YOUR HEAD A SPLODE
(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
This Jewish Week article, which LastTrumpet already posted, is making my head explode for all kinds of different reasons. So I’m posting a line-by-line fisking of the article, to attempt to enumerate all the things wrong with it, though I’m probably just scratching the surface. Unlike previous articles I’ve done this for, where the problems were primarily with the frames invoked by the reporter, this article has at least five distinct categories of things wrong with it:
- Destructive framing by the Jewish Week reporter (inappropriate for a paper supposedly committed to objective journalism)
- Self-destructive framing by Reform movement personnel quoted in the article (inappropriate for an organization supposedly committed to Reform Judaism)
- The Jewish Week reporter creating a narrative unsupported by the facts
- Problematic attitudes and policies by Reform movement personnel
- Poor tactics by Reform movement personnel demonstrating a complete ignorance of adolescent psychology
I am particularly disturbed because I have written numerous apologetics for Reform Judaism (as I understand it), defending it from ideas that I believe to be misconceptions, and now official voices of the Reform movement are making statements that affirm all of those ideas.
David Kelsey has been posting about how OU/NCSY is pursuing an agenda of recruiting liberal Jewish teenagers to Orthodoxy. When I read articles like this, sometimes I wonder whether URJ/NFTY is stealthily doing the same thing. Maybe they’re not doing it on purpose, but if they were, it’s hard to imagine how they could be doing it more effectively than what they’re doing now: getting kids excited about Judaism, and then when the kids explore different options to build Jewish identities for themselves, responding with frames that affirm Orthodoxy as the standard against which all Jewish movements are defined. Every time a NFTY or UAHC/URJ camp alum ends up in the Orthodox world, it is viewed as an isolated incident (Rabbi Yoffie says “Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”), but the numbers are so great that it is time for the Reform movement to do some cheshbon hanefesh about this systemic phenomenon. I have already considered some of the sociological causes in “Profile of an ‘Unaffiliated’ Jew”, and this post points out some of the ideological causes.
A note about framing before we get started: Being careful about the frames we use isn’t just about words; it’s about ideas. It’s rarely just a question of replacing an objectionable word with a less objectionable synonym. For example, it would be offensive if I were to write “The role of chicks in the Reform rabbinate has come a long way since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first chick to be ordained by HUC-JIR. In recent years, chicks and men have been represented equally among new Reform rabbis.” But the problem could be completely remedied by replacing each instance of “chicks” with “women”, which refers to the same category of people in an unobjectionable way. In contrast, consider this example: “In recent years, many Reform Jews have become more religious, as demonstrated by such practices as wearing kipot, laying tefillin, singing Carlebach melodies, and keeping kosher.” The problem here isn’t only the use of the phrase “more religious” (though this phrase is problematic here, and “more observant” and “more traditional” would be similarly problematic), and the problem wouldn’t be solved by replacing “religious” with a different adjective. The problem is the idea that these four items can be meaningfully grouped into a category that makes sense from a Reform perspective. The assumption that makes this categorization possible is the truly destructive frame, not just the vocabulary used to describe it.
So here we go:
Warwick, N.Y. — The sun was setting at the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp in this picturesque upstate town, and in the dying light of a sweet summer day it was time for the evening prayer service.
In the lakeside pavilion that serves as Kutz Camp’s synagogue, the visiting musician who led the evening service on the Fourth of July, a Wednesday, set the prayers to an easy-listening jazz sound.
It was a musical style, played on an electric keyboard, that almost none of the campers connected with, many said later.
Shocking! Most red-blooded 16-year-olds LOVE “easy-listening jazz”, so if these campers didn’t, then big changes must be afoot in the Reform movement.
But some took their displeasure a step further, doing something unprecedented that night at Kutz that speaks volumes about a generation of Reform teens that is staking a new claim to Jewish ritual and tradition and posing a challenge for movement leaders.
