A Case of Mistaken Identity
By Richard S. Moline
A few months ago, one of our KOACH staff members IM’d me. She told me that she had received a message from a campus professional who mentioned that a poster with my picture on it had been received by her Hillel. "Hmm," I thought, "I know the one that’s hanging in the post office hasn’t been distributed to Hillel yet, just the FBI as far as I know." So, I IM’d her back – "Wow…what kind of poster?"
It’s a poster, she wrote, celebrating 350 years of American Jewry. "Gee…I’ve made my contribution over the years, but certainly there are people who have made far greater contributions than me who should be on such a poster," I thought. I sent another instant message.
"Are you sure it’s me? I mean, there are lots of Jewish guys with beards running around." Then the news became interesting. The message came back: "It’s a part of a poster series - but the caption under your picture celebrates the renewal of Orthodox Judaism in the United States."
I took a really long pause. Must be some kind of mistake. I called the campus professional who confirmed that it is indeed my face on the poster. I googled around a little bit, and came to a particular website honoring the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America.
On the website, one finds a series of 15 posters – each with a different theme. And each poster displays a series of about thirty pictures. And on the poster entitled RENEWAL, there I am – right next to Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. It’s a picture of me and a Bar Mitzvah boy in tefillin, at a Bar Mitzvah about three or four years ago with the following caption:
"Orthodoxy adds thousand of new members who, while not Orthodox, become known as ba’ale teshuva, penitent or returning Jews. Meanwhile, Jews born and educated within the Orthodox community display new levels of outward piety and identification. Stricter, ‘by the book’ practices replace ancestral customs deemed to be too lax. Modern Orthodoxy weakens and fervent Orthodoxy becomes stronger."
Very interesting. On the one hand, to be on a poster with the likes of Mordecai Kaplan, Louis Brandeis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach is really something to put on my resume!
On the other hand…
I e-mailed some of my friends and colleagues:
"During an interview for a spot in the Wexner Heritage Foundation, I was referred to as "the poster child for the Conservative Movement." I'm not sure it was meant in a complimentary fashion, but I was accepted into the program, nonetheless.
Little did I know, that I am actually the poster child for the Orthodox Movement.
Check out two sites – On one website, there is a picture of me and a Bar Mitzvah boy which took place about four years ago in our wonderful community, the Egalitarian Minyan of Rogers Park in Chicago. On another website, there is the same picture extolling the rise of Orthodoxy.
I'm a proud pluralist - and a proud Conservative Jew, as you all know. I can't speak for the Bar Mitzvah boy, but I might guess he has similar feelings. I'm assuming the only place they could have found this image was on the Egalitarian Minyan website.
Don't take this the wrong way - I don't feel "defamed" in any way, has v'shalom (God forbid). I'm actually somewhat amused, but in a quandary as to what I should do about this, if anything - especially given my professional position.
Any reactions or suggestions?"
It took me a while to try and figure out why I was so upset – I had quite a visceral reaction. I respect my many friends who are Orthodox - and Reform – and Reconstructionist – and secular. I have davenned in Orthodox shuls before. I’m not sure we are always am ehad im lev ehad, that we are one people with one heart, but I do believe that we are all part of the same family and that even though we often disagree with family members we still love them unconditionally. So what was making me so upset?
Was it the fact that these posters were now in every Hillel in the United States, with the Director of KOACH’s mug shot adorning a poster, which, in part, celebrates the resurgence of Orthodoxy? Was it the fear of having people think that I’m not practicing what I preach? Were my tefillin a little crooked? Was it the absurdity of taking a picture off a website that clearly says EGALITARIAN MINYAN and using it in such a way?
Well…probably yes to all. But that really wasn’t it. And then, it finally hit me.
What have we done that would immediately cause anybody to assume that a picture of an adult and a kid in talit and tefillin must be Orthodox? Why should mitzvot of any kind be the exclusive domain of one denomination?
I’m not sure I can answer that fully. There are lots of complicated reasons and this is a brief article, not a dissertation. But I think we may have a small clue in the Golden Calf story.
Here are the basics of the episode – Moses is away a long, long time, the people are suffering from collective anxiety and Aaron is having a difficult time containing them. So…the people do what any of us might do when we’re anxious – we look for something or somebody to comfort us.
And what may have provided comfort in ancient times, as it does today? A power greater than humanity. The hope and trust the Israelites put in God and in Moses had severely dissipated. Moses disappeared, nobody knew when or even if he was returning. With Moses out of the picture, God became inaccessible and being homeless, in the desert, the people desperately needed access – a substitute for God’s elusiveness.
Even Moses, himself, didn’t have complete access. When asked to see God’s face, God says (Ex 33:19-23):
"You cannot see my face, for humanity cannot see my face and live. Station yourself on the rock and, as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but my face must not be seen."
The person who is the closest to God, still can’t fully know God. Why did Moses himself want more access? And why do the people despair so much for that very lack of access that they are compelled to build their own god and create their own access point?
There are plenty of other parts of our tradition, representing God, which ultimately become hidden, as well. The Torah is covered - and kept behind the closed doors of an ark. A mezuzah contains words from the Torah, but they’re covered by the mezuzah itself. Our tefillin also contain verses from Torah, but they’re encased in boxes.
And yet…and yet…even though God is partially hidden, we still put up the mezuzah and we still wear tefillin because we want that access. It’s one of the things separating us from other creatures. We’re not merely concerned with meeting our physical needs. Whether it’s science or religion or both, we want to know more. We want to know truth. We want access.
So how does this relate to the poster? How does this help me understand why two males in tefillin have to be Orthodox?
It’s all about access. People who live in a religiously observant environment know that mitzvot are indeed a way to access God. We have to stop being so squeamish about it. We have to be bold like Moses and ask to see God’s face. And if in the process we only see the back of God’s head, mah tov – how wonderful.
So here’s the challenge…find those access points. And let it be known that we Conservative Jews take this stuff seriously. We struggle. We’re inconsistent. Sometimes we’re vague. But access to God - access to our inner selves – through the observance of mitzvot and the open intellectual pursuit of holiness is not the exclusive domain of any one Jew or any one theology. And therein lies the beauty of the Conservative Movement for me.
The difficulty is to try not to build any Golden Calves along the way.