Friday, July 29, 2011

Getting Ritual Wrong

I guess that when I start blogging again, I really start blogging again.

Today's edition is entitled: "When media outlets publish unbelievably stupid articles about Jewish rituals." I have read two already this morning that made my blood boil:

1. This gem in the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), linked to via Jewish Ideas Daily, saying that non-Orthodox Jews are doing too much tikkun olam (repairing the world, i.e., social justice) and not enough mitzvot.

This is an old charge, but it never ceases to piss me off, because it presents false choices: mitzvot OR social action. Newsflash: They are not mutually exclusive. All Jews should strive to do more of both. I was raised Reform with a day-school education AND a fair amount of ritual in the home and am now a member of a modern Orthodox shul, although I would not describe myself as modern Orthodox. I have written in the past about how shocked I am by the attitudes toward social action of some of my otherwise wonderful shul friends. I think that the ritual aspects of an Orthodox Jewish life (including among the Modern Orthodox) can become overwhelming, and that it is therefore important for rabbis and, heck, anyone who cares, to remind Orthodox Jews about the importance of social action, not only within the shul, but outside it as well.

But far, far, worse than this false dichotomy is the author's explanation of why Orthodox Jews (don't even get me started on the term "Orthodox movement") engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice":

"We can’t have it both ways. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation."

Silly me. I thought I observed Shabbat because it is an eternal covenant between God and the Jews that evokes the miracles of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt and links me to Jews throughout the centuries. NOW I realize that I am doing it to keep any future children from inter-marrying. That makes it so much more meaningful. Thanks, buddy.

2. The New York Times's religion reporting is a joke. This is another thing that is not new and, yet, continues, in its most egregious instances, to make me want to bang my head against the wall.

So, guess what's (not) new in the Jewish world today? This piece (it may be online only) divulges the great secret that some Jews, especially in San Francisco, are not having their sons circumcised. Wow! If this hadn't been going on even in New York for the last 15 years at least (I am too young to remember any further back, although info is welcome), I might be surprised. I think it is especially ridiculous that the piece makes no connection whatsoever between the recent San Francisco circumcision controversy and the attitudes of "Jewish 'intactivists'" living in the Bay Area who prefer brit shalom to brit milah. Who do you think started and leads the campaign to have circumcision banned in San Fran?

Hey, New York TImes, just in case you forgot about that whole controversy, you might want to check your OWN NEWSPAPER from TWO DAYS AGO, when you ran an article entitled "Judge May Strike Circumcision Ban."

BOTTOM LINE: This whole media narrative about the inexorable decline of Jewish ritual (or mitzvot, if you prefer) in the non-Orthodox world and the related superiority of the Orthodox in all things Jewish is getting really tiresome.

I often wonder whether these writers have ever belonged to an Orthodox community. If they didn't, it would explain why they see Orthodox Jews as so special and transcendent. As a member of a warm and caring modern Orthodox community, I see every Shabbat that its members, who, yes, engage in "serious Jewish education and Jewish practice," also have weaknesses and struggles for holiness, just as other Jews do.

But no one ever writes about that.


Anonymous said...

Yes. All of this.

(Thanks for validating the irritated commentary in my head.)

frum single female said...

the thing that i find quite interesting is how the term tikkun olam has come to mean social action in the reform or conservative jewish community. tikkun olam actually means fixing the world by doing the mitzvot. reform judaism just changed the meaning to mean social action.
i realize that is not your point and i think that that it is wonderful that reform jews focus on social action because those are mitzvot as well.
i did not read the article you are speaking of.
the thing is caring for social issues is a jewish concept. every jew out there is probably not going to be shomer shabbat and if caring about social action makes them stay connected to judaism thats good too because it is more likely that many reform jews would not be affiliated with judaism at all if the reform congregations were not around than for them to actually be frum.

Iiari said...

As a married, now conservadox male, I read this article as well but I actually agreed with most of it. I think your critique is a bit harsh (this was, after all, a general editorial for a general audience).

I absolutely agree with him that "tikkun olam" (the term given to rebranded social action, see below) has absolutely replaced actual Judaism as many Reform Jews' Jewish identity. I grew up in that world, and know this to be true. And this wouldn't be so bad if it manifest as actual social action by people. It doesn't. People attribute their often progressive *dispositions* as being "tikkun olam." I approve of recycling, racial equality, gender equality, etc, and that's my Judaism, etc...

From the previous poster:
"tikkun olam actually means fixing the world by doing the mitzvot."
When I bring this tiny textual and historical fact up to many Reform and Conservative Jews, they flat out refuse to believe it and insist I'm wrong and, "don't get it." Seriously... The state of Jewish education is abysmal.

As active, non-orthodox mainstream Jews and their congregations vanish in the years to come (and they WILL vanish... I'm a board member of a large, currently vibrant Conservative congregation and have seen all the official, frightening statistics that everyone is ignoring)I think we'll see more backlash articles like this as everyone introspects, as one elderly board member of a Reform congregation put it to me when reflecting on some of his peers in their 70's and 80's have no Jewish grandchildren, "What went wrong? This wasn't supposed to happen when we [built this kind of Judaism]."

I hold out a tiny bit of hope that the progressive movements will return to education and observance as the ships sink. We'll see...

PS: I think this writer, knowledgeable in his background, knows quite well people observe Shabbat for all kinds of reasons. I took his comment more as his saying that ritual and Shabbat observance *have the effect* of decreasing assimilation, not as it being the reason people do it...