Sisterhood Blog

The Allure of Orthodoxy

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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When I was a student at Tel Aviv University, during my second year of college, I spent a number of Shabbatot and holidays with new friends — young women who had, like me, grown up in the States, and were now newly Orthodox — who were learning how to be religious at Neve Yerushalyaim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

Reading Elana Sztokman’s recent post about how good it felt to be counted in a minyan for the first time brought some of those memories back, though in a kind of reverse way.

I know how it feels to be attracted to the other side of Jewish life. I’ve always been fascinated by and attracted to deep religious experience and the meaning it brings to those who aren’t satisfied skating on the surface of life.

And though I don’t imagine that I will ever identify myself as Orthodox — I am too wedded to being counted as fully part of a community, with limitations dictated only by my abilities and inclinations, rather than my gender — I do appreciate much about Orthodox life.

After all, nobody knows how to make a Jewish wedding like seriously Orthodox Jews. There is great power in the joy and energy of it, and in the main focus on the things that really count: the couple and their future, the families and the communities of which they are a part, the dancing and the simcha, rather than on the flowers and tablecloths. Frum weddings make others seem pallid in comparison.

Being deeply inter-connected with people through schools, yeshivas and neighborhoods, living life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, being connected with things bigger than ourselves and our immediate families, all of these are values I embrace (and have tried to integrate into my family’s non-Orthodox life). Of course they are not limited to the Orthodox, but they also seem easier to attain in those communities.

I also see how having a guidebook to life, in terms of religious and communal expectations of observance, can make it easier. There are fewer choices to make, fewer debates to have. It’s a lot harder to negotiate the level of religiosity in a seriously committed but non-Orthodox home between partners who have differing ideas about ideal ways to observe Shabbat.

And yet I have very consciously elected not to live an Orthodox life.

I can’t imagine choosing to live in a community where I am seen first as a woman rather than as “Debra,” in a world where I am told I must stand here rather than there, in a synagogue where I do not have as much access to the Torah as anyone else, in a place where there might be limits on my learning and questioning.

Having grown up in a home where Jewish learning was not emphasized, I’ve been working on personal Jewish literacy ever since (and made significant progress, thanks to studies at Drisha and elsewhere).

There is much to commend about a life of Jewish observance. But then, as I have grown to appreciate, there are also downsides, particularly for women, whose choices are limited by religious and cultural norms. It’s also possible — though clearly more challenging — to be religiously observant and not be Orthodox.

Elana, you indicated in a comment under your post that you were planning to join an egalitarian community when you returned home. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that you’ll blog about the experience of moving from the women’s side of the mechitzah to the center seat in the front pew!


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