by Arielle Lewis, 2011 Genesis intern
For my investigation, I focused on the experience of the Orthodox Genesis participants and how they feel living in a pluralistic community. My questions at the outset were:
- Are the needs of the self-identified Orthodox participants met?
- Have they ever felt the need during the program to compromise their values?
- How have they responded to the challenges of living in a pluralistic environment?
This area of investigation is important because of the specific needs of Orthodox participants that may not always be addressed properly. Often in my experience, pluralism has meant the acceptance of the most non-traditional opinions and beliefs while the traditional ones don’t always get the deserved attention. It is an important topic for me personally, because as an Orthodox Jew who has spent much time in pluralistic environments, I have had to compromise on certain values in order to feel like I was a part of a greater community. And I often struggled with feeling like I am always the one being accommodated while I was unable to aid in the accommodation of others because of the beliefs that I held. I really hoped that through this investigation I would be able to provide more information to the other staff members about this group of participants so that the pluralistic status of Genesis can reach its fullest potential.
There are 4 areas throughout the summer around which some of the Orthodox participants expressed challenges:
- Programmatically – There were a few times during the summer when all of the participants were expected to attend an event that some of the Orthodox participants did not feel comfortable attending. (For example, a performance that included live music that took place during the three weeks preceding the 9th of Av when many Jews do not listen to live music as it is a time period of mourning.)
- Participant-Participant Interactions – Though they were not able to articulate it that well, some Orthodox participants often expressed their frustration and inability to provide satisfying answers to those that persistently questioned them about their practices. For example, a girl who abides by the laws of shomer negiah (not touching a person of the opposite sex) was asked why she kept those laws because “it is not as if God will strike you down if you touched me right now”. Similarly, whenever they tried to give reasons that involved God, the Torah, or tradition, they were met with more questions.
- A general fear of expressing honest opinions – In addition to certain types of questions being asked, some of the Orthodox participants this summer expressed that they were afraid to voice certain opinions they held because they feel that they may be offensive to other members of the community. One participant told me that it was her honest opinion that being inclusive of gay marriage will take away the sanctity of her future marriage to a man. The sanctity of marriage comes from a union between man and woman and any other definition will diminish the holiness of that one. This participant was not ever willing to express her opinion in the community this summer.
- Different expectations placed on them from the facilitator of a group discussion – Some of the Orthodox participants expressed to me that they felt a number of times in group discussions that they were given a harder time than other participants when they were trying to express themselves. From both what the participants told me, as well as from what I witnessed myself, there was a sense that the Orthodox participants were challenged more than others in general to use careful language when they express their opinion. They are also prompted to emphasize that it is their interpretation and that there are many others any time that they say something in reference to Torah or God. There is a ton of push back on the answers that these participants give, but I have not seen the same push back happening to other participants.
I want to try and articulate what exactly it is that makes the Orthodox participants’ position a unique one in the Genesis community and why they feel like they are having a harder time confronting the challenges of pluralism.
There are two main points:
- The tendency of orthodox participants to hold less liberal views than their counterparts. And the participant who held the above stated view on gay marriage also stated that she would never voice her opinion here.
- The tendency of orthodox participants to use the language of obligation. While Orthodox participants are not the only ones that use the language of obligation, I believe they are the ones who use it the most often. And it is precisely this language and self-understanding which is the cause of a lot of conflict. Often, when asked why they practice something, the Orthodox participants will speak in terms of external motivators (God, Torah, Halacha-Jewish law, community, tradition, etc). They are comfortable with this reasoning and see it as completely valid. But there is significant pushback that encourages them to explain their beliefs based on their own feelings and opinions.
There is also a general discomfort with self-expression in terms of external motivators because modern liberalism values freedom of choice and expression – both of which seem to be limited by being bound to something external. Just because things are phrased in such terms, it does not mean that there is no internal motivation to practice the way they are practicing. And it is the job of the facilitator to challenge them and bring out their feelings.
But I think we should be careful not to prioritize the “I feel” statements as being more legitimate ways of self-expression. By only pushing back on those who feel obligated, we create an environment in which only those few feel that they are being challenged while people who express themselves in “I think”, “I believe” and “I feel” are not challenged in the same way. In a discussion on gender roles in Judaism, for example, there was push back by the facilitator when an Orthodox participant stated that he believes specific roles were given to men and women by God as written in the Torah. He was encouraged not to make statements about what the Torah said since there are various interpretations, not to make statements about what God wants, etc. But a participant who stated, “I believe women should be able to wear whatever they feel like,” was not met with any challenge.
I think that the educators have the most important role in Genesis to ensure that this community is a safe environment for anyone and everyone to express their beliefs and opinions no matter how mainstream or far from it they may be. If views are going to be challenged, all views should be challenged. If certain offensive opinions will be censored, all offensive opinions should be censored. I think facilitators can and should encourage participants who express themselves as being obligated to think about internal, personal reasons for doing what they do. But that does not mean that participants who speak in I feel statements should be let off the hook and slip beneath the radar of push back. They can be encouraged to think about obligations. What principles to they believe to be binding? Are there people in their lives whose actions they want to emulate? I would personally love to see equal challenge across the board to encourage deeper thought in each and every participant regardless of background or choices of self expression.
I do also want to acknowledge the legitimate and serious concern Leora (Genesis community educator) brought up in her investigation regarding the “frummest denominator”. I do not mean to propose here that Orthodox participants’ perceived obligation is more serious or legitimate than those of others and therefore must always trump the demands of others. I just wanted to shed some light on what I believe to be some of the difficulties faced by the Orthodox segment of the participant population and that these issues should be discussed. It is the dialogue that is my goal here, not any particular result.
As a final note, I do not want to give the impression that pluralism “failed” because I do not believe that at all. I have witnessed a ton of growth among the orthodox participants over the summer that would point to the success of pluralism. And the successes are not limited to what I have witnessed, the Orthodox participants also expressed themselves how much they have learned and grown over the summer. My investigation focuses on areas of potential improvement, NOT the Orthodox perception of pluralism as a whole.
Arielle Lewis is a senior at the University of Toronto where she is completing a double major in Ethics, Society, and Law and Jewish Thought. The experience she gained as a participant at Genesis in 2006, has provided her with the knowledge that the creation of a diverse and pluralistic community of Jewish learning is a definite possibility – if not a reality. Since then, Arielle has attended other programs and has been involved with other organizations committed to Jewish community building and education. Her experiences include attending the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, interning at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, volunteering for Limmud Toronto as well as with the Centre for Jewish Studies at her University.