are very good that there won't be a single synagogue of any kind within walking distance 10 years from now. But now that I no longer feel welcome in my own synagogue, I'm figuring that we'll have to start looking even sooner than planned.

Wanted: Two traditional egalitarian Conservative Jews seek neighborhood with thriving (i.e., with lots of young children, and, therefore, likely to last another 25 years) traditional egalitarian Conservative synagogue to which to move. Must be affordable for normal mortals, but must also be located within semi-reasonable commuting distance of New York City, as both of us intend to work for several more years and neither of us has any delusions of being able to find new jobs, given our respective ages (we’re both over 55). Kindly respond in the comments or via e-mail.

P.S. Having no desire whatsover to show up at our local shul yesterday after Tuesday's Ritual Committee fiasco, I (hopped on a subway train, you should pardon the expression,) went to Ansche Chesed, and walked into the West Side Minyan service just in time to be pounced on by Debbie. "One of our leiners couldn't make it. Could you read one aliyah from the book?" Normally, I wouldn't dare--I ain't that good at leining, even from a Chumash--but, under the circumstances, I was so flattered just to feel wanted that I took a look at the aliyah and consented, on condition that someone follow in the actual scroll with a yad (pointer, used in order to avoid touching the parchment, a no-no). So they gave the aliyah to someone with good Hebrew-reading skills, and I somehow managed to make a fool of myself only a few times. (Thank goodness it was a relatively easy reading.) If I could afford to move back to the Upper West Side and live within walking distance of Ansche Chesed, I'd be there in a heartbeat. It's not perfect, but it's as close as I'm ever going to get.

P.P.S. Here are links to a couple of related posts. The odd thing is that I may be the only blogger in the entire Jewish blogosphere who can identify with all three sides of this story: I'm a member of a dying congregation, I'm on the left wing of my movement and don't wish to see my synagogue go any farther to the right, and I'm also a relative newcomer who wants to change the synagogue to match my personal haskkafah/relgious viewpoint. Have you looked at my masthead lately? Is it any wonder that I call myself a perpetual misfit?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, there's always Teaneck...

Sun Dec 10, 07:07:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Are there any *Conservative* Jews left in Teaneck? Maybe I'm wrong, but I've gotten the impression, from reading what other bloggers say, that Teaneck is basically a Yeshivah University Alumni Clubhouse.

Over at the USCJ website synagogue page, I counted 18 medium to large (400 members or more) synagogues in the 07_ _ _ (North Jersey) Zip (postal) codes. I find it absolutely fascinating that the only code that's *not* included on the shul page is a code indicating whether or not a shul is egalitarian. How coy of them. (Mumble, mumble, kvetch and grumble, info lack does make me stumble.) Maybe the North Jersey area has some good spots, but if we want to be within walking distance of an egalitarian Conservative synagogue, I'm not sure which community would best fit the bill. I'll have to look into it further.

Sun Dec 10, 08:48:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Sheyna said...

You could have pretty much everything you wanted at my shul, but it'd be about a 3-day commute to NYC (each way)...


I hope you find something that works for you!

Sun Dec 10, 08:49:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Too true, Sheyna--'tis a bit of a schlep. :) Besides, it's freezing out there, and lately, I find that the cold aggravates my asthma a bit. This old geezer is becoming a wheezer.

Sun Dec 10, 09:14:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said... are NOT on the left wing of your movement. I hear they're having trouble keeping the non-egal minyan going at JTS these days....

(I'm all the way across the country, and it's less affordable here than in NY. But oh, we love our shul)

Sun Dec 10, 09:15:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anon., *I'm* on the left wing of my movement--it's my *shul* that doesn't want to be egal.

Actually, whether or not it's the majority who's opposed to egalitarism or whether the opponents are the only ones willing to speak up is an interesting question. Around 2002, when we still had about 150 members, we took a survey. Unfortunately, only 45 people responded. But the responses were most interesting.

A woman carrying the Torah?
Yes 30; No 14
A woman lifting the Torah (“hagbah”)?
Yes 29; No 13
A woman tying the Torah (gelilah)?
Yes 33; No 10
A woman having the Maftir aliyah, chanting the blessings before and after both the aliyah and the Haftarah?
Yes 31; No 13
A woman having any aliyah?
Yes 34; No 9
A woman reading from the Torah (“leining”)? Yes 31; No 10
A woman serving as gabbai (Torah reader’s assistant)?
Yes 29; No 10
A woman leading a service?
Yes 28; No 12
A woman leading Kiddush?
Yes 38 No 7
A woman leading Birkat HaMazon/Grace After Meals?
Yes 37; No 8
A woman blowing the shofar?
Yes 28; No 15
A woman rabbi?
Yes 26; No 15
A woman cantor?
Yes 28; No 14

Sorry I had to cut out the the undecideds and the abstentions, but it was just too much work before going to work to convert any more of that Excel table.

As I said, 45 people out of roughly 150 may not be a particularly good sample, but still, it's interesting. What's perhaps equally interesting is the number of people who didn't reply--apparently, they didn't care enough one way or the other to be bothered. But of the people who did care enough to complete the survey, the egalitarians were the clear majority. So the question still remains to this day just how many of our members truly oppose egalitarism and how many just don't want to rock the boat and/or offend their friends.

I assume you live in California. Another bastion of cheap housing . . . not.

Mon Dec 11, 06:45:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I know of good Conservative Trad-Egal communities in Teaneck and Englewood, NJ.

