Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.

One of BZ’s long-time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right define them. BZ’s new op-ed in The ForwardReframing Liberal Judaism, addresses the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:

[...] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

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.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.

Check out the whole piece here.

83 Responses to “Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves”

  1. Quoting from the Forward piece:

    These frames can even infect language intended to be inclusive. When supposedly pluralistic Jewish organizations claim to be open to “Jews of all levels of observance,” they are stipulating a hierarchy of observance in which some forms of Jewish observance are at a higher level and others are at a lower level.

    What would you suggest as an alternative formulation? All forms of observance? All types of observance?


    em · October 22nd, 2009 at 2:36 am
  2. em writes:
    What would you suggest as an alternative formulation? All forms of observance? All types of observance?

    Yeah, those are good.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 7:24 am
  3. I’m thinking about the use of “liberal” to mean “non-Orthodox”. Couldn’t Conservative Judaism, as well, be on the “conservative” side of the religion? What’s the usefulness of a term that just means “everyone but one group”? Alternately, if we want to split the Orthodox into Modern vs. Charedi sectors, would the MO’s be “liberal” too?


    chillul Who? · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:13 am
  4. chillul Who? writes:
    What’s the usefulness of a term that just means “everyone but one group”?

    Orthodox is more than one group.

    Alternately, if we want to split the Orthodox into Modern vs. Charedi sectors, would the MO’s be “liberal” too?

    There are certainly a lot of lessons here for Modern Orthodox as well.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:29 am
  5. Awesome to get a piece in the Forward, BZ! I hope they offer you a column.


    Kung Fu Jew · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:43 am
  6. Orthodox is more than one group.

    You don’t have to tell me that, but you’re using the it as such here. Ergo, I ask.


    chillul Who? · October 22nd, 2009 at 11:28 am
  7. One of BZ’s long-time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right define themselves

    Not to nitpick, but I imagine BZ would probably remind you that “right” and “left” are political terms that describe a linear spectrum. As BZ’s whole article argues, Judaism is a universe, not a spectrum from 0 to Orthodox or from right to left.


    Rooftopper Rav · October 22nd, 2009 at 12:03 pm
  8. BZ you said: “‘What would you suggest as an alternative formulation? All forms of observance? All types of observance?’

    Yeah, those are good.”

    Oh come on. Are you actually going to assert that there’s no such thing as “more observant” and “less observant” of Jewish law and practices? Are you serious?

    So if somebody drives to synagogue on Saturday morning, and then drives to the car wash and then drives to a restaurant and then drives to see a movie, are you really saying that he/she is as “observant” as somebody who walks to synagogue, walks home for a family lunch and refrains from the 39 categories of work on Shabbat? Really?

    What is wrong with somebody who says “Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue” also admitting that they’re simply not Shomer Shabbat? They may attach value to Shabbat but they are not (by their own admission and with full knowledge) observing the basic laws of Shabbat. Maybe they aspire to someday….or maybe they don’t. But they are fully aware that they don’t know.

    The concept of “more observant” or “less observant” is universal to any and every set of practices or laws. It’s true about the US tax code, it’s true about HTML standards, it’s true about food safety laws and it’s true about international treaties regulating the division of mineral resources. So why would it be true about everything in the world but Judaism and halacha?

    Attempting to twist the definitions of those terms out of existence is just sophistry.


    Eric · October 22nd, 2009 at 12:15 pm
  9. So how do you define liberal Judaism? The original “Reform” Judaism was a reaction to the orthodox practice of the day. “Conservative” attempts to convey a desire to stay true to traditional (orthodox) roots and “Reconstructionist” reflects the view that the traditional (orthodox) view of Judaism should be dismantled, reassembled and modified as necessary. So each branch here was created, essentially, as a reaction to one that came before it.

    (A quick note: I am “liberal orthodox”, attend a Conservative shul and married a guy who didn’t convert with the orthodox establishment, so I’ve got a major dog in this fight.)

    But like it or not, Judaism is based on some important tenets, not the least of which is adherence to “traditional” Jewish observance (which is different from cultural minhag). So you can’t describe liberal Judaism without saying that it is less adherent to traditional observance- which is the essentially religious part of Judaism. Because if you have Judaism without any commitment to halacha, without- in some cases- belief in God, without study of Talmud, Torah, etc…, you’ve really got to come to terms that you’re not terribly religious. So yes, people on the “right” are more religious.

    But- so what??? Is this really such a heart-stoppingly awfulk problem? I will never approach the in-your-face piety of the frum crowd- but as BZ pointed out, they think Jack Abramoff is a mentsch, so screw ‘em. “Observant” is a catchphrase. So is “Torah- true”- a personal favorite that makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

    How about “halachic”? That’s a yardstick that’s realistic. We can define a standard using a few key communal components like kashrut, Shabbat, beit din and mikvah and adding codes of personal and public conduct. So my Conservative rabbi is partially halachic, but not all the way (halachic issues concerning women are troubling to me, but come part and parcel with the whole shebang, so I ignore them at the Conservative shul and skirt them at my liberal orhtodox minyan- haha, a little pun…). My husband’s gerut was totally halachic. Jack Abramoff is sooo not. Reform, most Conservative, Reconstructionist and a sizeable segment of Orthodox are not. But those are the choices people make, and if they’re good with that, so am I.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 12:29 pm
  10. Eric: First of all, halacha is not one well-defined thing. If a woman decides to start wearing tefillin, is she becoming more or less halachic?

    Second, I don’t think “less observant” is a good word choice to use for the person who lights candles after sunset and then drives to shul. Personally, I’d be fine with “less frum” or “less halachic according to normative Orthodox halacha”, or ideally, just “someone who does not follow the laws against lighting candles or driving after sundown on Friday”. “Observant” can be a loaded word, and has many possible meanings. Who am I to say that someone isn’t just as observant of Shabbat, in their own meaningful way, because they don’t follow halacha like I do?

    One could argue that someone who has chosen to have a meaningful, thoughtful Shabbat experience for 4 hours every Friday evening, and then runs errands all day Saturday, is more “observant” than someone who by rote sits around for 25 hours, curses their cold food, watches TV on a timer, and can’t wait for havdalah so they can resume their normal life. The first person might be less halachic, but I’d hesitate to call them less observant.


    Desh · October 22nd, 2009 at 12:33 pm
  11. Desh: You can have any kind of Jewish experience you want, be more or less enriched by it, observe in any way or to any degree. This is a personal decision and who cares what anyone else thinks.

    But it sounds like you are looking for validation, not agreement that any meaningful means of practicing Judaism is therefore “observant”. Sorry, but that’s not generally how it works. “Observant Judaism” implies halachic standards. Who knows, maybe some people really like to sit around cursing their cold food and watching the Giants with the TV on a timer. It sounds like a waste of a perfectly good Shabbat to me, but whatever- it’s a straw man argument anyway.

    So what are the limits to your model of observance? Could I go out to a diner for a big pancake and bacon breakfast with my family, singing Shabbat songs on the car ride? Could I light Shabbat candles on Saturday morning (as did the Tot Shabbat program at a Reform temple I once attended- and the kids thought this was the actual tradition)? How about this: a Jewish friend who worked on Saturdays once confessed that she went to church with her roommate on Sunday to celebrate a late Shabbat in a religious setting, but substituted “Moses” for “Jesus” in the liturgy.

