Identity, Religion

Slate Shows Up (a Little Late) to the Debate

Today on, Samantha M. Shapiro analyzes Ismar’s throwdown. Sure… it happened a few months ago, but the issue’s still ripe, I guess:

Earlier in this century, the common wisdom was that Orthodox Judaism would die out in America, outmoded and irrelevant. Instead, it’s the American Jewish center that’s eroding. Conservative Judaism, once the most popular Jewish denomination in the United States, has recently taken second place to the more clearheaded Reform movement. About 33 percent of American Jews affiliate with Conservative Judaism, down from 38 percent 10 years ago. And interestingly, as the Reform movement swells, to a lesser degree, so do the numbers of Orthodox. And as sociologist Samuel Heilman shows in his recent book, Sliding to the Right, the form of Orthodoxy that’s on the rise is the more extremist and isolationist sort—the congregations and movements that are deliberately at odds with American norms.

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7 thoughts on “Slate Shows Up (a Little Late) to the Debate

  1. She gives the Reform movement both not enough credit and too much credit.
    Take the issue of the ordination of gay rabbis. It’s a no-brainer for Reform Jews, who allow it because they place precedence on personal choice above biblical mandates
    This is a muddled and distorted view of Reform ideology and history.
    (First of all, as a side note, there are no “biblical mandates” about the ordination of rabbis, gay or otherwise, so any discussion on this topic is rabbinic, not purely biblical.)
    Classical Reform (the kind that everyone uses as a straw man to this day; it features prominently in the Conservative movement’s creation myth) was indeed saying that certain elements of the “Mosaic legislation” categorically do not apply in the present day, but they were not talking about “personal choice” or anything like it. They were as conformist as their Orthodox contemporaries, if not more so; the difference was in what they were conforming to.
    Contemporary Reform (1970s and later, the kind that talks about informed autonomy) says that individuals have the responsibility for determning how the mitzvot are to be observed, rather than placing this authority in the hands of a rabbinic mara d’atra. This doesn’t mean that “they place precedence on personal choice above biblical mandates”; it just means that different individuals will reach different conclusions on how the biblical mandates are to be carried out.
    (Yes, this is an idealization, but the reality — that most Reform Jews don’t give a shit about anything — applies equally to Conservative Jews. The difference is that the apathetic Conservative Jews have a sense of superiority because at least they’re not Reform. It’s the “southern strategy” all over again.)
    So when the Reform movement ordains Jews of all sexual orientations, this is not (as stereotyped) a case of “Yeah, the Torah says it’s wrong, but we can do whatever we want, we’re Reform!”. On the contrary, equality among people of all orientations is pursued in the name of upholding biblical mandates (humans are created in God’s image, etc.), not overturning them.
    The flip side is that despite these lofty ideals, equality was not always a “no-brainer” in the Reform movement. For many decades, bigotry inspired many dyed-in-the-wool shrimp-eating Classical Reform rabbis to pull out every source from Leviticus to the Shulchan Aruch to show that homosexuality was unacceptable. This is a blemish on the history of the Reform movement, but they eventually came around (or, more often, died and were replaced by a new generation), lending support to the old joke “What’s the difference between the Reform movement and the Conservative movement? 20 years.”

  2. Uh, BZ… you are pulling the same intellectual stunt that you point out in Shapiro’s article.
    If, as you say, Reform Judaism is “as conformist as their Orthodox contemporaries” – then the people who “pulled out” Leviticus and other Jewish sources (nice choice of words – as if there was no thousand-year tradition, as if they just “pulled it” out of a hat because of their own “bigotry”) to justify their position on homosexuality were not acting out of their own prejudice – they were reflecting Reform’s “conformance” to received tradition.
    Round and round it goes – neither old Reform formulations nor your postmodern hairsplitting can hide the reality: non-Ortho movements have severed their connection to the binding moral covenant of Sinai. Assimilation and moral drift are the inevitable results.

  3. You didn’t mention Reconstructionism. I live in Philadelphia and the Rexonstructionsist Rabbinical College is in the nearby suburbs. It seems that in my area there are many small Reconstructionst synagogues and many more Reconstructionist Rabbis who function in many different arenas, including education. My synagogue’s rabbis is Reconstructionis, although we are an independent synagouge.
    By the way, I would love to see the new Reform prayerbook that is will be released in September 2006. They are calling it Mikshan T’filah.

