Moving from Orthonormative and Ashkenormative Assumptions in our Speech

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.








3 responses

  1. Nice piece. A couple of thoughts: I agree that labels like “Orthodox” and “religious” do not necessarily overlap (I personally like ‘observant’- it conveys observance more broadly, without limiting it to a specific denomination). I do think that colloquially, though, many people (especially those who self-define as Orthodox) tend to use the words ‘religious’ and ‘orthodox’ interchangeably, in the way that people use “ketchup” to refer to any similar red condiment they put on French fries, even though it is not a Heinz product.

    It’s unfortunate that Sepharadi customs have become sort of second-class in Judaism; I personally feel that many Sepharadi customs are more authentic, as well as less onerous. But I think that is probably a fuinction of the post-Shoah renewal in this country, and the fact that most Jewish educators are products of an Ashkenazi system. I am not a halachic authority, but it seems to me that new adherents to Jewish observance should hew to the customs particular to their ancestors. Of course we’d all pick Sepharadi customs like eating rice on Passover, but if all your genealogy is from Eastern Europe, that’s inauthentic as well.

    Finally, as far as recommending Orthodox rabbis, I certainly see where you’re coming from. However, I can see certain religious ethical problems of an Orthodox person recommending someone ask a non-Orthodox rabbi a question of halachic importance (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, taharat mishpacha)- it doesn’t seem ethical to do so knowing they will likely get a response not in conformance with normative Orthodox halacha.


    1. I am a “naturalised” Jew [I like his terminology]. I wanted to reply to your comment by noting that converts aren’t required to pick the minhagim of their ancestors, especially if there is doubt as to the Jewish identity of one’s ancestors. Many converts I know both orthodox and in other denominations will pick either the minhag of their community or the minhag that most closely resonates with them, with their rabbi’s permission and guidance. We are new Jews, after all, and in many cases are breaking from our ancestors’ traditions, so it makes more sense to begin with a fresh tradition that you gain the most meaning from. And not all of us choose the easier “rice on Pesah” route…waiting six hours between dairy and meat is not “easy.” My situation was a bit more complicated but even then I was not required to stick with my ethnic background when choosing my minhag, and had I done so I think it wouldn’t have been as meaningful for me.
      I also don’t see a problem with going the route of saying “ask a trusted rabbi.” This is the most inclusive and kind and thoughtful, and does not impose one’s views upon someone else. Moreover, it’s not one’s obligation to ensure someone else is observing what one considers “normative,” so I see no ethical problem in encouraging the person to find a rabbi who seems trustworthy and reliable, whatever their definition of that is. Someone’s observance is between them, HaShem, and their rabbi…whoever that rabbi is. Now, if the person asks for a specific recommendation, then one should recommend the rabbi whose halachic observance is what one deems normative, because why would you give a specific recommendation that you have no faith in?


  2. Great article Arnie. Thank you.


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