Common Denominators

Institutions that wish to be open to a range of religious observance have a range of unique problems thrust upon them that institutions wishing to cater only to a single form of religious life do not face.  One such problem is the prioritizing of Orthodoxy over other forms of Judaism.  This happens on two main levels: in measures taken within the logistical structure of the time people spend together, and in the conversations that people engage in.  Over the past year, while studying at Pardes, I encountered this in a specific way, and I am currently experiencing it while studying at Cambridge in a slightly different way.

At Pardes, in order for everyone to be comfortable eating and spending the majority of their time together, default positions on kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and prayer space had been decided upon.  Further, when the situation arose that a Shabbat was to be observed communally, the Orthodox rituals were taken fully into account.  These were the main logistical examples.  Given that there was an affiliation towards halakhic Judaism, this default extended to assuming that Judaism that operated within a strict set of halakhic norms was preferable.

At Cambridge, in an inter-faith context, the defaults are interesting both in their similarities and differences.  Logistically, the same needs must be factored in to decisions about food, prayer, and travel and other issues related to Shabbat observance.  What is different, however, is how I have noticed conversations progressing.  Many of the conversations that take place are wide-ranging discussions on our various religious practices, and how they might or might not have parallels within other faith traditions.  However, even with the understanding that there is a wide variety of beliefs and practices within each tradition, I still find myself and others always using the Orthodox (or traditional) point of view as a jumping-off point.  The amount of deference paid to a stream within Judaism that is, at times, not adhered to by anyone in the conversation, is a little troubling.  This deference plays no practical purpose, like it does in logistical decisions.  There does seem to be a need, though, to position oneself in relation to the dominant, or most conservative (as Orthodox Judaism is not dominant, at least numerically) part of one’s religious tradition.  It seems to be a way to simplify the discussion — to begin with — before launching into the nuance.

This is contrasted rather sharply with the ability to easily reject many traditional views, which is always easy to do when such positions have no adherents present.  It leaves one wondering why it is worthwhile bringing the positions up in the first place, and, if they are going to be brought up, why one would not try to give them their time in the sun before knocking them down as little more than straw men.

A teacher of mine observed that it is clearly not fair that spaces that accept more than one denomination of Jews tends towards Orthodoxy, but it is equally clear that this is the way things have been done.  This leaves the wider question unanswered, and I have yet to come to a conclusion on it: if we are all coming to the table to speak about our traditions — the good, bad, and ugly — and wish to learn from each other, why is the question about compromising on how that is to happen only ever put to the liberals among us?


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