Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One reason we're not Orthodox: Feminism

It's hard being in the middle of the road. Especially when people don't understand why you're there. My parents look at me and my wife and the fact that we "do religion" at all and assume that we're one step away from joining a Hasidic cult (to be fair, my grandfather did set precedence here). Meanwhile, Ortho folks online have pointed out that if I want to start keeping some mitzvot, I should be following normative halachic standards for doing so.

So at some point in the future, I will write a mega-post on all the ways and reasons why Mrs. Yid and I can't be Orthodox. For today, we'll just focus on one big one: Feminism.

Mrs. Yid and I are feminists, which I define as, "Women and men should be able to have the same privileges and autonomy." (I asked Mrs. Yid for her one-sentence definition and she just gave me a glare.) As such, Judaism's traditional gender roles are somewhat problematic-- not because gender roles in of themselves are always bad, per se, but rather because in maintaining those roles and boundaries within the context of a modern society, a lot of negative tools are often used-- such as guilt, coercion, or threats-- to keep people in line.

I also realize that there are areas where reasonable people can disagree on this issue. For instance, while I have no interest in praying in a men's section and my wife having to pray in a women's section, I acknowledge that some people-- men and women-- get something out of it, and depending on the parameters of this arrangement, assuming that the women are actually being treated respectfully in a manner that they're comfortable with-- could potentially be ok with. But while it's one thing to say that, per your halachic understanding, women can't be counted for a minyan (partnership minyans, while not without their own problems, have been a creative solution to this particular issue), it's crossing another line entirely when you say that if a woman is simply present without a mechitza, the entire minyan becomes invalidated. I'm sorry, that's when my tentative respect for halacha meets the road and I have to go with my fleeting secular values.

Part of my biggest problem is that seems that a lot of what goes on in Orthodox gender dynamics (both in and out of shul) has much less to do with halacha and much more to do with exerting control over people, and that really rubs me the wrong way.

Case in point: the 2012 Siyum celebrating the completion of the 7-year-Talmud study cycle. Check out the way the organizer and reporter work in the women's angle.

About 20 percent of the people in attendance will be women, said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, executive vice president for administration at Agudah, and the Siyum's chief coordinator. They will sit in upper tier seats and be hidden by a 12-foot-high mechitzah, a partition to separate men and women, fashioned from four tiers of curtain at a cost of $250,000. At 2.5 linear miles, it is the largest mechitzah ever created, says the organization. Women will watch the proceedings from behind the partition, on huge video screens. 
 Michelle Huttler Silver, a modern-Orthodox professional photographer, will be one of those women. She has studied Talmud in the past, though not as part of the Daf Yomi. "The fact that we can fill up not just this stadium, but so many places in the world, to celebrate the completion of Talmud is amazing," she said in an interview. "So many people uniting for the same cause is really the beauty of the event."

I's nice that some of these women don't have an issue with having to sit behind a tarp and watch the event that they're attending on TV, but how is it that no one has a problem with Agudah treating 18,000 frum women as if they were lepers? The tickets were sold for over $50 each, and the women knew they were going to be in their own section. Can't you assume they'll be dressed appropriately? Why the need to surround them in a tent? I know the genders are supposed to be separate during prayer and you shouldn't hear a woman sing, but when did this turn into, "Thou shalt never see a woman, ever!" Also, how big of an issue would it be for people to see a woman from across a stadium? Are Talmud scholars ordering X-ray glasses now? Wouldn't you think they'd be busy looking at the stage full of illustrious rabbis? And what kind of reporter, after hearing something like that, just parrots the fact that, "Wow, this mechitza is the biggest ever, and cost a ton of money!" Think of how much good that money could do if you put it towards charity, or even sponsoring more Torah study. And instead you pulled an Ashcroft. Go you, Agudah.

But it's not just the Haredi community that's on board the modesty train. Haaretz ran a column by a Modern Orthodox woman who also thinks that modesty is the best thing since sliced kugel. For your reading pleasure, I tied up Mrs. Yid and forced her to read it with me:

The other day, during a meeting at a coffee shop, I showed the producer I was meeting with a newspaper article about my latest Haredi film. The movie, intended for viewing by women only, had recently premiered at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. Suddenly a man at the next table barged into the conversation, launching into a scathing diatribe: "These Haredim don't serve in the army and they live off government money! And this insanity about not hearing women sing is primitive. They're crazy!"

Me: Why is her film for women only? Would it be immodest for men to see it? I'm confused.

Mrs. Yid: I like how this screenwriter is so talented she had to pad her article with this random guy interrupting her. Tell me more of this pointless lead-in! What were you eating at the coffee shop? Was it a scone?
For those of us steeped in modernity, it is often impossible to see beyond the seductive bubble of popular culture. I wanted to tell this man that the headlines from Israel that had so enraged him, sensationalizing events perpetrated by extremists, were eliciting vicious and unwarranted attacks against all religious Jews, resulting in the proverbial baby thrown out with the dirty bathwater.
Me: Yes, the wackjobs in those stories were extremists, but it's an extreme example of the inherent problem in a culture that comes to value modesty over dignity. And you can bash modernity's "seduction" all you want, but that's not the same as actually making an argument for why modesty is important, much less good.