Mon Dec 11, 10:54:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oh, yes, I should have thought to ask you--don't you teach in that neighborhood? So, nu, Steg, what are the names of those trad-egal Conserv. shuls? I'll check them out. I'm pretty sure the Hubster said that his Certified Public Accountant status would be recognized by the State of New Jersey, though he'd have to pay a separate licensing fee to practice as a CPA there. Of course, we'll still have to figure out whether we can afford to live there, but aside from that minor detail . . .

Mon Dec 11, 11:22:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

By the way, just in case no one has spotted the anomalies, the oddest thing about that survey was that 34 people approved of a woman having any aliyah, but only 31 approved of a woman leining, and only 29 approved of a woman acting as gabbai. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I would have expected those numbers to run in the opposite direction. Some folks think it's okay for a woman to have an aliyah, but not okay for her to serve as assistant to the Torah reader???

That's a good illustration of the nostalgia factor, which is really, for the most part, the driving factor for traditionalism in our local synagogue. Please understand that, while some argue on halachic grounds, many opponents of egalitarianism in our shul admit freely that halacha/Jewish religious law has little to do with their opinion--they just want to pray the way they did in their parents' shul.

Mon Dec 11, 11:41:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

yikes! Shira, it sounds like you are not in a nurturing spiritual environment AT ALL.

I may get blasted for the suggestion, but you often sound more Reconstructionist than Conservative... if on the more traditionalist end of the spectrum.

Tue Dec 12, 01:00:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Torah scroll is tameh and cannot be made so. I was told this was so the cohanim wouldn't store the scrolls with their food (where it was subject to mice)

Tue Dec 12, 03:54:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, you've got me pegged--in a previous incarnation, I belonged synagogue that was a dues-paying member of both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. In matters of theology, I'm closer to Reconstructionist. In matters of home and synagogue ritual and practice, I'm closer to traditional egalitarian Conservative. In terms of halachah/Jewish law, the jury's still out--I'm some combination of confused and undecided.

Tue Dec 12, 10:11:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"The Torah scroll is tameh and cannot be made so." Anon. Tue Dec 12, 10:11, I'm sorry, but I could use a little moreh n'vuchim (guide to the perplexed), here. Do you mean that a sefer Torah is *always* tameh (ritually unfit) and cannot be made any more so through contact with any person or object that's also tameh? Please pardon my ignorance of halachah (Jewish religious law), but wouldn't that create problems in terms of using a sefer Torah in a synagogue? Could you kindly clarify your statement?

Tue Dec 12, 10:26:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, correction: "In terms of halachah/Jewish law, the jury's still out--I'm some combination of confused, *conflicted,* and undecided.

Tue Dec 12, 10:28:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


While I can empathize (I was an increasingly orthodox person while studying as an undergrad at JTS and was often made to feel uncomfortable), the only solution is to leave.

Your rabbi is simply wrong. A menstruating woman cannot make a Torah scroll tamei. In fact, as the anon mentioned, all sifrei kodesh (Torah scrolls, a scroll of other canonized books, such as Esther, etc.) are all considered tamei. The Sages did so because the Cohanim used to store their trumah (the tithe given to them) in the aron, which led to mice nibbling on the scrolls. So, if the Torah scrolls are tamei, then the trumah would be tamei. In any event, a torah scroll cannot be mekabel tumah (become ritually impure) by a menstruating woman.

Case in point, my Ortho rav (YU musmach) permits women to dance with a sefer torah on simchat torah, and permits women's tefillah groups to layn from the torah. Couldn't happen if the torah scroll could be mekabel tumah.

Your rav is basically playing to the more right wing crowd's ignorance. I'm all for Orthodoxy, don't get me wrong, but ignorance is stupid. "I heard a rav tell his wife not to touch his book." Gimme a break. The prohibitions are on directly passing an item from hubby to wife when she's niddah because it may lead to sex, not because the item is mekabel tumah. Not to mention that none of us are experts in the laws of tumah any more since they are of no practical import until the Beit haMikdash is rebuilt (soon, please God, soon).

You need to leave, and soon. There are places on LI that are viable (I'm a former Lawn Guylander, myself). Also, check out suburban Jersey, such as Middlesex County or Somerville. Reasonable commute to the city.

Wed Dec 13, 09:24:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

"I heard a rav tell his wife not to touch his book." Gimme a break. The prohibitions are on directly passing an item from hubby to wife when she's niddah because it may lead to sex, not because the item is mekabel tumah.

Hmm, I can just picture it - Torah study as foreplay... ;)

Wed Dec 13, 05:31:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

Shira Salamone said...
Tzipporah, correction: "In terms of halachah/Jewish law, the jury's still out--I'm some combination of confused, *conflicted,* and undecided.

Aren't we all??

Wed Dec 13, 05:32:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Jdub, thanks for the clarification concerning tumah [ritual unfitness] and its transmission or lack thereof.

"Your rav is basically playing to the more right wing crowd's ignorance." You're right, and the irony is that, as undereducated as I am, I could probably count on one hand the number of congregants who're more learned in Jewish subjects than my husband and I are. This crowd knows basically how to run a home and shul the way their parents did. But when it comes to Jewish law, most of them probably know even less than I do.

"You need to leave, and soon." Amen. Our son will graduate in May with a degree in physics, and is currently seeking a grad school that will provide him with a fellowship or the like, as he plans to be financially independent as of next September. After that, all bets on us staying in this neighborhood are off.

Tzippora, unfortunately, it seems to me that, among some of the Chareidim, the notion that Torah study could become foreplay is not a joke. There are communities, both in the diaspora and in Israel, in which the mere presence of a woman on the same side of the street is considered a sexual provocation. I've blogged about this viewpoint previously, and may, eventually, blog about it again. (I've been working on a post in my head, but need to do some more reading.)

Wed Dec 13, 08:36:00 PM 2006  

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