As the fringe gets longer, the conversation gets wider

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle
They’ve become a recurring thread in my life. I put them on three years ago and have missed only a few days since. I keep wearing them, talking about them, blogging about them, thinking about them. I just did a search of my blog for “tzitzit.” It’s a sizable percentage of posts that contain the word. My first post for Jewschool was even about tzitzit.
Now, finally, it seems I’ve become a progressive evangelist for them.
Here at the URJ and NFTY‘s Kutz Camp, I taught five Reform high school students about tzitzit an hour a day for five days. Two girls, three boys. One girl had spent part of her life in a yeshiva and one boy was from South Carolina or something like that.
The catch was that I required them to wear one of my fifteen or so sets of tzitzit for the five days of the elective. Four of them took me up on that requirement, the one who didn’t being the girl form the yeshiva. She told me it just wasn’t right for a girl to do that. More on that later. The other four all placed an order for their own tzitzit from my preferred online tzitzit dealer at the end of the week and kept wearing mine until theirs arrived.
Each day we debriefed. The four who wore the tzitzit each day all faced comments from their fellow Kutz participants ranging from confused to encouraging to negative. Some even called their parents to tell them about it. One mother wasn’t surprised, that mother being the most reminiscent of mine when I told her. One parent asserted confidently that it was a phase and not to buy more than one. Another seemed indifferent.
We also studied some texts. We looked at some midrash, some Torah, and some commentaries, cheif amongst them Rashi and Nehama Leibowtiz. I even finally found a use for the WRJ Torah Commentary, which has a great discussion of the sociological underpinnings of tzitzit.
Before the camp session was over, four or so more kids had approached me about trying it out.
And then, at this post from earlier this year, a comment appeared: “I’m curious– what’s your opinion on reform women wearing tzitzit in daily life?”
Well, why shouldn’t they? I know a few who do, but it’s even rarer than progressive men doing so. I can count the women and girls I know doing it on one hand.
But in the final assessment, I don’t think wearing tzitzit is good or bad, really. I don’t even think that women doing it is good or bad. I just want to broaden the conversation about it. And now, some girl who used to go to a yeshiva is going home with the tools to talk about it. And three guys and one girl are going back to mainstream Reform congregations acorss America, where their mere tzitzit-wearing presence will certainly start a conversation.
Or at least they’ll earn themselves a few suspicious glances.

68 thoughts on “As the fringe gets longer, the conversation gets wider

  1. As even your mother only has a vague recollection of being told, could you fill us all in on your recollection of her reaction?

  2. David, do you wear them out or tuck them in? I started wearing mine during the ’06 Lebanon War; It was my personal spiritual contribution. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I wear them out, almost everywhere – never had a single negative experience from non-Jews, and when they ask I explain it’s like a Jewish spiritual uniform. I used to tuck them in back when I lived at home and sort of eased my parents into it.

  3. Victor, it’s interesting that you ask that. Someone else just asked that on the copy of this post at my personal blog.
    I always wear them out and I’ve never once worn them in. If I can’t see them, how can they do their job?

  4. David, I wear mine in, but I’m still very aware of them, and in that way they “do their job” . . . But I do agree that the ideal is to have them out, but as a Woman, I’m just not ready to make that statement. sigh.

  5. If our server crash hadn’t eaten them, you’d see posts form last August that included a great discussion about all the women who wear tzitzis, and how visible they are, at the NHC Summer Institute.

  6. jewtah, what keeps you from wearing them out? what’s your community like?
    feygele, maybe between this post and the fact that NHCSI is ongoing right now makes this the perfect time to have that discussion again.

  7. What do you think about the trend for progressive Jews to wear them, but only wear them at events where they are seen by lots of other progressive Jews? I have seen this a lot – I’ve also noticed friends who only wear theirs on shabbos. I’m wondering how non-Orthodox people of various persuasions feel about tzitzis as an occasional mitzvah rather than a consistent/daily one. Sometimes I think it’s more of a political statement than a religious one, but I’m sure there are people for whom that’s not true. I’d love to hear more about this choice from people who don’t wear them daily, or who only wear them out around other Jews.

  8. ML writes:
    David, do you always wear a kippah too (or keep your head covered)?
    There wouldn’t be any inconsistency if he didn’t. Tzitzit is a mitzvah from the Torah, and head covering (“Vayeitzei Ya’akov” notwithstanding) isn’t.

