Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Denominational Smackdown Continues

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.

11 comments:

BZ said...

A few comments from the author of the oped:

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,"

Actually, the issue is that the Democrats who use Republican frames tend to be the ones who lose.

This is especially the case when their members are observing more halakhot (Jewish ritual laws) than is the norm in that movement.

I don't know whether you're defining "halakhot" as "Jewish ritual laws" or whether you're imputing that view to me (since it's in the part of your post where you're summarizing the article), but either way it's inaccurate. Halakhah (as defined by each movement) encompasses all Jewish laws (as defined by each movement), not just ritual ones.

Furthermore, the idea of "more halakhot" is ill-defined without an agreed-upon standard of halakhah (which is something that the different movements shouldn't be agreeing on implicitly, since they disagree explicitly). Does a woman who wears tefillin observe more or fewer halakhot then a woman who doesn't wear tefillin? When I benched lulav on Shabbat this year, was I observing more or fewer halakhot than those who didn't?

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.

My piece was not aimed specifically at leaders, but at any liberal Jews who happen to be reading the Forward.

But he doesn't offer any solutions, aside from the vague imperative that the movements reframe. What would that look like?

In ~600 words there wasn't room to do much more than explain the problem. But I have written more substantively about how to reframe elsewhere.

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.

As I said in the penultimate paragraph of the oped, and in more detail here, the main issue isn't about words but about ideas. So I didn't suggest a way to reword the sentence because I think the sentence itself (the ideas expressed in it) is problematic, but simply the word choices. Conversely, I don't think the word "observe" is inherently problematic.

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.

Now that the Democratic Party controls the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60 votes in the Senate, the issue isn't coming up with new ideas, but acting on the ideas they already have. But that's neither here nor there...

BZ said...

What about history? The idea of what Shabbat observance is has been influenced, to a large degree, by what it meant in the past.

But how far in the past? The Reform movement has been around much longer than many of the innovations that some people consider part of "traditional" Shabbat observance (e.g. the existence of electrical devices for people to not use).

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 don't see any conflict between the two. I want to see more people taking their Judaism seriously, and that's not going to happen when people see their own Judaism as inauthentic and inferior. Changing the frames we us will lead to more thought about how to live our Judaism (and yes, the reverse is true too).

This article reminded me of the independent minyan movement, which drives me up a tree.

It's not a "movement" the way we generally talk about Jewish movements.

BZ said...

Also, "we all know what it means" is no excuse. In the infamous 2004 exit poll, everyone knew what "moral values" meant in American political discourse -- it's about denying reproductive rights to women and denying equal civil rights to gay people and same-sex couple, rather than about issues I would consider moral (e.g. addressing economic inequality, providing universal health care, stopping the destruction of our planet) -- and yet liberals were still right in pushing back against the "moral values" frame.

Shira Salamone said...

Linked and linked again. BZ, you may (or may not) remember me as was one of the older women in your Shmittah class at this past Havurah Institute. (I was enrolled under my real name.) I suppose I should be fair and read your "movement" link, rather than being annoyed because of my impression that the Independent Minyanim "Movement" is just reinventing the Havurah Movement wheel.

Adam K said...

Mazel Tov on your recent nuptials. Are you changing the blog name to "Conservadox and married?"

I have a question for anyone who happens to be reading this comment:

If you had to choose between your preferred political convictions, and serving Hashem properly, which would you choose, and why?

katrina said...

Thanks for your good wishes, Adam. I don't think I will change the blog name.

As to your other question, first of all, what do you mean by my "political convictions"? Do you think Democrats can't serve God properly, or am I misunderstanding the question?

And who decides how one serves Hashem properly? You?

BZ said...

Adam K writes:
If you had to choose between your preferred political convictions, and serving Hashem properly, which would you choose, and why?

This is a false dichotomy. Most religious people (of any religion) believe that their political convictions are serving Hashem properly.

Shira Salamone said...

"I don't think I will change the blog name." Whatever happened to "truth in advertising?" :)

Iari said...

Katrina: Great blog! I've read and lurked for a while. With my wife and I being recently married (a bit over a year) and "conservadox" as well, I've found your entries one of the most engaging and intelligent on Judaism on the web...

To BZ, I understand your point of using "reframing" for the liberal movements but find it somewhat undermined by a simple reality - Many of the movements' current members buy into the stereotypes and language and are even adherents of those movements because of them. Maybe even 80-90% of each movement. I know fleets of Reform Jews (my parents among them) who absolutely define themselves and the movement and everything about it as the, "We're Reform, so we don't do..." movement. That's why they're there. They don't attend the conferences, have never read the platforms, and have no clue who Debbie Friedman is. They don't want to reframe and legitimize the language of their movement since they really don't care. The current language actually fits them just fine. Reform is the anti-commandment movement. Freedom from obligation, freedom to be just like everyone else, freedom from being "too Jewish" but still "Jewish" at the same time.

Same for the Conservative movement more or less. In our shul, save for the 5-10% core who are inspirationally conservadox amongst a larger membership that is somewhat spooked by it, the membership embraces the language of orthodox comparison and ambiguity. "We're serious about our Judaism, but without all the crazy stuff the Orthodox do." Or, "We opt for a Judaism that is authentic but doesn't turn its back on the mainstream world."

The "reframing" you desire assumes the existence of a Jewish world where the majority of its members actually proactively engage and define their Judaism to the point where they collectively invent their own vocabulary and vernacular that grows out of a shared set of values and lifestyles. Not a liberal Jewish world like the one we currently have, where people passively slot into denominations pegs (if at all) that fit their comfort and Jewish educational levels as they leave most of the actual "doing Jewish" to the institutional professionals and hyperinvolved lay leadership. In short: A non-Orthodox Jewish world where people really care enough to formulate values and live by them...

I believe we be both fervently hope and wish for such a day. Until that happens, reframing, while a nice idea, is one that's just waaaay too far ahead of the status of the community. Come back in about 20-30 years, however, and my guess is this will be different for lots of reasons, and reframing may have a place...

Anonymous said...

Authentic Judaism moves with the times. However you define or frame halacha, it has h-l-ch, to walk or to move, built in.

Reform, as it is construed by its serious practitioners, has it right. The fact that some folks mis-use the term only proves that some folks mis-use the term.

Those who build fences around the fences around the fences aren't protecting Judaism, they're destroying it. So Conservadox takes down one of the fences -- big ---ing deal.

Iari said...

To Anonymous:

Speaking of "authenticity," if 95% of a movement misuses (or perhaps misunderstands or misapplies) a concept in ways different from the minority of "serious" adherents, whose view in the movement becomes authentic at that point? I think that's one of Reform's (and Conservatism's) problems... They don't live their own platform.

And I think you make a correct point but draw the wrong conclusion regarding fences. In my understanding of Jewish history and philosophy, it's those fences and the tension that they generate that absolutely *define* authentic Judaism, not hold it back. In fact, one could argue that since Sinai, G-d's (or the humans' writing the texts) entire reason for the Jewish people to exist is to maintain those fences, those differences, and thus the values they represent...

At what point do you remove so many fences that Judaism isn't that different from mainstream society? At what point do you remove so many fences that there isn't a point to even knowing about or caring about them anymore? If you talk to the serious "Reform" professional and lay leadership as I do, these are the questions that keep them up at night. Those issues are some of the many reasons why the Reform movement as been incrementally adding traditional elements to the movement. If you had told me 20 years ago that the Reform movement of today would be pushing any kind of Shabbat observance as they are now, I would have been floored that such a reconstruction of that fence would have been considered.