As the musician played a jazzy version of the Barchu, a couple of campers got up and walked out. Over the next several minutes, other pairs of high school-age campers, one after another, got up and quietly left. It took awhile for the adults in the room to realize what was happening, but some 40 campers in all, about a quarter of those in attendance, spontaneously got up and left the service. The service was too untraditional, they later said, offensively so.
I wasn’t there and haven’t heard any firsthand accounts of what happened, but here’s my best guess based on my decade-old memories of what it’s like to be a teenager and my experience as a high school teacher: The campers reached a rapid consensus that the music sucked, perhaps using even coarser language (and I probably would have agreed with them). This alone would not have been enough to get most of them to “spontaneously” leave on their own. But once a few had left, this gave the rest of them cover so that they could simultaneously do what they wanted (get out of a service where they didn’t want to be), assert their individuality, and be part of a group. We don’t have enough evidence to judge whether all of the people who left felt that the service was “too untraditional”, or whether this was just the stated opinion of a trendsetting few. But it seems to me that the “untraditional” claim is a red herring — presumably if it had been music that they liked, they would have stayed regardless of how “traditional” it was or wasn’t. (Indeed, the style that has been prevalent at Reform camp services for 35 years, accompanied by acoustic guitar and influenced by American folk music, is no more “traditional” in the unfortunate way that word seems to be defined in this article, but I can’t imagine these campers would have walked out on Debbie Friedman.)
Turns out, it was their own spiritual Independence Day.
Once out of the pavilion, clusters of teens agreed to find different spaces so that they could continue their prayers the way they wanted to. Some ended up forming a minyan in a bathroom.
This is beautiful. Really. To the extent that the camp’s educational mission is about empowering people to create their own Jewish life, this should be viewed as a smashing success. To the extent that the camp’s mission is about training people to be docile members of Reform congregations who won’t challenge the professionals’ decisions, I can see how this behavior represents a threat. But that mission is flawed for a number of reasons, not least that if trends hold up, these campers aren’t likely to join Reform congregations for at least another 15 years (if at all), and they’ll need the tools to get by in the meantime.
If the Kutz administration were going to criticize the campers for anything here, it should have been on hachnasat orechim grounds — the campers were disrespectful to their guest. Turning it into an ideological struggle merely affirms the campers in their sense of righteous indignation, makes them feel that they are being persecuted for their beliefs and practices, and drives them away from the Reform movement. The message should have been “Walking out isn’t nice”, not “Your aesthetic preferences are unacceptable”.
“When the prayers were very nontraditional, they felt botched; the music was so distracting,” said Sarah Wolfson, a 16-year-old from Calabasas, Calif., who is social action vice president of her temple youth group. “It seemed so disrespectful. I’ve become quite attached to saying the prayers the way I was bat mitzvahed with. It’s something I find really powerful,” she continued.
Aha! Now we see what “traditional” actually means to the campers, not what the Jewish Week and Rabbi Yoffie would like it to mean so that they can write a story and make a political point respectively. I don’t know Sarah Wolfson, but we can be reasonably sure that the congregation where she “was bat mitzvahed [sic]” didn’t use Carlebach niggunim or yeshivish speed-davening or easy-listening jazz, but used one of the styles that are standard in the Reform movement. Thus, “nontraditional”, to her, means “not what I’m used to”, and carries no ideological valence. Depending on one’s perspective, this attitude of seeking the familiar might be seen as reverent respect for our heritage, or as narrow-minded inflexibility, but either way, this attitude can be found among people in all Jewish movements (including Classical Reform).
Wolfson was one of the campers who went to a girls’ bathroom to pray. “We were all able to create that connection together in our gathering. It was very moving and empowering.”
