Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Godamn it, Reform Movement

Can all the movements of Judaism please stop imploding? Pretty please?

Oy Bay has a post on a recent debacle that occurred at a Reform Summer Camp. Apparently the Camp, Camp Kutz (I can only imagine how many times that sign's been defaced), has been the site of a growing number of mitzvah-observant Reform kids. This has been something of an issue for the Reform leadership, but as long as it didn't make waves (or headlines), they were happy to ignore it, as well as the ramifications for their movement.

That was, until the Kutz Kids started testing their limits. The moment of truth happened at a Friday night service on July 4th. A performer set the prayers to easy-listening Jazz with an electric keyboard and guitar. And a lot of the campers just weren't having it. By the time the service ended, about a quarter of those in attendance had spontaneously walked out, forming their own minyans elsewhere on the camp grounds.

Asked about why they did what they did, the campers said that the music just wasn't what they were looking for- too nontraditional, some even called it offensive. The Jewish Week notes,

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. One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected. For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes.

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.”

The Jewish Week identified Kutz as one of the first real battlegrounds between the old and new generations of Reform Judaism. It rightly points out that Kutz "attracts the most-committed Reform teens from around the country", which means it can't be considered representative of the whole movement, but I definitely think it's indicative of an emerging trend, as young Reform Jews, who actually believe the rhetoric they've been taught about Reform being about honest individual explorations of mitzvot and tradition coming up against an increasingly rigid hierarchy that is, it seems, just as static in its own way as the Orthodoxy it still claims to be rebelling against. At Kutz, faculty were prevented from observing Kabbalat Shabbat in a traditional manner because it goes against Reform practices. Supposedly the issue there was trying to avoid confusing the kids or giving them a religious inferiority complex. The Director, Eve Rudin, 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.’ ”

No, more traditional isn't automatically better, but neither is less traditional! Why not give the kids an option?

Enter Head Reformie Eric Yoffie, who, I'm sorry, maybe I'm being unfair, but I'm increasingly not really liking this guy. He is NOT doing it for me as far as promoting Reform Judaism as an open movement that welcomes others, regardless of faith or sect. Hell, he makes the Kutz kids out to be part of the Meah Shearim Modesty Patrol just for having an opinion and personal preference about their style of worship:

“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”

First of all, horsecrap. When the kids start burning trash cans, throwing rocks or breaking out seltzer bottles of bleach, then you can play the intimidation card. These kids walked out and did their own thing- EXACTLY what Abraham Geiger and I.M. Wise did in their day.

Second of all, Yoffie is totally wrong on this. A truly creative and open approach to prayer should include more than just experimental jazz riffs. It should have the option of trying all sorts of different flavors, not just ones that have passed with the seal of approval from liberal focus-groups. Even the kids that stayed said they did so not because they found the service meaningful or relevant, but out of respect for group unity (an interesting prospect that I'm having difficulty deciding on). Jazz versions of the service shouldn't be banned, but neither should Carlebach. Reform should be putting its money where its mouth is, noticing what the trends among the youth are, and incorporating those elements into their ongoing desire to be pluralistic AND relevant. You don't sing Kabbalat Shabbat psalms? Why not try it one night? You can do jazz one week and Carlebach the next, and freaking Kabbalah-yoga the week after that- I don't care, but to act as though you can't do something because it goes against Reform tradition is to build your own laws into stone, create your own Torah-mi-Berlin (or Pittsburgh), and I honestly don't think that many people are interested in following Yoffie down that road.

Yoffie continues to be unhelpful, speaking out both sides of his mouth:

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... Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”

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.”
But if you preclude people from even looking in that direction, you aren't being true to the spirit of choice, either- you've already decided for them. What's the difference between that and the most cloistered and insular yeshiva?

