We don’t normally call people non-men, non-Democrats, or non-tall. It seems strange, even offensive, therefore, to call Jewish people or ideologies “non-Orthodox.” Yet so often the press refers to the Conservative (and Reform) Movements as “non-Orthodox.”
Describing Conservative Judaism as “non-Orthodox” implies that Orthodox Judaism is some standard from which it deviates. When used by some writers, it is meant intentionally to negate the validity of any school of thought within Judaism that the writer does not consider “Orthodox.” The widespread use of the term indicates that many in the Jewish world have unwittingly adopted an “Orthodox-centric” view of Judaism.
This happens in part because we occasionally use the term “orthodox” to mean “traditional, observant, Judaism.” Sometimes there is confusion because “Orthodox” (with a capital “O”) is also incorporated into the name of many Jewish institutions. But the orthodox practice (in the first sense) is often not best represented by the Orthodox (in the second sense). In the same way, the Democratic party, despite its name, does not always represent the most democratic policies. For that reason we do well to avoid the confusing word “orthodox” unless referring to formally Orthodox institutions, in which case it should be capitalized.
The term “Orthodox” (capitalized) is the institutional name shared by a broad range of movements within the Jewish world. As an adjective, it describes that which belongs to or pertains to those movements. There are no degrees of being Orthodox any more than there are degrees of being a citizen or degrees of membership in a political party. To say, by analogy, that someone is “very Republican” is objectionable to anyone who considers himself or herself a Republican located somewhere else on the spectrum of Republican approaches. In the same way, the term “ultra-Orthodox” or “very Orthodox” is offensive to many, because it implies that those who are not “ultra” or “very” are somehow deficient or less fervent in their belief or practice. It implies that whatever beliefs or practices are ascribed to those who are “very” or “ultra” are the essence of Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Judaism is a modern innovation, having emerged about 150 years ago in Europe. In their general approach to halakha (Jewish law) and in specific issues of applying Jewish law, most of our great sages over the past two thousand years more closely resembled our present Conservative scholars and sages. Respect for science and secular knowledge, the willingness to consciously develop law in consonance with a changing society, and an appreciation of legitimate diversity within the Jewish world are examples of the former. The permission for women to wear tallit and tefillin, read Torah as part of a service, and a more “liberal” approach to granting gittin (divorce documents) to women — all positions held by our great sages — are examples of the latter.
People in our community often speak, with pride or great sentiment, of their “orthodox” upbringing or “orthodox” grandparents. We should be clear that in many cases, they must have in mind “orthodox” with a small “o” as defined above. During the early part of this century, the Conservative Movement was considered to be “orthodox” (with a very small “o”), and indeed was described as such in the writings of the Movement’s leaders as well as by the general public. But the institutions that rejected Conservative practices such as sermons in English (instead of Yiddish) or synagogue seating without a mehitsa (physical barrier between men and women) took for themselves the name “Orthodox” (capitalized). The Conservative Movement honored two essential parts of Judaism: change and tradition. If this was a part of the “orthodoxy” of our childhood or of our grandparents, then perhaps we should start thinking of our parents or grandparents as having been Conservative.
It is dubious history to project the ideology of present-day Orthodox institutions onto our ancestors. Our “orthodox” grandparents did not keep “glatt kosher,” did not view the sound of a women’s voice as licentious, and did not think their rebbe was the messiah. This is not to devalue current distinctly Orthodox Jewish ideas and practices, many of which are extraordinarily valuable contributions to the Jewish People and the world, but simply to give lie to a persistent myth which has implied a “normative” status of Orthodox Judaism.
Our Conservative Movement has its own name, as do the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements. It is demeaning to be called — or even worse, to refer to ourselves — as “non-Orthodox.” My ideological commitment to Masorti-Conservative Judaism is not a rejection of Orthodox Judaism but rather an affirmation of ancient rabbinic ideas and practices that are best represented by the formal ideology of Masorti-Conservative Judaism. I embrace these ideas and practices without much regard to the fact that Orthodox Judaism is at variance with some of these ideas and practices. This is what it means to be a Conservative Jew.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen, September 1998