No doubt. Harnessing adolescent rebellion toward productive pursuits can be very powerful. A pivotal Jewish experience for me during my NFTY years was a retreat at camp where a small group of us from NFTY joined with a small group from an Orthodox high school for the beginning of Sukkot. On the first night, we had services together, organized by the adults. The services were basically what they would have been if the Orthodox group had been on its own, except that they threw us Reform kids a bone by reading some of the prayers in English, which we found condescending. As a protest, some of the people in my NFTY group stood at the back and started singing the Klepper/Freelander “Shalom Rav” at the end of the silent Amidah. Late that night in the cabin, some people from both groups decided that we were going to run services the following night the way we wanted, rather than let those adults do it for us when they just don’t understand. For several hours, we went through the siddur and found a way to do services that would be acceptable to both groups. The issue of 1-day vs 2-day yom tov wasn’t on our radar, since most of us had never observed even one full day of Sukkot as a full cessation from work (however defined), so this retreat was so far outside our experience that it didn’t occur to us that there was something off about the two-day thing. The issue of gender, which would ordinarily be a major sticking point in this sort of Reform-Orthodox pluralistic dialogue, also didn’t really come up, since the Orthodox group was all male, and there was just one girl in the NFTY group and she was apathetic. So the issues we were working out between us were mostly stylistic (and, in retrospect, superficial), but at the time they seemed important to our Jewish identities. In the end, we were proud of what we had accomplished on our own without the adults, and we felt Jewishly empowered and had our first meaningful experiences with creating pluralistic Jewish communities. The content was less important than that empowerment and that dialogue. And none of this would have happened if we had just accepted what the adults were feeding us and hadn’t rebelled.
These teens are part of what appears to be a growing number of young adults in the denomination more interested in conventional prayer and traditional Jewish observances than their parents are.
“Conventional prayer”? The Reform movement is the largest organized Jewish movement in the country, so there’s nothing more “conventional” than what goes on in Reform synagogues every week, and I don’t think these teens are more interested in the rabbi-cantor-choir services from back home than their parents are. “Traditional Jewish observance”? Oh yes, I remember my great-grandmother telling me about how she and her friends used to put on their tefillin and have a Carlebach minyan in the girls’ bathroom when they were teenagers back in the shtetl.
Rather, these teens are exploring Jewish practices different from what they grew up with, and I think it’s completely healthy for them to engage in this sort of exploration as they think about what it means for them to create their own Jewish experience rather than depending on authority figures to create it for them. And there’s nothing “more” or “less” traditional about that — it’s just a part of growing up.
Kutz Camp, which runs sessions from late June through mid-August, attracts the most-committed Reform teens from around the country and so, while what happens there may not be typical of what’s going on everywhere, it is a seeding ground for new leaders and a place where developing trends are evident.
In addition to demanding more traditional prayer, a small but growing number of campers and young faculty there are wearing yarmulkes or tzitzit, even tefillin along with prayer shawls.
Ok, so teenagers are looking for outward ways to display their Jewish identities. What’s the problem with that? This list might also include Tzahal T-shirts and chai necklaces. I think it’s harmless; it’s the adults who are turning this into an ideological movement, not the teenagers. The adults should stop projecting their own issues onto the campers and go read Erikson.
One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected.
“Fervently Orthodox men”??? Here I’m at a loss for words.
For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes.
“More modern”??? Carlebach was writing his now-classic tunes in the ’70s, at the exact same time that Friedman and Klepper were writing theirs. And they were all doing basically the same thing — setting Jewish prayers to simple melodies influenced by an American folk idiom to enable people to join together in spirited musical prayer. Just because Carlebach had a bigger beard than Klepper and sang with an Ashkenazi accent doesn’t mean that his music is any more “traditional” or less “modern”.
There are even “rumblings” of interest in making the camp, which is now kosher-style, really kosher, said Kutz Director Rabbi Eve Rudin. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago. Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”
It’s an ironic shift for Kutz, which has long been a site of creative experimentation, like the jazz service, in Reform worship.
Where’s the irony? These kids didn’t grow up wearing tzitzit or tefillin, so when they try them on at Kutz, it’s in precisely that spirit of “creative experimentation”, and should be encouraged as such.
It also seems to reflect a growing generation gap, with current leaders of the movement’s institutions not always fully ready to embrace the changes that its youngest constituents are calling for.
