I was looking very much the Orthodox woman – wearing a long sleeve shell under the shorter sleeves of my tunic, a mid-calf length skirt, and leggings – when I rushed into the synagogue’s small chapel about one minute after services were supposed to start.
“Ten,” the Rabbi called out, smiling at me, “we can start now!”
“We’ve got a minyan!” someone else said to me from another corner of the room.
I grinned as I grabbed a Siddur and starting answering “ah-men” to the morning blessings. I felt very pleased, and very much a part of this community that I only join once a week.
If I’m trying my hardest to become a more observant Orthodox woman, what was I doing in this obviously not-Orthodox minyan?
It started back in Elul (considered to be a good time to do teshuvah by taking on additional mitzvot) when I decided to take on going to services one time each week that was not on Shabbat.
My own small Orthodox synagogue only has services on Shabbat, so attending an extra service there wasn’t an option. I started trying to figure out the best way to keep this commitment.
I try to be honest with myself. I’m in no way a morning person, so getting up extra early to go to a weekday morning minyan was highly unlikely to happen. And between classes, and the other things that fill my evenings, going to services then didn’t seem like a reasonable option. So Sundays it would have to be.
I hadn’t been to services at any of the other Orthodox synagogues in my area; and, again being honest, this shy introvert found the idea of doing so, especially on a non-Shabbat day when there would only be “regulars” around, all of whom would likely be men, pretty darned scary.
What was I going to do?
I considered all the synagogues I was aware of in my area, and I realized that there was a synagogue I could attend that I had attended before, whose services on Sunday were not at the crack of dawn, and where there would very likely be other women present. (Plus they served breakfast after the minyan, not that that was an important factor, of course. Ahem.)
Still…Ding! Ding! Ding! Winner!
I decided to try going there. And it worked out… very well actually. I’ve been going to Sunday morning services at this synagogue regularly for months.
As you may well have already guessed, it’s a synagogue affiliated with the U.S.’s Conservative movement.
It was there I got the above welcoming greeting just because I happened to be the person who walked in at the right moment to complete the number needed to make a minyan.
Now I do know the main reason Orthodox minyans don’t count women. Since we are not obligated to be there, it doesn’t count if we are. And I actually have no issues with this reason.
I know, and even agree with, the idea that women are a different kind of spiritual, and are even possibly more spiritual than men. I also believe that the Orthodox men who say this mean it; that they are not just using it as an excuse to be misogynists. I believe it because I regularly see how much the amazing, strong, intelligent women in my community are loved and, more to the point, respected by their husbands, their families and the entire community. In fact, I love, respect, and attempt to emulate several of them myself.
Also I knew, and decided to accept, the Orthodox rules about this issue when I made the decision years ago to become a part of this community.
So when I say I understand. I really do.
I also see the enthusiasm with which the men are greeted when they walk into services.
I see how the man walking around carrying the Torah often has to be reminded to bring it over to the women’s side of the mechitzah; and how occasionally, they even forget to look to see if any of us are there and don’t walk over with it at all.
I see men being honored with aliyahs. I see men reading from the Torah. And as I said, I understand. I accept.
I admit I enjoyed the feeling of being welcomed as a real, legitimate, necessary part of that minyan.
Even though it has been a very long time, I can remember how nice a feeling it was to be given an aliyah.
I’m a singer. And there is nothing to compare to the way it felt when I was singing to G-d when I was giving the blessings. (I’ve always thought that’s why G-d gave me my voice – so I could sing to, and for, Him. And being able to sing for G-d is the only thing I truly miss about attending church.)
The answer to the obvious question is: Yes, I do know I have the option of attending that Conservative synagogue all the time. Why don’t I?
The reason goes back to that often-used question in politics: What did I know and when did I know it?
When I was first thinking about converting, I spend five years wrestling with the issue of G-d speaking in words at Har Sinai. It wasn’t the actual giving of the Torah, I had no issue with that. It was the words that I had such a huge problem with. My conception of G-d just didn’t allow for G-d to communicate in words – too small, too finite, too restricting – too NOT G-d.
One of my major motivations to convert as a Conservative Jew was that I knew the Conservative Beit Din would not make me swear that I accepted what happened at Har Sinai exactly as it was written in Torah – with G-d using words.
Committing to Judaism was the single most important decision of my life. And because it was, I wasn’t going to lie to get it done. At that time, I simply could not say that I believed G-d spoke in words.
A bat mitzvah worth of years later, I’ve learned a lot. One thing from a rabbi and rebbetzin I know now who gave me reason to believe that it is reasonable and possible that G-d did use words. And another, generally how little I knew back then.
One example: my understanding at that time was that the only major difference in the observing of the mitzvot between Orthodox and Conservative streams, was that one allowed driving to and from synagogue on Shabbat.
