YOUR HEAD A SPLODE

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

This Jewish Week article, which LastTrumpet already posted, is making my head explode for all kinds of different reasons. So I’m posting a line-by-line fisking of the article, to attempt to enumerate all the things wrong with it, though I’m probably just scratching the surface. Unlike previous articles I’ve done this for, where the problems were primarily with the frames invoked by the reporter, this article has at least five distinct categories of things wrong with it:

  1. Destructive framing by the Jewish Week reporter (inappropriate for a paper supposedly committed to objective journalism)
  2. Self-destructive framing by Reform movement personnel quoted in the article (inappropriate for an organization supposedly committed to Reform Judaism)
  3. The Jewish Week reporter creating a narrative unsupported by the facts
  4. Problematic attitudes and policies by Reform movement personnel
  5. Poor tactics by Reform movement personnel demonstrating a complete ignorance of adolescent psychology

I am particularly disturbed because I have written numerous apologetics for Reform Judaism (as I understand it), defending it from ideas that I believe to be misconceptions, and now official voices of the Reform movement are making statements that affirm all of those ideas.

David Kelsey has been posting about how OU/NCSY is pursuing an agenda of recruiting liberal Jewish teenagers to Orthodoxy. When I read articles like this, sometimes I wonder whether URJ/NFTY is stealthily doing the same thing. Maybe they’re not doing it on purpose, but if they were, it’s hard to imagine how they could be doing it more effectively than what they’re doing now: getting kids excited about Judaism, and then when the kids explore different options to build Jewish identities for themselves, responding with frames that affirm Orthodoxy as the standard against which all Jewish movements are defined. Every time a NFTY or UAHC/URJ camp alum ends up in the Orthodox world, it is viewed as an isolated incident (Rabbi Yoffie says “Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”), but the numbers are so great that it is time for the Reform movement to do some cheshbon hanefesh about this systemic phenomenon. I have already considered some of the sociological causes in “Profile of an ‘Unaffiliated’ Jew”, and this post points out some of the ideological causes.

A note about framing before we get started: Being careful about the frames we use isn’t just about words; it’s about ideas. It’s rarely just a question of replacing an objectionable word with a less objectionable synonym. For example, it would be offensive if I were to write “The role of chicks in the Reform rabbinate has come a long way since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first chick to be ordained by HUC-JIR. In recent years, chicks and men have been represented equally among new Reform rabbis.” But the problem could be completely remedied by replacing each instance of “chicks” with “women”, which refers to the same category of people in an unobjectionable way. In contrast, consider this example: “In recent years, many Reform Jews have become more religious, as demonstrated by such practices as wearing kipot, laying tefillin, singing Carlebach melodies, and keeping kosher.” The problem here isn’t only the use of the phrase “more religious” (though this phrase is problematic here, and “more observant” and “more traditional” would be similarly problematic), and the problem wouldn’t be solved by replacing “religious” with a different adjective. The problem is the idea that these four items can be meaningfully grouped into a category that makes sense from a Reform perspective. The assumption that makes this categorization possible is the truly destructive frame, not just the vocabulary used to describe it.

So here we go:

Warwick, N.Y. — The sun was setting at the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp in this picturesque upstate town, and in the dying light of a sweet summer day it was time for the evening prayer service.

In the lakeside pavilion that serves as Kutz Camp’s synagogue, the visiting musician who led the evening service on the Fourth of July, a Wednesday, set the prayers to an easy-listening jazz sound.

It was a musical style, played on an electric keyboard, that almost none of the campers connected with, many said later.

Shocking! Most red-blooded 16-year-olds LOVE “easy-listening jazz”, so if these campers didn’t, then big changes must be afoot in the Reform movement.

But some took their displeasure a step further, doing something unprecedented that night at Kutz that speaks volumes about a generation of Reform teens that is staking a new claim to Jewish ritual and tradition and posing a challenge for movement leaders.

As the musician played a jazzy version of the Barchu, a couple of campers got up and walked out. Over the next several minutes, other pairs of high school-age campers, one after another, got up and quietly left. It took awhile for the adults in the room to realize what was happening, but some 40 campers in all, about a quarter of those in attendance, spontaneously got up and left the service. The service was too untraditional, they later said, offensively so.

I wasn’t there and haven’t heard any firsthand accounts of what happened, but here’s my best guess based on my decade-old memories of what it’s like to be a teenager and my experience as a high school teacher: The campers reached a rapid consensus that the music sucked, perhaps using even coarser language (and I probably would have agreed with them). This alone would not have been enough to get most of them to “spontaneously” leave on their own. But once a few had left, this gave the rest of them cover so that they could simultaneously do what they wanted (get out of a service where they didn’t want to be), assert their individuality, and be part of a group. We don’t have enough evidence to judge whether all of the people who left felt that the service was “too untraditional”, or whether this was just the stated opinion of a trendsetting few. But it seems to me that the “untraditional” claim is a red herring — presumably if it had been music that they liked, they would have stayed regardless of how “traditional” it was or wasn’t. (Indeed, the style that has been prevalent at Reform camp services for 35 years, accompanied by acoustic guitar and influenced by American folk music, is no more “traditional” in the unfortunate way that word seems to be defined in this article, but I can’t imagine these campers would have walked out on Debbie Friedman.)

Turns out, it was their own spiritual Independence Day.

Once out of the pavilion, clusters of teens agreed to find different spaces so that they could continue their prayers the way they wanted to. Some ended up forming a minyan in a bathroom.

This is beautiful. Really. To the extent that the camp’s educational mission is about empowering people to create their own Jewish life, this should be viewed as a smashing success. To the extent that the camp’s mission is about training people to be docile members of Reform congregations who won’t challenge the professionals’ decisions, I can see how this behavior represents a threat. But that mission is flawed for a number of reasons, not least that if trends hold up, these campers aren’t likely to join Reform congregations for at least another 15 years (if at all), and they’ll need the tools to get by in the meantime.

If the Kutz administration were going to criticize the campers for anything here, it should have been on hachnasat orechim grounds — the campers were disrespectful to their guest. Turning it into an ideological struggle merely affirms the campers in their sense of righteous indignation, makes them feel that they are being persecuted for their beliefs and practices, and drives them away from the Reform movement. The message should have been “Walking out isn’t nice”, not “Your aesthetic preferences are unacceptable”.

“When the prayers were very nontraditional, they felt botched; the music was so distracting,” said Sarah Wolfson, a 16-year-old from Calabasas, Calif., who is social action vice president of her temple youth group. “It seemed so disrespectful. I’ve become quite attached to saying the prayers the way I was bat mitzvahed with. It’s something I find really powerful,” she continued.

Aha! Now we see what “traditional” actually means to the campers, not what the Jewish Week and Rabbi Yoffie would like it to mean so that they can write a story and make a political point respectively. I don’t know Sarah Wolfson, but we can be reasonably sure that the congregation where she “was bat mitzvahed [sic]” didn’t use Carlebach niggunim or yeshivish speed-davening or easy-listening jazz, but used one of the styles that are standard in the Reform movement. Thus, “nontraditional”, to her, means “not what I’m used to”, and carries no ideological valence. Depending on one’s perspective, this attitude of seeking the familiar might be seen as reverent respect for our heritage, or as narrow-minded inflexibility, but either way, this attitude can be found among people in all Jewish movements (including Classical Reform).

Wolfson was one of the campers who went to a girls’ bathroom to pray. “We were all able to create that connection together in our gathering. It was very moving and empowering.”

