Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Blame Game

A while ago, Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky wrote a very interesting article about Jewish denominations and the limits of their usefulness.
Pre-modern Jewry was organized in communal structures (kehillot). The dissolution of those structures, voluntary in some instances and forcible in others, was one of the defining features of Jewish modernization. The denominations we see today represent an effort to reconstitute some sort of collective identity and institutional heft under the changed circumstances of modernity. They also reflect, in both structure and name, a set of ideological struggles dating back 200 years.
... Recognizing the historical contingency and limits of the old denominational labels is the necessary first step toward thinking about them usefully. Today's American Jewish denominations are very much the products of their time and place and of the specific circumstances of American religious life as a whole, heavily shaped as that life has been by essentially Protestant nomenclature and modes of organization.
While pointing out that there are limitations in the Jewish community being so fragmented (or at least segmented) Mirsky argues that the reason we have seen no real merger between movements (most obviously Reform and Conservative) in America is that real differences continue to exist between them-- differences that outsiders looking in may not always fully consider or appreciate.
It would seem that, quite apart from the inherent difficulties of any institutional change, the movements' enduring and genuine differences—ideological, sociological, and cultural—remain compelling enough to make any large-scale transformation unthinkable: a situation that in turn encourages some to go on exploring the territory beyond or in between the margins.
I think this goes a long way towards explaining why the rank-and-file of the heterodox movements, whose observance and theology may not seem to be all that different, continue to either stick to their group, or decide they no longer care about it and progress beyond it into post-denominationalism. I think increased awareness of what each denomination is about (though perhaps sometimes idealized or intellectualized to its highest denominator) has given people the option of choosing a shul or movement that feels best for them. And, as Mirsky notes, those choices may not always be specifically ideological-- there may be strong cultural ties, too (what makes a not-particularly-observant Conservative family stay in their Conservative shul as opposed to going to a Reform one, for instance?)

Mirsky points out that even though some movements are diminishing in size, all still seem to be have a core philosophy that some people find engaging and meaningful. In a completely opposite perspective we have Forward columnist Jay Michaelson, who (unfairly and foolishly, IMO) singles out heterodox movements' commitment to egalitarianism as the reason their services are boring.
Obviously, there’s no inherent reason that gender-egalitarian and otherwise inclusive congregations can’t offer the same kind of spiritual zets, or punch, as Orthodox ones...
As you said, obviously. There's also no reason to blame boring prayer services on the fact that women aren't sitting in a balcony or behind a mechitza. The fact that non-Orthodox synagogues may both be boring AND egalitarian doesn't mean the two are causal. This isn't helped by the fact that Jay is addressing what is admittedly a subjective topic: "How bored do you get in shul?" isn't exactly something most people are likely to answer on a poll. This means he's just guessing. Basing an argument on a personal opinion substantiated by nothing but, "If I had to guess, I'd say I'm probably right," is always a bad sign.

Just as one counter-example: I happen to have attended nothing but non-Orthodox services in the decade-plus since I started sporadically going to shul, and while some certainly have been boring, others have been quite engaging. Furthermore, I never assumed that one place's style (or lack thereof) was a result of including women. Rather, it always seemed to be a combination of shul traditions, preference of the clergy, and other matters. Saying that people are bored in non-OJ shuls because of egalitarianism makes about as much sense as saying people are bored in non-OJ shuls because they don't pass out cotton candy.

Jay's column is particularly annoying because of the sleight of hand he employs, quickly shifting from talking about gender egalitarianism to, well... something else entirely.
Besides gender separation, another supposed inegalitarianism of Orthodox congregations is that if you’re not already familiar with the traditional liturgy, you’re likely to be lost. Conservative and Reform congregations announce page numbers. They sprinkle in English readings. And they tend to sing a lot slower. This, we are told, makes services more inclusive and accessible to everyone.
Or does it? Yes, they make what’s offered accessible. But often, what’s offered isn’t worth accessing in the first place.
Wow, no sweeping statements there! Also since when is accessibility the same thing as egalitarianism?
 I know that for many people, responsive readings are a pleasant way to think happy thoughts in the synagogue. Indeed, most rabbis I know (from all denominations) find that these readings suck the wind — the ruach — right out of the service. They kill momentum, and because they tend to be laden with theological talk that almost no one believes, they tend to alienate the less committed as much as include them.
Right, but A- not every place does this, and B- you're using one element of R/C prayer to argue that there's nothing of value in the enterprise as a whole. Responsive readings are an attempt to include the congregation. If they don't work, then they can be changed. You're acting as if responsive readings are a canonical element of worship for any denomination that isn't Orthodox. You're quibbling over style, not substance.  
Think about it — which is more inclusive: energetically singing words you don’t really understand, in an environment in which people are participating actively, or intoning deeply problematic theological statements in unison with a largely lethargic “audience”?
Why are you presenting these choices as binary? Lots of shuls I've been to now incorporate elements of both. And incidentally, you're conflating prayer style with egalitarianism. I'm really not convinced they're the same. The Evil Minion, for the record, has a very Orthodox, Carlebachian style of worship. But they're egalitarian. And they're following a national trend. This would seem to burst your theory that the only choices are egalitarian and comatose or Orthodox and alive.

