In defense of autonomy

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
The article making the rounds this week is Rabbi Leon Morris’s oped in the JTA, “Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice'”. In past blog posts, I have both agreed and respectfully disagreed with Rabbi Morris; here I’m going to do the latter (from my usual perch as a Reform Jewish expat).
Rabbi Morris’s thesis is “A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have ‘personal choice’ as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever.” And I certainly don’t take issue with those other Jewish values, including “an increased commitment to Jewish study” and “committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts”. Yes, these are needed now more than ever. But I think he’s beating up on a straw man, and basing his argument on two unfounded claims:
1) “Personal choice” is the core principle of Reform Judaism.
2) “Personal choice” is to blame for the Reform movement’s ills.
I’ll address these points one at a time.

1) No, “personal choice” is not the core principle of Reform Judaism.
The core principles of Reform Judaism are the same as the core principles of any other stream of Judaism. “Personal choice” takes center stage only when Reform is contrasted with other denominations. Calling it the core principle of Reform Judaism is like saying that the 24-second clock is the core principle of NBA basketball. Yes, the 24-second clock is one rule that distinguishes NBA basketball from other forms of basketball, but the core principle of NBA basketball (like any form of basketball) is still getting the ball into the hoop.
But don’t take my word for it; take a look at the CCAR’s official platforms. The 1998 Pittsburgh Principles have God, Torah, and Israel as the three major section headings — what you would expect from any Jewish religious movement. Under these headings, there are 30 separate principles, and I count at least 22 (a solid majority) that people from all major Jewish religious streams would agree with. (And among the other principles, some of them are non-universal for self-referential reasons, e.g. “We are committed to promoting and strengthening Progressive Judaism in Israel…” and “We are committed to furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the world…”, which non-progressive Jews would disagree with because they already disagree with progressive Judaism.) “Personal choice”, “autonomy”, etc., do not appear explicitly at all. The closest approach is “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community”, and even there you can only find it if you know what to look for. So in the CCAR’s most recent platform, personal choice/autonomy constitutes less than 1 of the top 30 principles.
The previous platform, the 1976 Centenary Perspective, had a greater focus on autonomy. This is manifested in such statements as “Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual”, “Reform Jews respond to change in various ways according to the Reform principle of the autonomy of the individual”, and “We stand open to any position thoughtfully and conscientiously advocated in the spirit of Reform Jewish belief.” Still, this platform lays out principles under the subheadings of “God”, “The People Israel”, “Torah”, “Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”, “Our Obligations: The State of Israel and the Diaspora”, and “Our Obligations: Survival and Service”, and only one of those sections (“Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”) includes any mention of choice/autonomy. There, autonomy is a means, not an end.
The earlier platforms, before 1976, don’t have anything remotely close to personal choice; the tone was that the authors of the platforms knew what was best for everyone.
Ok, so even if “personal choice” isn’t the core principle of theoretical Reform Judaism as expressed in official platforms, is it the core principle of folk Reform Judaism as popularly understood by self-identified Reform Jews? I don’t have any scientific data on this, but I suspect that most Reform Jews, if asked to explain their religion on one foot to someone from New Guinea who had never met a Jew, wouldn’t start with personal choice, but would start with elements that are common to all Jewish denominations. Personal choice would only start to come up if they were asked to explain Reform Judaism to an Orthodox or secular Jew from Israel who had never met a Reform Jew. (And even then, I’m not sure that this is the tack that the typical low-information Reform Jew would take in distinguishing Reform from other denominations; I think many would instead say some version of “We’re Reform(ed), so we don’t do that.”)
And I do think Rabbi Morris is indeed talking about the core principles of Reform Judaism in the absolute, and not just the core differences between Reform Judaism and other types of Judaism, since the other principles that he proposes replacing “personal choice” with are not unique to Reform Judaism — they are embraced (at least on paper) by the other movements as well. On this absolute scale, it is not accurate to say that personal choice is the core principle of Reform Judaism, either in theory or in practice.
2) No, autonomy is not the problem.
I’m going to run the risk of spawning a completely off-topic comment thread and say this anyway: Rabbi Morris’s response to autonomy in Reform Judaism reminds me of the Right’s response to the Obama stimulus.
President Obama proposed a stimulus that many economists warned was insufficiently large (even before it was cut down further by Congress) to pull the economy out of recession. When, as predicted, unemployment remained high after the stimulus (albeit not as high as it would have gone without the stimulus), the Republicans drew the conclusion that the stimulus had failed, that the very principles of Keynesian fiscal policy were at fault, and that the solution was fiscal austerity.
