Today begins the Blogging Elul Project as conceived by my friend and colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Elul is, of course, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and is traditionally seen as an opportunity for introspection, reflection and repentance as we prepare for the Days of Awe. The theme for our first day of Elul is "Return", usually understood in Hebrew as Teshuvah. Usually, when discussing this term, I'd be expanding on the idea of repentance, but today I want to explore it's other associated meaning, that of 'returning' to Orthodoxy through the ba'al teshuvah movement.
(Fair warning: I'm going to write some controversial things here.)
As the term implies, to be a ba'al teshuvah is to be a 'master of return'; someone who has chosen to leave behind a secular or liberal Jewish (or perhaps even halakhic Jewish) experience in order to become Orthodox, usually (and poorly termed) "Ultra" Orthodox; the term 'Return' in this case refers to the idea that Orthodoxy is the more 'authentic' or 'true' Jewish experience; the ba'al teshuvah had left the path of 'real' Judaism but now returned to the path of a "Torah True" lifestyle.
As a liberal Jew, this bothers me, but not for the reasons you might think. It's not their questioning of the authenticity of my experience; I have no question in my mind that Reform Judaism (or Conservative or Reconstructionist) is a meaningful, authentic expression of Judaism and Torah living, as true as Orthodoxy.
This summer, I've gotten increasingly upsetting questions, both through my work with Jewish Values Online and in my congregation, about the increasing stridency of Orthodoxy, especially in Israel. We are living in an era where Many leaders of "Ultra" Orthodoxy are not just questioning the authenticity of other forms of Judaism but legislating against those expressions as well. We see this when leading rabbis in the movement--Poskim--make the argument that children in secular Schools are evil, as Ovadia Yosef argued. Or when women are not only prohibited from worshiping as equals but are arrested on a regular basis. Or when The Economist debates whether Israel is succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism (a term barely used a decade ago)--and resolves that this is likely.
Of course, Orthodoxy is a big tent--in many ways more diverse than Reform Judaism--but these strident voices are not at the periphery, but the core. And they are undermining the very heart of Judaism they say they seek to protect. Their focus on the minutia of halakhah rather than the values do more to divide us as a people than anything else on the stage. And the idea that, as North American Jews support the state of Israel and her government, we may be inadvertently supporting such intraJewish bigotry should give us pause.
So perhaps it is time to rethink what it means to be ba'al teshuvah, and we should retake the term. Not a return to Orthodoxy but a return to Torah and essential Jewish values. yes, perhaps this means we as Reform Jews should continue to explore halakhah in a way we have not chosen to do so until recently, and we should do so with more enthusiasm, but we should bring our values of egalitarianism, full equality, and social justice to that conversation. That would be a real return.