Global, Identity, Religion, Sex & Gender


This week’s Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle focuses on my brother, Michael, in its piece about younger Jewish community leaders. 

When Michael Kelsey became president of the Young Israel of Pittsburgh in October, he became the fourth generation of his family to serve as a congregation president, succeeding his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

What the Chronicle does not mention is that our great-grandfather (who had attended Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonan, a school later absorbed into Yeshiva University), according to family legend, was instrumental in transforming his synagogue in Easton, Pennsylvania from an Orthodox synagogue into a Conservative one. 
Granted, this was not “post-denominational,” but like most liberal ritual movements today, the early Conservative movement focused on rectifying the hot gender issue(s) of its day.  Back then it was mixed seating, which was perceived as a most critical improvement for enticing a younger generation into synagogue attendance.  By just taking down the dreadful mechitza, the eternal lamp would stay lit.
For most of my family, like so many Jewish families who moved into the Conservative camp, the family shul’s nod to the modern, relatively egalitarian reforms of the times proved over the generations to be a bridge, but not to enthusiastic Jewish involvement over the successive generations, but rather, from a Jewish perspective, the Conservative movement proved a bridge to Terabithia.  On the Conservative movement side of my family, there are very few identified Jews left in the youngest generation.  This is true of many such families.  
This is not to suggest that all Jews should be religiously Orthodox.  It is, rather, a suggestion that progressive Jews should not seek to reconcile their synagogue with their secular and political beliefs.  When even in our sanctuaries we appear to apologize for the ostensibly reactionary and outdated nature of our civilization through successive nods to progress, we may no longer be risking that our granddaughters will be second class citizens in Jewish life, but instead, we are suggesting that our grandsons and granddaughters seek first class gentile citizenship in the superior, larger civilization.  Our changes in the synagogue demonstrate our own conviction of that superiority.
Not that this is the end of the world.  But let’s not fool ourselves about the message sent by a synagogue’s striving for accordance with secular norms. 
In my discussion with many in the more ritually liberal camp, I have found a presumption of ignorance about the magic wand of “halachic progress,” as well as an assumed “insensitivity to gender issues” (academic for ignorance) to those who disagree with them, as well as suspicion of religious fundamentalism. 
Only a fraction of us have descended from these earlier progressive movements are still Jewish.   How many of you who demand similarly motivated changes can trace your family back to the beginnings of the Conservative movement in this country like I can? If yours does, how has it worked for your extended family?
Judging by the way so many of the leaders and layman of these new movements think these ideas are truly new merely because of new names or labels, I can’t help but assume they came to non-Orthodox movements much later than my family did.  If they did go back as far in these movements, they should be more wary of the end results.  History does not stop with our generation. At least, it has never done so before.
There is a strong parallel in the axioms of today’s progressive movements to the movements of previous generations in their common desire for reconciliation of Jewish theology with the dominant secular, progressive ideologies.  I expect similar end results with the progressive theological movements of today to the one that led to my extended family including many younger Christian members through intermarriage.
Not everything is ours to change.  Sometimes when we tinker with things because we weren’t willing to wrestle with them, our descendants are even less willing to see the need to wrestle with them. 
Full Story 

33 thoughts on “Post-Post-Denominational

  1. So why don’t you want to become a satmar, and not allow women to drive and so forth and so on? Isn’t modern Orthodoxy the same thing? Also can you prove that Orthodox have an easier time retaining members? I doubt this!

  2. Dameocrat, you asked,
    “So why don’t you want to become a satmar, and not allow women to drive and so forth and so on? Isn’t modern Orthodoxy the same thing?”
    No, it is not at all the same thing. Modern Orthodoxy is traditional Judaism, Satmar is quiescent fundamentalistm.
    But I am not advocating even Modern Orthodoxy. I am only advocating attending Orthodox synagogues that are accepting of secular Jews.
    You wrote,
    “Also can you prove that Orthodox have an easier time retaining members? I doubt this!”
    Why? Noone else does.