No doubt. Harnessing adolescent rebellion toward productive pursuits can be very powerful. A pivotal Jewish experience for me during my NFTY years was a retreat at camp where a small group of us from NFTY joined with a small group from an Orthodox high school for the beginning of Sukkot. On the first night, we had services together, organized by the adults. The services were basically what they would have been if the Orthodox group had been on its own, except that they threw us Reform kids a bone by reading some of the prayers in English, which we found condescending. As a protest, some of the people in my NFTY group stood at the back and started singing the Klepper/Freelander “Shalom Rav” at the end of the silent Amidah. Late that night in the cabin, some people from both groups decided that we were going to run services the following night the way we wanted, rather than let those adults do it for us when they just don’t understand. For several hours, we went through the siddur and found a way to do services that would be acceptable to both groups. The issue of 1-day vs 2-day yom tov wasn’t on our radar, since most of us had never observed even one full day of Sukkot as a full cessation from work (however defined), so this retreat was so far outside our experience that it didn’t occur to us that there was something off about the two-day thing. The issue of gender, which would ordinarily be a major sticking point in this sort of Reform-Orthodox pluralistic dialogue, also didn’t really come up, since the Orthodox group was all male, and there was just one girl in the NFTY group and she was apathetic. So the issues we were working out between us were mostly stylistic (and, in retrospect, superficial), but at the time they seemed important to our Jewish identities. In the end, we were proud of what we had accomplished on our own without the adults, and we felt Jewishly empowered and had our first meaningful experiences with creating pluralistic Jewish communities. The content was less important than that empowerment and that dialogue. And none of this would have happened if we had just accepted what the adults were feeding us and hadn’t rebelled.

These teens are part of what appears to be a growing number of young adults in the denomination more interested in conventional prayer and traditional Jewish observances than their parents are.

“Conventional prayer”? The Reform movement is the largest organized Jewish movement in the country, so there’s nothing more “conventional” than what goes on in Reform synagogues every week, and I don’t think these teens are more interested in the rabbi-cantor-choir services from back home than their parents are. “Traditional Jewish observance”? Oh yes, I remember my great-grandmother telling me about how she and her friends used to put on their tefillin and have a Carlebach minyan in the girls’ bathroom when they were teenagers back in the shtetl.

Rather, these teens are exploring Jewish practices different from what they grew up with, and I think it’s completely healthy for them to engage in this sort of exploration as they think about what it means for them to create their own Jewish experience rather than depending on authority figures to create it for them. And there’s nothing “more” or “less” traditional about that — it’s just a part of growing up.

Kutz Camp, which runs sessions from late June through mid-August, attracts the most-committed Reform teens from around the country and so, while what happens there may not be typical of what’s going on everywhere, it is a seeding ground for new leaders and a place where developing trends are evident.

In addition to demanding more traditional prayer, a small but growing number of campers and young faculty there are wearing yarmulkes or tzitzit, even tefillin along with prayer shawls.

Ok, so teenagers are looking for outward ways to display their Jewish identities. What’s the problem with that? This list might also include Tzahal T-shirts and chai necklaces. I think it’s harmless; it’s the adults who are turning this into an ideological movement, not the teenagers. The adults should stop projecting their own issues onto the campers and go read Erikson.

One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected.

“Fervently Orthodox men”??? Here I’m at a loss for words.

For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes.

“More modern”??? Carlebach was writing his now-classic tunes in the ’70s, at the exact same time that Friedman and Klepper were writing theirs. And they were all doing basically the same thing — setting Jewish prayers to simple melodies influenced by an American folk idiom to enable people to join together in spirited musical prayer. Just because Carlebach had a bigger beard than Klepper and sang with an Ashkenazi accent doesn’t mean that his music is any more “traditional” or less “modern”.

There are even “rumblings” of interest in making the camp, which is now kosher-style, really kosher, said Kutz Director Rabbi Eve Rudin. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago. Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”

It’s an ironic shift for Kutz, which has long been a site of creative experimentation, like the jazz service, in Reform worship.

Where’s the irony? These kids didn’t grow up wearing tzitzit or tefillin, so when they try them on at Kutz, it’s in precisely that spirit of “creative experimentation”, and should be encouraged as such.

It also seems to reflect a growing generation gap, with current leaders of the movement’s institutions not always fully ready to embrace the changes that its youngest constituents are calling for.

This sentence could have been written about any movement institutions in any generation.

Several young faculty members at Kutz this summer (where I taught writing during the first session) wanted to gather to sing the traditional Friday evening Psalms at the edge of the lake before camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services. Initially, said one faculty member who asked not to be named, they were given tacit permission as long as they didn’t invite camper participation. But then they were told they could not, since singing the Psalms — even though they’re contained in the Reform prayer book — isn’t a conventional Reform practice.

Wait, I’m confused! I thought you just said that the younger generation was more interested in “conventional prayer”!

Anyway, this policy blows my mind. Kutz, “a site of creative experimentation”, is taking the position that anything that isn’t done in most Reform congregations is out of bounds? Unless it involves easy-listening jazz? Is Kutz denying that these psalms are part of the Tanach, or for that matter, of Gates of Prayer?

For Rabbi Rudin, the issue was about faculty members separating themselves from the rest of the community in order to do something which “would be seen as ‘more religious,’ or ‘better,’ ” she said.

“We as a faculty are here to enable the experience for the kids, so if the kids see that the faculty are not pleased with the worship, what are they going to think about their own Jewish practice? I want every camper to feel proud of the Jewish choices they are making and not to feel that ‘more is better’ or ‘more traditional is better.’ ”

If the article is accurate that this was going on before (not during) camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services, then they’re not actually separating themselves from the rest of the community.

Rabbi Rudin, you are the one labeling these services as “more religious”, by forbidding them on those grounds. The people participating are doing so because they prefer that for themselves, for whatever reason, and are making no statement about what is objectively “better” for everyone. As I got older, one of the things I found frustrating about working at a UAHC camp was that any individually motivated Jewish practice (which someone did because s/he chose to, rather than because it was on the schedule) was viewed with automatic suspicion. If the faculty is pursuing their own prayer experiences to augment the camp-wide services, then the message this sends to the kids is that it’s ok (and perhaps even desirable) to make thoughtful choices about personal Jewish practice, and they have role models for doing this. That was the message I picked up when I was a camper and one of my counselors refused to say Aleinu on ideological grounds. Was his practice “more religious” or “better”? Who cares? That’s not the point. The point was that someone I respected was thinking for himself about what the prayers meant. If camp is supposed to be a laboratory for an ideal Jewish community, then the faculty can be better role models if they are living meaningful Jewish lives than if they are just putting on a show for the campers.

Since the practice of singing these psalms on Friday night dates back to the 16th century, and the rest of the Friday night service is much older, one could easily make the argument that it’s “more traditional” not to sing these psalms. (And as we see above, this is obviously true in the Reform movement’s history as well.) But that shouldn’t matter — including or not including these psalms seems like a morally neutral question that should be subject to individual discretion, regardless of which choice is “more traditional”. Anyway, Rabbi Rudin is falling into the Artscroll trap of identifying “more traditional” with “consonant with contemporary Orthodox practice, regardless of vintage”.

Top Reform leaders are equally concerned that those more inclined to classical Reform Judaism, which is less focused on ritual observance, not feel alienated by those interested in tradition.

Classical Reform Judaism made some strong statements on paper, but in practice, it is just as focused on ritual observance as any other stream of Judaism — you better make sure that the rabbi is wearing a robe, and that everyone stands or sits at the same time, and that everyone listens attentively to the choir, or else. The relevant distinction here is more between communal and individual ritual observance — “top Reform leaders” are concerned that individuals are pursuing ritual observance that is different from the ritual observances mandated by the institutions.