Of course, I’d heard about the “slippery slope” – that once a leniency is given, or taken, it will inevitably lead to more and more leniency. The “give an inch, take a mile” thing. At the time I dismissed this, thinking it was just a made-up reason to not to allow people to do what seemed to me like a perfectly harmless, and reasonable, thing. After all, what with the sprawling suburbs here in the U.S., how could all Jews “reasonably” be expected to live close enough to a synagogue to walk there on Shabbat? What could it hurt to allow such a reasonable thing?
A lot as it turns out.
As a brand-new convert, I was so gung-ho. I immediately began taking on all the mitzvot I could, insofar as I understood them. And how did I figure out how to understand? By watching the people around me, of course.
What I learned from them was:
-that it was OK to eat in non-kosher restaurants, as long as you didn’t eat high treif: pork, shellfish, or milk and meat mixed together.
-that it was OK to drive on Shabbat – full stop. So anywhere.
-that tearing off your toilet paper before Shabbat was a laughably minor thing and not something to worry about doing.
-that it didn’t matter if you turned your lights on and off on Shabbat.
-that receiving the Torah was the foundational “myth” of the Jewish people, and that its importance is not based on its historical truth.
I could go on, but you probably get the general drift. It was a long time before I came to think that the above simply don’t accurately represent the commandments as they were given.
Let me be clear, I am not, in any way, on any level, saying that the people I was surrounded by were bad people or bad Jews. They were not. They were, and are, good people; dedicated to their Judaism, and supportive of Jewish charities and institutions. They are still my friends. And I respect them.
Eventually I realized I was on that above-mentioned slippery slope. I also realized that in order to get off it, and back on my own Jewish path, I had to learn more, which meant I had to find not only opportunities for formal learning, but also other role models. Not only people who knew more than I did, but people who knew it differently than I did. People who lived it differently than I did.
After attending a Reform service, and seeing how little of the Amidah was left in their siddur, I knew Reform was way over my personal “green line.” I visited a Reconstructionist congregation, and while I loved their joy and sense of community, again I knew their service was not my Jewish path.
I specify “my” path because I don’t believe that there is only one correct way to be Jewish. I think we each have our own individual path to love and serve G-d. We’re all here to find that path. A big part of mine is learning.
I was, and am, completely driven by learning. When I left my Conservative community, it wasn’t because I was unhappy there. I wasn’t. I loved it. The people accepted me. They did good works. They supported my good works. They were – they are- a wonderful, loving, supportive group.
I’ve been known to say, whatever I learn, it’s never about whether I agree, or don’t agree with something. It isn’t even about whether or not I think that something is true. It’s just that I want to know. More truly… I need to know.
And it was that wanting – that needing to know that forced me to leave a community I loved to do something truly scary for me. To go among strangers – Orthodox strangers who I had been told didn’t much like Blacks or converts or women, and I was all three – so that I could… “know.”
And in the main, a little over a handful of years after coming among these people who are no longer strangers, I am happy with my decision to do so. I now feel part of another community.
Being part of this community helps me keep the first commitment I made to G-d when I came out of the mikvah as a Jew. The commitment that echoed the commitment Jews made at Har Sinai: I will do the very best I can, given what I know.
As hard as I have continually worked to become more observant because I now believe that observing all the mitzvot is what you do if you are Jew… As much as I am convinced I should continue my pursuit of an Orthodox conversion because I now think that if you are going to be Jewish you ought be all in… As much as I want to be buried as a Jew in Israel…
There is so very much I continue to wrestle with.
Yes, I can honestly say I am much further along my Jewish path than I was. But, the end of that path often seems shrouded in clouds and darkness.
And I know I am unlikely to ever be the perfectly observant Jew I long to be. I’m not even sure that should be the goal.
I hesitated to write what I have just written because I know it will not seem 100% “orthodox” to a lot of people. I know it may be held against me now or at some point in the future. But as I said about telling a lie at my original conversion, I am not willing to lie now either. Some things are too important.
I think this is.
It may be the one thing that I am certain of: It ought to be possible for all the denominations of Jews to stand together, to love and respect each other, and to come together to worship, even in the unfortunately, increasingly infrequent, times when no one has kidnapped, or stabbed, or shot, or blown one of us up.
Heartbreakingly… today is not that day.
I can stand with my fellow Jews, truly a part of this minyan, and pour out my love and joy and sorrow to the G-d who I believe hears us all.
Without any buts.
Written In memory of Lori (Leah) Gilbert-Kaye who was shot in her own synagogue on the morning of the 8th day of Passover 5779. May her memory be a blessing.
Billye considers three places to be “home”: Southern California where she grew up; Colorado where she spent nearly two decades; and a cluster of states on the East Coast: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland where she currently lives. Billye converted to Judaism in 2006, and wrote her first article, about her life’s journey, in 2013. She currently blogs for hevria.