  3. I am not sure that affiliation with a movement is what causes people to leave Judaism, or at least to intermarry and cause their children not to relate to their Judaism.
    The issue is faith. You cannot be Orthodox if you do not also believe certain things. Chances are, however, that if your faith is not absolute, that you are more likely to be open to watering down your observance and probably the importance you place on that observance. After all, if everything you do in life is done with the belief that this is God’s will, that will drive you to also consider marrying a Jew and living as an observant Jew to be God-given expectations. The person who is not faithful in this way doesn’t have the same viewpoint about their actions, significant others or level of observance. Since faith and the accordance of significant importance to the Torah in day to day life are not driving forces in one’s life, there is greater freedom to consider relationships with non-Jews to be valid in the same way as relationships with Jews.
    Having said that, your post is very sad.

  4. So you’re saying that progressive Jews, who have ideological differences with Orthodoxy, shouldn’t establish their own synagogues, but continue to attend Orthodox ones, and simply obey the rules and keep quiet?
    That’s tantamount to saying, “We know that we’re wrong; thank you so much for tolerating our presence!”
    As far as “Not everything is ours to change” goes, this is just another volley in the old battle – “There has always been change!”; “No, there hasn’t!” No one has won the war as yet.
    Orthodoxy and Reform have each been predicting the demise of the other for two hundred years. Have you researched the numbers within the non-Orthodox movements? It seems as though you’re basing your opinions solely on personal observation.

  5. Reform numbers are not in decline because they will count anyone as Reform.. Let’s give reform another 20-30 years to see how many of their children from mixed marriages continue to identify as Jewish and go to Reform synagogues.
    As a raised MO Jew and now a somewhat C Jew I found this post so depressing, but it fits what I’ve seen.

  6. It is, rather, a suggestion that progressive Jews should not seek to reconcile their synagogue with their secular and political beliefs.
    I can’t agree with that. (Perhaps that’s the very definition of a progressive Jew.)
    This post feels troublingly condescending to me. As though your Orthodoxy enabled you to construct the only real meaningful and sustaining religious life, and those of us who are giving our lives to our liberal shuls, Shabbat after Shabbat, festival after festival, are all missing the boat.

  7. DK, you’re presuming that marrying Jews and making more Jews is the end goal, and that the Jewish religion exists only to further that goal.
    I disagree. The values of Judaism are the goal, and making Jewish babies might be one way of furthering that goal. And if Orthodox Judaism isn’t living up to what we see as Jewish values, then it doesn’t matter how many shidduchim or babies they’re making.

  8. BZ,
    Yo wrote,
    “DK, you’re presuming that marrying Jews and making more Jews is the end goal, and that the Jewish religion exists only to further that goal.”
    No — I am attacking the defense I hear so often used to defend change for the sake of continuity. If it is for other reasons not based on continuity, then this post is not relevant.

  9. middle said “The issue is faith. You cannot be Orthodox if you do not also believe certain things. ”
    I disagree. I happen to know a decent amount of people in Israel who are shomer shabbat, shomer kashrut, daven, attend an orthodox shul et al, and yet don’t believe in Torah Mi Sinai, or many of the other things you’d think they have to.
    They do it because the believe in community and the power of the system to challenge them to be better people. That’s all.
    In our faith, it’s more about the actions, it’s Christianity that rests on faith alone.

  10. This is a very thoughtful topic, especially for those of us outside of the Ashkenazi and/or American folds in which denomationalism dominates and “Orthodox” is one of several options.
    It is, rather, a suggestion that progressive Jews should not seek to reconcile their synagogue with their secular and political beliefs.
    Or, at least, that they do much more reconciling in their study and thinking than in the services they choose to attend. That a nod to tradition and the larger community is important. That one can still attend a traditional service and be progressive. That to have Friday night dinners, go out to the movies afterwards, and attend synagogue Saturday need not drive one out of a synagogue run along traditional lines.