And anyone who bans something because it’s not a “conventional Reform practice” is “interested in tradition”. Congratulations.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, heard from many campers about the “botched” jazz service when he came to Kutz for a visit in mid-July. “They were so afraid of offending these kids [the more religiously inclined] that they were too intimidated to proceed in their desire to bring creative approaches to prayer, something we normally do in virtually any youth setting,” Rabbi Yoffie told The Jewish Week.

“The more religiously inclined”??? This was in brackets, so I’m going to blame the Jewish Week for this one, not Rabbi Yoffie. But come on. Anyone with a “desire to bring creative approaches to prayer” sounds pretty “religiously inclined” to me!

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the movement’s seminary arm, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview that “the Reform movement has to be tolerant and embrace classical Reform Jews for whom this embrace of tradition is not something they celebrate. I would hope it would remain sufficiently pluralistic to include both camps.”

I know some Classical Reform Jews, and they’re all about “embrace of tradition” and they can’t understand why what was good enough for 19th-century Germany isn’t good enough for today’s kids. (As I’ve written before, I think some Classical Reform practices “originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state”. But that’s beside the point.)

Otherwise, kudos to Rabbi Ellenson for his call for pluralism.

Some Kutz teens also viewed unity as the priority.

Grace Klein wrote in the camp newspaper after the jazz service that “as disturbed as I was throughout the service, I as well as everyone else who stayed, chose to place the unity of Kutznikim over personal satisfaction. The choice also had to do with respect” for the musician leading the service.

Ok, fine. I don’t place unity on as high a pedestal, so I think it would have been fine to have two parallel minyanim, one with easy-listening jazz and one without, but I agree that it would have been better to make this decision in advance.

“The fact is that many of us prefer the traditional aspects of Judaism, particularly in worship, more than previous Reform generations did,” she wrote. But “If anything, the schmaltzy, keyboard extravaganza was an experiment … the way to lead the movement towards tradition is not to balk at our predecessors’ choices but to basically keep on doing what we’re doing.”

While the tensions raised by this developing issue may have been more visible at Kutz than in other Reform-affiliated institutions, it is not the only place the interest in traditional observance is being seen.

Many young Reform rabbis are reversing choices made by their older colleagues, some of whom proudly eat shrimp and bacon.

David Singer, 24, is part of this new wave. Entering his fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the Village, he always wears a kipa and tzitzit, keeps kosher and doesn’t ride or use money on Shabbat.

But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.

Why is the phrase “traditional observance” being used to refer purely to ritual observance (rather than to mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro), and purely to ritual observances that weren’t common in the Reform movement a few decades ago?

The spreading interest in traditional observance is creating “a tug of war between pluralism and uniformity” for the movement, said Singer, who was on the Kutz faculty.

“Maybe it’s a fear that ‘God forbid we become more like the Orthodox.’ It’s not about being Orthodox, but the exact opposite because we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about. It’s seen as a threat, but it shouldn’t be.”

I agree 100%.

Singer grew up in the Reform movement, in its summer camps and attending a Reform day school in his home city of San Diego, and now lives in Brooklyn.

“I’m definitely one of the more observant people in my [rabbinical school] class,” Singer said. But “I know that as a class we all struggle to find our place within the Reform movement.

Normally I’d take issue with the use of “more observant”, but it’s possible that he also means it in a way that would actually be accurate.

“Do any of us pray in Reform synagogues in New York City aside from small minyanim at Beth Elohim?” the Park Slope Reform synagogue where he works as rabbinic intern. “No. You’re more likely to find us at the independent minyanim” that in recent years have sprouted up around New York City, where the approach to prayer tends to be at once creative and traditional.

Props to Beth Elohim, which may hold a record among synagogues for hosting the most independent minyanim. So it seems like if it weren’t for the independent minyanim, the Reform movement’s future rabbis wouldn’t have anywhere where they want to pray as participants (rather than as leaders).

“We’re looking for things outside the box in which our generation feels comfortable experimenting and expressing our Judaism in ways that haven’t always fit into the established norms of Reform Judaism. At times it is seen as an affront to people who aren’t always ready for it,” Singer said.

This is a much more accurate frame that reflects the internal dynamics of the Reform movement. The Reform movement has “established norms”, and some people are “outside the box”. This makes more sense than the frame prevalent in the rest of the article, which labels practices as “traditional” when Orthodoxy happens to share them and “creative” otherwise, ignoring the motivations behind those practices.

So can these conflicting approaches to Jewish worship and observance be reconciled within the Reform movement?

Only if the Reform movement gives up homogeneity.

It’s a real-world challenge, said Rabbi Yoffie, who in 1999 called for “a Reform revolution” in worship, with more emphasis on lively prayer and text study. “There isn’t a shul in the world that doesn’t struggle to create a worship experience meaningful to everybody.”

Maybe they’d have more success if they weren’t trying to make it “meaningful to everybody”, and instead tried to pick one thing and do it well. “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”

Taking on Jewish observance should be embraced, said Rabbi Yoffie — to a point.

Again, this isn’t in quotes so it’s the Jewish Week’s fault, but “Jewish observance”??? Like loving the stranger, keeping honest weights and measures, and pursuing justice? To a point?

“No aspect of the tradition should be foreign to us. We should be prepared to explore everything. Even things that would have been unthinkable to parents and grandparents,” said Rabbi Yoffie.

Great. (And I hope that includes kabbalat shabbat psalms too, as an example that should be uncontroversial. I also hope it includes “aspect[s] of the tradition” that haven’t been invented yet.)

“Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”

Generally that’s a final step, after they feel that they’ve exhausted their options in the Reform community where they came from. Are you interested in pushing people in that direction? Why?

There are limits to what the Reform movement can encompass, he said. “We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented,” he said, referring to Jewish law. “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Ok, let’s count all the things wrong with this statement.

  1. I honestly don’t understand the distinction he’s drawing between “mitzvah-oriented” and “halacha-oriented”. Is it that “mitzvah” refers to 613 imperative statements in the Torah (many of which are not followed today by anyone) and “halacha” refers to the specifics of how to observe them? If so, then how can the mitzvot be observed with no specifics? (That’s right, no specifics. He didn’t say “we disagree with Orthodox halacha”, he didn’t say “we don’t have a single uniform halacha”, he said “not halacha-oriented”.)
  2. If the Reform movement is “not halacha-oriented”, then has the CCAR Responsa Committee been informed?
  3. Whose official definition does Rabbi Yoffie use for “it all” (referring to Jewish law)? The Rif? Isaac Klein? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? The CCAR Responsa Committee? Artscroll? An educated Reform Jew who is interpreting halacha autonomously? In the Orthodox world, only an extremist (and an ignorant one) would say that there is a single set of practices that can be identified as “the halacha”. So how can there be a single version of halacha of which Reform Jews definitionally don’t observe “it all”?
  4. The language of “take … upon yourself” implies that there is choice in the matter. The language of “mitzvah” implies obligation. Therefore, for these purposes, it seems that “choice” vs “obligation” is a false dichotomy — I think Rabbi Yoffie would agree that there are situations in which both apply.
  5. Are the ethical mitzvot a “choice”?
  6. Add your own!

Back at Kutz, as third-session campers arrived, many to participate in community service programs as part of the camp’s “Mitzvah Corps,” Rabbi Rudin reflected on the tensions playing out between those interested in greater observance and those who are not.

“Greater observance”…… I’ve said it all already. :(

“We do want there to be experimentation, and I do think there’s a place here for someone who keeps strictly kosher and to wear tefillin. This is supposed to be a very pluralistic place. But in the end, even though the Reform movement is about being pluralistic, there is a range” of accepted behaviors, she said.

“This is about the Reform movement coming to terms with the fact that there are boundaries, and what those boundaries may be.”

