In some Orthodox Jewish communities, almost everyone relates to their Judaism in a very similar way. Insular Chasidic communities are often the sort of place where everyone lives a very similar style of Jewish life and practices a very homogenous version of Judaism. Similarly, some Israeli settlements have somewhat uniform Jewish experiences within their communities.
But most Orthodox Jews live in relatively diverse communities where people enjoy different parts of their Jewish experiences in their own ways. Some might be more into meeting rebbes and gedolim for blessings; others love learning Gemarah; others seek out opportunities for chesed; yet others enjoy the music and singing and dancing, while others revel in Shabbat and Yom Tov. In other words, there are many different areas of focus that give flavor and meaning to one’s Judaism.
I think it would great to increase these options. We should be seeking more flavors of Judaism. Jewish experiences should be developed for Orthodox Jews with other areas of talent and expertise. It sometimes feels as if the modes of expression in Orthodox Judaism today were cutting edge at some point, but are a little bit long in the tooth today.
One of the newer modes of Jewish expressions is something that my wife coined Martha Stewart Judaism™. (Which also happens to be her specialty.) This is the form of Judaism that finds great meaning and pleasure in the creative presentation of Judaism and its rituals. It’s the kind of Judaism that gave us gourmet cookbooks, party planner designed kiddushes, parsha cakes, out of this world Sukkah decorations and amazing holiday crafts. The Super Bowl of Martha Stewart Judaism is almost certainly the upcoming holiday of Purim. The creative ideas, themes, and originality of Mishloach Manos (and tying costumes into the theme for bonus points) has become our modern version of the Purim celebration.
For many people, this is the part of Jewish life that they love most. It’s their favorite part of Judaism. That’s great. I am a huge proponent of exploring and exploiting new and exciting ways to inspire passionate Jewish engagement for Orthodox Jews. Martha Stewart Judaism is certainly a great example of finding niches to focus our passions within Orthodox Judaism. I love it.
The only problem is that sometimes the people who don’t love Martha Stewart Judaism feel pressure to conform to the standards that have been set astronomically high by the creative people. Not everyone likes finding a theme for Mishloach Manos. Some people just want to give a small grape juice with some rugelach in a ziploc bag. But they feel like they can’t do that because of the social pressure. This is unfortunate. There is no rule that we all have to be Martha Stewarts. Not everyone gets pleasure out of that kind of expression of Judaism. It’s a shame that these people often feel negatively about these Jewish experiences because they feel pressure to conform to one particular form of Jewish expression.
This really applies to all kinds of different Jewish expression. Not everyone wants to “dance” (smash) in a “circle” (mosh pit) at a wedding. Not everyone enjoys singing zmirot on Shabbat. Not everyone loves learning Talmud. One of our greatest strengths is that we provide a variety of acceptable Jewish expressions in Orthodox Judaism. We can’t force conformity to any particular version and if we do, we risk alienating those who do not appreciate that they are being forced to conform. There are plenty of acceptable ways to express our Jewishness that we should not have to push ourselves to participate in programs and projects that don’t appeal to our personalities and talents.
It would also be nice if we could be less rigid about who participates in each flavor of Judaism. I am sure that there are many men who would love to be Martha Stewarts and there are probably women out there who would like to do some of the more typically male activities. Some non-Chasidic Jews might really love the tish and many Chasidic Jews might enjoy a class on Orthodox Biblical Scholarship. But these lines are rarely crossed. More choices and greater freedom to choose would be great.
I love that we have Martha Stewart Judaism. But I think that it also is a great test example of how we can sometimes box people into roles and rules that are not suited to them, thereby souring their Jewish experience. We can do a better job allowing people to find their niche within Orthodox Judaism and not enforcing arbitrary standards on everyone. This would be a great step forward in maintaining positive Orthodox Jewish experiences. And let’s not forget to see if we can think of ways that we can add more Orthodox Jewish experience opportunities that make sense in our modern world.