    I don’t see why this is such a big deal. Halacha? Do it or don’t. Just don’t look to the halachically observant world for validation. You ain’t gonna find it.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm
  12. “Observant Judaism” implies halachic standards.

    I guess I’m not comfortable with that. To me, the word “observant” is rich and varied enough that it shouldn’t only mean that. If you mean halachic, say halachic. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to reclaim “observant” for its other meanings.

    By the way, don’t assume I was talking about myself there. I am in no way “look[ing] to the halachically observant world for validation”, and if I were, you don’t know whether I’d find it or not.


    Desh · October 22nd, 2009 at 2:53 pm
  13. There is not one halachic system. Is someone who doesn’t do melachot on Shabbat but swindles thousands of people and Jewish charities out of millions of dollars “more observant” that someone who writes on Shabbat and spends the week caring for the sick?

    Is someone whose practice is to wash meat and dairy dishes in the same dishwasher (following the dictum of her rabbi) more or less observant that someone who only uses her dishwasher for dairy dishes? Is someone whose practice is to wash meat and dairy dishes in the same dishwasher (following the dictum of her rabbi) more or less observant than her neighbor who does the same thing, but against the dictates of her own (different) rabbi?


    dlevy · October 22nd, 2009 at 2:56 pm
  14. There is not one halachic system. Is someone who doesn’t do melachot on Shabbat but swindles thousands of people and Jewish charities out of millions of dollars “more observant” that someone who writes on Shabbat and spends the week caring for the sick?

    I just brought that up with a rabbi friend. His assessment: neither one is halachic, although the 2nd is a much better Jew in principle.

    As for the second example, that’s minchag to “need” 2 dishwashers. Halachically, the soap makes any food floating around in the dishwasher bitul anyway. So the one who washes both is probably better educated (if they do this based on knowledge). But halachically, they’re both observant- unless the one who hand-washes the meat dishes uses hand cream on Shabbat. Sorry, couldn’t resist.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 4:09 pm
  15. But again – the question isn’t who’s more “halachic” but rather “more observant” or “more religious.”


    dlevy · October 22nd, 2009 at 4:21 pm
  16. The concept of “more observant” or “less observant” is universal to any and every set of practices or laws. It’s true about the US tax code, it’s true about HTML standards, it’s true about food safety laws and it’s true about international treaties regulating the division of mineral resources. So why would it be true about everything in the world but Judaism and halacha?

    You are starting with the assumption that contemporary Orthodox views on halacha are the standard against which all of Judaism should be measured. This is exactly the mindset that BZ is arguing against.

    Take your US tax code analogy. If I made aliyah and renounced my US citizenship, I would no longer pay taxes in accordance with the US tax code, which would make me “less observant” (of the US tax code), but not necessarily “less observant” in general of taxes (since I’d be paying taxes in accordance with the Israeli tax code).

    Likewise, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform and other forms of liberal Judaism have different focuses than Orthodoxy, and therefore we shouldn’t talk about our “observance” or “religiousness” in terms of how much (or little) we follow a different kind of Judaism that we don’t believe in.

    Instead of thinking about liberal Judaism as a decision (or worse, an excuse) not to follow Orthodox Judaism, we should think of whatever strain of liberal Judaism we choose (and the ways in which we “observe” it) as a system of religion that we actively choose to follow because it is what we believe in or identify with.


    themicah · October 22nd, 2009 at 4:27 pm
  17. True, themicah, liberal Judaism should be a choice to do rather than a choice not to do. Although for most people I’ know, it’s an easy way to identify as Jewish without having to do much more than shell out money for shul membership, Hebrew school and a b’nei mitzvah.

    However (and it’s a big however), Judaism has been codified through the ages and the various branches of liberal Judaism have deviated from this codification. So while I cringe at the idea that people who conscientiously practice liberal Judaism are “lite” Jews, neither are they observant in the commonly recognized sense of the word. Perhaps we need to qualify these therms: observant orthodox/ observant conservative, etc. This would also differentiate between those who have deliberately chosen these paths from those whose wallets are along for the ride.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 5:03 pm
  18. “that’s minchag”

    sorry, personal pet peeve. it’s a minhag, mem-nun-hei-gimel, from the root nun-hei-gimel, l’na-heig, to behave.


    Justin · October 22nd, 2009 at 5:08 pm
  19. judi writes: “Although for most people I know, [liberal Judaism is] an easy way to identify as Jewish without having to do much more than shell out money for shul membership, Hebrew school and a b’nei mitzvah.”

    For most people *I* know, it’s not. And for some self-identifying Orthodox people I know, they call themselves Orthodox so they can get the “authenticity” of that label without actually following Jewish law as their own community would say they should. My point is, anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much to make the kind of point you’re trying to make.


    Desh · October 22nd, 2009 at 5:29 pm
  20. As a longtime Hebrew school teacher, my evidence is not anecdotal. I’m calling it as I see it: parents drop off their kids and burn rubber out of the parking lot. The kids are taught stuff that has absolutely no relevance to their lives. In the fall, they talk about their Halloween costumes, not what they did on Rosh Hashana. In the winter, they tell me about their Christmas trees and presents- and that doesn’t only apply to the mixed marriage families. I’m not sure where you live and who you hang out with, Desh, but I sure wish I was there!


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 5:53 pm
  21. Judaism has been codified through the ages and the various branches of liberal Judaism have deviated from this codification.

    Judaism is not just halacha, and is certainly not just mitzvot bein adam l’makom, and even those are certainly not monolothic and universally agreed upon and unchanging. And even if that were all true, at least one major non-Orthodox stream of Judaism would claim to not have deviated. Appropriate framing demands that we not dismiss that claim out of hand.


    Desh · October 22nd, 2009 at 5:55 pm
  22. As a longtime Hebrew school teacher, my evidence is not anecdotal. I’m calling it as I see it.

    I’m just going to let that one be.


    Desh · October 22nd, 2009 at 6:08 pm
  23. Judi, what irresponsible liberal shul hired you? And where do you get off badmouthing your employers, your students, and the parents of those students, in public, behind the mask of internet anonymity?
    Basic decency demands that you quit.


    Amit · October 22nd, 2009 at 6:41 pm
  24. That was a compendium of issues that I have witnessed, not an indictment of reform Judaism, a temple or the families that belong. I love my students, their parents and the place where I teach. Otherwise, why would I do it? But in order for liberal Judaism to sustain, it needs active, engaged participants like Desh describes.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 8:05 pm
  25. Eric writes:
    Are you actually going to assert that there’s no such thing as “more observant” and “less observant” of Jewish law and practices?

    “Jewish law and practices” come in many forms. Within each approach to Jewish law and practice one can define practices that are “more observant” or “less observant”. I’m suggesting that people should judge their own practices according to the standards of their own stream of Judaism, rather than someone else’s.

    What is wrong with somebody who says “Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue” also admitting that they’re simply not Shomer Shabbat? They may attach value to Shabbat but they are not (by their own admission and with full knowledge) observing the basic laws of Shabbat.

    If this person is a half-assed Orthodox Jew (one who sees Orthodox Judaism as authentic, and doesn’t acknowledge it), nothing’s wrong with that. If s/he identifies as a Reform Jew, then, according to his/her professed belief system, the practices in question aren’t “the basic laws of Shabbat”.

