Saturday, August 04, 2007

Triumphalism Pisses Me Off

It's my 400th post (wee!), and seeing as how a lot of my ire seems to get focused on Haredi Jews, I thought I'd try to amend this by pointing my lens over at the other end of the spectrum: Reform. Now, ideologically, I'm pretty close to Reform Judaism. I like that it's honest about picking and choosing mitzvot and customs, and that it isn't afraid to say so. I also like that it hasn't shied away from reversing itself when it was proven wrong (its shift from anti-Zionism to Zionism is one example, its return to more traditional Jewish ritual and education is another). And I think that the pioneers of Reform Judaism, especially in America, were fascinating individuals who accomplished a lot for their communities.

But here's the rub: deep down, it's hard to escape the stereotype that Reform is:

A) Convenient, by which I mean designed to be convenient, not necessarily meaningful or deep, and

B) Elitist. A big part of that is its history- long the movement of the rich and acculturated Germans, there's still some significant cultural baggage there for good ol' shtetl-descendants like me. As Reform has become increasingly political, this subtle sneering has seemed to increase.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like other denominations don't do this, too. But it's particularly tricky for me because, in a perfect scenario, there wouldn't be so many details about Reform Judaism in practice that turn me off and thereby prevent me from yelling loud and proud, "I'm Reform! Where do I sign up?" Instead I seem to be stuck between Conservative, whose theology I disagree with but whose everyday worship and scholarship seems to resonate with me, and Reform, whose theology I like, but very little else.

Whatever the answer to my personal dilemma, I'm sure of one thing: guys like Robert Heller, head of Board of the Union for Reform Judaism, aren't helping.

Heller is right in identifying that today Judaism demands active identification, and that Reform Judaism has more to offer people than merely "not Orthodoxy."
They -- we -- are choosing Reform Judaism because it stands for something and enables us to engage in Jewish prayer, study and action that has meaning and relevance for us in today’s world, not because it is not Orthodox Judaism.
Amen. But there's a problem. Heller goes on to articulate six points of "attractive" Reform tenets- none of which are exclusive to Reform. Let's take them one at a time, and out of order for dramatic effect.

1: Egalitarianism. A wonderful thing. But it's not new, and it's not just Reform. These days, any place that isn't Orthodox is egalitarian, and even some Modern Orthodox folks are trying to test the boundaries, for instance, by having women sing psalms during Friday night worship.

2: Inclusion. Also great. Also not limited to Reform. Conservative has a ways to go on the gay thing, but for the most part, this is an issue of degrees, not principles. And incidentally, it's a little weird to hear about the inclusiveness of Reform while they're simultaneously trying to nudge non-Jewish spouses to convert. Just saying.

3: Pluralism. Here I admit that Reform is in pretty good standing, but part of that is because it's the most liberal denomination. Unless it's going to say, "halacha is bullshit and you're all idiots," it's kind of a given that they're going to be the ones championing a many paths to God mantra. Also, Heller's reference to people being made in the image of God seems to be a total nonsequiteur. Everyone is made in the image of God, that doesn't mean that every path or position is legitimate (ex: Jihadism).

4: Prophetic Voice. Again, Reform has been at the vanguard of social justice, and I for one appreciate the fact that they extend their gaze beyond "Jewish only issues." At the same time, while relevance to the outside world and putting your faith into practice is great, a critique I've heard is that a Reform bar mitzvah is more about volunteering at soup kitchens than learning Hebrew. I'm not saying tikkun olam isn't a good thing, just that it can't (or shouldn't) be the only thing.

5: Lay people. Where has Heller been? What community or congregation DOESN'T have lay people involved? Even Orthodox communities do this. I don't know who Heller's comparing himself to here.

And lastly, the big H.


Proper role of halachah: We know that halachah is a set of man-made rules (and I mean man-made – women have not been a significant part of their development). We respect that tradition and understand its evolution over time in different places, but we also understand that halachah was not handed down from on high at Sinai or anywhere else. Hence, we give it a voice, not a veto, and we interpret it in light of modernity and the realities of human experience.

Ok, I totally love the vote not veto thing, but it seems to be undermined by the fact that the general trend among Reform is to eschew a lot of traditions and mitzvot automatically. If Reform is as committed to "personal choice" as it likes to say it is, there should be a larger spectrum of practices within the movement, and the synagogues and rabbis should be the ones encouraging this exploration. Heller's drash of halacha seems more contemptuous than anything else. I don't care much for it myself, but I'm also not constructing a whole belief system here. Heller would be better served here by at least cherrypicking a few mitzvot he finds meaningful and talking about the beauty in Reform allowing people to freely choose how to live their lives with a clean conscience.

In fact, a lot of my issues with Heller aren't so much the things he's saying as how he's saying them- the construction of his 6 points seems to be almost along marketing lines: "Don't directly attack your competition, just talk about how good you are!" That'd be fine for a brochure, but it doesn't work so well here.

Heller ends with an appeal towards the countercultural trend embedded in Jewish tradition itself, which I like. But I'm still suspicious that the average 3rd or 4th generation Reform Jew is cognizant enough of tradition itself that they can make informed choices, particularly in regards to creating their own adaptations and modifications. I guess one of the things I want from Reform theologians and leaders is for them to "show their work," to show the starting-point from Orthodoxy (there's that old tricky fallacy of contemporary Orthodoxy as the gold standard!) to where they are now, and explain how we get there and why. I want some guarantees that people in Reform are there because they actually believe it, and not just because it's convenient.

Maybe that's too much to ask. But I think it's a legitimate question, and a serious one. You only get to claim authority from tradition if you actually know the tradition in the first place. Without that, Reform loses its "no BS" legitimacy with me. Radicalism plus time becomes stagnated traditionalism of its own, and is nothing to cheer about.

Edit: Poop, 400th post technically, only 389th posted. Well, back to work.

1 comment:

Tzipporah said...

Heller is also a thief - the "vote not veto" line is RECONSTRUCTIONIST - you know, those people who actually keep lots of the tradition and practice. Interesting that Reformies are trying to coopt it.