I don’t dispute that much of the Reform movement is characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. But it is inappropriate to blame this on an ideology that has never been fully put into practice in the Reform movement, particularly in the more ignorant and uncommitted segments. I haven’t found Reform communities where informed autonomy truly exists as a way of life; I have only been able to find this in non-denominational communities.
The Centenary Perspective (the platform with the greatest embrace of autonomy) says “Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” This frames informed autonomy not as a privilege but as a responsibility. A Reform Jew who truly believes in informed autonomy has the obligation to study Jewish texts to the point where s/he can make educated choices about all areas of Jewish practice. In principle Reform Jews have the responsibility to become far more knowledgeable than Orthodox or Conservative Jews (who can defer to their rabbi’s p’sak) or Reconstructionist Jews (who can defer to their community’s consensus). Needless to say, this is not how it works out in practice.
Rabbi Morris would have us believe that this failure of informed autonomy qua responsibility to take root among the masses is an inevitable consequence of an ideology that lacks the power to motivate. I would respond that the experiment hasn’t been attempted. Reform institutions have not provided the tools necessary for individuals to carry out the demands of informed autonomy. It’s not like Reform synagogues across the country are offering advanced Talmud shiurim (or even introductory Talmud shiurim, in the original language) that no one is showing up to. And even if there are opportunities outside the movement for high-level Jewish learning, the Reform movement’s culture is not one that values this among laypeople. Individuals who express interest in learning more are told “You should become a rabbi”, not “You should become an educated Reform Jew”.
But it’s not just that the Reform movement hasn’t embraced the “informed” part of informed autonomy (which is part of Rabbi Morris’s point); it has never truly embraced the “autonomy” part either. The average rank-and-file Reform Jew may exercise autonomy in selectively opting in and out of Jewish life, but when he is in a Jewish context, he does what he is told. To take prayer as just one example, Reform synagogues are the Jewish worship contexts in which it is least socially acceptable for individual participants to have their own practices about when to sit and stand, or which siddur to use, or what to be doing at any point during the service. Instructions are given throughout, and everyone is expected to conform. Rabbis may have less power on paper in Reform Judaism than in other movements (in which they render binding p’sak), but in practice, they are granted more elevated clerical status by Reform Jews than anywhere else in the non-haredi Jewish world. Rabbis are considered indispensable to “officiate” at any sort of Jewish ritual; most laypeople do not feel empowered to do it themselves.
What we see is not informed autonomy gone too far, but rather a population that is neither Jewishly informed nor Jewishly autonomous.
While we don’t have empirical data on what the Reform movement would look like if informed autonomy were a large-scale reality, we do have data from another controlled experiment: Let’s say you start with a population that looks a lot like the American Reform Jewish population, and an institutional structure (synagogues, rabbis, etc.) that looks a lot like the structure of the Reform movement. But you take Rabbi Morris’s advice and remove personal choice from the stated principles of the movement, and replace it with something about communal religious standards. Then what you get, according to the data, isn’t the engaged and passionate liberal Judaism that Rabbi Morris and I would like to see — what you get is the Conservative movement! And outside of a few isolated pockets, the Conservative movement is also characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. Most Conservative-affiliated Jews aren’t familiar with their movement’s official principles, and much of what Rabbi Morris writes about the Reform movement applies there as well: “Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to [Conservative] laypeople … , gather dust in libraries.” The experiment yields the same result, but this time, it can’t be blamed on “personal choice”.
The answer is not to remove informed autonomy as a Reform Jewish principle and replace it with other values, but rather, to implement informed autonomy in truth so that these other values will come along with it. Create a culture in which informed autonomy is seen as a responsibility, so that individuals have to become knowledgeable in Jewish text and tradition and apply this knowledge creatively to meet the needs of the present age. Armed with this knowledge, individuals will be better equipped to form true communities.
I realize that this is a tall order. Many members of Reform congregations don’t have a strong ideological commitment to progressive religious Judaism, and won’t be interested in this project. But it’s possible to start smaller. Even if it won’t work to implement informed autonomy for an entire congregation at once, it can start with a committed core who can at least make informed autonomy a socially acceptable option. And if even that committed core isn’t attainable (yet) in every community, it can start in some communities that can be held up as role models and successful proofs of concept. And if those role models of informed autonomy are not to be found in the Reform movement, then the Reform movement can look to successful models elsewhere.
I hope that turning informed autonomy into a reality, and not just a slogan, will (as Rabbi Morris concludes) “allow us to experience a richer, fuller liberal religious life — one that is passionate, inspiring and moving, one that matters ultimately and allows ‘Reform Judaism’ to mean so much more.”