For sure. But why should those boundaries be anywhere in regard to personal ritual practice? I can think of many practices followed in parts of the Orthodox world (you know, the world that the Jewish Week uses as a standard for “religious”, “observant”, and “traditional”) that should be outside appropriate boundaries for the Reform movement (e.g. discriminating against LGBT people, excluding women from leadership roles, supporting West Bank settlements, encouraging all the men in the community to study full-time instead of getting a job), but nothing of the sort is being pursued by the Kutz campers. Of course, the first two would be happening in the Reform movement today if it restricted itself to “conventional Reform practice” as it was known in previous generations.

40 Responses to “YOUR HEAD A SPLODE”

  1. Ben,

    Beautiful job! Well done! You’re starting at HUC? Are you doing MARE or going for a pulpit?

    If the Reform movement is “not halacha-oriented”, then has the CCAR Responsa Committee been informed?

    From the committee’s web page:
    The Reform responsa provide answers to questions about Reform Judaism and Jewish living. Unlike resolutions, which are adopted by vote at a CCAR convention, responsa provide guidance, not governance. As a body of literature, the responsa published by the Reform Movement reveal a broad consensus as to mainstream Reform Jewish thinking on important issues facing contemporary Judaism. Individual rabbis and communities retain responsibility, however, to make their own determinations as to the stance they will take on individual issues.

    Halacha is said by some to “get a vote, not a veto.” My own take on it is that Halacha gets to file an amicus brief. But the reason the committee exists is that if we are to make reasonable choices around personal or congregational praxis we need to delve into the literature. Most pulpit rabbis are spread too thin to do the kind of research that takes, so the Responsa committee is an “outsource” by congregational clergy of that work.

    Thank you for taking apart R. Yoffie’s mumblings. The “so be it” bit really got my goat. There is entirely too much of what you have accurately described as “half-assed Orthodoxy” in this movement. We need not to so easily give up on retaining our youth, and even attracting the unaffiliated to our fold. Robust worship and learning is the path to that, but it seems like Clergies are afraid of taking up too much of their congregants’ time.

    If, as a movement we really mean that praxis is up to the individual, then Kutz should be offering Kosher options, and an environment that facilitates complete sabbath observance. The challenge in Reform is that institutions seem to assume moderation in praxis, to the degree that many cannot accommodate a congregant who is more orthoprax.

    We also need to be less afraid to set standards. Should a Reform Jew, perhaps, be discouraged from consuming meat from Agriprocessors and steered toward locally raised organic meat slaughtered at a smaller, local abbatoir, even if not by sh’chita? Should we maybe even train Shochets to work with smaller abbatoirs? Should we perhaps be saying that wine that carries a Hechsher is produced by means that are inherently misogynistic, and that should be considered along with the sense of k’lal yisrael that comes with choosing such wine when wine is purchased? Would we go so far as to privilege Organic wine over Kosher?

    What I get from the Kids’ actions was that the music sucked. I’ve been to a Jazz Shabbat myself, and found it . . . somniferous. Give me a blend of Friedman, Carlebach, and Klepper, with a few 19thc. standards thrown in (like that Shema tune that seems as inevitable as the giraffes in any depiction of Noah’s ark) and I’m happy. And if you’re gonna jack around with the tunes, at least teach ‘em to me.

    I agree with you that the kids should have been reamed for their rudeness. You don’t walk out on a service because you don’t like the music.


    Rich · August 14th, 2007 at 12:47 am
  2. Honestly, I think it’s time to drop the labels people.

    The greatest strength of the Jewish Community has always been the mantra “a Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew”. In other words, there should be no “other” in the community, and while schisms are inevitable, the reality is that the Jewish people remain one, when other religions have fractured (see Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, etc).

    What Jewish institutions like URJ/NFTY, OU/NCSY, and groups like Hashomer Hatzair, etc do is educate Jews about a particular way to be Jewish. The strength of this young generation is its ability to learn and adapt, much as our great grandparents did.

    There are Reform representatives at the World Zionist Congress who never take off their Kippa. There are Orthodox friends of mine who play guitar on Shabbat having studied the halacha and concluding that it is permissible. And there are members of Hashomer Hatzair organizing Jewish community protection in vulnerable cities, coordinating national action days for Darfur, and connecting secular Jews to their people and heritage.

    The reality is that today’s educated Jew studies the issues and puts it together for himself / herself. We should celebrate when any Jew makes a conscious choice to engage in that Judaism, be it wearing a kippa, or deciding to play music on Shabbat. Good on the kids at the camp who left the prayer, and good on the kids who stayed on.


    TomC · August 14th, 2007 at 8:07 am
  3. Yasher koach, BZ — this is a fantastic response to this article, and I am entirely with you on all of the above.

    Wishing you a sweet and transformative Elul.


    Rachel · August 14th, 2007 at 9:06 am
  4. If, as a movement we really mean that praxis is up to the individual, then Kutz should be offering Kosher options, and an environment that facilitates complete Sabbath observance.

    Using the phrase “complete Sabbath observance” to mean “Orthodox Sabbath observance” is exactly what this post was railing against! The point is that there isn’t one “complete Sabbath observance” (even in the Orthodox world) and liberal Jews should stop acting as though a) there is and b) it’s defined by contemporary Orthodox practice. Given the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the Reform Movement, a “complete Sabbath observance” for Reform Jews might well include, as you suggest generally, eating local, organic, not-necessarily-kosher meat and drinking organic, not-necessarily-hechshered wine. (I wouldn’t do this, at least not the former, but I’m not a Reform Jew.)

    Should we perhaps be saying that wine that carries a Hechsher is produced by means that are inherently misogynistic

    The process of producing hechshered wine might be called many bad things (and I’ve called them those things myself), but why specifically misogynistic? Unless you mean that misogyny is inherent in Orthodox Judaism, which dominates the wine-producing process? Even as confirmed feminist, I think there are more important and obvious concerns with hechshered wine that transcend gender issues.

    Ben… You’re starting at HUC? Are you doing MARE or going for a pulpit?

    This is among the funnier questions I’ve ever heard. Though he can confirm it himself, I can promise you that BZ is doing neither. I think there’s a strong possibility he’d rather attend Bob Jones University than HUC (or any other rabbinical school).


    Rooftopper Rav · August 14th, 2007 at 9:25 am
  5. I’m with BZ on his push-back against the use of terms “observant” and “religious” to mean “Orthodox ritual practice”, but I disagree with respect to the term “traditional.” Technically, he is correct to note that Kabbalat Shabbat was not “traditional” in the 16th century or that NFTY & Kutz have a “tradition” of guitar-led services that draw heavily from Debbie Friedman’s catalog. However, there has to be some relatively neutral, short-hand way of referencing the standard range of Jewish ritual practice prior to Emancipation and haskala and I think “traditional” is the best option.

    Classical Reform Judaism was a deliberate break with these practices, abandoning Hebrew prayer, organ music and a Protestant-style sermon to its services. Orthodox Judaism in less recognized ways also deviates from the traditional practice, generally by adding stringencies that were not generally observed prior to the 19th century.

    The Jewish Week article was a particularly poor attempt to describe a very real issue in the Reform movement, which is the movement’s ongoing difficulty in accomodating the growing numbers of active Reform Jews who want to adopt and adapt traditional Jewish practices, with the competing demands of the [generally] older generation that wants to preserve elements of classical Reform Judaism and is hostile to anything that appears to be “Ortho-prax”. This conflict is complicated by a third constituency, namely the large swath of congregants who have affiliated with the Reform movement precisely because it makes less ritual demands than the other movements.