Incidentally, another reason why non-Orthodox Jews aren't Orthodox isn't just an issue of style, it's also philosophy and theology. If you're on the fence about Jewish belief, you may actually appreciate having the opportunity to actually think over some of the concepts that stick in your craw, as opposed to singing (or droning, which also happens) the same stuff in a language you can't speak. Just saying.
Of the American denominations, it strikes me that only Jewish Renewal has managed to offer the spiritual experience of an Orthodox or Hasidic davening service without the prerequisite knowledge of Hebrew and liturgical forms. How? By preserving the energy of a Hasidic service while emptying it of linguistic content. Lots of yai-dai-dai, few actual words.
If you think Renewal is the only denomination that has managed to do this, all this means is that you aren't looking very hard.
In contrast, the Conservative and even the Reform siddurim maintain plenty of confusing Hebrew words, and take a long time to recite them. The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others?
If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.
Sound good, Jay. What's your proposal?
What that experience is, of course, may vary...But whatever the experience is, real egalitarianism, real inclusiveness, should include people in an experience that matters. Otherwise, we’re excluding everybody
Right, though of course, you're the one who's claiming that the experiences don't matter, not the congregation. And you're the one admitting that there's no data to support your assumptions. So you'll beat up on the synagogues for their bad taste choices but then admit that everything is a matter of taste. Wow, this is a waste of time.
Now, as a progressive American Jew I don’t think gender should determine who’s in and who’s out. But I do think that if everybody’s in, nobody’s in
Why? Why should Judaism seek to exclude Jews?
Let’s rethink what we mean by “egalitarianism.” What if it meant “open to all who bother to make the effort”? What if synagogues distributed fliers that said: “Welcome! We are very glad you are here. Our service is somewhat traditional, because that traditional form works for us. You may be a little lost at first. So we warmly invite you to join our weekly Siddur 101 class, where you can learn the ropes.” People who choose to accept the invitation obtain the rewards. Those who don’t, don’t. Not only would such an approach allow longtime participants to get more out of the prayer experience, but it would also suggest to newcomers that there’s something worth working toward.
Oh please. Jay, there are plenty of synagogues that already do this in some form or another. And I'm not saying that shul shouldn't be an investment of time and effort. But you're essentially arguing that the problem with non-Orthodox Judaism is that people aren't aggressively being dicks to newcomers. No matter how you slice it, that really doesn't make for a very convincing argument. In an era when many Jews can't read Hebrew and where unaffiliated Jews amount for a quarter of the American Jewish population, you'd have to be crazy to argue that what Judaism needs right now is to be less accessible to interested parties.

Here's the reality: Not everybody wants to be Orthodox. Not everybody wants to daven in an Orthodox style. Not everybody wants to pray in Hebrew, or at least exclusively in Hebrew. Apparently you really like davening in Hebrew. I also enjoy davening in Hebrew, though I need transliterations. (You know which transliteration I like? The one in the NEW REFORM SIDDUR.) The Conservative movement also has a transliterated siddur. They seem to already be trying to find a way to have more Hebrew and be inclusive. Forgive me for stereotyping, but I have a hard time imagining that I would be handed a transliterated anything upon entering an Ortho shul.

Your problem, Jay, is that you're operating entirely on the presumption that 6 million Jews all like to pray like you do. Big leap much?

If Jay's column was annoying, Rabbi Harry Maryles' interpretation of it was even worse. R. Harry, of course, is entitled to think being Orthodox is the greatest thing since sliced yarmulkes. But it's a little silly to use Jay's column-- which had next to nothing to do with egalitarianism-- as proof that egalitarianism is hurting heterodox movements.
I truly believe that the pursuit of egalitarianism in many cases sacrifices the essence of one’s religious experience for an ideal that is at best secondary to one’s spirituality -and at worst detrimental to it.
The goal of egalitarianism as most people know is to empower women by equalizing the religious experience with that of men...
If one wants true egalitarianism one must choose one of the non Orthodox movements. Even the most ardent Orthodox feminist has to concede that complete religious equality between the sexes is impossible in an Orthodox setting.
... It is no accident that the Conservative movement where these kinds of innovations are commonplace is rapidly shrinking. Attendance is down in so many of their synagogues that they are being forced to consolidate with each other. As time passes and there is even more attrition, those consolidated shuls will further consolidate. Let’s face it. Although this is not the only reason the Conservative movement is shrinking - the way some of these Shuls operate is so boring that it will put anyone to sleep. And that doesn’t help.

