Reform surrender

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Happy 5772! Another year, another blog post I don’t really want to write. But I’m writing it anyway, because who else will? Criticizing the Reform movement on its own terms (as opposed to either not criticizing it, or judging it by external standards) is a lonely beat.

An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts.

Some of the other blogs that have picked up this article have understood it a certain way: one blog gives it the headline “Reform Girl Tries Out Orthodox Judaism For a Week”, and another describes the experiment as “practicing Orthodox Judaism for a week”.

Had this been the actual stated objective of the experiment, I would have no objections. There are many streams in modern Judaism, and each one could stand to gain a better understanding of the others. One way to gain this understanding is by experience. (I’ve visited many types of Jewish communities myself, and occasionally I’ll pray out of a Yemenite siddur just to shake things up.)

But those who characterized the experiment this way didn’t read closely enough. Just as the word list in the famous psych experiment doesn’t include the word “sleep”, this article doesn’t use the word “Orthodox” even once.

In the author’s own words, the aim was different: “For seven days, I would do every Jewish ritual I could think of—big or small, no exceptions—to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.” This was done in order to “g[i]ve the informed choices I make as a Reform Jew renewed depth and meaning”.

Starting with this goal, there are a lot of different ways that this week could have gone. For example, it could have looked something like The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, an amusing read in which Jacobs chronicles his attempt to observe all the biblical commandments, including the more obscure ones such as shiluach hakein. Of course, modern Judaism (in all its forms) is more than just biblical, so one could envision a version of this that also includes practices originating in rabbinic literature and later. This experiment could have included a broad assortment of rituals (some still observed today, and others revived for this purpose) taken from all periods of Jewish history, and practiced in all parts of the Jewish world. Imagine shacharit from Kol Haneshamah, mincha from Nusach Ari, and ma’ariv from Seder Rav Amram, or the non-prayer equivalent of all that.

But that’s not how it ended up. (At least that’s not how it was described in the Reform Judaism article; the experiment may have included a wider variety of Jewish rituals, but we don’t have any written evidence for that.) Instead, the actual implementation looks a whole lot like a week in the life of a 21st-century American Modern Orthodox college student (albeit with more self-reflection). And not just any Orthodox college student, but specifically, a female one. Thus, “every Jewish ritual [she] could think of” didn’t include things like tefillin or tzitzit, which seem to be standard stops for people (of all genders) who are experimenting with Jewish rituals. Perhaps she didn’t think of those. But then in the discussion of “modest” clothing, the author mentions “male friends who wear kippot”. So if kippot count as a ritual (and I’m not sure I would classify them as such, but they certainly count at least as much as skirts do), then they are an example of a ritual that the author thought of (which we know because she wrote about it) but didn’t try (as far as we are told).

Thus the implementation involved Orthodox gender roles, contemporary Orthodox modes of dress, contemporary Orthodox views of kashrut (the author checks cookies for a hechsher – a practice that certainly originated after the Reform/Orthodox split), and apparently an Orthodox daily minyan (the author writes that “as a woman I simply did not count”). So the bloggers who characterized this experiment as “Orthodox Judaism for a week” can be forgiven for making that leap. Though it was framed as an exploration in informed autonomy, “Orthodox Judaism for a week” is basically how it turned out.

My point here isn’t to pick on some college student. As I wrote in Hilchot Pluralism Part VI, this result is typical when you bring together students from Reform and Orthodox backgrounds. When one group of students is brought up to self-identify as “not doing everything” and another group is brought up to self-identify as “doing everything”, the first group can hardly be faulted for believing the second group, when they haven’t been given any alternative paradigm. (Besides, as a Harvard alum married to a Princeton alum, I have low expectations for anything coming out of Yale, alma mater of George W. Bush and C. Montgomery Burns.)

Rather, my reaction is summed up (mutatis mutandis) by David Hammer, in his response to an article by an engineering undergrad who had volunteered to teach physics in a first-grade classroom:

I do not fault the author: He was new to thinking about science teaching, in a context that inspired presumption, and his intentions and enthusiasm were sincere. I would welcome Physics for First-Graders as an early paper in a science education seminar, hoping to see more sophistication later in the semester. But I cannot fathom the decision at Kappan to publish the ingenuous impressions of a novice, as if they represented an important contribution to the community. The Professional Journal for Education should have more respect for the profession.

Reform Judaism is an official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism, mailed out to every member of a URJ congregation. As such, I think it was irresponsible for them to print this article. The URJ is supposed to be “for Reform Judaism”, but by running this article, it is promoting the frame that being “more observant” is synonymous with Orthodox Judaism. In this frame, Reform Jews can make choices about their observance, but the menu from which they make these choices is contemporary Orthodox Judaism (rather than the full scope of Jewish practice from the past, present, and future).