17 thoughts on “In defense of autonomy

  1. I think what you’re saying (sometimes a bit indelicately) is that Morris is mistaking a lack of any real ideology for the failure of another. I think Morris needs to go live in some fantasy land where everyone is Orthodoxly liberal.
    Just spitballing here, but maybe part of the problem is that perhaps people are being told so much that their current situation lacks feeling, lacks meaning, lacks ideological heft, etc. that they begin to believe it.
    Seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t have some kind of existence saving advice for the Reform, including its own clergy and leaders?
    To borrow a phrase from another religion: physician, heal thyself.

  2. @BZ, While you may be correct that Reform Judaism’s focus on autonomy may not be the problem in itself, because in theory Reform Jews should be learned and studying to make those autonomous choices, as a practice I don’t think this is really possible to achieve given the structure of Reform Judaism. In other words, in order to be a Reform Jew, every Reform Jew would essentially have to abandon Reform Judaism. IMO that’s exactly the problem. It’s just completely impractical.

  3. It would seem that before Rabbi Morris advocates dropping individual choice that the movement embrace the teaching and transmission of the mitzvot from among which choice can be made.
    Whether or not Reform Judaism is indeed about choice is immaterial. In practice it is, the choice most often being made is not about mitzvot and principles but how little to practice anything whatsoever.
    Obviously, there is a small committed core of people who believe in and follow Reform Judiasm, but for most it is a sociological phenomenon. Kids graduating Reform Hebrew Schools barely read the language let alone understand what they are saying when they are made to pray.
    There are doubtless deeper principles and commandments from which ‘adherents’ could choose, but most Reform Jews are ignorant of them owing largely to ongoing threadbare treatment of mesorah in its pedagogy and barely veiled contempt for anything stemming from Orthodoxy.

  4. @krg Sadly, I agree. Its based on direct observation of the education.
    My indictment of Conservative education is similar albeit somewhat more attenuated as there are more examples of higher rates of active participation in Jewish communal and ritual life among younger generations, namely among participants in post-denominational minyans and initiatives who ‘grew up Conservative.’ In practice they tend to be only somewhat more adherent to any form of practice or ritual- generally in a measure of Kashrut rather than shmirat shabbat.
    So in my view, Conservative Judaism and its education system is equally flawed. Hebrew is learned, tfilot memorized, history ingrained and rituals familiarized. The movement insists it is based on observance of Torah and mitzvot and Shabbat but it supplementary education system largely fails in centering its students on this, let alone Talmud.
    These systems are fine for continuing generations of moderately affiliated Jews who are just knowledgeable enough to follow a service the few times a year they attend, for which they will in turn feel enough guilt to fork over the dues to sustain the congregation and expiate themselves and their children from deeper involvement.
    So, win-win, right? I’m not endorsing another stream of Judaism or saying anyone is right. I just feel that at the center of any successful form of identity is not choice or a building, but a rich, tightly bound communal life centered on meaningful education and experience. This generally seems at odds with the cold, distant, mega-format of most liberal suburban congregations.
    Of course, everything starts at home. Or at Camp. If people are truly committed to living Jewishly, as opposed to just being Jew-ish, they infuse it at many points. Both are valid, but are vastly different in character. Get enough of the former in one place and you get something special and vibrant, but it is largely the exception and not the rule.