  11. Kelsey,
    As usual, I agree with you.
    First, it seems everyone misses some of your points – i.e. do what you want, just don’t call it what it isn’t (ferinstance – don’t say Buddhist meditating is part of Judaism. Or that feminism is part of Judaism. Or the Jesus is part of Judaism. Und so vieter).
    Second, Judaism has been around for quite a while. It has never been a large group. Yet, somehow, it has survived for about 3 millennia or so. There have been movements that have come and gone, such as the Sadducees, Esseines and others. There have been movements that are still around but no longer Jewish, such as the Samaritans, Christians, Muslims, and Karites. Now we have a “new” crop of movements (Chassidus, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc.) and time will tell if they disappear or mutate. (And any honest observer knows that Judaism, i.e. Halacha, has not changed over the millennia – how it is expressed has changed, but not halacha itself.)
    The issue is that on the one hand we have Modernity – the knowledge and advancements (mostly in Science) that show us to be, demonstrably, superior in certain ways to the ancients. On the other hand, we are still human beings who are grappling with the same emotional make up as the ancients, but maybe we have more to distract us from those struggles (those advances in Science and other areas). We tend to forget that human nature has not changed. The Holocaust should have taught us that. And if that didn’t, then the Arab world should. Humanity is just as vicious and lusting and base as ever. Human nature has not naturally become something new – societies build and mold us into citizens who, more or less, function. If that were not the case we would not need Police or Judicial systems.
    I know some will think this is condescending, but I beg your indulgence. Judaism, Halacha, is about this basic idea (see Ramban on the purpose of Mitzvot). What “Progressive” Jews gloss over is this first step. They are jumping to Egalitarianism and transformation of Halacha because Western Society has already civilized them. They don’t see the basic need, and benefit, of Halacha as a system. They see what they have already been taught, and maybe some ideals they like because it builds on what they feel, and reject the rest. Fine, but realize what system you are working in. Make an American Religion, but don’t say it is Judaism.

  12. DK (comment #9) – In that case, I think we agree. Shuls shouldn’t be egalitarian so that they’ll get more members; they should be egalitarian because it’s the right thing to do.

  13. Also, what do you mean by “new movements”? The Reconstructionist movement is relatively new, but Reform, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Lubavitch, etc., all started in the same (19th) century.

  14. I’d stake my Conservative credentials against anyone’s, even DK. However, I disagree wholeheartedly that we should leave our (secular/liberal/egalitarian) values at the door. While I admire many Modern Orthodox synagogues, and see the attraction of community, values and clarity, it seems to me that we should emulate what we admire while we stick up for our beliefs. I’d like to see more pride from the Conservative leadership as well. Why can’t we celebrate egalitarianism, for example, and advertise to all of those day school educated women that in Conservative shuls you can actually use what you learn? Why can we advertise our willingness to balance the values of clal yisrael, of welcoming all Jews against the halachic prohibitions against male homosexual sex? I’d say that Conservative Judaism is ripe for rebirth, rather than to be discarded as watered down suburban orthodoxy. I hope there are enough folks out there who agree with me. Despite my religious observance, you can’t get me back in the balcony once I’ve been on the bimah.

  15. BZ,
    This post was specifically speaking about those movements seeking reconciliation with the dominant secular cultures perceived as more progressive than traditional Judaism. I would therefore definitely exclude Fundamentalist movements such as Lubavitch.
    I would disagree that Modern Orthodoxy is a new movement. Take a look at the Ibn Ezra.

  16. Laya, one does things for a reason. If your observance is based on a cultural basis rather than faith, it doesn’t matter that you keep kosher because many Conservative Jews keep kosher or keep the shabbat. You speak as if there is only one true way to practice when we both know that this is untrue and many Modern Orthodox would be rejected with contempt by other streams of Orthodox.
    The reason faith is what matters here is that torah mi sinai is what drives people to place an additional critical value to every action they take: God is watching and expects this stuff in the Book from me. I think to many in Conservative circles, that statement is less certain and accepting the Torah as the word of God is also less certain. More important, they also do not believe that Judaism should be locked into certain paths that were determined a very long time ago by rabbis who themselves were changing traditions.
    The point is that an unquestioned faith is a great assistant to perceiving one-self primarily as a Jew and as a vehicle for participation in God’s world as he wishes it to be. The non-faithful have a much more difficult time with this concept and suddenly tradition and its value to them on a personal or community level is what matters more. There is no question that this opens the door to change over time and to open-ness toward the culture surrounding the person to a degree the faithful never encounter.