    The concept of “more observant” or “less observant” is universal to any and every set of practices or laws. It’s true about the US tax code, it’s true about HTML standards, it’s true about food safety laws and it’s true about international treaties regulating the division of mineral resources.

    themicah’s comment nails it about the US tax code. And why is it that all English-speaking countries speak English with an accent except the US?


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 8:19 pm
  26. chillul Who? writes:
    Orthodox is more than one group.

    You don’t have to tell me that, but you’re using the it as such here. Ergo, I ask.

    Fair point. I guess I wrote about Orthodox Judaism as if it’s one group, because I wasn’t writing about the real Orthodox Judaism, but about Orthodox Judaism as seen by non-Orthodox Jews who hold this problematic frame, and such people aren’t likely to be so aware of the nuances.

    I used “liberal” to mean “non-Orthodox” because I wanted to define the group positively rather than in opposition to Orthodoxy, but I’m open to other suggestions, and you may be right that the various “liberal” groups are too different from each other to fall under a single positive classification. Though, relevant to this issue, one thing they do have in common is this crisis of self-confidence and framing.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 8:25 pm
  27. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and going over the comments again. I made a bad edit up above and “most people I’ know” was supposed to read “some people I’ve known”; they certainly aren’t the majority. I’m sorry to anyone I offended by accidentally using such a broad stroke.

    I also see that I agree with Desh, themicah and BZ on a lot of points. Thanks for inspiring some meaningful thought.


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 8:41 pm
  28. …for most people I’ know, [liberal Judaism is] an easy way to identify as Jewish without having to do much more than shell out money for shul membership, Hebrew school and a b’nei mitzvah.

    Unfortunately I agree with you on this point. But this is exactly why the reframing BZ suggests is so important. By referring to liberal approaches to Judaism as different “kinds” of observance rather than different “levels” of observance, being a liberal Jew is no longer about settling for something watered down or “lesser,” but about choosing something a Jewish philosophy/theology/practice that suits our beliefs and identity.

    However (and it’s a big however), Judaism has been codified through the ages and the various branches of liberal Judaism have deviated from this codification.

    Jewish philosophy and law have been codified through the ages in many different forms to adapt to the world around the Jewish communities doing the codification. When the Temple was destroyed, Judaism abandoned sacrifice, but we don’t refer to today’s Orthodox Jews as “unobservant” for failing to follow Temple era norms.

    The last couple centuries have seen explosions in secular knowledge (some of which directly challenges assumptions on which Orthodoxy rests) and in Jews’ ability to freely participate in the secular world, so it is no surprise that forms of Judaism have developed to adapt to today’s environment. And while those new forms may be different (in some cases, radically so) from the diversity of Judaism that existed before them, those differences do not make them “lesser.”


    themicah · October 22nd, 2009 at 8:45 pm
  29. themicah- I think all of your points are valid. But one thing troubles me: once the playing field has been leveled- each branch of Judaism has its own scale of observance that exists independently of the others’ and uses only its own tenets as its yardstick- would each branch be free to evolve entirely on its own? Would the practices of other more or less halachically stringent branches have any relevance outside their own domains- or would they be extraneous evolutionary by-products? What would we teach our community about others? Are they like us/ not like us? What makes us all Jews?


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:19 pm
  30. Rooftopper

    “I imagine BZ would probably remind you that “right” and “left” are political terms that describe a linear spectrum. As BZ’s whole article argues, Judaism is a universe, not a spectrum from 0 to Orthodox or from right to left.”

    You may be right about that. But for the purposes of this piece, I think a false dichotomy is enough to describe what we’re describing here.

    Judi

    “if you have Judaism without any commitment to halacha [...] you’ve really got to come to terms that you’re not terribly religious.”

    Maybe. Yet we’re still calling Abramoff observant when he’s clearly lacking another area. Sometimes Reform Jews are “more observant” than Orthodox Jews are. It’s certainly often the case when it comes to welcoming the stranger.

    And Judi, “commonly recognized?” By whom? The URJ is the largest body of Jews in America! If anyone, the URJ has become an indicator of what common is.

    themicah
    , Right on with the tax code example! I would argue that Reform, done right, is a halachic system, though it possesses a very different approach to halachah than more old-fashioned streams of Judaism might.


    David A.M. Wilensky · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:40 pm
  31. judi,

    Up above, you told liberal Jews “Just don’t look to the halachically observant world for validation.” Now you seem concerned that liberal Jews aren’t looking to the Orthodox world enough.

    I also don’t understand how the questions you ask in your last comment are not already in play. They aren’t somehow triggered by changing the way we frame the term “observant.” You want to talk about elephants in the room? We have people recognized as Jews by the Reconstructionist and Reform movements who are not recognized as Jews by the Conservative and Orthodox movements. I really don’t want to derail this into patrilineal descent/intermarriage/who is a jew? but in terms of the questions you ask, all those horses are out of the barn.


    em · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:41 pm
  32. Just waiting for another missive from the hight priests of the Conservative movement calling this piece another bit of yellow journalism from the Forward. I can hear the Wah wah wah crying that must be happening on Ravnet.


    Kishkeman · October 22nd, 2009 at 9:56 pm
  33. So how do you define liberal Judaism?

    There’s not just one answer, because liberal Judaism comprises many disparate groups. But each group already has a way of defining itself, and should stick to that.

    The original “Reform” Judaism was a reaction to the orthodox practice of the day.

    Actually, the original “Orthodox” Judaism was a reaction to 19th-century reforms.

    But like it or not, Judaism is based on some important tenets, not the least of which is adherence to “traditional” Jewish observance (which is different from cultural minhag). So you can’t describe liberal Judaism without saying that it is less adherent to traditional observance- which is the essentially religious part of Judaism.

    “Like it or not, Judaism is based on some important tenets, not the least of which is the full equality of men and women. So you can’t describe Orthodox Judaism without saying that it is less adherent to egalitarianism…”

    … but anyway, you’re providing a textbook example of the frame I’m writing about, the idea that authentic Judaism is something external to the liberal Judaisms, and that they should judge themselves against that external standard. As I said in the article, “Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.” So since you identify as Orthodox, I understand why you’re defining “Judaism” in the way you are, but it would be a mistake for liberal Jews to do the same.

    Because if you have Judaism without any commitment to halacha,

    “Halacha” is another concept that means different things to different people. The following was in the original draft of this oped, but was cut due to space constraints:

    >>>
    When intra-Reform discourse touches on the subject of halachah (Jewish law), people on all sides of the issue tend to portray “the halachah” as a static body of law. Whether they are advocating for the position “Reform Judaism is not halachic” or “Reform Judaism should be more open to halachah,” the unspoken assumption is that Orthodox halachah is the normative halachah, and Reform Judaism should either reject it or incorporate elements of it. In other words, Orthodox Judaism is perceived as 100% halachic, and the debate is about whether Reform Judaism should be 0% halachic or somewhere between 0 and 100%. Instead, Reform Jews should steer clear of this linear scale and pursue an indigenous Reform vision of the structure and content of halachah.
    <<<

    without- in some cases- belief in God, without study of Talmud, Torah, etc…,

    All Jewish religious movements include belief in God and study of Talmud/Torah/etc. among their stated values. Whether everyone in those movements lives up to those values is a separate question. As dlevy wrote in the comments to the Forward article, “I think it’s important in discussion such as this one to make sure we’re not comparing the idealized version of one camp to the reality of the other camp.”