  9. I started wearing tzitzis about a year prior to wearing a kippa. I refused to wear one outside of shul simply to comply or culturally assimilate. I saw no need for it in my daily life at the time. A kippa really became necessary when I started reciting brachos over food. It was inconvenient to have to search for a hat every time I needed to eat.
    Keeping the head covered at all times is not biblical, as BZ mentioned. However, there is a spiritual component to doing so. In addition, a Jew should have their head covered when they say a blessing. Since a Jew is always ready to say a blessing – at least 100 every day, etc. – keeping one’s head covered is a practical matter of convenience.
    Sometimes I think it’s more of a political statement than a religious one, but I’m sure there are people for whom that’s not true.
    I have several friends who wore, and some still wear, a kippa as a political statement and mark of identity. A few weeks ago I was at a Matisyahu concert and a Jew in front of me put on a kippa halfway through the concert. It was a bit awkward, for me, for him, and I feel conflicted about witnessing this tiny little leather kippa continually slipping off his head as he desperately tried to hold in it place.
    I’m not a fan of “cultural Judaism”. I would not put a kippa on for “solidarity with Israel” or general Jewish affinity. At the same time, I can’t bring myself to impugn the intentions of those who do so. If they feel comfortable expressing their identity at a Matisyahu concert, then G-d bless them, they’re Jews in a culture that makes a game out of stamping out ethnic identity, and they’ve rebelled, if just for an hour, if just for an instant.
    I’ve never heard of the tzitzis being worn “part time”, but I would say, GOOD! Many people believe that consistency is important, and chide hypocrisy. Yet, when it comes to Jews and Yiddishkeit, I welcome a certain amount of hypocrisy. There is no virtue in consistency of folly. “I’m not going to keep all the mitzvahs, so screw it, I won’t keep any of them.” No, be a proud hypocrite. Strap those tefillin on in the morning. Give tzedakah. Wear tzitzis, part time, all the time, whatever you’re comfortable with. Say a blessing on food once in a while. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s rebellion.

  10. ML, I only wear a kipah when I’m asked to or when I know I’m going to be asked to.
    T, I haven’t really observed this trend in large numbers. I know one person who wears them only on Shabat and no one who does anything else that you describe. I’d be very interested to hear from these people, though.
    BZ, right on.
    Victor, why must you cover your head when you say a blessing? I think it’s interesting that you accept that one must do so with no reservations, while with other hand you’re asserting that it’s okay to be inconsistent with wearing tzitzit. These seem like contradictory impulses.

  11. If the purpose behind the tzitzit is that, when you see them, you will be reminded to perform mitzvot, then I can definitely understand part-time tzitzit wearing. There are times in our lives when opportunities to perform mitzvot lie before us like a buffet, and we need no prodding or reminding. Other times, mitzvot feel more challenging, or distant, or we simply forget about them entirely. At these times, tzitzit might be the most important mitzvot, in order to remember the rest of them.
    (So yes, I suppose I am proposing that we abandon tzitzit in synagogues but hand them out at the entrances to brothels.)

  12. David,
    Victor, why must you cover your head when you say a blessing?
    There are certainly better educated Jews here than I, but here is my understanding. Covering the head is not a biblical commandment. It is a Minhag that developed long before anyone thought to write down why. What we do know, however, is that it became an accepted custom of the Jewish nation to cover the head. Obviously this was not a matter of protection from the elements or practical considerations, as Israel has an equatorial climate.
    Rambam discusses the purpose of clothing in general in his Guide to the Perplexed. It comes up in Part I, fairly early, first few chapters; I am unable to check right now. To boil it down, my interpretation of the argument he makes about clothing is as follows. Please keep in mind I’m no authority – this is purely my own understanding.
    In the Garden of Eden, men and women were created perfect, both physically and spiritually. Every part of the body had a purpose, which they fulfilled, and there was no shame attached to it. Once we ate the fruit, we realized we could misuse our “equipment” to extract selfish self-gratification in a way for which they were not designed. The knowledge that our bodies could be thus used in an unapproved fashion, and the temptation to do so, generated a sense of shame before our Creator. Clothing was worn to express our shame at having fallen from spiritual perfection and tame our passions.
    But the head is not exactly an erotic organ, you might protest. True, there is little physical pleasure to be derived from the head. However, in the head is contained the intellect. The intellect is a powerful physical and spiritual tool for humanity in the service of G-d, and separates us from the animal world. However, it can also be used to justify, rationalize and promote all sorts of spiritually unhealthy activities, as I can attest to.
    And so, we cover our heads to demonstrate the shame we experience at the debasement of our intellect when not in the service of G-d. The same way we tame our urges to misuse certain bodily parts with clothing, we use a head covering to restrain our intellect to acknowledge that it is not free to desist from its spiritual mission.
    The Hebrew term for this is Yiras Shamayim (fear of heaven) and – perhaps some will correct me – essentially connotes piety, humility and shame in the presence of G-d, the source of our life.
    To me, and again, perhaps this view is not ubiquitous, a recognition of Yiras Shamayim is important at all times, but especially in the performance of a mitzvah, a brocha, when we seek to unite with our Creator.
    Finally, I apologize if I gave the impression that I urge inconsistency in wearing tzitzis. G-d forbid! What I support is inconsistency in NOT wearing tzitzis.