  17. JWG wrote:
    First, it seems everyone misses some of your points – i.e. do what you want, just don’t call it what it isn’t
    We’re not missing the point. We hear the point loud and clear, but we think it’s full of shit.
    No one in the present time practices Judaism as it existed 2000 years ago. If evolving practices disqualify one from using the label “Judaism”, then no one has the right to refer to their religion as “Judaism”. If, instead, “Judaism” refers to something that evolves over time, then it is an empirical fact that Judaism has evolved in multiple ways.

  18. BZ – Emprical Fact? That is quite a statement. Halacha has not changed. But let me clarify what I mean.
    The prohibition of creating fire on shabbos. Has that changed? In Halacha, it has not.
    What about something like making Kiddush on Friday night in the synagogue? In the past the synagogue functioned as a place for visitors to stay, or maybe even the Rabbi or others lived there. So they would say Kiddush for those people living there. Nowadays we rarely have people living in synagogues – so for the most part it is not done. Is this a change in Judaism? No, it is a change in the way people live and how Judaism is expressed through the way people live.
    You can introduce Pruzbul etc to say that Judaism has changed, but each of those “changes” were in expression only, not in Halacha. Except where the Sanhedrin (which is part of Halacha and the only vehicle for “change”) gave rulings, there have been no changes in Judaism.
    I look forward to someone showing me I am wrong.

  19. BZ – I think thinking that point is full of Shit, as you put it, is intellectually dishonest.
    And to clarify, I agree with you that no one Practices the same way as 2000 years ago, but I make the distinction that our job is not to Practice what was done before but to follow Halacha, which does not change.

  20. Oh, I get it. I am speaking Newspeak. Brilliant defense. Whilst, and at the same time, erudite.
    Is there anyone who can give me a coherent argument as to Halacha having changed/evolved?

  21. I would submit that halakhah itself originated as an attempt to accomodate biblical injunctions to a changing social environment.

  22. I’m a Conservative Jew in that dinosaur of Conservative synagogues, the traditional Conservative synagogue, where egalitarianism has not penetrated. I went to HAFTR (an MO school) and during college, I taught at a Reform Hebrew school.
    Much as I am loathe to admit it, there is no argument to be made – in terms of retention, Conservative and Reform synagogue are simply not comparable to Orthodox ones. Modern Orthodoxy is disappearing because of an opposite shift – people are becoming more frum and abandoning Modern Orthodoxy’s engagement with the secular world.
    I see Conservative and Reform making innovations and using gimmicks to retain members, and I often think how Orthodoxy doesn’t need to do this. Orthodoxy synagogues, at least in my area, are bustling with children. My shul, one of the largest Conservative shuls in the country, is getting older and older. I am in a very small minority of people in their 20s and 30s who have remained dedicated to the Conservative movement. The reason I am still committed is my day school education.
    The first answer is more Jewish education, and the expansion of Jewish day schools. It is the most vital solution to the problem of Jewish continuity.

  23. DK, I’ve been researching the study you have cited and I find it to have used an extremely flawed methodology, for one thing any child from a mixed marriage is just completely excuded from the study including those who are maternally Jewish. ? With reguard to Reform those from the Paternal line are raised Jewish as well. How can you get accurate results if they are automatically assumed gentile. The study isn’t based on actual data. It is based on biased assumptions of Orthodox Jews.

  24. sure the orthodox world uses gimmicks. ever here of the bible codes, anyone?
    no movement should be doing things just to get people in the door, whether it’s passing off bad science as corroboration of torah, or changing to be just like american society. quit playing the numbers game , and instead go for quality.
    that being said, many of us consider things such as egalitarianism, or acceptance/welcoming of LGBT-identified people as an ethical imperative, not as a crowd-pleaser.
    Some of us believe that there is an element of revelation through history (c.f. r.A.I. Kook, Dr. Tamar Ross) where new ideas that our conscience tells are moral (e.g. slavery is bad, equality for women is good) become part of torah.