I understand Yoffie's bind. It's not unlike the one going on in Conservative Judaism- where are your lines? What tradition do you keep? Who do you try and tailor yourselves to? But the Reform Judaism I've read about is supposed to be committed to individual paths. If you truly believe in co-opting adopting the Reconstructionist dictum of "the past has a vote, not a veto," you have to actually be willing to deal with the consequences of some people in your movement wanting to follow that vote- otherwise all that personal choice stuff goes out the window, and you really do lose a lot of the ideological integrity that keeps Reform together as a movement. Without at least giving lip service to the idea that more traditional approaches are legitimate, Reform becomes just as tyrannical and closed-minded as its favorite Orthodox punching-bags. And it alienates its more traditional-minded members at its peril: one of the reasons Reform has been in ascendancy has precisely been its perceived turn back towards tradition, not necessarily in a binding way, but in a potential way that doesn't close the door on being a Reform Jew and say, keeping kosher, or wearing tzitzit. To make that break definitive is to totally change the dynamic, in name if not fact, that Reform Judaism has been trying to perpetuate since the 1950s. No, you shouldn't be freaking out the adherents of "classical" Reform (all 25 of them), but wake up and smell the free-trade haroset: pushing out the traditionalist contingent from the movement is going to lead to disaster- they will go to Conservative Judaism and give it the boost it needs, and what's more, Reform will no longer be an "automatic" next-step feeder for the non-affiliated American Jew. It will essentially become a larger and fancier (and slightly more theistic, but who knows if the rhetoric will match the reality) version of Humanist Judaism. And as much as I think Humanist Judaism serves a purpose, I don't think it's going to become the next big thing anytime soon.

Yoffie's watch is going to determine Reform Judaism's future for the next generation. He should be very mindful of that.

Oh, and the triumphalist Orthodox such as Levi Brackman would do well to cool their jets. Brackman practically drools over the news of the Kutz standoff, saying that "We have now come full circle and Reform Judaism itself is losing some of its finest members to traditional Judaism."

Well, yes and no. Reform is certainly losing people to other movements (though as of right now my impression is Conservative is losing the most to either side. I would be curious as to how many Orthodox apikoroses just leave Judaism alltogether, or stick to their own individual worship, as opposed to joining up with another movement), but it's far from the deluge Rabbi Brackman seems to be hoping for. At least not yet. The true test, though, is going to be in how Reform Judaism deals with people like that a more traditional style of Judaism.

Brackman is brain-dead if he thinks that the kids at Kutz are BTs in the making. At best, they'll wind up in the Conservative or Reconstructionist movements. What they really want, though, is to be allowed to be who they are WITHIN the Reform movement. These kids, even only in their teens, are asking to keep the traditions and melodies of their families, of their own childhoods, not be forced to put them away because they don't tow the party line. One camper said she didn't like the music because it wasn't what she had at her Bat Mitzvah. Call me crazy, but I don't see her hopping over a mechitzah anytime soon.

Yet Brackman will ignore all this to get in some cheap (and fairly nonsensical shots):

the elite Reform youth are getting interested in religious ritual, demanding kosher and turning their back on “innovative” types of prayer services. This growth from within the Reform Movement removes the raison d’être of Reform Judaism.

By modernizing Judaism... [early Reformers] hoped to make it relevant to the modern, emancipated Jew and thus salvage it from certain demise.

So in fact Reform Judaism was not meant to be an ideology; it was a response to a perceived problem that modern societies posed to traditional Judaism. Unfortunately that response has failed on a number of levels. Statistics show that, instead of saving Judaism, Reform just allows it a more peaceful death...

Clearly, Reform Judaism has lost its very reason for existing.

Undoubtedly, what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of a failed experiment called Reform Judaism.

Brackman should calm down and take another look at the Jewish Week article. These kids are not abandoning Reform, nor are they trying to bring their movement down. Reform may yet collapse, but Brackman would do well not to confuse wanting a more traditional Judaism with wanting to be Orthodox. These kids are still very much within the Reform mindset of choosing their own paths. They just happen to be choosing one their parents and grandparents don't like.

The more things change...

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