    But- so what??? Is this really such a heart-stoppingly awfulk problem?

    Yes. In order to build thriving liberal Jewish communities, there must be people who believe in liberal Judaism as authentic Judaism.

    We can define a standard using a few key communal components like kashrut, Shabbat, beit din and mikvah and adding codes of personal and public conduct.

    This is precisely the scale from “zero to Orthodox” that I discuss in the article. Those “key communal components” are not universal, particularly in their specifics.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:19 pm
  34. judi writes:
    You can have any kind of Jewish experience you want, be more or less enriched by it, observe in any way or to any degree. This is a personal decision and who cares what anyone else thinks.

    But it sounds like you are looking for validation
    [...]
    I don’t see why this is such a big deal. Halacha? Do it or don’t. Just don’t look to the halachically observant world for validation. You ain’t gonna find it.

    External validation is exactly the opposite of what I’m looking for. I’m arguing that liberal Jewish communities should provide their own sources of validation, and not have to look elsewhere.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:21 pm
  35. judi writes:
    However (and it’s a big however), Judaism has been codified through the ages and the various branches of liberal Judaism have deviated from this codification.

    If evolution over time is a sign of deviation, then the Karaites are the most “observant”, and the rest of us are all deviants. Of course, the Orthodox party line is that the Oral Torah was all there to begin with, and the Reform party line is (or should be) that evolution over time is part of the normative Jewish narrative. But there’s no way to argue these points objectively without running into the grue-bleen paradox. We each have frames that dictate which changes (or lack of changes) are normative, and which changes (or lack of changes) are deviations from the norm. And we should use our own frames.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:29 pm
  36. BZ, another question for you. Why do you think liberal Jews tend to buy into the more or less observant/more or less religious framing? I admire your thinking on this, but have a hard time imagining people changing their language. I’m not sure people on the liberal side are as invested in this as maybe they could be.


    em · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:31 pm
  37. judi writes:
    But one thing troubles me: once the playing field has been leveled- each branch of Judaism has its own scale of observance that exists independently of the others’ and uses only its own tenets as its yardstick- would each branch be free to evolve entirely on its own?

    Each branch of Judaism is already free to evolve on its own. That doesn’t mean cutting off all communication with other streams of Judaism – there can still be lateral influence – but it does mean taking one’s one form of Judaism seriously.


    BZ · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:37 pm
  38. em- not quite. My point is that the orthodox world doesn’t hold the patent on more traditional forms of observance (I hope that’s an acceptable term- it seems we’re trapped in an dense tangle of semantics), and the liberal Jewish world doesn’t have exclusive rights to mitzvot that they emphasize. Honestly, I am concerned that orthodoxy doesn’t look to the liberal world enough.

    David W- good point about the URJ. Again, semantics problem. But like “observant” and “religious”, “common” is also subjective!


    judi · October 22nd, 2009 at 10:38 pm
  39. Judi, “common” could be subjective. Or it could be statistical. Without having the actual numbers in front of me, I’m willing to still claim statistical truth here. It is factual that the URJ represents more Jews than any other single organization.

    And if, as we’ve already agreed in these comments, Orthodoxy isn’t monolithic, the inevitable next argument that there are still more Orthodox Jews, but they just aren’t as united, is moot.


    David A.M. Wilensky · October 23rd, 2009 at 2:53 pm
  40. [...] the course of the rather active comment thread on the version of that post at Jewschool, BZ shared a great chunk from his original draft of the [...]


    Toward an “indigengous Reform vision of halachah” « · October 23rd, 2009 at 2:57 pm
  41. OK, BZ. I will grant your points regarding this relativistic view of halachah, but here is my problem. I am an (liberal modern) Orthodox Jew trying my best to live in a world with my Jewish brothers and sisters. But so clearly you wish for liberal Judaism to deviate entirely, including in definition, from the halachic path that I think Judaism entails. How do you expect the Orthodox world to deal with this? I don’t understand how you expect Orthodoxy, where halachah is virtually (not completely, but… alot) synonymous with Judaism to regard liberal Judaism as valid Judaic practice when it adheres so little to the foundations of our faith? And if we don’t regard it as valid Judaic practice (and even, God forbid, apikorsus), wouldn’t you agree that our halachic system forces us to make certain decisions regarding our relationship with these (in our view neccesarily) anti-Jewish Jews? I merely frame things as you know they will be framed- and the further from Orthodox-view halachah you deviate, the larger the section of even (my) lefty moderrn Orthodox Jews will view it this way. Though I would imagine that this kind of fight doesn’t bother you very much…


    Problems · October 23rd, 2009 at 3:18 pm
  42. I used “liberal” to mean “non-Orthodox” because I wanted to define the group positively rather than in opposition to Orthodoxy, but I’m open to other suggestions, and you may be right that the various “liberal” groups are too different from each other to fall under a single positive classification. Though, relevant to this issue, one thing they do have in common is this crisis of self-confidence and framing.

    Awesome, thanks BZ. That totally answers my question.


    chillul Who? · October 23rd, 2009 at 3:25 pm
  43. This is an interesting idea, BZ.

    One of the most used frameworks for defining Jewish observance is that of less observant, versus more observant. So, most Reform Jews would say that they are less observant than Orthodox Jews.

    BZ and others rightly understand that such terminology undermines the authoritative legitimacy of Reform. After all, how can Reform claim to be the keepers of “truth”, when they acknowledge lesser observance?

    This is a serious development. The paradigm of “less” and “more” observant is used by everyone, Reform, Conservative, etc.
    It’s based on an unspoken agreement among everyone about what constitutes “full observance”, even if it’s not adhered to.
    Arguing to redefine the meaning of “full observance” is the foundations of a movement to fracture the faith.

    We’ve had schisms before. The nation was split into two kingdoms, but that was more for political than faith differences. Then, of course, we’ve got the Samaritans, the Sadducees, the Karaites…

    Interestingly, if this is where Reform is going, it is a very traditional form of schisming, apostating from normative Rabbinical Judaism.


    Avigdor · October 23rd, 2009 at 5:16 pm
  44. The Forward article is hardly the first time BZ has advanced this thesis, and he has made me very sensitive to the nuances of word choices that accept the practice of my stream as normative and those of other streams as acceptable variations for those streams.

    What many of those who have commented on this post are demonstrating is their commitment to their own practice as the only truly acceptable way to be Jewish, and their inability to understand, much less accept, the core point. It hardly pays to be in dialogue with people who just plain are listening only to themselves.


    Larry K · October 23rd, 2009 at 7:15 pm
  45. Avigdor writes:
    This is a serious development. The paradigm of “less” and “more” observant is used by everyone, Reform, Conservative, etc.
    It’s based on an unspoken agreement among everyone about what constitutes “full observance”, even if it’s not adhered to.
    Arguing to redefine the meaning of “full observance” is the foundations of a movement to fracture the faith.

