I'm pretty pissed off. I just saw this article in the Forward online. The article is short, so of course you can just read it, but please allow me to give a summary of what I think it is saying:
"Liberal" Jews, defined as Reform or Conservative Jews, or, more specifically, their leaders, need to "frame" the way that they talk about religious observance. Ben Dreyfus, the author, compares religious to political framing. Just as Republicans have managed to "frame" much of the domestic debate in the US over the past 12 years, so that even Democrats who win often have to use Republican-coined terms, such as "tax relief," he argues, liberal Jews have gotten into the habit of using words such as "religious" or "observant" to describe their members' beliefs or practices. This is especially the case when their members are observing more halakhot (Jewish ritual laws) than is the norm in that movement. The result is a "scale from zero to Orthodox" that lets people outside each movement define the movement's terms. The leaders, both lay and professional, of Reform and Conservative Judaism, should try to find different ways to frame discussions of their members' religious lives.
I sympathize with Dreyfus, aka BZ, aka the writer of the blog Mah Rabu. I have a really hard time categorizing my observance, and it's frustrating. I use the word Conservadox b/c it's the best word I have, not because I particularly like it. But is is darn helpful, because Jews who ask me about it generally know what I mean by "Conservadox." And if not, they generally have ideas about what "Conservative" and Orthodox" mean that help them to see what I mean.
And that's one of my problems with Dreyfus's article. One could be quite impressed with the way that he sets out the problem. Here is an effective paragraph: "Consider this phrase: 'I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.' The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means." But he doesn't offer any solutions, aside from the vague imperative that the movements reframe. What would that look like? I notice that he didn't actually suggest a way to reword the sentence about Shabbat observance without using the word "observe," which he uses at the end of the sentence! Words are HELPFUL because they aid people who share a common language in understanding each other.
Here are some other concerns I have:
--the article's point of departure is the argument of "cognitive linguist George Lakoff" about framing. Lakoff's book Don't Think of An Elephant was a big best-seller among Democratic leaders after Kerry's 2004 defeat. But not long afterwards, certain people in the party suggested that maybe the Democrats should get some new ideas, rather than thinking about how to reframe bad ones. I am not comparing either liberal Jewish movement to the Democratic party. I'm just saying that the framing thing may not hold much water.
--What about history? The idea of what Shabbat observance is has been influenced, to a large degree, by what it meant in the past. Of course, you may say, but Katrina, what about all of these crazy Orthodox people who pile chumrah upon chumrah in their Shabbat observance? They
don't care about history either. But that's precisely what offends Shomer Shabbos people such as I and half the J-Blogosphere about the crazy Orthos. The Jewish people do have a sense of what "Sabbath observance" means. If the liberal movements want to change the way that they talk about Shabbat, they will likely have more, rather than less, success, if they don't trample on concepts that people understand and may even be attached to.
--That leads me to my next point, that there is a difference between being a very smart person with a lot of think-outside-the-box ideas and between being a religious leader with a job and, more importantly, a constituency. Regular people who come to synagogue don't want to talk about how they frame their Judaism. They want to talk about how to live it.
-- I have sat in Reform synagogues on the High Holidays and heard rabbis talk about their approaches to Shabbat in a way clearly intended for a Reform audience. One female rabbi talked about how her family makes Shabbat special, or something of the sort, by turning off electronic appliances and abstaining from shopping. The word "observance" didn't even come up. This is just anecdotal, but because the Reform movement in particular does not have to strangle itself on the premise that it follows halakhah, many of its leaders have talked about age-old mitzvot in new ways.
--This article reminded me of the independent minyan movement, which drives me up a tree. I think that it was laudable for the founders of the movement to try to create great environments for meaningfuldavening (praying) when they couldn't find it elsewhere. Then their heads got a little big when various philanthropists and journalists (including in the Forward) said they were the living end. But the bottom line is, AN INDEPENDENT MINYAN IS A SHUL. Hadar just opened its own yeshivah, for pete's sake. Its founders are having kids, and those kids will need Hebrew schools and bnei mitzvah and the like. Then they will buy buildings, or at least more permanent spaces, and basically provide all of the same services as shuls, possibly without rabbis, but Hadar has had rabbinic figures as well. And some small shuls in the Midwest and so forth don't have rabbis. So what is a shul, really?
I rarely write such a long post and then throw it up without at least some editing. But I am tired, and I wanted to get this out. I have work tomorrow. Please pillory or ignore me as you usually do. Toodles.