This sentence could have been written about any movement institutions in any generation.
Several young faculty members at Kutz this summer (where I taught writing during the first session) wanted to gather to sing the traditional Friday evening Psalms at the edge of the lake before camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services. Initially, said one faculty member who asked not to be named, they were given tacit permission as long as they didn’t invite camper participation. But then they were told they could not, since singing the Psalms — even though they’re contained in the Reform prayer book — isn’t a conventional Reform practice.
Wait, I’m confused! I thought you just said that the younger generation was more interested in “conventional prayer”!
Anyway, this policy blows my mind. Kutz, “a site of creative experimentation”, is taking the position that anything that isn’t done in most Reform congregations is out of bounds? Unless it involves easy-listening jazz? Is Kutz denying that these psalms are part of the Tanach, or for that matter, of Gates of Prayer?
For Rabbi Rudin, the issue was about faculty members separating themselves from the rest of the community in order to do something which “would be seen as ‘more religious,’ or ‘better,’ ” she said.
“We as a faculty are here to enable the experience for the kids, so if the kids see that the faculty are not pleased with the worship, what are they going to think about their own Jewish practice? I want every camper to feel proud of the Jewish choices they are making and not to feel that ‘more is better’ or ‘more traditional is better.’ ”
If the article is accurate that this was going on before (not during) camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services, then they’re not actually separating themselves from the rest of the community.
Rabbi Rudin, you are the one labeling these services as “more religious”, by forbidding them on those grounds. The people participating are doing so because they prefer that for themselves, for whatever reason, and are making no statement about what is objectively “better” for everyone. As I got older, one of the things I found frustrating about working at a UAHC camp was that any individually motivated Jewish practice (which someone did because s/he chose to, rather than because it was on the schedule) was viewed with automatic suspicion. If the faculty is pursuing their own prayer experiences to augment the camp-wide services, then the message this sends to the kids is that it’s ok (and perhaps even desirable) to make thoughtful choices about personal Jewish practice, and they have role models for doing this. That was the message I picked up when I was a camper and one of my counselors refused to say Aleinu on ideological grounds. Was his practice “more religious” or “better”? Who cares? That’s not the point. The point was that someone I respected was thinking for himself about what the prayers meant. If camp is supposed to be a laboratory for an ideal Jewish community, then the faculty can be better role models if they are living meaningful Jewish lives than if they are just putting on a show for the campers.
Since the practice of singing these psalms on Friday night dates back to the 16th century, and the rest of the Friday night service is much older, one could easily make the argument that it’s “more traditional” not to sing these psalms. (And as we see above, this is obviously true in the Reform movement’s history as well.) But that shouldn’t matter — including or not including these psalms seems like a morally neutral question that should be subject to individual discretion, regardless of which choice is “more traditional”. Anyway, Rabbi Rudin is falling into the Artscroll trap of identifying “more traditional” with “consonant with contemporary Orthodox practice, regardless of vintage”.
Top Reform leaders are equally concerned that those more inclined to classical Reform Judaism, which is less focused on ritual observance, not feel alienated by those interested in tradition.
Classical Reform Judaism made some strong statements on paper, but in practice, it is just as focused on ritual observance as any other stream of Judaism — you better make sure that the rabbi is wearing a robe, and that everyone stands or sits at the same time, and that everyone listens attentively to the choir, or else. The relevant distinction here is more between communal and individual ritual observance — “top Reform leaders” are concerned that individuals are pursuing ritual observance that is different from the ritual observances mandated by the institutions.
And anyone who bans something because it’s not a “conventional Reform practice” is “interested in tradition”. Congratulations.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, heard from many campers about the “botched” jazz service when he came to Kutz for a visit in mid-July. “They were so afraid of offending these kids [the more religiously inclined] that they were too intimidated to proceed in their desire to bring creative approaches to prayer, something we normally do in virtually any youth setting,” Rabbi Yoffie told The Jewish Week.