At the end of “frum week”, this author decided that this lifestyle wasn’t for her, mostly because it was too difficult (plus one sentence on why it was ideologically problematic). But someone else might be inspired by this article to try out the same experiment, and might not come to the same conclusion of “Davening is hard. Let’s go shopping!“. Thus Reform Judaism finds itself in the position of doing recruiting for Orthodox Judaism, by promoting the frame that Reform is a sampler but Orthodox is the real deal. Even if many Reform Jews do indeed think of their Judaism this way, the movement’s official institutions and publications should be showing more leadership and presenting alternative options. Even if many Reform Jews have already surrendered their sense of authenticity, the movement shouldn’t be joining them in retreat.

8 Responses to “Reform surrender”

  1. Another good article.
    I read this one too, and the first thing I noticed was the definite dichotomy (“As a woman I just didn’t count”—there’s a thing called Conservative, you know). It almost set up the experiment as an ‘all or nothing’ deal, wherein the “Orthodox lifestyle” is either for you or not (and of course, like you mentioned, observance has to mean Orthodox). And it set it up as if she would cease to be Reform if she did decide to keep those rituals.

    I actually thought it was a good idea though; I’m glad she at least thought to try it out.. I liked reading her internal dialogue on things I don’t generally think about anymore (brachot etc.)

    Laura · October 3rd, 2011 at 2:42 am
  2. This is a great and articulate response to the problem of the article. Obviously  not enough people at Reform Judaism read your article on framing . I absolutely echo your frustration with the observance=Orthodox practice idea.

    A take home point should be that people crave meaningful ritual, especially  as an anchor at times of upheaval ( college), and ones that can be done outside of a large Temple, and the Reform movement is failing to provide that — if they did fewer people would seek it elsewhere.

    This student did have a Reform education but it failed to teach her how, in a manner consistent with Reform theory and practice, she could incorporate more ritual into her life . Nor did her education provide her with a clear enough distinction between Reform and Orthodox attitudes towards practice. If students at Hebrew schools were taught the history, variety and the constant evolution of Orthodox practice (as well as those of other denominations), it would go along way. That might make a better article for the journal as well.

    Rainbow Tallit Baby · October 3rd, 2011 at 9:00 am
  3. (“As a woman I just didn’t count”—there’s a thing called Conservative, you know).

    Also, at the Reform camp where I went (OSRUI), we had egalitarian minyanim twice a day, and said birkat hamazon at every meal. And for all I know, maybe she submitted an article that explained that this non-egalitarian minyan happened to be the only daily minyan available where she was, and the editor cut that part out. But the article they chose to publish was the one that implicitly made an inextricable link between daily davening with a minyan and non-egalitarianism.

    It almost set up the experiment as an ‘all or nothing’ deal, wherein the “Orthodox lifestyle” is either for you or not (and of course, like you mentioned, observance has to mean Orthodox).

    It doesn’t totally do that, since she asks “What will I continue?” at the end, but it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” to be problematic; a spectrum of possibilities in which the choices include “20% Orthodox” and “75% Orthodox” is still problematic.

    BZ · October 3rd, 2011 at 9:50 am
  4. Great. Well put. I mostly wanted to say well done, and point out that Sideshow Bob also went to Yale.

    Jonah Geffen · October 3rd, 2011 at 12:17 pm
  5. [...] in Reform Judaism magazine, the URJ’s official publication; I read Ben Dreyfus’ excellent dissection of the experiment and its coverage across the web, and have a few thoughts of my [...]

    Oddly enough, this isn’t about me, despite how it sounds « Minhag In Progress: Incursions into the Void · October 3rd, 2011 at 6:51 pm
  6. This reminded me of a piece I read in a webzine in my city

    The Conservative and Reforms streams could change the frame that you so rightfully point out. But they don’t. They are mia. why isn’t growing their community important to them?

    Adi · October 4th, 2011 at 11:30 pm
  7. Had this been the actual stated objective of the experiment, I would have no objections.

    You do realize the title of her article was “Trying out Frum”?

    And you also realize that Frum is basically synonymous with orthodox?

    E. Fink · October 9th, 2011 at 1:50 am
  8. I think this is really a good idea though; I’m very happy that she at least thought to try it out.. I like to read her internal dialogue on things I don’t generally think about it anymore…

    parfum · January 10th, 2012 at 7:52 am

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