  13. This is really interesting! I’ve always wanted to wear tzitzit but I never heard of other women doing it. Wouldn’t some people be upset that you were wearing men’s clothing? (Sad as it is, this still matters to some people.)
    Anyway, the ones on the site David posted look a little boxy… I need a set that will look OK under a tank top! Why can’t you just buy tallit tzitzit and attach them to what you’re wearing?
    Tzitzit has always seemed to me like the biggest no-brainer of all the “distinctively Jewish” mitzvot– so easy to have good intentions at the start of the day, but so hard to remember them when things get difficult!

  14. Em,
    Tzitzis (that is, fringes) are not “men’s clothing.” The garment they are attached to might (tallis katan, in this case) might be read as such. But that’s why there are women (and men) who make their own. I take an undershirt, cut slits up the side (and hem them so they don’t unravel) rendering it a garment with four corners, then tie on tzitzis. I know women who do similar things with undershirts, camisoles, and tank tops. I also know women (and slender men, or men who wear form-fitting shirts) who buy tallis katan in boys’ sizes instead of adult sizes.
    You certainly can just buy tzitzis and attach them yourself. There are many websites that can teach you some of the many tztitzis knotting/wrapping styles, and all will teach you the bracha that is said while tying.

  15. For the record, I wear tzitzit and don’t wear a kippah. BZ, it was more a curious question than a criticism. Although I haven’t in years, I refer to the wearing of tzitzit and no kippah (or hat or whatnot) as “John Zorn Style” after seeing a Masada concert in the mid 90’s.

  16. I guess I should have written, “used to refer.” And, like David, I will wear a kippah when in a synagogue (even in a Reform shul where it’s not necessarily expected) or in other situations where it is the custom. I’m also comfortable wearing the cap of my favorite ball team as well.

  17. I spoke today with Rabbi Michael Balinsky who referred me to this blog.
    This is part of the letter that I wrote to Rabbi Balinksy.
    Please feel free to contact me on this issue and share your thoughts.
    [email protected]
    Yosef Rabin
    A relationship is only as strong as the amount of time and effort put in and Judaism is not acceptation.We have to take Judaism outside the synagogue and infuse it into our everyday lives and this is exactly what tzitzit symbolize. By taking this simple four cornered garment and adding strings to them and I am tying myself to God, our nations past, present and future. We are never detached from the source, we are always engaged with our Judaism and the bond grows ever stronger. Jews worldwide are already comfortable with the concept of a Tallit Gadol, so the next step is to introduce to them the Tallit Katan.
    We know that assimilation has hit Jewish males far harder than Jewish females. I think by encouraging men (although not the exclusion of women) to take on this mitzvah of tzitzit, you will be giving them something that they feel is there own. A little something, which makes them unique. It is human nature to want to feel unique and Jewish males need this more than ever. In addition so many Jewish females are looking to marry Jews, but the males are just not interested anymore. There have been many articles written in pervious years that have highlighted this point. By males wearing the tzitzit on a regular bases, this will help them connect to Judaism and hopefully bring them to a point where they will want to marry Jews. In addition it will also act as an indicator to Jewish women that the guy might be interested in marrying Jewish. So as we say, one mitzvah leads to another.
    I decided to do a trial run with this project to see how unobservant Jews would react to it. About a month ago I raised a few dollars and bought about 30 tzitzit and then went out with a friend to see if non-observant Jews would be receptive or not. I have to say we were pleasantly surprised. In about an hour we distributed about 15 tzitzit outside of the Liberman Nursing Home. People did not only take them, but wore them out and drove away with the tzitzit still on. We then traveled to the Holocaust Museum where we gave out another 10 or so and again people were happy to receive them. For many it was there first time ever putting on the Talit Katan.

  18. Along with KungFuJew, I just finished leading a workshop at the NHC Summer Institute and our little sanhedrin has a few things to respond to the above comment by Yosef Rabin:
    We object to rituals having agenda other than communal halakhic or personal fulfillment. Tzitzis are not a symbol for mating. For that, you want to use the hanky code. We are not peacocks (insert KungFuJew showing his feathers/jazzhands).
    We commend you for encouraging women to take on tzitzis, but the idea that men aren’t as engaged in Judaism as women is true across all religions in America these days. So creating a new, or rejuvenating an old, ritual will not lead to a better gender balance. (Desh: “This comment understates the egregiousness of Yosef’s gendered comment.”) Why would you rejuvenate an old male dominated, patriarchal Judaism? Suggesting that men would only return to Judaism if they are in charge is ridiculous. (And what authority does tzitzis give a man?)
    We would be interested in knowing whether the nonobservant (which we assume included many non-Orthodox yet differetly religious Jews) continued to (a) feel close to Judaism as a result of the tzitzis or (b) continued to use the tzitzis at all. The novelty of the experience could indeed be a great teaching moment to open the doors of curiosity in ritual, tradition and law.
    …But! If this is just a tactic to introduce them to a Judaism they left behind or never chose because it was parochial, close-minded, or inflexible, then this technique is likely not going to change the underlying disinterest of Jewish males in that kind of Judaism.