    I am far more encouraged for the prospects of the Reform movement’s future by the passion for these issues by the Kutz campers than I am by the leadership’s response to that passion.


    mhpine · August 14th, 2007 at 10:21 am
  6. Rich writes:
    Halacha is said by some to “get a vote, not a veto.” My own take on it is that Halacha gets to file an amicus brief.

    What is this capital-H Halacha? It’s not just sources from the past; when the CCAR Responsa Committee writes a teshuva, they are engaging in the process of halacha, as is an individual Reform Jew who studies an issue and might come up with a completely different conclusion. Treating halacha as a single unchanging entity would mean that the Reform movement is accepting a much narrower definition of halacha than anyone in the Orthodox world.


    BZ · August 14th, 2007 at 10:41 am
  7. The capital “H” is because I regard “Halacha” as the title of a body of literature (and not one that is static).


    Rich · August 14th, 2007 at 10:49 am
  8. Thanks, BZ, for your take on all of this. Anecdotally, it was a very interesting summer at Kutz to witness first-hand.

    For more information on Rabbi Yoffie’s take on all of this, check out “Ruminations” – jepaikin.wordpress.com/ – and Yoffie’s response to the following post – jepaikin.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/well-i-guess-im-out/.


    David · August 14th, 2007 at 11:05 am
  9. “Like loving the stranger, keeping honest weights and measures, and pursuing justice? To a point?”

    unfortunately, yeah, that is the additude of some. i dont need to go into details, just read one of the many stories on this site.

    but this is the problem with “cafeteria judaism”, if you’re only picking what you want, who is to say what you can and get leave out? if you reject oral torah or at least its supremacy in interpreting the written torah, does that mean you’re gonna start back up polygamy and animal sacrfices in your own homemade mishkan?

    of course the answer usually is “well we’re obviously not going to drop anything that conflicts with american societal norms”.

    a lot of reform folks ive met talk a lot about tikkun olam, but don’t think that prayer or blessing your food is part of tikkun olam! its a mystical concept yall, its not a campaign slogan!

    seriously though, who chooses what to keep, if halacha is not authoritative (and i dont know ANYONE who ever considered CCAR’s responsa authoritative, and very few who thought them even relevant)? if anybody can do what they want, then what’s the problem with kids leaving the prayer service to do their own thing or stoning people for carrying on shabbos? where do you draw the line?
    and how does that make any more sense than say, karaism?


    shmuel · August 14th, 2007 at 11:42 am
  10. You know, as an Orthodox Jew I’m an outsider to this whole discussion, and well aware that your syntax is what you make of it, but I think that railing against the term “more observant” is mistaken in a way that railing against the term “more religious” is not.

    “Observant” is an inherently referential term, requiring an object of observation and, in the Jewish world, that object is the obligations imposed by Halacha, however interpreted. Whether you feel that Halacha has any obligative force or not, one who conforms their conduct to Halacha in more respects than another *is* more “observant” than that other. Of course, determining who is who is not really anything any of us can do (or should really attempt)

    By the same token, it’s simply not accurate to say that there is no such thing as “complete Sabbath observance”; all complete Sabbath observance requires is the sense of obligation to observe the Halachot of shabbos. That particulars of those Halachot may be in dispute among various rabinnic authorities is irrelevant; so long as the individual is attempting to follow any valid Halachic opinion (preferably on the basis of their own well reasoned understanding of the opinions, or in reliance on their chosen rabinnic authority’s view, and hopefully not merely on the basis of “this is what I do”), that individual is engaging in “complete Sabbath observance.”


    Akiva M · August 14th, 2007 at 12:17 pm
  11. BZ,

    You’ve nailed it yet again.

    What made me excited about Reform Judaism as a NFTY participant was the fact that the movement felt “on the cutting edge.” I was taught that Reform Judaism not only encourages, but commands Jews to engage with questions of how Judaism fits into their lives. Specific practices are “choices” but the process of deciding how to live a meaningful Jewish life is not.

    What these kids are doing by exploring halakha and Jewish ritual practice is exactly what they should be doing as Reform Jews. I really hope that the big wigs in the movement will realize that the best thing they can do for the Jewish identity of these teens is to let them.


    ahavatcafe · August 14th, 2007 at 2:32 pm
  12. Akiva M – you are indeed an outsider, and you simply didn’t understand anything BZ was saying. Since alot of people make your mistake, even here, I’ll unpack your statements:
    all complete Sabbath observance requires is the sense of obligation to observe the Halachot of shabbos.
    What does that mean? Which Halachot? Whose Halachot? If I drive to shul but don’t talk about the stockmarket there, do I possess a “sense of obligation” less than someone who walks to shul and seals business deals there? and if all I do is refrain from going to work, don’t I have a “sense of obligation” regardless, just for a different system?
    That particulars of those Halachot may be in dispute among various rabinnic authorities is irrelevant; so long as the individual is attempting to follow any valid Halachic opinion
    “valid”? By what standard? who says its valid? and why is “this is what I do” not a good reason as any?


    Amit · August 14th, 2007 at 3:02 pm
  13. Amit you’re being a little to harsh on Akiva M. I think he understands more than you think.

    The difference is that he is trying to hold on to a word that’s been useful in meaning something for a long time — AND WHICH IS PERFECTLY APPROPRIATE FOR HIS COMMUNITY — but happens to hold too many alien assumptions to be useful when discussing the world of Reform Judaism.

    I believe there should be a word for what is being described at various points in the article, however. Having a word makes discussing it easier. In fact, I think you would understand me perfectly if I were to claim that “Reform kids are moving in my directions religiously — some along a Debbie Friedman/summer camp path, some along a Classical Reform path, and some along a Halacha-informed traditional-observance path.

    Those are three different esthetics and styles of practice. For instance, I might describe “path #1″ as including “song-filled prayers accompanied by guitar, and observance of Jewish occasions through some rituals A, B, and C”. Path #2 might mean “emphasis on decorum in prayer services and eschewing of ritual” Path #3 could be “rigorous practice of rituals as derived from the historic process of halachic development and sharing commonalities with contemporary Orthodox practice”

    I think it makes sense, and I think what Akiva M was trying to get at is that we *need* ways to discuss religious trends/styles if we’re actually going to talk about them. And there’s nothing wrong with using a term from the Orthodox lexicon if folks pursuing that mode of Jewish practice are consciously adopting from Orthodox practice (albeit in a Reform-informed way).


    Alan · August 14th, 2007 at 3:19 pm
  14. woops “moving in MANY directions”


    Alan · August 14th, 2007 at 3:20 pm
  15. Alan – thanks for the kind words, and I think you’ve pretty much nailed my referential point.

    Amit, I understood perfectly well BZ’s point; I’m pretty certain you didn’t understand mine.

    >>Akiva M – you are indeed an outsider, and you simply didn’t understand anything BZ was saying. Since alot of people make your mistake, even here, I’ll unpack your statements:

    [i]all complete Sabbath observance requires is the sense of obligation to observe the Halachot of shabbos.[/i]

    What does that mean? Which Halachot? Whose Halachot? If I drive to shul but don’t talk about the stockmarket there, do I possess a “sense of obligation” less than someone who walks to shul and seals business deals there? and if all I do is refrain from going to work, don’t I have a “sense of obligation” regardless, just for a different system?>[i]That particulars of those Halachot may be in dispute among various rabinnic authorities is irrelevant; so long as the individual is attempting to follow any valid Halachic opinion[/i]
    “valid”? By what standard? who says its valid? and why is “this is what I do” not a good reason as any?>>

    1) “Valid” means just that – valid. It’s a term of art in the area of logic, meaning that the conclusions are supported by the premises. To take your example, it would be extraordinarily difficult to make a valid halachic argument that driving to shul on shabbos is permissible so long as cars use internal combustion engines. Any argument for driving to shul must invariably be based on the claim that halacha is irrelevant, that getting to shul is simply more important, in some way, than the particular ritual rules forbidding lighting of fires on the Sabbath (which [to continue the argument] are, after all, merely relics of a time-and-place specific cultural gestalt handed down by human beings); in other words, the argument isn’t that there is valid halachic authority for the proposition but that there are extra-halachic concerns that drive the conclusion despite the dictates of halacha. And whatever else that is, Amit, that is inherently *not* a valid halachic argument.

