I really like Jordana Horn’s response in the Forward to David Brooks’ New York Times piece about Orthodox Jews. And I’d like to take it a step further.
The way I’d summarize Brooks is that Orthodox Jews are “countercultural” because, well, they don’t think for themselves. They just follow the law.
I go to a Conservative synagogue, although I grew up mostly in a Reform synagogue. My father converted to Judaism, which is sometimes euphemistically called a “Jew-by-choice,” but I’d like to reclaim that term: my ideal Judaism is a religion that can stand on its own merits as a path worth choosing.
Religious law, for me, is not about following blindly, but trusting in good advice handed down from earlier generations. The Law of Gravity isn’t a something you go to jail for violating, it’s something that makes you fall down. Halakhah is a path through life that, ideally, will keep you from getting tripped up along the way.
Sometimes this means I don’t quite fit in in either the Reform or Conservative worlds. The Reform folks reject traditions that I autonomously choose. And some vocal Conservative folks believe the problem is that we don’t all keep to their ideal of Orthodox-lite: egalitarian, eating non-hechshered cheese, but still focused on obligation. (I worry that those viewpoints, while keeping a few devoted to the Conservative movement, cause a lot more to leave.)
The really successful Conservative and other non-Orthodox communities that I’ve seen understand the power in a nuanced balance between tradition and autonomy. For me, religious life includes independent thinking and shopping for Kosher food.