  19. Dear Feygele,
    No where did I say “men should be in charge” and certainly did not imply that tzitzit should be a “symbol for mating”. My point of the article is that non-Orthodox men have been totally alienated and disenfranchised and they are thus leaving the Jewish people en-mass. More and more articles are being written by frustrated non-orthodox women complaining that there are simply no men want to marry Jewish. So my point is that the tzitzit, which is a garment traditionally worn by males, could be used to help foster stronger Torah observance amongst non-Orthodox men. As the Jewish male faith strengthens this will bring more men to understand the importance of marrying in.
    I think you are concerned of a slippery slop, “if today we focus on men wearing tzitzit than tomorrow the men will rise up and throw women to the back of the bus”. I think this is an unjustified fear, you have to give men some room for self expression and to show them that it is ok to walk in the steps of their forefathers. I am not suggesting that Reform and Conservative shuls throw women out from the rabbinate or put in a mechitza or ban women from the bima all I am suggesting is to give Jewish men some space. They need it and if you dont they will, as a general rule, continue to flee.

  20. feygele,
    Would you allow that Yosef Rabin has a point? Or do you refuse to recognize this as a possible issue for any significant segment of men?

  21. In any event feygele is right in that tzitzit is “communal halakhic or personal fulfillment”. In Halacha tzitzit is a “mitzvat asey shezman grama” a time-bound command, which is mandatory for men and optional for women. Men are naturally more rebellious than women, which is why they are obligated to time-bound commands. They need a spiritual structure to their day. They more than women need tziztit as a constant reminder of G-ds presence in their life. Again I am not saying that women may not wear tzitzit, I am saying that there should be an emphasis on men doing so.
    In parhsat yisro (Exodus 19,3) Hashem tells Moshe “Say to the house of yaakov and speak to the children of Israel”. In the Torah the word “Tomar” or Say is a more gentle type of language, while the word “Daber” or speak is more harsh. This how Rashi explains it. Speak softly to the beit yaakv (women) because they do not need shouting to understand and speak harshly to the bnei yisrael (males) because thats how to get through to them. So going back to tzitzit, this is why again Hashem says in parshat shelach “Daber el bnai Yisrael” Speak to the children of Israel, tell the men they have to do this command of tziztit all day they have to be connected all day or else they will loose it.
    Men need the tzitzit now more than ever, we are loosing them.

  22. Yosef, your whole point of view and your approach to this is counter to that of the men you’re talking about, who, by the way, are a different group from those I’m talking about.
    I’m talking about men who are engaged in progressive Jewish life, men who are living Jewish, though not Orthodox, lives. I include myself in that category.
    The men you’re talking about, if I’m parsing this correctly, are the men who maybe had a Bar Mitzvah, but never went back to synagogue after, except for RH/YK. Those guys are not on the same wavelength you are. If you wanna meet them, meet them where they are. You can’t start brandishing language like “foster stronger Torah observance amongst non-Orthodox men” and expect them to be into that.
    And living as they do in the modern world, they, and their female counterparts (who as you say are frustrated by their unwillingness to marry Jewish?), are not liable to be inspired by your claims about the general nature of men and women. “You have to shout to get through to men” and “women are naturally more spiritual” and so forth. If women are naturally more spiritual, why weren’t they made the Rabbis?

  23. I agree with David A.M. Wilinsky that apologia is not really a convincing call for gender differences in Jewish ritual. But there may still be good reasons for some gender differences.
    Additionally, Liberal Judaism fails to answer many issues that are problematic, either merely toning down disturbing narratives (Jewish supremacism, e.g., chosen), and merely inverting or flipping problematic gender issues without addressing true alternatives and costs to egalitarianism when it is more complicated than that.
    To be fair, there may be only so much that anyone can do and still advocate Judaism at all. There are good reasons why so many Jews are choosing more and more ardently secular routes.
    What I find most disheartening is a refusal by some in the Liberal Jewish world to acknowledge that their appears to be a more acute problem with retaining boys and men. Maybe there isn’t anything that can be done. But shouldn’t we at this point accept there is a problem?

