To sit at the feet of a scholar

Posted on May 9, 2006

We just had an awesome weekend! Our shul was honored to welcome Rabbi Elliot Dorff for a long weekend, with a series of opportunities to learn with him on Shabbat and Sunday. It was truly a pleasure to listen to his talks and engage in dialogue with him. It was equally amusing to watch what changed (and what didn’t) in and around the shul, including a Friday night Shabbat dinner at the shul and Shabbat morning services.

We arrived Friday night in time to daven ma’ariv, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. Oldest Son (who is 5) turned to me with typical preschooler timing – as we were just about to begin the Amidah – and whined, “Abba said this was going to be a short service. But this is a loooooong service!”

I whispered back, “Be sure and tell that to the rabbi.” I was kidding, of course, but Oldest Son hasn’t figured out when I’m serious and when I’m not.

“I can’t,” Oldest Son said. “He’s talking to G-d right now.”

“I should be, too,” I whispered back. “Don’t worry, we’ll be eating soon.”

“But I’m hungry!” Oldest Son’s voice rose to a whine again. “If I tell G-d how hungry I am, can we be done sooner?”

I had no idea how to answer that.

One of the things Rabbi Dorff said that really stuck with me is from one of his newest releases, The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai, in which he writes,

“It is always easiest to understand, explain, and have passion for one or the other of the ends of a spectrum, for then one embraces that endpoint consistently… It is harder to affirm a middle point on any spectrum, for then one must have the maturity, intelligence, psychological security, and wisdom to exercise judgment and to live with inconsistencies.”

In his introduction, he also writes that this book will “…explain why Conservative thinkers do not affirm the clearer and bolder statements to the right and left but rather choose to live with the ambiguity – but the reality – of the middle.”

It struck me because a mere six years ago, I identified myself as Orthodox. I covered my hair. I practiced tsnius without reservation. I schlepped myself four miles each way to shul on Shabbat, even in the Minnesota snow and ice, and we were looking for a house close to a different Orthodox shul, within an eruv. I kept strict kosher outside the home as well as in, much to the dismay of my diminishing circle of friends. And I mourned the fact that my husband and I were struggling with infertility. Somewhere in my mind I was thinking that surely if I was religious enough, I would be blessed with children.

But for reasons that I’ll detail in another (and – I know – previously promised) post, I found myself increasingly miserable with my religious life.

I’d been in a Reform community for a year, leaving only after having a foot-stomping, raised voices, wild hand-waving argument with the then-rabbi of the Reform synagogue (now THAT was fun!) about the importance of Shabbat and kashrut to Judaism.

I came to a form of “Conservadox” (also called Traditional Conservative to distinguish it from the more liberal Conservative congregations) as something of a last resort. I was incredibly fortunate that I found a congregation that, were there such a thing as Egalitarian Orthodoxy, this would be a very close fit. I spent far too much time apologizing to all those I left (on both sides), and not nearly enough time affirming what turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Enter, in part, my writing. To write from the perspective of a Conservative rabbi, one must have a pretty good idea of what Conservatism stands for, what it means, and why it’s an important voice to be heard at the table of American Judaism and in a religiously pluralistic society.

Hearing Rabbi Dorff was, in many ways, a way of taking that understanding to the next level. And having the “psychological security” to stop apologizing for what made me miserable and affirm a courageous stand for what has given me a rich and meaningful Jewish life.

Todah rabah to Rabbi Dorff, and I can only hope to learn more from him in the future.


  1. Jack Steiner

    I have been privileged to learn with Rabbi Dorff on many occasions. I found that time to be enlightening.

  2. Sheyna

    Amishav – Thanks! I agree: it’s not easy being Jewish but it should bring us closer to joy, not misery. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you come back!

    EK – as usual, you have such wonderful things to say! So how can we translate this into the larger picture where entire groups refuse to recognize the authenticity of each other? (Next up: world peace)

    Shira – If you ever travel out this way, I’ll bring you to my shul! 🙂 I have noticed that fitting square selves into round holes creates quite a bit of chafing around the edges.

    Cruisin-Mom – b’rucha haba’a! Thanks for reading, and for saying I’m funny. 🙂 Never did find my mind, btw, so I guess it’s lost for good. Unless I find it while cleaning for next Pesach. I’ll be over to check out your blog next!

  3. cruisin-mom

    Interesting post. I came here by way of Ezer Knegdo…I thought your comment to her was hysterical!

  4. Shira Salamone

    Oy va voy, been there, done that (except for the “being Orthodox” part). I’ve spent at least the last two decades trying to fit my square self into a round hole. Finding a place where one “fits” in the Jewish community can be a major challenge.

  5. Anonymous

    Welcome back! How are you doing?
    Articulate post. The only authenticity you need is to authenticate yourself!
    Kol HaKavod.

  6. Anonymous

    Great thinking here. Its interesting to hear about your struggles- where to fit in Jewishly. We have to deal with the fact that we live in the U.S., not in a shtetl, and as much as some aspects of Orthodoxy are I don’t think that Judaism was supposed to be a crushing burden on us. I’m glad you found a shul and an outlook that is more to your comfort level.

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