“The more religiously inclined”??? This was in brackets, so I’m going to blame the Jewish Week for this one, not Rabbi Yoffie. But come on. Anyone with a “desire to bring creative approaches to prayer” sounds pretty “religiously inclined” to me!
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the movement’s seminary arm, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview that “the Reform movement has to be tolerant and embrace classical Reform Jews for whom this embrace of tradition is not something they celebrate. I would hope it would remain sufficiently pluralistic to include both camps.”
I know some Classical Reform Jews, and they’re all about “embrace of tradition” and they can’t understand why what was good enough for 19th-century Germany isn’t good enough for today’s kids. (As I’ve written before, I think some Classical Reform practices “originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state”. But that’s beside the point.)
Otherwise, kudos to Rabbi Ellenson for his call for pluralism.
Some Kutz teens also viewed unity as the priority.
Grace Klein wrote in the camp newspaper after the jazz service that “as disturbed as I was throughout the service, I as well as everyone else who stayed, chose to place the unity of Kutznikim over personal satisfaction. The choice also had to do with respect” for the musician leading the service.
Ok, fine. I don’t place unity on as high a pedestal, so I think it would have been fine to have two parallel minyanim, one with easy-listening jazz and one without, but I agree that it would have been better to make this decision in advance.
“The fact is that many of us prefer the traditional aspects of Judaism, particularly in worship, more than previous Reform generations did,” she wrote. But “If anything, the schmaltzy, keyboard extravaganza was an experiment … the way to lead the movement towards tradition is not to balk at our predecessors’ choices but to basically keep on doing what we’re doing.”
While the tensions raised by this developing issue may have been more visible at Kutz than in other Reform-affiliated institutions, it is not the only place the interest in traditional observance is being seen.
Many young Reform rabbis are reversing choices made by their older colleagues, some of whom proudly eat shrimp and bacon.
David Singer, 24, is part of this new wave. Entering his fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the Village, he always wears a kipa and tzitzit, keeps kosher and doesn’t ride or use money on Shabbat.
But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.
Why is the phrase “traditional observance” being used to refer purely to ritual observance (rather than to mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro), and purely to ritual observances that weren’t common in the Reform movement a few decades ago?
The spreading interest in traditional observance is creating “a tug of war between pluralism and uniformity” for the movement, said Singer, who was on the Kutz faculty.
“Maybe it’s a fear that ‘God forbid we become more like the Orthodox.’ It’s not about being Orthodox, but the exact opposite because we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about. It’s seen as a threat, but it shouldn’t be.”
I agree 100%.
Singer grew up in the Reform movement, in its summer camps and attending a Reform day school in his home city of San Diego, and now lives in Brooklyn.
“I’m definitely one of the more observant people in my [rabbinical school] class,” Singer said. But “I know that as a class we all struggle to find our place within the Reform movement.
Normally I’d take issue with the use of “more observant”, but it’s possible that he also means it in a way that would actually be accurate.
“Do any of us pray in Reform synagogues in New York City aside from small minyanim at Beth Elohim?” the Park Slope Reform synagogue where he works as rabbinic intern. “No. You’re more likely to find us at the independent minyanim” that in recent years have sprouted up around New York City, where the approach to prayer tends to be at once creative and traditional.
Props to Beth Elohim, which may hold a record among synagogues for hosting the most independent minyanim. So it seems like if it weren’t for the independent minyanim, the Reform movement’s future rabbis wouldn’t have anywhere where they want to pray as participants (rather than as leaders).
“We’re looking for things outside the box in which our generation feels comfortable experimenting and expressing our Judaism in ways that haven’t always fit into the established norms of Reform Judaism. At times it is seen as an affront to people who aren’t always ready for it,” Singer said.
This is a much more accurate frame that reflects the internal dynamics of the Reform movement. The Reform movement has “established norms”, and some people are “outside the box”. This makes more sense than the frame prevalent in the rest of the article, which labels practices as “traditional” when Orthodoxy happens to share them and “creative” otherwise, ignoring the motivations behind those practices.