Perhaps, but the problem with boring shuls is that they're boring, it's not that they include women. Reform Judaism continues to grow, and it's just as egalitarian than Conservative and has made even more modifications to the text and prayer.
Michaelson suggests that instead of making so many changes in the traditional service, they should leave it alone. Educating members to learn how to participate in traditional services is a far better option. I would have to agree. The changes innovated by heterodoxy clearly are chasing people away.
And, as noted, this is the direction non-Orthodox movements are already headed. Note that the Mishkan T'fillah is now in its second printing.
Education is the answer. The above anecdote and shrinking numbers in Heterodox Synagogues is a clear indicator that dumbing down Davening is not the answer. Education is. The best form of that is Jewish education starting from day one in the home and continuing in religious elementary schools through high school… and beyond. Adult education is the answer for those who missed out.
Of course, when R. Harry says Jewish education, he really means an Orthodox education. Never mind that you don't need an Orthodox education to read Hebrew.
Those who have received this type of education will be far more involved and the kind of participatory experience that Orthodox Shuls provide.
No, they'll be able to participate in an Orthodox service if that's what they want, which, at the end of the day, is what this discussion is really about. With the shift towards more traditional prayer and transliterated prayerbooks, non-Orthodox synagogues are showing that you don't have to choose an Orthodox shul to Hebrew and traditional prayer. As the more old-fashioned rabbis and congregations gradually change or phase out, the places that are left and continue to do well will be the ones who attract and keep new and younger members. The Hebrew will be an equalizer, and then 21st century Jews will be able to choose their house of worship based less on style and more on other matters.
I know that there are people who will retort that their experience with new innovations has been a positive one. But I wonder how common that experience is. And I wonder if at least in some cases they aren’t deluding themselves because of their belief in the egalitarian ideal.
That's right, any non-Orthodox Jews who like non-Orthodox worship are deluding themselves because of their beliefs! Pot, meet kettle. I'm sure you'll get along fine.

R. Harry concludes by saying that in his opinion, this is a case of Yotza Scahro B’Hefseida,  where a loss becomes greater than the gain. To him, I'm sure that's how it appears. Egalitarianism has nothing to offer, and results in a watering down of the traditional service. But to most non-Orthodox Jews, egalitarianism is an important value; it establishes a baseline for respect among Jews and at this point, forgoing it would be anathema. The non-Orthodox embrace of egalitarianism coincides with their embrace of the 21st century. It exemplifies the kind of relevant and meaningful Judaism they wish to be involved in, and which is part of the reason so many of them would sooner become Buddhist than Orthodox.

At the end of the day, I have too many red lines to be comfortable as an Orthodox Jew, and I suspect it would take a very, very tolerant Orthodox community to be comfortable with me. But that's ok, since I don't want to be Orthodox. And, Michaelson's anectdote notwithstanding, there are many non-Orthodox Jews today who have not only consciously and deliberately chosen their denominations; they have just as consciously established-- if only on a basic level-- that Orthodoxy is probably not viable for them, be it over issues of style, theology, or lack of egalitarianism. Non-Orthodox movements are going to continue to find ways to engage with the tradition and make it connect with their lives. At t the end of the day this argument is over style, not philosophy. There is no reason you have to choose between Hebrew and egalitarianism, or a lively prayer service and egalitarianism. Bottom line: egalitarianism does not cause boredom, and egalitarianism is most likely not the reason some synagogues are declining. People will just have to look for another scapegoat.


conservative apikoris said...

"there may be strong cultural ties, too (what makes a not-particularly-observant Conservative family stay in their Conservative shul as opposed to going to a Reform one, for instance?)"

Show me a Reform Congregation where they have really traditional prayers (even Mishkan Tefilla, while an improvement, is watered down) in Hebrew.

I think the big divide in the non-O world is between folks who know some stuff and those who don't. Explanations of the ritual are annoying enough to those of us who are regulars and have heard it all before. Dealing with the foreign language is a bit more of a problem, but even as a Hebrew School drop-out, regular attendance allowed me drop the need for transliterations pretty quickly. (A year in Israel will give you enough Hebrew Skills to have a rough idea of the literary style of the prayers, and nearly all siddurim in the US today, even the Orthodox, have translations.)

It really a case of those of us who are good swimmers don't want to splash around in the wading pool.

But I agree with you, I am no longer comfortable in Orthodox service because of their ideology. And I agree with you that egalitarianism has nothing to do with whatever problems exist.

Friar Yid said...

Good points, CA.

I think the big divide in the non-O world is between folks who know some stuff and those who don't.