    2) “This is what I do” is not “as good a reason as any” for two distinct reasons. First, because it is an abdication of rationality and reason, a determination that those tools – which distinguish us from the animals and are, therefore, the tzelem elokim that defines us as human beings – are irrelevant to your chosen course of action. And second because they are inherently reflective of an elevation of the self above the halacha – this is what I do, not this is what halacha requires – which cannot coexist with an acceptance of halacha as obligatory (and, therefore, “this is what I do” cannot stand as a useful expression of halachic observance).

    Make sense?


    Akiva M. · August 14th, 2007 at 10:51 pm
  16. Gahh – can somebody tell me how to italicize on this thing? I see BB code “[i]TEXT[/i]” doesn’t work :? ?


    Akiva M. · August 14th, 2007 at 10:52 pm
  17. “Oh yes, I remember my great-grandmother telling me about how she and her friends used to put on their tefillin and have a Carlebach minyan in the girls’ bathroom when they were teenagers back in the shtetl.”

    Brilliant. Fucking, brilliant. Props to BZ.


    Chorus of Apes · August 15th, 2007 at 12:00 am
  18. >>Akiva M – you are indeed an outsider, and you simply didn’t understand anything BZ was saying. Since alot of people make your mistake, even here, I’ll unpack your statements:

    [i]all complete Sabbath observance requires is the sense of obligation to observe the Halachot of shabbos.[/i]

    What does that mean? Which Halachot? Whose Halachot? If I drive to shul but don’t talk about the stockmarket there, do I possess a “sense of obligation” less than someone who walks to shul and seals business deals there? and if all I do is refrain from going to work, don’t I have a “sense of obligation” regardless, just for a different system?>>>

    “Whose Halachot” and “Which Halachot” are irrelevant questions. If you drive to shul because you don’t particularly care what halacha has to say about it one way or the other but don’t talk about the stockmarket in shul because doing so offends your personal sense of the sacred and the profane, then with all due respect you aren’t “observing halacha” you are observing “the Amit system of what matters” and you’ve made clear that whatever aspects of halacha you are actually following you are doing not because you deem yourself obligated to follow halacha but because the particular dictates of halacha coincide with what you personally wish to do.

    If, on the other hand, you drive to shul because you believe there simply is no halachic problem with it, and don’t talk about the stockmarket because you know the halacha as well as appreciate the reason for it, well, then we can talk about whether your understanding of the Halachot of driving on shabbos is a logical one, but in accepting the obligation to follow Halacha – whatever it is – and acting in accordance with what you rationally believe are its dictates you are keeping the sabbath (and if in some objective sense you are violating it, a violation of that sort – done in the mistaken belief that the act is permissible – is not the type of act that would accurately label you as one who doesn’t keep shabbos).

    And, to take the flipside (and as a denizen of many an orthodox shul this is sadly common enough) if you walk to shul on shabbos because, though it would be easier to drive, halacha forbids it, and talk about the stockmarket in shul because you don’t care what halacha says about that, then you are observing the halachot of shabbos but not the halachot of prayer. If, on the other hand, you know what the halacha is with respect to talking in shul but can’t control yourself enough to conform to it, that’s a different issue entirely.

    It must be strange to hear an orthodox jew tell you this, Amit, but the real world isn’t as black and white as your example suggests you’d like it to be.


    Akiva M. · August 15th, 2007 at 6:26 am
  19. Akiva, try using html instead of bbcode. So instead of [i]italics[/i] do ⁢i/> <i/>


    themicah · August 15th, 2007 at 10:12 am
  20. Whoops, now I screwed up the coding:

    You want to do <i>italics<i/>.


    themicah · August 15th, 2007 at 10:23 am
  21. That should be <i>blah blah blah</i>


    BZ · August 15th, 2007 at 10:27 am
  22. Thanks :)


    Akiva M · August 15th, 2007 at 11:08 am
  23. When I first read the article my response is, to quote Reb Yogi, “it’s deja vu all over again.” I first put on tefillin in 1974 at Kutz camp. I first saw a tallit katan or met someone who wore a kipa all the time at Kutz camp, in 1974. So all of this is nothing new; Kutz teens have been experimenting with aspects of the tradition which classical Reform rejected for well over thirty years and probably longer.

    When I was at HUC in the early to mid 1980s, students would compete with each other to see how “creative” they could be in leading services at the HUC chapel. I generally lead services unchanged out of the Gates of Prayer and people would sometimes remark how refreshing it was. I remember one time announcing that “today we will have a special uncreative service.”

    Reform ideology should imply the right to make an informed choice to observe kashrut, follow the matbea shel tefila, lay tefillin or refrain from melacha on Shabbat. But in practice, it rarely does. Which goes some way to explaining why I’m one of quite a number of HUC-ordained rabbis who are no longer Reform.


    Charles · August 15th, 2007 at 2:04 pm
  24. “Valid” means just that – valid. It’s a term of art in the area of logic, meaning that the conclusions are supported by the premises. To take your example, it would be extraordinarily difficult to make a valid halachic argument that driving to shul on shabbos is permissible so long as cars use internal combustion engines.

    It really depends on how we define “halachic.” Clearly, under the Orthodox understanding of the Jewish legal system, the argument that but for driving to shul, Jews would not fulfill the mitzvot of public prayer or partake of a communal environment essential to facilitating other mitzvot is invalid. Such arguments are as you put it “extra-halakhic.”

    Within Conservative Judaism, the question of how to factor in the social reality of suburban life in making legal determinations on permissible Shabbat observance is disputed. The famous/infamous teshuva is clearly driven by the sociological change, but it relies in large part on technicalities differentiating “fire” for locomotion from “fire” from cooking or burning.

    However, it is not clear why a Jewish legal system could not explicitly incorporate social change, rather than hint or wink at it while keeping the formality of continuity. As long as such a system adhered to its own internal rules (e.g. legal decisions could only be made by those with proper qualifications, arguments must be grounded in some way in Jewish text) and was actually binding, it would constitute halakha.

    I am still confused about how there can be a Reform halakha in that it is not designed to be binding on anyone. What, exactly, are the limits to “choice through knowledge.” Could someone choose to simply ignore Shabbat and be in accordance with Reform halakha? What about Jack Abramoff? Surely if there is any Reform halakha he has to have violated it given his scant regard for various ethical mitzvot.


    mhpine · August 15th, 2007 at 4:17 pm
  25. shmuel writes:
    if you’re only picking what you want [...]
    if anybody can do what they want [...]

    mhpine writes:
    I am still confused about how there can be a Reform halakha in that it is not designed to be binding on anyone.

    There isn’t “a” Reform halakha that is binding on everyone. The way it works in theory is that everyone is informed enough to make his/her own decisions. This foundation in (evolving) Torah would provide a more complex basis for people to make decisions than simply “anybody can do what they want”, just as it would be a gross oversimplification of Orthodox halakha to say “the local posek can do what he wants”, or of Conservative halakha to say “the CJLS can do what it wants”.


    BZ · August 15th, 2007 at 6:12 pm
  26. In other words, the way Reform halakha (as I understand it) operates in theory is the way many postdenominational communities operate in practice.