  24. Any links to be drawn between this situation and the growing debate over co-ed education? It is becoming endemic that boys are lagging behind girls in co-ed education, from primary and secondary to post-secondary schooling. There is a growing movement to reconstitute single-sex classrooms, which in some cases have led to improvements in grades for both sexes.

  25. I’m not saying, DK, that there’s no problem with male retention. I’m actually pretty fond of pointing out that there is such a problem. I think it’s got more to do with the preponderance of Debbie Friedman tunes than anything else. And I’m only half-kidding when I say that.

  26. David,
    Thank you so much for responding.
    First why do non-orthodox male youth (and you are a major acceptation to the rule) feel that their Bar Mitzvah is a graduation from Judaism ? Why on the other hand Jewish male youth from the Orthodox community about 95% (and yes we have a tiny minority that leave also) strengthen in their Judaism from the Bar Mitzvah on ward?
    “Orthodox” ( I hate that term) youth are always engaged with Torah. When I go to sleep I am already debating if I should get for zman kriat shema (usually I do) or zman shacharit or am I going to be really really lazy and doven right before chatzot. It is an entire different outlook of living, it is an outlook revolving around Torah. Meanwhile the non-Orthodox youth, in the best of cases, is probably struggling with the question of “should I daven tomorrow at all”. From the second I wake up and say “Mode Ani Lfanecha” to the second I lay down to go to sleep and say Shema Yisrael I am engaged all the time and that something that is severely lacking in the non-Orthodox world. It is common among many men to become more mature after getting married, because after one gets married he is tied down to so many responsibilities .As I said before and will say again a relationship is only as strong as the time and effort put in to maintaining it and Judaism is no acceptation.
    I really believe that there are differences between males and females. Men for what ever reason men seem to need a more strict structure and that is essentially what tzitzit is about, you need this constant reminder. I am not saying it is forbidden for women to wear tzitzit because it is permitted, however men are obligated for the reason stated above. The more things boys and men have to do the more stable of a relationship they will have with Torah and perhaps ( I am not saying for sure) this is why traditionally the role of Rabbi was bestowed upon men to force them to always be engaged and to take a leadership role. As we have seen in the modern area in Jewish circles where men have been pushed out of the leadership roles, they flee altogether. It is just the reality. Perhaps there is a difference between male and female spirituality, i dont know. But what I do know is that American and pretty much world Jewry is going by the wayside AND WE ALL KNOW IT. Let get back to what has worked for 3,000 years. Again I am not advocating for women to go back behind a mezhitza necessarily, however perhaps we should preserve somethings for men and give them some space. Not all separation is good, but at the same time not all separation is necessarily bad either.

  27. Amidst all the factors leading to Jewish exogamy and assimilation… you’re placing gender egalitarianism as the Reason Why Things Are Wrong? Ain’t that a bit spurious?
    And Judaism has never been the same for 3000 years, AND WE ALL KNOW IT.

  28. It is 100% true that Judaism has gone through many changes do in part to rabbinic injunctions. The shabbat we have today would be unrecognizable to the early Jew. However even the numerous Rabbinic innovations and gedrarim (fences around the Torah) were instituted to safeguard the law of the Torah and never to water it down. If you want to get into a discussion on Reform Judaism, they threw-out the very basis of Judaism, which was Torah M’sinai the divine mass revelation at Sinai.
    This is from a article called “What Makes Bernie Run” – Let me know what you think.
    “The temple rabbis who took the age-old axiom of Revelation, real Revelation, upon which is built the Divinity of Torah and junked it. The temple rabbis who made Judaism the product of ”wise men” (and if so, are there not wise Christians and Buddhists and atheists) and thus removed any sacredness and necessary reason for observance. The temple rabbis, so many of whom do not believe in G-d, who took the real and awesome Jewish G-d of history who made man and Created all and who rewards and punishes, and exchanged Him for a “god” who is “the spirit within man,” indistinguishable from indigestion…They are the models of Jewish “religious” leadership we give unto Bernie, these empty vessels whose greatest fortune is that their congregants know even less, about Judaism than they do.”

  29. B.BarNavi,
    No I am not saying that gender egalitarianism is the cause, it is a symptom. Look there is a growing healthy movement with Orthodoxy, shuls like Shir Chadash, that are looking to strengthen women’s roles in the community and they doing so WITHIN the guidelines of Halacha. The Rabbis of yore did not create the idea that a Minyan is to be made of 10 men, they did not draw that from thin air, it was drawn from the Torah itself, see Mesechet Brachot 21b. As long as innovation is done within the context of Halacha then I certainly do not have a problem with it. The Reform movement first threw out the idea that the Torah is divine and then began to make the innovations. A house built from rotting wood will quickly crumble.
    PS. I am not discussing these issues to provoke anyone G-d forbid, I see that this group is very knowledgeable and therefore feel I can bring up these issues here. It is rare for me to engage people from outside the Orthodox community on this type of deep level. So thank you for the opportunity.

