So, I drove 8 hours recently to attend the wedding of a cousin.  But, in spite of the long journey, I elected to leave right after the chuppah (wedding ceremony), and not stay for the festive meal and dancing. I chose to leave because my own religious values and standards would have been compromised by staying.

Before we go further, let me clarify where I’m coming from “Jewishly.”  I would describe myself as a semi-knowledgable, serious, committed, egalitarian, Conservative Jew.  I daven (pray) every morning with tefillin; I study Torah daily; I observe Shabbat and Kashruth in accordance with the standards and tenets of Conservative Judaism.

The wedding I attended, was a traditional Orthodox wedding.  I am proud to say  that I have many, many Orthodox cousins whom I love and cherish.  I have spent many Shabbatot and Haggidim (Sabbaths and Holy Days) in their homes and synagogues.  In fact, just one year ago this month, another member of the same family got married.  I drove 8 hours to be there. I knew that because it was an Orthodox simcha, more than likely, there would be separate dancing for men and women.  No problem.  I enjoyed dancing with the men and schmoozing with cousins of both genders at the festive meal.

Though I am egalitarian in matters of religious life and ritual, a part of me appreciates and respects those standards of modesty that suggest that unmarried men and women should not have physical contact with each other.  That said, as an egalitarian Jew, I cannot and will not be an enabler of situations which promote the subjugation of people because of their gender or sexual preference.

Back to the most recent wedding:  After the ceremony, I followed a few women I had been chatting with up to the bar in the banquet hall where we were informed by a very polite bartender that no alcoholic beverages were being served on the “women’s side.”  That was, by the way, the first time that I realized that there was going to be separate seating for men and women during the meal and I quickly took note a long mechitza, divider, down the center of the room. That’s when I decided that my participation in the celebration was over.

And no, I did not leave because there was no alcohol on the women’s side. I left because clearly, the hosts of the event envisioned very different experiences for the men and women, in physically different places.  I could not sanction that scenario with my presence.

Had I been there with a woman of significant emotional importance to me, I probably would have expressed my disappointment in a more dramatic way then I did. Having made the decision to leave, I made a point of  warmly extending my best wishes to my relatives and made a quiet exit.

I have absolutely no interest in challenging or criticizing my Orthodox brothers and sisters who subscribe to such traditional standards related to gender roles and socialization.  What I do object to, is not having been advised that this celebration would not be like previous family celebrations; I object to the fact that my acquiescence to such rigid traditional standards was assumed. 

I don’t know of any sensitive, “menschy” Jewish people who would invite a traditionally observant person to a celebration where Jewish dietary laws are not being observed without forewarning them and if possible, making a special accommodation.

After 3 decades of Jewish communal service, I am all too aware of the community standard that dictates that when it comes to Jewish dietary laws,  “what is kosher for an Orthodox Jews, is kosher for everyone.”  But honestly, have you ever heard of a traditional Jew going out of his or her way to counsel a practicing non-Orthodox Jew that his/her convictions might be challenged or compromised by participating in an event hosted by Orthodox Jews?   Why does the Jewish world seem to think that such advance consultations and accommodations only apply in one direction, to promote the inclusion of Orthodox Jews?

Such courtesies are only afforded to Orthodox Jews for a number of reasons:

  1. Too many Orthodox Jews don’t take the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism seriously.  Many Orthodox Jews view the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal denominations as nothing less than permissive, watered-down efforts to make “authentic Judaism” easy.
  2. Too many non-Orthodox Jews, don’t have a clue what the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism stand for, so they don’t take them seriously either.  (Even if they belong to non-Orthodox synagogues!)
  3. Many non-practicing Jews actually belong to what I like describe as the largest, unofficial branch of Judaism:  Schmaltz Judaism, which is entirely based on sentimentality and emotional preferences.  But more about Schmaltz-Judaism in another column.
  4. Too many people in the Jewish community believe that words like “practicing,” “observant” and “pious,” can only possibly apply to Orthodox Jews.  After all, how can one really be an observant Reform Jew?
  5. Serious, committed,  pious non-Orthodox Jews don’t insist that their religious values and standards be treated with the same respect and sensitivity that we so quickly afford to Orthodox Jews.  This last reason, may be the Achilles’ heel of whole problem.

I have no doubt, that it never occurred to my relatives in their wildest dreams that I might be offended at being thrust into a gender separate world for an evening.  That’s not their problem, that’s an “our problem.

The Torah was not given to an Orthodox man named Moses.  The Torah “is” given to the all of the Jewish people.  It is an ever-unfolding exposition of God’s teachings, love, hopes and ambitions for the Children of Abraham.  Rational, reasonable, intellectually honest people understand that two people can have very different interpretations of the same exact words. As such, passionate, honest Jews of all denominations and beliefs understand that truth is subjective and mutual respect has to be the cornerstone of Jewish peoplehood.

The problem I have attempted to grapple with in this column poses significant challenges to Jews of all denominations.  The mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael, love for the Jewish people is inevitably sabotaged by Orthodox Jews who utilize politically incendiary rhetoric  like “authentic” or “Torah true,” to insulate and compare Orthodox Judaism to the more progressive denominations.   And non-Orthodox Jews cannot expect to be treated with respect and consideration until such time as we have the courage to demand it.

Respectfully considering every Jews understanding of what is proper -what is kosher, must operate in both directions.