So can these conflicting approaches to Jewish worship and observance be reconciled within the Reform movement?
Only if the Reform movement gives up homogeneity.
It’s a real-world challenge, said Rabbi Yoffie, who in 1999 called for “a Reform revolution” in worship, with more emphasis on lively prayer and text study. “There isn’t a shul in the world that doesn’t struggle to create a worship experience meaningful to everybody.”
Maybe they’d have more success if they weren’t trying to make it “meaningful to everybody”, and instead tried to pick one thing and do it well. “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”
Taking on Jewish observance should be embraced, said Rabbi Yoffie — to a point.
Again, this isn’t in quotes so it’s the Jewish Week’s fault, but “Jewish observance”??? Like loving the stranger, keeping honest weights and measures, and pursuing justice? To a point?
“No aspect of the tradition should be foreign to us. We should be prepared to explore everything. Even things that would have been unthinkable to parents and grandparents,” said Rabbi Yoffie.
Great. (And I hope that includes kabbalat shabbat psalms too, as an example that should be uncontroversial. I also hope it includes “aspect[s] of the tradition” that haven’t been invented yet.)
“Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”
Generally that’s a final step, after they feel that they’ve exhausted their options in the Reform community where they came from. Are you interested in pushing people in that direction? Why?
There are limits to what the Reform movement can encompass, he said. “We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented,” he said, referring to Jewish law. “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”
Ok, let’s count all the things wrong with this statement.
- I honestly don’t understand the distinction he’s drawing between “mitzvah-oriented” and “halacha-oriented”. Is it that “mitzvah” refers to 613 imperative statements in the Torah (many of which are not followed today by anyone) and “halacha” refers to the specifics of how to observe them? If so, then how can the mitzvot be observed with no specifics? (That’s right, no specifics. He didn’t say “we disagree with Orthodox halacha”, he didn’t say “we don’t have a single uniform halacha”, he said “not halacha-oriented”.)
- If the Reform movement is “not halacha-oriented”, then has the CCAR Responsa Committee been informed?
- Whose official definition does Rabbi Yoffie use for “it all” (referring to Jewish law)? The Rif? Isaac Klein? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? The CCAR Responsa Committee? Artscroll? An educated Reform Jew who is interpreting halacha autonomously? In the Orthodox world, only an extremist (and an ignorant one) would say that there is a single set of practices that can be identified as “the halacha”. So how can there be a single version of halacha of which Reform Jews definitionally don’t observe “it all”?
- The language of “take … upon yourself” implies that there is choice in the matter. The language of “mitzvah” implies obligation. Therefore, for these purposes, it seems that “choice” vs “obligation” is a false dichotomy — I think Rabbi Yoffie would agree that there are situations in which both apply.
- Are the ethical mitzvot a “choice”?
- Add your own!
Back at Kutz, as third-session campers arrived, many to participate in community service programs as part of the camp’s “Mitzvah Corps,” Rabbi Rudin reflected on the tensions playing out between those interested in greater observance and those who are not.
“Greater observance”…… I’ve said it all already. 🙁
“We do want there to be experimentation, and I do think there’s a place here for someone who keeps strictly kosher and to wear tefillin. This is supposed to be a very pluralistic place. But in the end, even though the Reform movement is about being pluralistic, there is a range” of accepted behaviors, she said.
“This is about the Reform movement coming to terms with the fact that there are boundaries, and what those boundaries may be.”
For sure. But why should those boundaries be anywhere in regard to personal ritual practice? I can think of many practices followed in parts of the Orthodox world (you know, the world that the Jewish Week uses as a standard for “religious”, “observant”, and “traditional”) that should be outside appropriate boundaries for the Reform movement (e.g. discriminating against LGBT people, excluding women from leadership roles, supporting West Bank settlements, encouraging all the men in the community to study full-time instead of getting a job), but nothing of the sort is being pursued by the Kutz campers. Of course, the first two would be happening in the Reform movement today if it restricted itself to “conventional Reform practice” as it was known in previous generations.