  4. I don’t think that the internal coherence of a religion or a movement has anything to do with its popularity. BZ is pointing to a very big problem in Shapiro’s article–that Shapiro assumes that all changes to Halakhah lack any justification other than demonstrating that Halakhah doesn’t apply.
    The current fight within the Conservative movement about ordaining gays and lesbians is so contentious precisely because there are compelling moral arguments being made. We do not see such fights about the use of rennet.
    I understand why from a Modern Orthodox perpsective, Conservative Movement changes to/interpretations of Halakhah might not be legitimate. But this does not mean that arguments about it are all identical. Likewise with the Reform movement. Even ‘classical Reform’ does not have crazy arguments for getting rid of Halakhah. I do not find Reform Judaism’s claims about Halakhah to be persuasive, but I think they are very serious claims.
    Moreover, ‘autonomy’ is not some superficial category. Indeed, it is R. Soloveitchik’s and arguably thus Modern Orthodoxy’s main issue to show that Halakhic observance is autonomous. When Kant sought to make morality autonomous, he wasn’t doing it because of some suburban “leave me alone” mentality, but because in order for morality to be rational, it had to be autonomous. Soloveitchik makes very good arguments about the autonomy of Halakhic man, but it should be obvious to all that Halakhah is heteronomous on its face.

  5. Samantha M. Shapiro writes in Slate that: The decision in 1972 to ordain women rabbis at JTS wasn’t advocated by the institutions’ Talmudic scholars but by a committee of lay people. They made many strong moral and ethical arguments for ordaining women, but they couldn’t ground their stance coherently in Jewish law.
    This exerpt from the Slate article seems to illustrate the author’s failure to grasp the nuances of the Conservative Movement (and, I would agree with BZ, the Reform movement).
    First, while the impetus for women’s equality may have come from lay people, it came from people like (Rabbi)(Professor) Judith Haupman, hardly people unable “ground their stance coherently in Jewish law.” Second, the decision-making process was taken away from lay people and given to the faculty of JTS. Sitting on my desk is a book called The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa, full of teshuvot from people unable to “ground their stance coherantly in Jewish law” such as Israel Francus, Robert Gordis, Joel Roth, Gordon Tucker, and Gerson Cohen.
    Third, and perhaps most importantly, Shapiro just reads the history wrong. I WISH the decision to permit (and I do mean “permit”) egalitariansim had been based on moral and ethical grounds in addition to halacha. Unfortunately, though, it was made on narrow halachic grounds without a sweeping moral component. Rabbi Roth’s teshuva, which did enable women to be at JTS, is about halacha, not ethics. Indeed, he writes, “I have made it quite clear, I hope, that I would be opposed to any argument for women’s ritual rights which was predicated on an a priori claim that men and women must be equal.”
    The Conservative movement (wrongly, in my book) failed to promote egalitarianism as an imperative value, and one that is consistent with halacha. Judith Hauptman actually talks about this a great deal, saying that the beginning of the end (or maybe the beginning of the end of the end) for the movement can be traced to the movement’s failure of vision and nerve around the “women’s issue.” In the 5766 Shefa Journal, she writes:
    It was at this point that the Conservative movement lost its moorings. In the wake of its egalitarian transformation, the leaders needed to actively advocate the point of view that this change fulfilled the mandate of its founders, that it was the highest order of good. They needed to tell people that Conservative Judaism was about holding on to the practices of the past– Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, study of Jewish texts and so on– but that it was also about responding to evolving ethical sensitivities of the present…. But they failed to do so.
    Bottom line: Shapiro reads the movement wrong on this issue, as well as on others that other people have pointed out.

  6. Ben-David writes:
    If, as you say, Reform Judaism is “as conformist as their Orthodox contemporaries” – then the people who “pulled out” Leviticus and other Jewish sources (nice choice of words – as if there was no thousand-year tradition, as if they just “pulled it” out of a hat because of their own “bigotry”) to justify their position on homosexuality were not acting out of their own prejudice – they were reflecting Reform’s “conformance” to received tradition.
    My point was that Classical (not contemporary) Reform was generally not in conformance to “thousand-year traditions”; they were conforming to 19th-century practices. Even when they were being radical, they did so collectively, not individualistically.
    Since these were people who had no difficulty saying in other cases “this ritual commandment in the Torah has no place in modern times” (as they did for kashrut), their insistence that homosexuality is wrong (for which they claimed a basis in the Torah) stands out as a selective reading of the text.

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