    BZ · August 15th, 2007 at 6:14 pm
  27. Within Conservative Judaism, the question of how to factor in the social reality of suburban life in making legal determinations on permissible Shabbat observance is disputed. The famous/infamous teshuva is clearly driven by the sociological change, but it relies in large part on technicalities differentiating “fire” for locomotion from “fire” from cooking or burning.

    However, it is not clear why a Jewish legal system could not explicitly incorporate social change, rather than hint or wink at it while keeping the formality of continuity. As long as such a system adhered to its own internal rules (e.g. legal decisions could only be made by those with proper qualifications, arguments must be grounded in some way in Jewish text) and was actually binding, it would constitute halakha.

    Mphine, the issue isn’t whether social change can be incorporated, it’s what the rules are for doing it. Take, for example, the “technical” differentiation of “fire for locomotion” and “fire for cooking”; the problem arises because the sudden limitation of the melacha of fire arises out of the ether, grounded in nothing other than (as far as I’ve ever been able to understand it) the raw desire that it be so, driven by the motivation to accomodate those extra-halachic needs. (Which are, btw [and obviously IMHO] overstated: if going to shul is important to you and you can’t drive to shul on shabbos, you move in close enough to walk, and its one of the reasons why Orthodox communities are communities, rather than far flung people who attend the same synagogue). Once you reach the point where extra-halachic considerations are driving the bus, I think it’s fair to say you’ve left the realm of halachic decision-making.

    There isn’t “a” Reform halakha that is binding on everyone. The way it works in theory is that everyone is informed enough to make his/her own decisions. This foundation in (evolving) Torah would provide a more complex basis for people to make decisions than simply “anybody can do what they want”, just as it would be a gross oversimplification of Orthodox halakha to say “the local posek can do what he wants”, or of Conservative halakha to say “the CJLS can do what it wants”.

    But even within that conceptual framework, doesn’t there need to be a recognition that practically, most people are not actually informed enough to make reasonable decisions?


    Akiva M. · August 15th, 2007 at 8:41 pm
  28. Once you reach the point where extra-halachic considerations are driving the bus, I think it’s fair to say you’ve left the realm of halachic decision-making.

    It depends whether or not you are driving the bus only to shul, making no stops along the way.

    You are conflating two issues. The first is the Orthodox critique of Conservative halakha’s rulings that utilize traditional halakhic process but are clearly driven by social reality, rather than a formalistic application of text and precedent. The second is a critique of a ruling like the driving teshuva that explicitly diverges from traditonal halakhic processes in order to make a more radical accomodation to changed social circumstances.

    We can discuss the first critique at some other point (rather than hijacking this thread), but I find it particularly unconvincing. The idea that traditional pre-modern halakha was not driven by adaptation to changed social conditions strains under the weight of historical analysis. Similarly, the position that Orthodox halakhic decision-making is not in any way driven by ideology and sociology is no less tenable than the view that Scalia and Thomas’ “originalism” is untethered from their political views.

    The more interesting question is whether a halakhic system collapses simply because a decision-maker steps outside of the traditional halakhic process. I happen to think that so long as the decision is grounded in Jewish principles (e.g. “btselem elokim” or “darchei shalom”) rather than secular terms and is treated as binding by a living Jewish community, such a decision is still “halakhic.” But I understand the reasons why Orthodox Jews and many Conservative/Masorti Jews reject this position.


    mhpine · August 16th, 2007 at 10:27 am
  29. But I understand the reasons why Orthodox Jews and many Conservative/Masorti Jews reject this position.

    But even if you reject this position, it’s still quite a leap from this position to total anarchic antinomianism.


    BZ · August 16th, 2007 at 10:55 am
  30. But even if you reject this position, it’s still quite a leap from this position to total anarchic antinomianism.

    BZ,

    I wouldn’t even take the position that Jewish observance has to be halakhic per se in order to avoid becoming a chaotic cafeteria. (I happen to find Diet services with excessive Rabbinic hand motions and English responsive readings give me a bitter aftertaste.)

    I think what you are describing, which essentially reads to me like a Reconstructionist model of observance(knowledgable individuals choosing to conform or deviate from traditional halakha bounded by communal norms) is not only a coherent, but highly attractive. I just don’t think it is accurate to call it “halakhic” – a legal system needs binding rules, not merely baselines and guidelines.


    mhpine · August 16th, 2007 at 12:25 pm
  31. Mphine:

    ,i.You are conflating two issues. The first is the Orthodox critique of Conservative halakha’s rulings that utilize traditional halakhic process but are clearly driven by social reality, rather than a formalistic application of text and precedent. The second is a critique of a ruling like the driving teshuva that explicitly diverges from traditonal halakhic processes in order to make a more radical accomodation to changed social circumstances.

    We can discuss the first critique at some other point (rather than hijacking this thread) . . .

    Great, now I’m going to have to keep coming back to jewschool so that can happen ;) And way to grab the last word on that point by putting it that way

    Although, to be honest, just the prospect of seeing phrases like anarchic antinomianism on a regular basis is probably enough of a draw :)

    The more interesting question is whether a halakhic system collapses simply because a decision-maker steps outside of the traditional halakhic process. I happen to think that so long as the decision is grounded in Jewish principles (e.g. “btselem elokim” or “darchei shalom”) rather than secular terms and is treated as binding by a living Jewish community, such a decision is still “halakhic.” But I understand the reasons why Orthodox Jews and many Conservative/Masorti Jews reject this position.

    I appreciate that – but I honestly don’t understand the reasons why the position that it can be considered “halachic” makes sense. If you want to call the decision “Jewish” because it is “grounded in Jewish principles” (whatever those are), that’s one thing. But calling a decision that made outside of the halachic process “halachic” is inherently contradictory, don’t you think? Why not just say “it isn’t ‘halachic’, but it is ‘Jewish’ and that’s ok”? (As an Orthodox Jew I might disagree with you on the “and that’s ok” portion, but I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with your framing or labeling)

    But even if you reject this position, it’s still quite a leap from this position to total anarchic antinomianism.

    well, “total anarchic” is a stretch – everyone has redlines, even if its as basic as “if your personal choice of correct jewish practice involves worshipping jesus, you’re not within the bounds of reform judaism” – but whether I’d consider it mildly, very or non-anarchic antinomianism really does depend on what those boundaries are.

    A side point – if the Reform philosophy is that commandedness is to be decided on a case by case basis, and by each individual, shouldn’t Reform be more aggressively promoting deep learning about each of the commandments? Is it possible to make an informed decision about, say, kashrus, without truly understanding its principles and permutations?


    Akiva M · August 16th, 2007 at 2:22 pm
  32. A side point – if the Reform philosophy is that commandedness is to be decided on a case by case basis, and by each individual, shouldn’t Reform be more aggressively promoting deep learning about each of the commandments?

    FUCK YES.


    BZ · August 16th, 2007 at 7:47 pm
  33. mhpine writes:
    I think what you are describing, which essentially reads to me like a Reconstructionist model of observance(knowledgable individuals choosing to conform or deviate from traditional halakha bounded by communal norms) is not only a coherent, but highly attractive.

    Two responses:
    1) I think the difference on paper between the Reform and Reconstructionist models (not that either of these are so common in practice, at least within the institutional movements of those names) is that in the Reform model, individuals make autonomous decisions, while in the Reconstructionist model, communities make autonomous decisions that are binding on the individuals in that community. Again, I’m not sure either model has really been implemented yet.
    2) I wouldn’t say “conform or deviate from traditional halakha” as if there is a static baseline for individuals to compare their own practice to; i would say that halakha is continuously evolving.

    I just don’t think it is accurate to call it “halakhic” – a legal system needs binding rules, not merely baselines and guidelines.

