Orthodox community must embrace its diversity
Back to Basics
Diversity is an important value to the Brandeis community, but it is usually discussed in terms of opposing parties: scientists versus humanists, Democrats versus Republicans, Reform versus Reconstructionist versus Conservative versus Orthodox. The lines of division are drawn, and people join a clearly delineated camp. We become blinded, however, by this love of neat categories and fail to sufficiently consider diversity internal to these camps. Are there scientists who appreciate fine literature? Republicans who are in favor of gay marriage? What about traditional Jews who choose to marry someone of another faith?
Individuals with each of those beliefs exist. They are a minority in their movements, trying to fit their complicated set of values into an uncomplicated set of categories. They create what I will call "internal diversity."
I decided to explore this phenomenon in my senior thesis for the Sociology department, choosing to focus on Orthodox Judaism, the denomination of Judaism that adheres most closely to traditional Jewish law. Specifically, I analyzed the integration of Orthodox Jews in college who are less stringent in following Jewish law. How does a traditional religious community, committed to following Jewish law, handle this internal diversity of religious practice?
I found that the answer, simply put, is "quietly." In interviews that I conducted with Orthodox students, they largely refrained from passing judgment on less observant peers. A couple of students contrasted themselves from the larger Orthodox campus community as a whole, which they thought was not very open to diversity, and described themselves as completely refraining from any critique of another's religious practice.
Many expressed sadness when they noticed a community member becoming less religious, often from eating non-Kosher food, inconsistently observing the Jewish Sabbath, or adopting dress that does not follow religious standards of modesty. The students I interviewed also told me, however, that they were careful to avoid communicating those feelings to the less religious student lest they embarrass or offend. Instead, they preferred to use language of being in "different places" religiously from less observant peers, which seemed to acknowledge the diversity, and tacitly accept it but avoid approving of it.
A sincere eschewal of judgment about other's religious practices is a virtue in this community. I don't believe that this passive form of tolerance, however, will be sufficient to maintain the community's status quo into the future.
Although the Orthodox community at Brandeis is host to individuals with various stringencies of practice, the toleration toward these various stringencies is facilitated by a largely common ideal of Orthodox practice: a uniform understanding of what Orthodox students should be striving for in their Judaism. Students are in "different places" when it comes to meeting that ideal.
Orthodox Judaism is currently developing a more vocal left wing that brings new interpretations of traditional Jewish texts to the table. As this left wing slowly becomes more prominent on college campuses, the Orthodox campus community will have to grapple with a very real ideological diversity in its midst. The community's common ideal of Orthodox practice will have competition from these new interpretations.
This challenge of managing diversity itself strikes me as a paradox of community; emphasizing the specific values of a community can be alienating to moderates by suggesting that deviation from those values is unacceptable, while emphasizing inclusion dilutes the centrality of those values. Many communities, including the Orthodox community at Brandeis, find themselves working to uphold their own values while simultaneously handling the diversity, both practical and intellectual, that exists among its members.
Orthodox Jewish college students are a case study for the larger point of recognizing internal diversity. In college organizations, where students are still trying to figure out their own values, emphasizing the values of the community too strongly over inclusion is alienating. This is, obviously, not to say that values should be completely disregarded. Rather, a balance must be struck that allows the organization to be actively inclusive rather than merely tolerating, a passive form of inclusion. Values are often articulated in an organization's constitution or bylaws, where they can be referenced to ensure the consistency in the organization's identity. There is little risk of forgetting what they are.
It is important to provide room for students who do not neatly fit into polarized camps, whether those camps be Democrats against Republicans or pro-life against pro-choice. These camps are often so loud and firmly established that it prevents a cohesive minority movement from forming. However, these minority students can often see the perspective of both sides and thus may be the ones who help foster dialogue between camps in the future.