  25. cipher – that is a different argument than what I am discussing. If Torah/Halacha is man-made then whether it has evolved or changes over time is irrelevant – we are man and we made it and we can change it.
    If, on the other hand, Torah/Halacha is God given, then we have no right to change it. This is where the discussion at hand comes up: Is Halacha an evolving process or not. If it is then we can be the agents of that evolution (such as Sarah M proposes). If not, then we cannot impose things into Halacha (the view I take).

  26. BZ,
    I am certainly not a Believer in a big way, but still on some level allow for divine inpiration on many levels and do believe in God and the comparative advantage of Judaism in some way. I guess my lack of belief grows the further down the history and liturgic trail you go. Less weight given to the rest of the Bible compared to the Torah itself, and less weight given to the Talmud’s dialectic as Law, and less still to the Shulchan Orach and the Mishna Brurah.
    But I guess if I was a true and complete heretic, and not just a partial one, I would drop the whole thing in its entirety. Maybe I still will, but I haven’t so far. Not completely. Just partially.

  27. In response to the biblical codes, many (I’d wager to say most) Rabbi’s and orthodox don’t believe in them at all. More importantly, it doesn’t really matter whether they are accurate or not–they aren’t anything integral to our beliefs. Additionally, the problem with conservative and reform is not that they dont retain the faith. It’s that they wash out the essence of judaism to modernize. The laws of yichud, of tzniyut, of proper shabbos ettiquete these are all lost on the conservative and reform community. I conservative friend of mine once remarked upon how much he enjoyed shabbos dinner right after he went to shul, according to him, “nothing is as satisfying as sushi and sake to welcome in the shabbos”. Is this judaism? Or have we created a whole new religion?