    I now realize, based on this and other comments, that I made a major error by overestimating my audience’s basic knowledge of Judaism. The liberal movements already have distinct religious ideologies, and I took it for granted that the readers (even those who identify as Orthodox) already knew that. Mea culpa.

    I was not proposing any new religious ideology, or taking issue with explicit core principles of the liberal movements. I was taking issue with a folk belief, which is pervasive enough that it subconsciously infects even relatively educated members of liberal Jewish streams, and was suggesting that liberal Jews should frame their Judaism based on their own streams’ principles.

    It’s both hilarious and tragic (for a number of reasons) that there appear to be Orthodox Jews who think that the official position of the liberal movements is that they are “less observant” than Orthodox Judaism. It isn’t, nor does the Democratic Party platform committee sit around looking for ways to kill more fetuses, destroy marriage, and capitulate to the terrorists.

    Some guy writing an oped in a newspaper is NOT a “serious development”. While I hope this piece is read and influences the discourse, it will not lead to a “schism” even if its recommendations are universally followed; that train left the station 200 years ago when Orthodox and Reform Judaism went their separate ways in response to the Emancipation.


    BZ · October 25th, 2009 at 5:37 pm
  46. Thanks for addressing some of my points, BZ. I’m not so sure you’re standing on such solid ground. In my own personal dialogue with many Reform Jews, it has always been taken for granted, by them, that Reform observance is what they were comfortable with, but that more observance was an ideal – one that they didn’t necessarily aspire to, but didn’t reject as Jewish, in principle. A friend of mine in Canada says it outright – “I understand why we need Orthodox Jews [to continue the Jewish people] but I can’t be Orthodox.”

    Perhaps this is not universal, and certainly seems not to be among the thinking Reform leadership, from what you’re saying, but it is my experience. Perhaps the schism that you’re implying occurred has not translated fully to the lay membership of Reform, who consider themselves Jews first, and Reform second.


    Avigdor · October 25th, 2009 at 5:54 pm
  47. I don’t think its “a number of Orthodox Jews”; I think it’s just Avigdor.


    Amit · October 25th, 2009 at 6:11 pm
  48. Problems writes:
    I am an (liberal modern) Orthodox Jew trying my best to live in a world with my Jewish brothers and sisters.

    That’s mighty generous of you that you’re willing to live in a word with them if and only if they acknowledge your form of Judaism as normative.

    But so clearly you wish for liberal Judaism to deviate entirely, including in definition, from the halachic path that I think Judaism entails.

    As I said to Avigdor, you’re about 200 years late to the party. We can argue about who deviated and who stayed on the path, but the split (including and especially in definition) is old news.

    How do you expect the Orthodox world to deal with this? I don’t understand how you expect Orthodoxy, where halachah is virtually (not completely, but… alot) synonymous with Judaism to regard liberal Judaism as valid Judaic practice when it adheres so little to the foundations of our faith?

    Orthodoxy hasn’t regarded liberal Judaism as valid Judaic practice in the past (it’s been 64 years since Kaplan’s siddur was burned), doesn’t now, and I don’t expect it to. My article wasn’t intended to convince anyone that liberal Judaism is valid; rather, the validity of liberal Judaism was assumed. The intended audience was, primarily, liberal Jews; secondarily, people of whatever persuasion who want to use pluralistic or neutral language; and tertiarily, Orthodox Jews who might see a useful parallel to their own situation (e.g. how Modern Orthodox Jews see themselves in relation to Artscroll Orthodoxy).

    And if we don’t regard it as valid Judaic practice (and even, God forbid, apikorsus), wouldn’t you agree that our halachic system forces us to make certain decisions regarding our relationship with these (in our view neccesarily) anti-Jewish Jews?

    I think it would be a great educational success if a significant number of liberal Jews were to amass enough Torah learning to be perceived as true apikorsim.

    But anyway, since I’m not proposing anything new in terms of religious ideology or practice, there’s no reason the Orthodox world would have to do anything different from what it’s already been doing — relying on condescending-yet-practical halachic categories such as “tinok shenishbah”.

    I merely frame things as you know they will be framed- and the further from Orthodox-view halachah you deviate, the larger the section of even (my) lefty moderrn Orthodox Jews will view it this way.

    If all Reform- and Conservative-identified Jews took my suggestions (I know, not so likely) and began to see themselves as serious liberal Jews, while fewer of them would become Orthodox-identified, their practice would likely end up more, not less, similar to Orthodox practice in some areas, since there are many things on which the movements already agree in principle, and they’d no longer be able to rely on “I don’t do that, I’m not observant.” (Of course, more similarity to Orthodox practice isn’t the goal, just a side effect.)

    Though I would imagine that this kind of fight doesn’t bother you very much…

    Nope. :)


    BZ · October 25th, 2009 at 8:13 pm
  49. Amit writes:
    I don’t think its “a number of Orthodox Jews”; I think it’s just Avigdor.

    And “Problems”, and at least one commenter on the Forward website.


    BZ · October 25th, 2009 at 8:14 pm
  50. Avigdor writes:
    In my own personal dialogue with many Reform Jews, it has always been taken for granted, by them, that Reform observance is what they were comfortable with, but that more observance was an ideal – one that they didn’t necessarily aspire to, but didn’t reject as Jewish, in principle. A friend of mine in Canada says it outright – “I understand why we need Orthodox Jews [to continue the Jewish people] but I can’t be Orthodox.”

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing here (modulo framing of “more observance”, of course). Yes, this view is commonplace among Jews who identify with the liberal movements (and is exactly what I was addressing in the article), but is not the official position of those movements.

    The split between the Jewish movements happened a long time ago. I’m not proposing either widening or narrowing this split, but I do think that the development of more robust and confident liberal Jewish identities will enable more meaningful Jewish pluralism.


    BZ · October 25th, 2009 at 8:20 pm
  51. @judi writes, Conservative” attempts to convey a desire to stay true to traditional (orthodox) roots

    Just so you’re aware, traditional and orthodox are NOT the same thing. Traditional is the way Judaism was practised ( which is to say about a thousand different minhagim) prior to the Enlightenment and teh subsequent sequence of the creation of the first Jewish movement – the Reform, and the reaction to it, which became what we now consider Orthodoxy.
    “Orthodox” is a modern movement created subsequent to the Reform movement, composed of a spectrum of practices based on a modern way of interpreting law which was not common prior to the enlightment – which is to say, an extremely severe limitation on judicial power and giving significantly more power to “machmir” (Stringent – in this case meaning a very particular kind of stringency) over “meikil” (lenient -in this case meaning anything not falling under the machmir understanding).


    KRG · October 25th, 2009 at 8:58 pm
  52. If all Reform- and Conservative-identified Jews took my suggestions (I know, not so likely) and began to see themselves as serious liberal Jews, while fewer of them would become Orthodox-identified, their practice would likely end up more, not less, similar to Orthodox practice in some areas

    BZ, it’s important you mention this. I’ve noticed a similar trend on progressive Jewish blogs. If you listen less to what many young Reform Jews say, and look at what they do, it’s an astonishing amount of halachik mitzvot.

    I’ve commented on this before; perhaps some remember. There was a period of time, a couple of months back, when literally 7 out of 10 posts on Jewschool were concerning Jewish observance. There were posts about baking challah and separating dough, wearing tzitzis, women donning tefillin, focusing more in tefillah… these are very similar kinds of issues which I encounter with my ba’al teshuvah chassidic friends. The terminology is different, but there is something of a convergent evolution happening here.