  30. David A.M. Wilensky,
    I have a few questions for you, and for what seems to be a small but vocal new generation of die-hard Reform Jews interested in reinstating ritual into the Reform movement.
    Why all the ritual? For what reason? What happened to just broad, Ethical Monotheism? How are you different than a socially liberal Conservative Jew, exactly?

  31. The main problem with reform is that it is quite obviously the result of capitulation to christian demands for Jews to become more like them.

  32. Dk
    “What happened to just broad, Ethical Monotheism? ”
    It became christianity.
    More seriously, the answer I think is because G-d told you to. If this is insufficient then how are you going to manage “broad, ethical monotheism”. Remember, mono isn’t zero.

  33. DK–
    While I wouldn’t call myself a “die-hard” Reform Jew, I am however, a Jew who is an active member of a Reform synagogue. I hope you don’t mind if I also answer the questions you posed to David.
    Answering In generally reverse order: what makes me different than a socially liberal Conservative Jew? Well, not much–except that I’m not all that socially liberal. A little left of center maybe….but as far as affiliation goes, I could easily affiliate with a USCJ synagogue. However, my mid-sized western city has a Reform, a Conservative, a Chabad, and a Renewal synagogue. There is a independent Chavurah too, but their services are infrequent and far flung.
    I’m involved with the Reform congregation because the everyone at the Conservative synagogue here seems to have perpetual low-grade carbon monoxide poisoning: they appear lethargic and hypoxic, in contrast to the vibrancy and dynamic messiness of the Reform congregation.
    Traditional ritual (with egalitarianism) in part appeals to me because I consider myself a plain-old Jew, and not particularly attached to the Reform identity. It works at our Reform congregation because I am far from alone there in the way I identify my Judaism–there are almost as many Conservative refugees as there are “Reformers”.
    Additionally, there are many Jews-by-choice for whom distinctive Jewish ritual is a positive as they learn about mitzvot and minhag.

  34. The difference between me and a socially liberal Conservative is that the Conservative (whether they actually do or not) are obligated by their association with the USCJ to be far more observant than I am. I am obligated only by what I obligate myself to do.
    Why do I want more ritual? Because I like it. Because it’s beautiful. Because it all serves to remind me of my obligations to be a decent human being and conscientious Jew.

  35. >>I’m involved with the Reform congregation because the everyone at the Conservative synagogue here seems to have perpetual low-grade carbon monoxide poisoning: they appear lethargic and hypoxic, in contrast to the vibrancy and dynamic messiness of the Reform congregation.”
    🙂 Ruth B, that’s kind of funny. As someone who used to attend a Conservative shul I can really relate to the observed hypoxia symptoms. There’s just something painfully dull and vanilla about….well kind of about the whole Conservative movement. Conservative officialdom is stuck in a no-man’s-land of noncommittal mediocrity, the same kind of attitude it encourages on the part of its congregants (whether it acknowledges it or not).
    That isn’t to say I think the Reform movement is inherently more sustainable than the Conservative moment. Reform was founded to facilitate the process of assimilation into non-Jewish culture–so the idea of Jewish sustainability is kind of contrary to the raison d’etre of the movement. But in the meantime I think there’s far more passion and life to be found among the pockets of committed and energetic Reform Jews than one almost ever finds in Conservative settings.

  36. Eric,
    Reform was founded to facilitate the process of assimilation into non-Jewish culture
    What’s interesting, at least to me, is that many Reform Jews seems to be redefining the fundamental precept of the Reform Movement – which was, as you said, was to accept the basic European premise that there is something inherently wrong with Jews.
    This theme runs very strongly, I think, through older Reform Jews, in their 50s and 60s, who felt limited in life opportunities by their traditions. However, that’s not what I’m seeing from younger Reform Jews, and this blog is a perfect example. Who would have though that Reform Jews would be venturing into wearing tzitzis?! That’s not assimilation, but a hallmark of classic Jewish dissimilation, whether they intended it as such or not.
    What I think is surprisingly refreshing about these younger Reform Jews – and not all of them, of course, but many of them – is that if you listen less to what they say, and look more at what they do, they are not so different from Jews in certain Hassidic movements. Essentially, they don’t want to do things because someone told them to do them. They want to understand what they’re doing, to connect in a personal, spiritual way, to remove any intermediaries in their avoda.
    I’m generalizing, of course, but it’s something I am seeing more and more of, including on the pages of Jewschool.

  37. Eric writes:
    Reform was founded to facilitate the process of assimilation into non-Jewish culture
    Wrong. Jews were already assimilating into non-Jewish culture, and the modern Reform movement was founded (among other reasons) to keep them Jewish.