Quite true, though I think it's also between those who feel that the prayers should be traditional (and therefore try to have more of them, or feel that there's something lacking if they aren't there) and those who don't (and who therefore either push more English or more experimental stuff). I'm not sure this split necessarily falls along denominational lines, but I'm sure it plays a role. My experience is that Conservative shuls feel more invested in the traditional liturgy. As you said, Mishkan Tefilla is a big step, but it still remains to be seen what its institutional impact winds up being.

(A year in Israel will give you enough Hebrew Skills to have a rough idea of the literary style of the prayers, and nearly all siddurim in the US today, even the Orthodox, have translations.)

Certainly, but knowing what the prayer means in English is not the same as having the ability to participate with the congregation in Hebrew. And while I have no data about how many non-O kids spend a year in Israel boning up on their Hebrew, I'm guessing it's not that many.

Some of Michaelson's suggestions make sense-- constantly re-explaining the wheel gets old. But I think he needs to both recognize that A- there's always room for a middle ground, and B- not every place wants to have a traditional service (to say nothing of the fact that, as you noted, the concept of what "traditional" means varies widely from place to place and denomination to denomination.)

conservative apikoris said...

"the concept of what "traditional" means varies widely from place to place and denomination to denomination.)"

That's right, to some Reform congregations, "traditional" means using the Union Prayer Book, no yarmulkes or tallesim, and organ music. Even in the Conservative congrewgation in which I grew up, they had a choir, and organ, and the rabbi/cantor/bar mitzvah boys/choir all wore robes when up front. The only person sitting on the Bima who didn't wear robes was the shul president. Also, men had to wear coats and ties, at least for Shabbos and Yom Tov. I huess that would be "traditional" Conservative.

"Certainly, but knowing what the prayer means in English is not the same as having the ability to participate with the congregation in Hebrew."

Oh, well, learning enough Hebrew to sing along without the crutch of the transliteration isn't all that difficult. I learned it mostly by attending regularly. I know the Conservatives have programs where they teach Hebrew literacy, and I think they even have step=by-step video guides about how to run the service. In a lot of cases, I think the "lack of knowledge" excuse is a cop out used in place of stating the real reason why someone doesn't want to be too religiously active. (The real reason possibly being that the person doesn't believe in religion, or being active is inconvenient, but they do affiliate becuase of family or social pressures. which means they want a religious experience that requires a minimum amount of work.)

I'll admit that while I was learning the service, I was bored out of my mind a lot of times, but I used that time to read the forward to the siddur or the commentary notes in the Chumash. In fact, I think lots of people who go to Orthodox services are bored out of their mind, but they have Artscroll, so they can read the commentary to the siddur. Anyway, learning a new alphabet isn't all that hard. My Russian teacher in college spent a grand total of 1/2 a class teaching us how to read the Cyrillic alphabet, and while I don't remember much Russian, I can vocalize Cyrillic writing even decades later. No reason why people can't do the same with Hebrew, at least for the basic prayers. This stuff ain't rocket science.

Some resources:

Friar Yid said...

h, well, learning enough Hebrew to sing along without the crutch of the transliteration isn't all that difficult. I learned it mostly by attending regularly.

Touche. In our case, aside from the schedule problems (SG usually works Fridays & Saturdays), it's also been challenging to find a shul whose style works for me. I seem to prefer a service which is more traditional than I, at the moment, always have the ability to participate in. So it's become a little chicken-or-the-egg. I definitely know that using Mishkan Tfillah more has given me more familiarity with the prayer structure and has helped me improve my mental translator.

In a lot of cases, I think the "lack of knowledge" excuse is a cop out used in place of stating the real reason why someone doesn't want to be too religiously active.

I think that there are certainly cases where this is true, and don't want to project my own feelings onto thousands of alienated secular-ish Jews. However my personal experience has been that Hebrew has been a big hurdle, and given that there are tens of thousands of young Jews growing up with little to no Jewish education in this country, it's hard to view my situation as such an exception. If you wind up becoming interested in Judaism as a young adult and don't have (or don't think you have) the resources to learn Hebrew, the next question becomes "Now what?"

In our case, we have structured our practice (which is not terribly consistent) around transliteration and English. Not as an end-goal, but more as a place-holder until we can get the Hebrew part figured out.

All that said, thanks very much for the links. I will definitely get these books.

rejewvenator said...

Comparing O synagogues to non-O synagogues is of limited utility. Orthodox Jews attend synagogue for reasons of obligation (both divine and communal) first, and out of a sense of value of the prayer experience on its own terms second, or third, or not at all.

I think that non-Orthodox synagogues that are succeeding are doing so not (just) because the services are more engaging and inspiring and participatory, but rather because participating in these synagogues is not just a way of 'doing Jewish', but rather, a way of being a better Jew in your own eyes. You're not going b/c you want God or your neighbors to think well of you, but b/c going makes you feel better about you.

As to egalitarianism, there are many people who can't feel like the synagogue experience helps make them a better person when it is not an egalitarian experience.