    Today’s Reform Jews are not the Reform Jews of yesteryear, who were throwing their tefillin overboard at the sight of New York. As someone who is active in the Reform movement, sure you understand the mechanisms of change there better than I, but there is most definitely a process afoot. It seems that things like wearing tzitzis and putting on tefillin were not meant to still be around in the Reform community in 2009. They were supposed to be phased out decades ago as relics of segregationist, shtetl mentality.

    What’s striking, to me, is that it is the young Reform Jews who are “discovering” all these mitzvot. I wonder what the older Reform Jews think about this, if the trend I see is real.

    Perhaps my thoughts on the subject are crude. I admit, I don’t have a good pulse on Reform life. But hey, that’s why I’m here. Teach me, o’ wise BZ.


    Avigdor · October 25th, 2009 at 9:14 pm
  53. Today’s Reform Jews are not the Reform Jews of yesteryear, who were throwing their tefillin overboard at the sight of New York.

    Those were secular Jews, not Reform. The Reform Jews of yesteryear weren’t wearing tefillin in the old country either.


    BZ · October 25th, 2009 at 10:12 pm
  54. OK, it’s true that Reform Jews weren’t chucking their tefillin over the sides of the boat, but it IS true that there has historically been tremendous resistance within the Reform movement to including the signifiers of traditional Judaism such as wearing a kippah, tfillin, etc. Embrace of these things is a real, recent historical trend within institutional Reform Judaism and is at odds with traditional Reform.


    Rokhl · October 26th, 2009 at 2:24 am
  55. BZ, you’re making my point for me. If Reform were not wearing tefillin and tzitzis even in the old country, why are the Reform youth filling pages and pages of blog posts pontificating about observing these mitzvot? I would have thought that such notions would have been weeded out decades ago.

    If
    If


    Avigdor · October 26th, 2009 at 4:32 am
  56. @KRG- yes, I realize that the Orthodox Movement was founded later. I was referring to traditional Judaism (which is a term I’m uncomfortable with, also because it can apply to any tradition) which is often colloquially referred to as “orthodox” with a lower-case “o”.

    I’ve been researching an area Reform congregation founded in the mid-1800′s. They employed a shochet and raised money for a mikveh, which would have been the first in the area- although both kashrut and taharat hamishpacha had been rejected by the German reformers. I have also seen tefillin mentioned in several documents. There may have been pockets of Reform Jews that still wore them, even in the old country. I haven’t yet found any mention of a mohel. Services were conducted in German and used a mixed choir.


    judi · October 26th, 2009 at 8:39 am
  57. ?vigdor, wake up and smell the coffee. People have been moving back to ritual observance ever since the Jewish Catalog, and even before, in Kaplan’s books on Judaism as civilization.


    Amit · October 26th, 2009 at 9:39 am
  58. Avigdor, this is exactly where the issue of frames comes in. Young Reform Jews taking on the practice of wearing tefillin are not really going “back” to an old observance. The extent that wearing tefillin is “more observant” than not wearing them really has little to do with the actually wearing of tefillin and much more to do with the study and thoughtful consideration of the mitzvah to arrive at the decision within a Reform framework. Making informed decisions about Jewish practice distinguishes a “more observant” Reform Jew from a “less observant” Reform Jew much more so than the outcome of those decisions.


    dlevy · October 26th, 2009 at 11:23 am
  59. tertiarily, Orthodox Jews who might see a useful parallel to their own situation (e.g. how Modern Orthodox Jews see themselves in relation to Artscroll Orthodoxy).

    On this topic, I was at Kesher Israel (the Georgetown Synagogue) in DC this past Shabbos morning, and was happy to see shelves stocked with the new Koren/Sacks siddur.

    I think that for every orthodox shul that chucks its Artscrolls, an angel gets its wings. :)


    chillul Who? · October 26th, 2009 at 11:54 am
  60. To paraphrase a great rabbi I know in Baltimore: “Artscroll is a GREAT PUBLISHER………… for an Agudath Israel ideology.”


    chillul Who? · October 26th, 2009 at 11:55 am
  61. BTW – an upshot of BZs worldview is that parents have to keep their kids the hell away from friendly-looking Orthodox institutions that “respect diversity”.


    Amit · October 26th, 2009 at 1:56 pm
  62. Avigdor writes:
    If you listen less to what many young Reform Jews say, and look at what they do, it’s an astonishing amount of halachik mitzvot.

    In your view, which mitzvot are not halachic?


    BZ · October 26th, 2009 at 10:20 pm
  63. Amit,

    The article you linked to was interesting. While non-orthodox kids attending orthodox dayschools are in the minority, there are valid reasons why a parent may choose to send their child to such an institution. We should assume these families know what they are getting themselves into (and that’s a reasonable assumption, since they’ll have daily feedback and contact with the faculty and administration). It may not reflect our own choices, but that’s their business. I’m happy to see that Rabbi Segal attempts to bridge the gap between students from different religious backgrounds.

    On the other hand, there are kiruv groups that have made inroads into public high schools where they form groups that outwardly project diversity, yet funnel the students toward the organizations’ other programs. These groups exploit the participants’ naivete and lack of traditional experience and offer them opportunities to “learn” so that they can fix any perceived deficiencies. These are dangerous because they target students’ insecurities about their “lesser” observance of Judaism.


    judi · October 27th, 2009 at 6:28 am
  64. Judi: “These are dangerous because they target students’ insecurities about their “lesser” observance of Judaism.”

    Uh oh — sophistry alert! Riddle me this, Judi: Let’s posit two different public school students.

    The first student prays the morning (shacharit) service every day before leaving for school, brings his/her own kosher food and doesn’t eat anything from the (non-kosher) cafeteria except an apple or soda, and walks to the synagogue on Friday night and Saturday and returns home to enjoy a Shabbat meal with his/her family and friends.

    The second student rarely prays except when driven to synagogue by his/her parents on Yom Kippur, looks forward to cheeseburger day every week at the school cafeteria, and likes to drive out to see a movie with his/her friends on Friday night and hang out at the gym and music store on Saturdays (when he/she isn’t working on her hand-built guitar project or digging up earth for his herb garden).

    Are you seriously going to try and claim that one of these students isn’t more observant of Judaism and Jewish law than the other??! Are you kidding?


    Eric · October 27th, 2009 at 1:47 pm
  65. Eric, you’re comparing apples and oranges.


    dlevy · October 27th, 2009 at 1:53 pm
  66. Are you seriously going to try and claim that one of these students isn’t more observant of Judaism and Jewish law than the other??!

    Extreme examples aside, I think this might cut to the heart of the matter here. One child may be observant of Jewish law, while, if I understand BZ and others correctly, the second may be an observant liberal Jew, having consciously and deliberately made the choice to not observe the mitzvot you specified.

    But this wouldn’t matter to the group’s organizer, who would only see the outward symbols of observance. Btw, the organizer may also look at the first example you gave and exploit the fact that he attends public school, doesn’t eat cholov Yisroel dairy, doesn’t learn with a black hat crowd- and convince him that he should be attaining some “higher level”.


    judi · October 27th, 2009 at 2:36 pm
  67. Eric, that’s a straw man argument and you know it. Besides, you’ve picked a few extreme examples. How is it than whenever we see these two dichotomies, ethical examples are never given?