  5. BZ’s original post talked about small things congregations could start doing, but he skipped education and I’m glad that’s starting to come up in the comments. From my knowledge of Reform theology and my interpretation of BZ’s post, what Reform Jews do or do not practice is less relevant than the imperative than learning and understanding what choices one is making. Very low primary and lifelong education standards cannot support that goal. While many supplemental schools (and some day schools) fall short of maximizing Judaic learning, I get the (very uninformed) sense that the problem is more acute in Reform schools compared to other movements.
    Conservative schools that educated me and others I’ve later observed have been very clear how much more there is to learn even if they don’t teach it well themselves. That said, I know very little about Reform schools so my assumptions might be wrong. For example, there could be more content, but I’m fairly impressed by: I’d say their Mitkadem Hebrew curriculum is probably more than I learnt in a Conservative supplemental primary school. I know of no public resources of this quality put out by the national Conservative organizations. Any clue how many Reform synagogues rigorously follow these curricular standards?

    1. Dan writes:
      BZ’s original post talked about small things congregations could start doing, but he skipped education
      I did? I thought it was implied throughout. If I skipped it, it’s because the need for serious education is an area where Rabbi Morris and I agree 100%.

  6. I don’t think it’s chicken-and-egg. A culture valuing education comes first. You can have an undereducated person want more for their children, but if people don’t want that education, it doesn’t matter how much the person does or does not know.
    I’ve seen a fear in a few parents with Reform backgrounds that having their kids learn about certain Judaic topics might make them “more” observant therefore it’s better not to learn. These are definitely anecdotes and might speak for only a small minority for Reform families. In Conservative environments, I’ve seen parents support giving their children only a few hours of Jewish education per week and they might prefer some topics over others, but placing limits on the desire to learn seems less common. (Again, this is all anecdote from very limited things I’ve seen)

  7. REFORM: The body of Jewish law suggests a way of life, but if you don’t want to practice it at the modeled levels, we welcome you into our community anyway.
    CONSERVATIVE: The body of Jewish law, as interpreted by Conservative poskim, is binding as a way of life, but if you don’t want to practice it at the modeled levels, we’ll pretend you’re doing so anyway, unless you are the rabbi, in which case it is unconditionally binding.
    ORTHODOX: The body of Jewish law, as interpreted by Orthodox poskim, is binding as a way of life, and if you don’t want to practice it, we won’t let our kids play with your kids and we won’t come to your house, especially not to eat.
    REFORM RESPONSE TO ORTHODOX FORMULATION: We don’t want to come to your house anyway.

  8. @Adam: I agree with you about Conservative education. I have more to say about it, but not tonight, because I’m too tired, having just committed some education today.

  9. Larry pretty much hit the nail on the head. I think the idea of an educated and energized liberal Judaism is nice, but it pretty much only exists inside the heads of liberal Jewish theologians. Most Jews I know have the idea in their heads that there are “levels” of Jewish observance going from Reform->Conservative->Orthodox->Ultra-Orthodox. Basically conceding that liberal Judaism is for people who just want to half-ass it, which is how most laypeople treat those movements, and aren’t really interested in the theology. That’s why the kiruv movements and Chabad and such attract so many young passionate Jews (most of whom get burnt out quick on the cognitive dissonance and more or less lose their passion for Judaism).

  10. shmeul, You have a great hypothesis and I hear it repeated often, but I’d love to see some data supporting it. The most recent US denominational survey that I know of is from 2000-2001:
    Table 4 shows that 42% of people raised orthodox consider themselves Orthodox at the time of the survey. That’s compared to 58% Conservative, 78% Reform, and 70% just Jewish. Only 3% of those raised Conservative, 2% raised Reform, and 3% raised just Jewish now call themselves Orthodox. The reason the kiruv movements are getting such press in the Orthodox world is that, since the other denominations are much larger, a 7% gain from the non-Orthodox denominations is actually the same number of people as a 17% loss from Orthodoxy (I used raw population #’s from table 1 in the link). It doesn’t alter the fact that the overall trend of personal observance was away from Orthodoxy.
    I suspect, if the same survey was done and analyzed now, the results would be better for Orthodoxy, but they’d still be losing a greater percent of members to the liberal movements than the other way around. A 2000-2001 survey would probably also have just nipped the tip of the growth of knowledgable and active Jewish communities that do not fit within Orthodox practice (i.e. the indy minyanim).
    I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, just that a simple story of half-assed liberal Jewish behavior declining and serious Jews rushing towards Orthodoxy doesn’t seem much more than a story.

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