  38. David writes:
    The difference between me and a socially liberal Conservative is that the Conservative (whether they actually do or not) are obligated by their association with the USCJ to be far more observant than I am. I am obligated only be what I obligate myself to do.
    “More observant” by whose standards? You’re implicitly accepting the Conservative movement’s standards too when you describe them as “more observant”.

  39. >>“Wrong. Jews were already assimilating into non-Jewish culture, and the modern Reform movement was founded (among other reasons) to keep them Jewish.”
    I’m sorry, that’s just not true. While some of the reform leaders in some W. European countries wanted to contrive some form of Judaism that their highly assimilated children and families would avoid fully detaching from, the main goal was to make Judaism and Jews more acceptable to modernizing, non-Jewish Europe.
    By making Judaism as un-different as possible from the surrounding culture it was theorized that Jews’ embarrassment about their religion could be reduced, making acceptance by modernizing European society more likely.

  40. Why Reform?
    I like to think of it as more intellectually honest choice for most of us. Most Conservative Jews I see and know are pretty much Reform Jews who prefer a different aesthetic when it comes to liturgy and services. I’m not saying I disagree with that aesthetic. I just happen to believe that individual autonomy is a fact. I’m not going to define myself by a philosophy I don’t believe in.
    And why the ritual? To drive home the ethical. Isn’t the purpose of study action? Aren’t there lessons to be gleaned from ritual? Ritual is the boat, ethics are the water.

  41. D.A.M.W. – Observant Conservative Jews would not say their obligation to mitzvot comes from their association with USCJ, they’d say their obligation comes from their understanding of God and the ever-evolving state of halacha. Similarly, I don’t think that you would say your obligation to informed personal choice comes from your affiliation with URJ.
    Eric, if you’re going to contest someone’s claims, your own argument would be stronger if you could cite some kind of source with more authority than “nuh-uh!”

  42. ML, nail on the head. I actually prefer the Conservative prayer aesthetic a lot of the time, but I fell intellectually dishonest in their midst. I’m with you all the way on that comment.
    BZ, they observe more mitzvot than I do. Simple. Therefore, they are more observant. I do not keep kosher, they do. That’s more observance.
    dlevy, you’re right about that. I mis-typed, shall we say. In fact, I think the some most honestly Reform-acting or Conservative-acting Jews out there aren’t really affiliated with the USCJ or the URJ.
    Big problem when the big movements educate some of the youth too well. Suddenly, we want to actually do these things they’ve been telling us about all along. And once we do that, everyone else in the movement thinks we’re nuts. Theoretically, a Reform Jew could make the informed choice to wear tzitzit, but if you actually start doing it, everyone thinks you’re nuts and won’t sit near you in shul.

  43. BZ, they observe more mitzvot than I do. Simple. Therefore, they are more observant. I do not keep kosher, they do. That’s more observance.
    Who defines the list of mitzvot? Who defines how each mitzvah is to be observed? Who defines which mitzvot count toward this numerical total?
    Do you love your neighbor? Do they? Do you destroy idols? Do they? Have you observed shiluach hakein (sending away the mother bird before collecting the eggs)? Have they? Are men (all things being equal) “more observant” than women, since women can’t observe berit milah?

  44. BZ, there are well-known, high-profile mitzvot that these people engage in that I’m not willing to. And I don’t feel bad saying that they’re more observant than I.
    It’s impossible to throw away all adjectives and all labels in Jewish communal life if each one has some value assigned to it and each one has excessive baggage rendering it useless. At some point I have to be willing to apply certain adjectives to myself and others and not take a whole paragraph to say that I’m a slightly more observant than average Reform Jew.

    1. At some point I have to be willing to apply certain adjectives to myself and others and not take a whole paragraph to say that I’m a slightly more observant than average Reform Jew.
      But “more observant than average” measured by Reform standards is different from “more observant than average” by Conservative standards (which seems to be what you’re doing in comparing the movements).
      Is someone who puts on tefillin on 7 Sivan more or less observant than someone who doesn’t?

  45. First, as a theologically Conservative Jew with traditional-egalitarian leanings, I agree with David that there remain significant and substantive gaps between Conservative and Reform Judaism. That said, I am also convinced that Reforms beautiful new Mishkan Tfillah siddur is a definite sign that there are those who might want to bridge that gap.
    Secondly, as a Conservative Jew who grew up old-skool German-style Reform in the UK, I want to emphasize what David wrote (only half in jest earlier): my wife and I lest a reform congregation we found very welcoming in good part BECAUSE OF DEBBIE FRIDMANESQUE MUSIC!