    ML · October 27th, 2009 at 5:01 pm
  68. Eric, lets posit two other students. Except that they’re both in school at the same urban college. I made them older so that they can actually be autonomous agents, acting entirely on their own decisions and instincts.

    One prays thrice daily, and keeps glatt kosher. Obviously, he’s opted out of the school’s meal plan and brings lunch with him to school or goes back to his apartment between classes for lunch. He doesn’t use electricity on Shabbat. He also doesn’t ever spare change for the homeless guy he passes on his way to and from class every day. He’s also a big defender of Rubashkin and couldn’t care less about organizations like Uri L’Tzedek. He’s very respectful of his parents.

    The other prays on Friday nights and Saturday mornings at his local Hillel, something which he’s obligated himself to do every week, no matter what else is going on. He doesn’t keep kosher, but he’s made a conscious decision not to do so. If he’s got a single or some change in his pocket, he always produces it for the homeless guy on his way to school. And, though he doesn’t keep kosher himself, he’s a big admirer of Uri L’Tzedek and goes out of his way to eat food that he knows has been prepared ethically. He doesn’t think too highly of his parents at all and makes fun of the shul they go to.

    Who is more observant?


    David A.M. Wilensky · October 27th, 2009 at 5:48 pm
  69. Avigdor, have the balls to link to the blogs you cite as “Reform youth filling pages and pages of blog posts pontificating about observing these mitzvot?”


    David A.M. Wilensky · October 27th, 2009 at 5:53 pm
  70. Roklh, “there has historically been tremendous resistance within the Reform movement to including the signifiers of traditional Judaism” ?

    Like when German Reformers became engrossed in reading the prophetic texts that many religious Jews never spend any time on? Or like when they do traditionally Jewish things like praying to one God, chanting Torah, or giving tzedakah money to worthy persons and causes?


    David A.M. Wilensky · October 27th, 2009 at 5:55 pm
  71. A few more real-life examples:

    When I was in college, there was no eruv surrounding the campus, and so during exam period, some people would bring their books to Hillel before Shabbat, so that they could study together for exams (without writing) on Shabbat. I had no problem with carrying books outside an eruv, but I wouldn’t open the books on Shabbat (writing or no writing), because that would have meant engaging in my weekday occupation on Shabbat. Which of us was more “shomer Shabbat”? (It’s not a simple case of more machmir = “more observant”, because each of us was doing things that were prohibited by the other’s belief system. And even if you’re still sure of the answer, can you see why someone might reach a different conclusion?)

    This year I benched lulav on the first day of Sukkot; many other people didn’t because it was Shabbat. Who was “more observant” of the mitzvah of lulav this year: me or someone who didn’t do it because of Shabbat? How about me or someone who didn’t do it because s/he has never heard of a lulav?

    How about (as Desh posted upthread) a woman who wears tefillin vs. a woman who doesn’t wear tefillin? (The former is often labeled as “less observant” or “less religious”.)

    Eric, your example proves nothing. If person A defines observance based on scale A, and person B defines observance based on scale B, then the fact that scale A and scale B yield the same results for certain cases is not a persuasive argument that person A should accept scale B in all cases. (No more so than it means that person B should accept scale A in all cases.)


    BZ · October 27th, 2009 at 7:49 pm
  72. In your view, which mitzvot are not halachic?

    BZ, I meant halachik mitzvot in an inclusive, not exclusive way. In other words, I wasn’t separating mitzvot that Reform are doing which are halachik from non-halachik, whatever those might be. I was simply affirming that halachik mitzvot are being observed – tzitzis, tefillin, shabbos, etc.

    Again, I don’t think you’ve really addressed the point I made, and which you, dlevy, amit and others seem to agree with, which is that Reform are observing more halachik mitzvot than in prior generations.

    Making informed decisions about Jewish practice distinguishes a “more observant” Reform Jew from a “less observant” Reform Jew much more so than the outcome of those decisions.

    dlevy, I can’t speak of others, but in my experience, this is a very similar conversation to what is happening in the baal teshuvah Chassidic community. Consider, for a minute, that the reason those choices are being made in an informed and meaningful way among Reform is that this is the first generation of Reform Jews which is approaching observance of these mitzvot. Thus, their experience and approach parallels, in some ways, those in the baal teshuvah Chassidic community, who, too, are approaching these mitzvot for the first time. There are strong parallels – what I tongue-in-cheek referred to as convergent evolution before – despite differences in language and terminology.

    DAMW, why the need for vulgarity? Honestly, where have you been? Type in tzitzit or mezuzah in the Jewschool search box below, and you’ll find all the pontification you can handle.


    Avigdor · October 27th, 2009 at 7:55 pm
  73. Avigdor writes:
    Again, I don’t think you’ve really addressed the point I made, and which you, dlevy, amit and others seem to agree with, which is that Reform are observing more halachik mitzvot than in prior generations.

    First of all, as I was implying before, all mitzvot (whether ritual or ethical) are halachic. Second of all, no, I don’t agree in the least with your framing of “more mitzvot”. Such a quantitative comparison only makes sense if there is a shared standard of what the mitzvot are, and you’ll find three very different standards if you compare 19th-century Reform, 21st-century Reform, and 21st-century Avigdor.


    BZ · October 27th, 2009 at 8:12 pm
  74. Who was “more observant” of the mitzvah of lulav this year: me or someone who didn’t do it because of Shabbat?

    Just to clarify, the Rabbinic ruling most Jews go by is that we don’t perform lulav and esrog on Shabbat, for the same reason that we don’t blow shofar on Yom Kippur, when it falls on Shabbat – to avoid potentially violating a prohibition to carry on Shabbat in the public domain.

    There was a minority opinion (I think Rosh Hashanah 29b) to perform lulav and esrog on Shabbat, which was overruled by the majority. Following the minority opinion may say something about your respect for halacha, but it probably doesn’t weigh on your observance.

    How about me or someone who didn’t do it because s/he has never heard of a lulav?

    Apples and oranges. The person you are describing is exempt from fulfilling a mitzvah they have no knowledge of. Even if they were to become aware of it, there is a great leniency due to them not having been raised in an environment where that mitzvah was performed. They are probably still obligated, but there is a strong case in their defense.


    Avigdor · October 27th, 2009 at 8:39 pm
  75. …and 21st century BZ, apparently.


    Avigdor · October 27th, 2009 at 8:40 pm
  76. Read the post I linked to. It’s not a minority opinion – it’s the Mishnah’s only opinion.

    Do you blow shofar on Yom Kippur when it doesn’t fall on Shabbat?


    BZ · October 27th, 2009 at 8:49 pm
  77. Sorry, I was just talking to someone about Yom Kippur and mistyped; I meant Rosh Hashannah. That goes for my talmud reference as well – the source I quoted is for not blowing a shofar on Shabbos (the reasoning is the same). I’ll read your post now.


    Avigdor · October 27th, 2009 at 9:06 pm
  78. Wow, thanks for the education, BZ. Your blog is worth following for the quality comments alone! You made a well-reasoned argument. I’ve not been in the Talmud and its commentators deep enough to have argued with you substantively. Yosef really fleshed out the issue, however, and diffused many of the concerns you brought up.