    Here I’ll quote Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism (which I just finished and recommend to everyone), p. 25-26:

    ======= (begin quote)
    The difficulty about proposing a halakhah to progressive Jews is their presumption that the term, its definition, and its practice belong to Orthodoxy. We urgently need to reclaim this term because it is the authentic Jewish language for articulating the system of obligations that constitute the content of the covenant.

    Halakhah belongs to liberal Jews no less than to Orthodox Jews because the stories of Judaism belong to us all. A halakhah is a communal praxis grounded in Jewish stories. Ethicists, theologians, and lawyers who stress the centrality of narrative would argue that all normative systems rest upon stories. Whether the story is the Exodus from Egypt or the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus or the forging of American independence, if we claim it as our own, we commit ourselves to be the kind of people that story demands, to translate its norms and values into a living praxis.

    A praxis is more than the sum of the various practices that constitute it. A praxis is a holistic embodiment in action at a particular time of the values and commitments inherent to a particular story. Orthodoxy cannot have a monopoly on halakhah, because no form of Judaism can endure without one; there would be no way to live it out.
    ======== (end of quote)

    Aggadah is so hard to define that sometimes people punt and define it as “not halachah”. So I’m going to flip that around and define halachah loosely as “not aggadah” — any conversation about obligatory practice, rather than only stories and values (upon which that practice rests), is a conversation about halachah, regardless of the “system” by which this practice is derived.

    I am not under the delusion that this definition, or Adler’s definition, will ever be accepted in the Orthodox (or probably the Conservative) world, and I have no interest in trying to fight that fight. However, as Adler points out, it is important internally for progressive Judaism to have a sense of halachah. I understand why Orthodox Judaism has to see Reform Judaism as outside the scope of halachah (by the Orthodox definition), but it is damaging when Reform Jews (including, apparently, Rabbi Yoffie) internalize this and see themselves as “not halachic”.


    BZ · August 17th, 2007 at 12:20 pm
  34. I came to this discussion late because I missed clicking on the JTA link. However, permit me to offer some observations anyway, even without having read the subject article.

    “No aspect of the tradition should be foreign to us.” Rabbi Yoffee is paraphrasing the words written on the wall of HUC in Cincinnati, that “nothing is our tradition is alien to us”, which I encountered during a year’s stay there in 1966-67. At that time, Dr. Nelson Glick was still there, and did not tolerate attempts to implement that expression, in kashrut, or attire during worship, even though the New York students at JIR regularly chose to conduct themselves in a more traditional expression of worship, even laying tefillin and davening mostly in Hebrew – 40 years ago.

    There was no kosher meal plan at Cincinnati then, but the only meat five or six of us in the first-year rabbinical class ate was the hekshered chicken on Shabbas that the dormitory matron purposely obtained, and some occasional kosher franks. The rest of the time, we got our protein from endless peanut butter sandwiches, eggs and fish meals. Before the start of the next year, we sought to be served on paper plates – which, of course was denied, but started the ball rolling toward dietary changes, that would eventually occur.

    Pulling down the shades in summer to make havdalah early (which was done) was offensive to us, so we rebels boycotted the early service and came to our own minyan later in the evening.

    We used to joke about taking a pulpit in a community where there was no other rabbi (since there were not many Jews there, certainly not a traditionalist congregation), so we could call ourselves the Chief Rabbi of the Caribbean, or wherever it might be. But we did not joke at all, and had great respect, concerning students who felt that in taking such a pulpit, they said they planned to keep a kosher household (within their interpretation, at least) so that any Jew who wanted to visit the community would have a place they could feel welcome (they hoped) – naiive or not. They would have themselves seen as THE rabbi of that Jewish community, not the Reform Rabbi. But then, among all the denominations, the rabbinical students have long taken a more inclusive view of tradition than the laity.

    Regardless of one’s definitions of halakhah, it was still felt a powerful enough foundation of Judaism that several of us individually – including myself – sought to obtain guidance on key issues on occasion by seeking a t’shuvah from Dr. Solomon Freehof, not only chairman of the CCAR Responsa Committee, but also past chairman of the interdenominational WWII Jewish welfare Board Responsa Committee (Responsa in Wartime). Responsa was an original response (no pun intended) of Reform Judaism in defining its legitimacy. It is a terrible shame that one might be seen at outside the ranks of Reform Judaism when choosing to (re)turn to the hallmarks of our faith prior to the last 200 years. If there is not that freedom of choice, what is Reform all about?


    Jack Shattuck · August 18th, 2007 at 6:54 pm
  35. I am not under the delusion that this definition, or Adler’s definition, will ever be accepted in the Orthodox (or probably the Conservative) world, and I have no interest in trying to fight that fight. However, as Adler points out, it is important internally for progressive Judaism to have a sense of halachah. I understand why Orthodox Judaism has to see Reform Judaism as outside the scope of halachah (by the Orthodox definition), but it is damaging when Reform Jews (including, apparently, Rabbi Yoffie) internalize this and see themselves as “not halachic”.

    I guess my question, BZ, is what motivates the drive to call “a communal praxis grounded in Jewish stories” ‘halacha’? Is the definition truly backwards compatible? Can you look back over the centuries and fit all of what has been historically considered “halacha” into that definition? Or is the history being shoehorned into the definition because Adler thinks it’s important that the word halacha be useful to “progressive Jews”? (btw, on the subject of language and usage, there’s a term that could have very different meanings and usages than its current generally accepted one, dontcha think? ;)


    Akiva M. · August 19th, 2007 at 11:46 pm
  36. Great article. It could have been written 30 years ago when I was at Kutz. The Reform movement has done such an excellent job in educating their children and teens, that many grow out of Reform Judaism as adults. After Kutz, I found the traditional service missing many elements, and I would have to wait for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a Shabbat morning service. I am now “labeled” Conservative; a member of a progressive, egalitarian shul in Berkeley. There are a few elements of our Shabbat morning service that remind me of that summer at Kutz. But I don’t like the labeling thing anyway. I send my daughter to a Chabad camp. She loves it, but she is far from Chassidic. We are all Jews.

    What we can ALL do to help build our Jewish communities is to make Jewish summer camp affordable for all Jewish families. That summer experience cements what children learn in Hebrew school through the year. Make a donation or sponsor a child.


    Jenny G. · August 21st, 2007 at 1:56 pm
  37. The classical use of the term “halacha” is simply the complement of “aggadah” — elements of Judaism that are legal, as opposed to elements that are non-legal. (The EJ agrees, defining it as “the legal side of Judaism”.) (That’s “halacha” as a general term; there’s also “halacha” as a specific term, e.g. “whoever learns even one halacha…”, but that’s not what we’re talking about.) The use of “halacha” to refer to a specific set of jurisprudential rules (“my system is halachic; your system isn’t halachic”) is much more modern.


    BZ · August 21st, 2007 at 2:49 pm
  38. [...] with poison ivy) singing with 130 teenagers at NFTY-NE Summer Institute (I tried to stay away from smooth jazz) – the organization that in my teenage years helped me understand the real power of music, and of [...]


    Jewschool » Blog Archive » Return Again · August 25th, 2007 at 11:56 pm
  39. [...] engagement with the world, and vice versa. Not to mention all of the brouhaha about the (possible) turn to ritual among Reform Movement [...]


    jspot » Blog Archive » A new era for Conservative Judaism? · September 5th, 2007 at 11:05 pm
  40. [...] an aspiration that can be realized in a fully informed and participatory community. And as I have written before, the leaders of the Reform movement are complicit in [...]


    Jewschool » Blog Archive » The results are in · December 3rd, 2007 at 5:20 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik