Denominational lines were something foreign to me growing up in a place where there were too few Jews to draw distinctions between them. [This is in the past tense because now some seem to hold differently.] You could have different beliefs, different practices, different realities, etc. and it didn’t change the fact that we all congregated at the JCC to celebrate whatever Jewish holiday it was or to discuss something that concerned us as Jews.
I learned what coming from a numerous Jewish community could mean in terms of the fine distinctions people started drawing when I came to the United States as a college student.
The college I went to had the largest Jewish student group in North America. I benefitted from that in many ways, but one of the biggest benefits was seeing and being involved in vibrant discussions about halacha and the halachic process.
Halacha is a fundamental part of Jewish practice. This has remained true even for Reform Judaism where halacha was officially declared to be non-binding, which of course in it of itself proves the large place that halacha occupies in Judaism.
Conservative and Orthodox Judaisms are interesting because (at least on the leadership level) there are always vibrant discussions going on about the relationship between halacha and the world we live in. These discussions are fundamentally related to issues about how we regard ourselves today and how we see our roles in society. In this discussion also always lies a historical consciousness and a constant questioning, What does it mean to be “me” today in relation to my ancestors and what they might or might not have practiced? I think this is the part I find really fascinating. How do you bring history and a historical consciousness in to your everyday life as a breathing, living thing? A lively and rigorous discourse on halacha and halachic practice always includes these elements.
The elements of a halachic discourse is: What does the text say? How did a particular rabbi rule? Why? How does this apply to my situation now? How does is apply to my community’s (or communities’) situation? What are the parallels/differences? What is the spirit here? Can I live with that? Why? Why not?
There is no “one” halachic practice that everyone can agree on. There are some fundamental principles that are clear, but how that is applied has never been settled nor will it ever be. I miss being a part of that lively discourse and environment where there are varying practices because people knew even when you agree on the fundamentals, the practice could look quite different.
I have learned that “conformity” was the middle name of Orthodoxy in the US. I wish that were not the case in so many places. There are some places where it is not, but those places are too few. Those are also the communities where people know that the label, Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc., may mean something and may not. I find that to be a much more wholesome and authentic way of being. I miss that I am not involved in a community that actively involves itself in halachic debate and instead claims that it’s been static when a casual glance of even the past decade would clearly tell you otherwise.