  46. BZ, the 7th of Sivan is the holiday of Shavuot, on which nobody (according to halacha) wears tefillin at all.
    Wearing tefillin on Shavuot is like lighting Shabbat candles on Tuesday. It isn’t “observant” or “less observant”. It’s just incoherent.

  47. >>“BZ, the 7th of Sivan is the holiday of Shavuot, on which nobody (according to halacha) wears tefillin at all.”
    (Should have clarified, “nobody outside of Israel”. In Israel the holiday of Shavuot is only one day and ends on the 6th of Sivan.)

  48. Eric, the 7th of Sivan is the second day of Shavuot for those who observe two-day Yamim Tovim. For others, it is simply the day after Shavuot and therefore a normal day to don tefillin.

  49. Outside of Israel, some Reform Jews and some Conservative Jews observe one-day holidays per the halacha of their movements. BZ has written extensively on the logic of why it makes sense for contemporary Jews to return to the single day of observance. Here’s a link to one such post that includes links to others, so grab a hevruta, there’s at least a full day of text study in there for you.

  50. Its first a matter of Theology and than a matter of practice:
    The great insurmountable divide between Reform and traditional (orthodox) is that the traditional understand the entire Torah to be the word of Hashem. Every word, letter and syllable has meaning and therefore I cannot choose what I want to do. If millions of our ancestors claim that they heard the word of God, that there was indeed a mass revelation, that is how define an historical event. Why does no other religion make a claim as this, its a great story, God gathered a million or a billion people spoke to them, so it must be true!
    The other religions cannot claim such a thing happened, because it did not happen to them, they could not uphold such a great lie! Thats why Christianity as we know it, started with a private revelation on the road to Damascus and Islam began with an accent on a Donkey. That is the one up the Muslims have over the christians, at least they have a donkey as a witness to their founding moment, whereas the Christians have hearsay!
    We on the other-hand know via the testimony of all the founders of our nation 600,000 males between 20-60, plus all the females, elderly and children you have several million at least, heard the word of G-d directly! We have their testimony, which has been passed down every year, in every generation on Seder night (at least).
    Its interesting that the yemenite Jews who were exiled over 2500 years ago towards the end of the first temple and were pretty much not heard from till the modern area, have the exact same Torah minus one letter in parhat Noach.
    While yes it is a problem, can you imagine how awesome that is that we al have the same version of events Har Sinai included! Torah M’Sinai is not a belief it is an historical event, which had incredible spiritual and national implications for the Jewish Nation and continues to define it until this very day.
    So first we have to decide is the Torah Divine or an invention of man? Are we in G-ds image or do we create him to fit our needs?

  51. Having the “exact same Torah” is no proof of it’s divine authorship, and in the previous paragraph you claim we “continue to define it until this very day.” So what gives?

  52. in the previous paragraph you claim we “continue to define it until this very day.”
    ML, Yosef already addressed this point earlier:
    As long as innovation is done within the context of Halacha then I certainly do not have a problem with it. The Reform movement first threw out the idea that the Torah is divine and then began to make the innovations.
    Let’s go to the heart of this:
    Do Reform consider Torah of divine origin?

  53. Dear ML,
    Please DO NOT take my words “continues to define it until this very day” OUT OF CONTEXT.
    What I actually wrote, see above:
    “Torah M’Sinai is not a belief it is an historical event, which had incredible spiritual and national implications for the Jewish Nation and continues to define it until this very day.” Meaning that awesome divine historical event, Mamad Har Sinai, is what “continues to define it until this very day.”

  54. Victor asks: “Do Reform consider Torah of divine origin?”
    This is from the URJ website:
    Reform Jews accept the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life containing God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God. We see the Torah as God inspired, a living document that enables us to confront the timeless and timely challenges of our everyday lives.
    So there’s the party line. Reading this statement, it doesn’t seem so odd for a Reform Jew to consider wearing tzitzit as part of our ongoing relationship with God.
    I also suspect that there are many Orthodox Jews, who while halachically observant, don’t necessarily take the intellectual leap that every letter of Torah and Mishna is al pi Adonai.
    I freely admit that I am an am ha-aretz, but it seems that “innovations” in Judaism began long before the mid-19th century: the rise of Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the temple, the development of the Hagadah l’pesach, the custom of yahrtzeit candles, the wearing of shtreimls,
    the codification of liturgy, and the idolization of the Shulchan Aruch. Off the top of my head.
    But I’m being redundant–D.A.M.W and B.BarNavi have already made this point earlier in this thread…

  55. To Yosef Rabin:
    Okay, I’m a Christian butting in here, but since when did Christianity begin with Saul on the road to Damascus? Christianity traditionally understands its birth as a Church as occurring on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the gathered multitude. Yes, Saul had a personal encounter with the Risen Lord, but plenty of other people had before him.

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