Back in the day, Jewish religious movements attempted to provide some internal uniformity, consistency, or at least commonality to religious observance.
In my childhood, you pretty much knew that the Orthodox synagogue would be a place in which women were observers, men and women sat separately, rabbis were at least somewhat differed to in terms of ritual decisions, Hebrew was the sole language of prayer (with maybe a quick English moment for prayers for the government or for the State of Israel).
Conservative synagogues in those days were largely Orthodox-lite. Men and women sat together, bat mitzvah girls could lead some parts of the service, there were a few women cantors out there, and, unlike most Orthodox synagogues, the parking lot was filled.
Reform synagogues (brace yourself if you’re 30 or younger, because you probably never witnessed this) were places in which you’d be asked to remove your head covering (even if it was a kippah), women were rabbis (but rarely, if ever, senior rabbis in the large temples) and cantors, and congregants could exercise religious choice (as long as they didn’t get too traditional).
Reconstructionist congregations were a bit of a wild card; far less predictability of what you’d find when you went to one.
The drive to conformity extended to individual behavior, at least publicly. More traditional (but not observant Orthodox) Jews drove to shul, but parked a block or two away (this brings back fond childhood memories of the few non-high holidays that we journeyed to synagogue). Religious Jews of any of the movements didn’t have tattoos (particularly because ignorant teachers insisted, incorrectly, that the chevra kaddisha wouldn’t let you get buried with one), were very discreet if they were sexually active, voted moderate to liberal, dressed conservatively, and only smoked pot with the closest of friends.
Somewhere along the way, the rules of the game changed, I think for the better. Nowadays, you can find Orthodox synagogues with women in spiritual leadership roles, Reform synagogues where most congregants wear kippah and tallit, and of course, Conservative synagogues, while going completely egalitarian, have also, in many cases, become more traditional.
But even more visible in recent years, is individual choice, or religious inconsistency if you want to look at it that way. In my list of friends and contacts are observant Orthodox lesbians, shomer shabbat Reform Jews, shomer shabbat Jews with tattoos, interfaith families with kids in Jewish day schools, and a wide array of other makes and models.
Do you see all this as inconsistency, or simply opening of choices? I’d love to hear feedback. Regardless…
The downside of all this is that our Jewish world is far less predictable. We can no longer look at someone and make assumptions about their based on appearances.
But the upside outweighs all. Because we once excluded so many Jews who simply wanted in. And now, through generational change and social change, the doors have swung open.
My thanks and appreciation to the many young-thinking people (of all ages) who have opened my mind to the Jewish world that continues to emerge and engage.