    I didn’t feel satisfied by your rebuttal, which essentially hung on the seeming impossibility of uniform practice in this age, thus giving you free reign to define your observance. It’s a weak enough argument (you seem to refute it yourself, at times) that deferring to authority – something I don’t have a problem with when it comes to Talmud – is an attractive choice.

    You’ve been bookmarked ;)


    Avigdor · October 27th, 2009 at 9:49 pm
  79. Eric,

    Ignoring your cheeseburger-eating heathen straw man, let’s look at what judi was actually getting at:

    The kiruv groups that come into public schools and try to get secular and liberal Jewish kids to frum out (like NCSY’s Jewish Student Union) are all about pushing the idea that THEIR Judaism is the ONLY Judaism and that the more extreme the Orthodoxy the “higher the level” of virtue.

    There are many kids who grow up without a decent exposure to the philosophies and theologies of the liberal movements (far too many liberal Hebrew Schools teach nothing more than how to pronounce Hebrew syllables well enough to avoid b’nai mitzvah day embarrassment–and far too many parents aren’t interested in anything more). Because of the “higher/lower” language when it comes to observance and religiousness, many kids wrongly assume that these missionaries actually have a monopoly on how to be a good Jew.

    But BZ’s reframing of how liberal Jews (particularly the leaders–clergy and lay) talk about their observance/religiosity/etc. is a simple but powerful way to encourage an otherwise-naive, spiritually hungry JSU participant to be skeptical of the push toward Ohr and Aish, and cause him to seek out a Pardes or an Elat Chayyim instead, which might be much better suited to his spiritual needs, his material desires, and his relationship with his family.


    themicah · October 27th, 2009 at 10:08 pm
  80. @David A.M. Wilensky [quoting me] “there has historically been tremendous resistance within the Reform movement to including the signifiers of traditional Judaism…”

    [he writes]“Like when German Reformers became engrossed in reading the prophetic texts that many religious Jews never spend any time on? Or like when they do traditionally Jewish things like praying to one God, chanting Torah, or giving tzedakah money to worthy persons and causes?”

    [to which I respond] Um, what? Why so hostile? Did you actually read what I wrote? What I said was “there has historically been tremendous resistance within the Reform movement to including the signifiers of traditional Judaism such as wearing a kippah, tfillin, etc.”

    Don’t take my word for it. Here I quote from Jack Wertheimer’s A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (I have it handy) to demonstrate shifting attitudes within Reform towards the appurtenances of “traditional”/previously non-Reform Judaism:

    “…the Reform movement underwent important shifts in its approach to Jewish ritual…in the late 1940s …virtually all responding congregations claimed to have moved towards ‘increased ritualism.’ In a reversal of long-standing policies, congregations gradually permitted men to wear a head covering if they so chose; and in a shift that had a broader impact, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was reintroduced in virtually all temples. [having been previously replaced by confirmation]. Congregations that had ushered in the new year with trumpet blasts [!] reverted to the traditional shofar.”

    A few paragraphs later he cites the tremendous resistance from the very top of the institutional Reform movement to such shifts, including a 1959 quote from Jacob Rader Marcus “There are today too many Reform Jews who have ceased to be liberals. Their Reform, crystallized into a new Orthodoxy, is no longer dynamic. …. many have turned their backs on the future to seek comfort in the nostalgia of a romanticized Jewish past which never existed.”

    And wow, seriously, you sound really defensive and hostile by taking a jab at “traditional” Jews who don’t take seriously prophetic texts like Reform Jews did. If we’re talking about emphasis on the ethical, things like the mussar movement (created by traditional Jews in Lithuania) comes to mind, as well as the tradition of studying Pirkei Avos (ethical teachings of the Mishna) during the spring and summer.

    But, whatever. I’m not sure what we’re disagreeing about. You just misquoted me (through omission), misspelled my name and apparently, misconstrued the intention behind my (really quite benign) comment.


    Rokhl · October 27th, 2009 at 10:14 pm
  81. themicha writes:
    But BZ’s reframing of how liberal Jews (particularly the leaders–clergy and lay) talk about their observance/religiosity/etc. is a simple but powerful way to encourage an otherwise-naive, spiritually hungry JSU participant to be skeptical of the push toward Ohr and Aish, and cause him to seek out a Pardes or an Elat Chayyim instead, which might be much better suited to his spiritual needs, his material desires, and his relationship with his family.
    Not to mention a place in the world to come. Perhaps.


    Amit · October 28th, 2009 at 7:14 pm
  82. “Extreme examples aside, I think this might cut to the heart of the matter here…”

    “Extreme”? The two hypothetical students are nowhere near the extremes of the spectrum of Jewish students that attend public schools.

    David AMW, in your examples it’s clear that the more observant student is clearly the first one. He is more observant of halacha than the second student. That’s plain.

    But what you’re really trying to ask (and I don’t understand why you didn’t just ask it) is “Who’s the better Jew?” To which I respond: I have no clue, at all, and neither do you. (Though I’m amused that in your mind support for Uri L’tzedek and animosity towards Rubashkins are synonyms for “observance”.)

    You also said: “Like when German Reformers became engrossed in reading the prophetic texts that many religious Jews never spend any time on? Or like when they do traditionally Jewish things like praying to one God, chanting Torah, or giving tzedakah money to worthy persons and causes?”

    Are you actually saying that Reform Judaism wasn’t imbued with a hostility towards traditional Judaism, both observances and appearances, from the start? That’s totally ahistorical. As for prophetic texts, traditional Jews read at least one or several chapters from the Prophets every week. And the prophets talk about many, many subjects; including the “ethical”, interpersonal decency, the proper bringing of sacrifices, decency to God and observance of the Sabbath. In the context of the prophets all of those things are part of the fabric of the relationship between God and humans.

    BZ: “Eric, your example proves nothing. If person A defines observance based on scale A, and person B defines observance based on scale B, then the fact that scale A and scale B yield the same results for certain cases is not a persuasive argument that person A should accept scale B in all cases. (No more so than it means that person B should accept scale A in all cases.)”

    Great, BZ. Frankly I think you’re just highlighting my point: anybody has the moral freedom to make up any scale they wish to measure themselves by. So I can gin a scale that says “If I pray once a month, give charity twice a week, observe 1 out of 7 Sabbaths and smile at people then I’m observant of Jewish law.” And, wowsers, wouldn’t ya’ know it: I’m observant of Jewish law!!! Alright!

    What you’re saying is simply that somebody has the right to live inside a solipsism wherein they define what’s right, wrong, indecent or good. Great. Which means that I can make up any wisdom or baloney I want, and never suffer the discomfort of having to go outside of my own head and my own presumptions and try to connect with a different or broader system of thought.

    That’s the sophistry: sufficiently define anything downwards (or upwards) and voila! you meet the definition. Wow, what a great trick!


    Eric · October 30th, 2009 at 4:43 pm
  83. Eric writes:
    I can make up any wisdom or baloney I want, and never suffer the discomfort of having to go outside of my own head and my own presumptions and try to connect with a different or broader system of thought.

    Evidently.


    BZ · October 30th, 2009 at 5:58 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