During a training session in which I participated through my friends at Keshet, I learned the word “heteronormative” (which my spell check, clearly living in 1950, doesn’t recognize as a word). For the uninformed, the word applies to the default assumption that everyone is straight. Or that, “normal” equals “straight” and every thing else is a riff on that.
In Jewish life, particularly in North America, we appear to have default assumptions about Jewish and Judaism. The assumed norms play out socially, religiously and educationally.
First, the assumption that “normal” or “normative” equals “Orthodox”. Disclosure: Author is yeshiva-ordained, shomer Shabbat, kosher and is a member of an Orthodox congregation. And yet, I find myself offended when, in typical conversations, it is assumed that Orthodox Jews and “religious Jews” are synonymous. In my experience, and I’ve had a lot, there are Orthodox Jews who I would not categorize as religious, and Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who clearly are religious. While I believe that the denominational labels, themselves relatively modern designations, continue to mean less and less to the “consumer”, those close to the core of daily Jewish life still toss them around. To be honest, as a Jew who others probably see as Orthodox, the idea of being religious often fades into the background, with behavioral norms (daily prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, mikveh) in the forefront. My Reform and Reconstructionist friends (and to a degree, my Conservative friends), when they choose to “do Jewish” are often making much more conscious decisions on a regular basis. Does that mean they are “not religious”? I don’t think so.
A few years back, I began to see the expression “ask your LOR” on a number of Jewish online groups. After scratching my head for some time about what that meant, a friends informed me that it meant that a person was being advised to contact their Local Orthodox Rabbi for advice on a variety of matters. The assertion clearly being made was that only Orthodox rabbis, and therefore Orthodox rulings had any validity. Poor assumption for two reasons: 1. the vast majority of American Jews (over 85%) are not Orthodox and therefore do not feel the need to consult a specifically Orthodox rabbi for any particular Jewish concern or practice and, 2. the assumption that, in any community, there will be only one valid Orthodox approach to a given issue is false.
It has become my personal mission to educate and correct those who make such assumptions, and to move us to a more inclusive place in our conversations.
On to “Ashkenormativity”. Unless you live in enclaves that have historically large non-Ashkenazi communities – Deal, NJ; Flatbush or parts of Brooklyn, for example – the working assumption is that Jews are Ashkenazi, descendants from immigrants from Eastern Europe, the former USSR or Germany and central Europe. Indeed the teaching that occurs in most Jewish day schools, in synagogue education and in Jewish youth groups and summer camps, assumes that everyone came from the shtetl and shares a historical memory of pogroms and the Shoah. The Golden Age of Spain, the Sefaradi origin of the Shulchan Aruch (a major code of Jewish law), and the recognition of the North African Talmudic scholars (whose names are familiar, but whose dwelling places are not) is too often an afterthought in our curricula.
This plays out in some interesting spheres: Among the “ba’alei teshuva”, the so-called “returnees”, like myself, who moved to a place of greater ritual observance, and among those who are naturalized Jews (I prefer that to the more commonly-used “convert”). Absent some clear reason to assume Sefaradi ancestry, unless we happen to be taught by Sefaradi teachers or rabbis, we are given guidance to adopt Ashkenazi practices. Trust me, if I knew I had a choice when moving into the strictly Kosher world, I would have opted for the custom that would have given me hummus on Passover (another conversation…).
So I have a few suggestions: First, please let’s not suggest to people who aren’t Orthodox that they consult with an Orthodox rabbi. Not on a one-to-one conversation. Not in a Kosher consumer group on Facebook. Not when teaching a class composed of all types of Jews. Secondly, when people are on a Jewish journey (and we should all be), rabbis and educators need to communicate that there are many types of Jews with many types of backgrounds and practices. And they need to be honest about the choices that people without clear historically-based practices get to make.