  28. I can’t believe some of the remarks about Halacha made by JWG were said with the utmost seriousness and a straight face.
    Leaving aside the argument as to whether or not the Judahite religion up to Ezra’s time in the mid 5th century BCE was completely Torah-based and therefore Jewish, I’d like to set the record straight that on several points:
    1. This discussion is the first that I’ve encounter an implicit claim that Islam started off as a Jewish movement or sect. This argument has no historical basis whatsoever.
    2. Karaism still is and always has been a Jewish movement. The fact they’ve been considered by the rabbis heretics since Sa`adia Gaon’s time doesn’t mean the Karaites have become non-Jewish. If JWG studied the Mishna and Talmud thoroughly, he would notice that they’re completely riddled with controversies where each member of a given pair of rabbis takes diametrically opposed positions to his mate on almost any given issue, and they very often deviate from the plain meaning of the Torah text, unnecessarily at that. Therefore, the verdict of rabbinical authorities shouldn’t be considered on a par with God’s as expressed in the Torah or its text’s plain meaning. So there’s no reason to accept the opinions of luminaries such as Rambam and Sa`adia Gaon that ruled the Karaites to be heretics.
    3. The most pronounced erroneous statements JWG has made apart from his implication about Islam’s beginnings are the claims that
    (a.) Judaism = Halacha.
    Nope. Judaism obviously had existed several centuries before early Halacha was gradually formed by the Pharisees starting mid 2nd century BCE. The Pharisee sect were the proto-rabbinical Jews. The so-called Esseans and the Sadducees (Zadokites) cannot be dismissed as non-Jews. As far as their insistence on interpreting the Torah by the plain meaning only, the Sadducees were in a sense the spiritual forerunners of the Karaites. Furthermore, careful study of Flavius Josephus’ writings teaches that the proto-Rabbinites (Pharisees) were in the minority among the Jewish population (including their body of followers) at least up until the mid 1st century AD.
    Equating Halacha with Judaism is a grave error, at least where ancient periods are concerned.
    (b.) Halacha has not changed over the millennia.
    Wrong again.
    If JWG were right about this, then Halacha wouldn’t have forbidden bringing all sacrifices, including the Pascal Lamb that can be brought *anywhere* within Jerusalem (provided we can obtain a Red Heifer and 2 kohanim with proven genealogy) and not only on the Temple Mount — notwithstanding many rabbinical rulings to the contrary.
    If JWG were right, Halacha wouldn’t have ordered lighting candles before Shabbat and mandated that a blessing be made (the directive to make a blessing was added by Geonim rabbis in the late 1st millennium AD in reaction to the challenge posed by Karaism) — a “commandment” found nowhere in the Torah or Tanakh.
    If JWG were right, Halacha wouldn’t have ordained celebrating Hannuka and lighting Hannuka candles sometime in the 1st millennium AD, even though this is nowhere to be found in the Torah or Tanakh and never existed in Judaism prior to 164 BCE.
    If JWG were right, Halacha wouldn’t have ordained separating meat and dairy products, eating times, utensils and sinks, etc. This is a huge extrapolation from the Torah’s directive very simple and straightforward directive to avoid cooking or boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and was never practiced by most Jews until the rabbis ultimately gained the upper hand in the Jewish world starting from 200 AD when the Mishna was published.
    Halacha has evolved ever since the Mishna was published. If that weren’t so, no one would have written and published the two Talmuds, Tosefta, Shulhan Aruch and many other rabbinical corpuses in intermediate and subsequent periods. And chances are we would have heard little about Rambam, the same famous rabbi mentioned by JWG, who has asked BZ for empirical facts. I’ve given quite a few such facts demonstrating with considerable clarity that Halacha has changed. One would have to be an Orthodoxy-oriented fanatic either incapable of thinking outside of the box or suffering from cognitive dissonance to fail to recognize from the examples I’ve alluded to that Halacha indeed has changed. Now, I’m aware that most rabbis have come to regard the Oral Torah (rabbinical Halacha) as more binding than the Torah itself, which I strongly disagree with. But when someone conflates the Halacha with the Torah itself, we’ve got very serious problems indeed. Trying to get such an individual to tell the two apart is probably impossible to accomplish.
    The fact that Halacha has retained the plain interpretation of some of the Torah’s explicit directives such as the prohibition on making a fire during Shabbat doesn’t prove Halacha to be identical to Judaism. And Kiddush is merely one legitimate interpretation of the obligation to sanctify the Shabbat; there’s no reliable evidence or any hints to suggest that this ceremony even existed during the 5th century BCE.
    Of course, some of Halacha’s expressions have evolved too. One example is the supposed ancient directive to don a kippa which is nowhere to be found in the Tanakh. This rabbinical precept can only be derived by deviating from the text’s plain meaning and through employing either the Drash, Remez or Sod exegesis methods. Kippa wearing was never mandatory until the last few centuries, and it was usually practiced only in synagogue, holy sites, blessings recitation, religious ceremonies and studying scripture. Subsequently, influential rabbinical rulers decided the kippa most be worn virtually always, and no male may step more than about 2 meters without a kippa on his head.
    JWG then told some interlocutor he/she concurs that no one practices Judaism the same way as it existed 2000 years ago, and yet proceeds to imply that Halacha didn’t actually exist then, although he/she had insisted that Judaism itself is identical Halacha and never changed. Well JWG, you can’t have it both ways. The fact is Halacha in its initial phases already existed 2000 years ago, even though many hadn’t followed it either partially or completely.
    Rabbinical convictions notwithstanding, it should now be obvious to any thinking and rational person that Halacha is man-made. Moreover, Halacha is still evolving — though at a remarkably slower pace than ever before — through the rulings of the leading 20th and 21st centuries rabbinical luminaries. Not only can it be changed, but in light of all that modern scholarship has learned about Halacha, we can do away with it almost completely and follow a Karaite path of Judaism. Frankly, Karaism is a far more Torah-true way to practice Judaism when Orthodoxy and Karaism are held up one against the other.
    So we see that Halacha itself has evolved, not only its various expressions. JWG looked forward for someone to show him he/she was wrong and give him/her a coherent argument as to Halacha having evolved. I’ve provided ample evidence proving his/her error. The real question at this junction is whether JWG is able to recognize that he/she has been shown to be wrong.

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