Mrs. Yid: Also, I think it's legitimate to be irritated with people not pulling their weight, especially when you're surrounded by other people that want to squish you.
Some 20 years ago, while a rising theater and film director, I experienced a profound sense of cognitive dissonance in my world. On the one hand, I yearned for spiritual meaning, inner wholeness and a lasting relationship, yet I was bombarded with advertising images depicting female beauty as utterly flawless and female pop stars performing sexually explicit acts peddled as women's liberation. The feminist in me wondered: What's wrong with this picture?
Mrs. Yid: Apparently the feminist in you is nuts. Yes, giving people freedom causes some people to go to extremes. What were you saying about throwing out babies with bathwater?

Me: If she's so well-versed in the entertainment industry, shouldn't she be aware of how much BS is involved in those female images and be better able to ignore them?

Mrs. Yid: I've noticed that when housewives wash their dishes on TV, everything is spotless and gets cleaned up really fast. Clearly I'm doing it wrong! Cue crippling self-doubt about my womanly worth!
Most of my female friends weren't married and many, under the duress of sexual permissiveness, had suffered pointless affairs and abortions, scarring them ineradicably. Upon further reflection, it became clear that the insidious force behind prevailing trends was a multibillion-dollar industry whose sole intention was to send us out to shop in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.
Mrs. Yid: Everyone is out to sell something, including rabbis. If you don't like it, don't do it. Use your brain. I mean, it's just as much within your rights to pick OJ as hippie-dom, but they also don't seem to have a lot of body issues without all the accompanying guilt complexes about tznius.

Me: Yeah, she's still just talking about how bad "society" is without explaining why people should specifically go the religious route, much less Orthodox Judaism. It sounds like all you really need is to turn your TV off.
While seeking to transcend this toxic cultural climate, I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews.
Me: I like how she describes them like a lost tribe. Or like she's on safari. And here I thought only heretical liberal Jews like me were shallow enough to do that.
I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty ) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn't own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity and, ironically, I decided it was time to go shopping.
Mrs. Yid: So, it turns the focus onto the person, by which we mean that if you show half-an-inch too much leg you get tomatoes thrown at you? Sorry, that's extremist. Ok, what if I wear a too-flashy gray sweater? Surely I won't get any yentas carping on about how I'm tramping up the community and not keeping the mitzvah, right? Oh wait.

Me: Tell me more about how unsexualized women are. From behind the giant curtain I made so I don't have to look at you, you super-respected bunch of Eshetot Chayil!
True, many Haredi traditions were more difficult to understand. I remember a Shabbat kiddush where the women sat in the kitchen while the men occupied the dining room. I bristled at first, but then realized how much I loved the warmth and holiness I experienced. I unexpectedly began to see virtues in gender separation. In my Hollywood world, where Jen's husband, Brad, goes off to make a sexy movie with Angelina and never comes home again, it doesn't take a genius to see that glamorizing society's lack of gender boundaries doesn't promote healthy marriages or family values.
Me: And teaching your daughters they belong in the kitchen promotes great values, right? 

Mrs. Yid: Gender separation makes sense for High-school bathrooms. Having a random dinner conversation, not so much. What holy things are the men talking about that might be ruined by having ladies around? Also, the fact that you feel warm and fuzzy hanging with your girlfriends is not a good argument for why you shouldn't be allowed to be in the same room when "guy-talk" is happening. Plenty of ladies have spa days or girls' night out, what they don't do is decide they can't be in the dining room when men are present "just in case" they have an affair. Take some damn responsibility, lady!
True intimacy, as Torah tells us, can only be built on a foundation of inviolable trust. A Haredi woman would be horrified if her actions or appearance were to attract another woman's husband. I could embrace such sensitivity.

Me: Why is it a woman's fault if the man is attracted to her? Her job should not be to spend her life running away from potential horn-dogs. Even if we accept the premise that men are incurable sex fiends, isn't it the goal of Torah to refine the human spirit? How about putting more strictures on the MEN so they can elevate themselves above their animal instincts?

Mrs. Yid: You know, it's not very feminist of this lady to support controlling other ladies' lives and behavior to avoid tempting men. If you really want to avoid husbands being attracted, just blindfold them. Stop playing into the idea that anything a woman does is an invitation for sex. You taking dinner out of the oven does not equal, "Hey Avram! Check out my tuchus!"
Can Haredi culture go overboard in its quest for modesty? When women are denied a voice or when intimidation is used to hinder critical thinking, there is a problem.

Mrs. Yid: Like when you don't let women participate in conferences about women's issues? Like that?
And assaulting women, either physically or verbally, in the guise of enforcing tzniut is unconscionable. As Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently asserted, "The exclusion of women from the public domain violates Torah. Halakha treats women with the utmost respect."
Me: I sense a "No True Scotsman" here.

Mrs. Yid: What about agunot? Halacha seems pretty biased against women there.

Me: I would be able to take this "That's not real Halacha" argument more seriously if the Modern Orthodox community was aggressively standing up for the rights of its women and advocating to give them the widest possible latitude as permissible by halachic standards. Instead we get dog-piling on Orthodox liberals like Avi Weiss, a lot of sliding to the Haredi right and a small and not very vocal centrist group that acknowleges this stuff is crazy but doesn't seem to have any idea how to combat it.
On a recent trip of mine to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Rebbetzin Dusia Rivkin recounted to me a visit to her son, a Chabad emissary in New Orleans. At their Shabbat table sat several colorful, non-Orthodox students from Tulane University. Mrs. Rivkin, appalled by their unseemly conversations, voiced concern about the negative impact on her young grandchildren. Rabbi Rivkin responded, "The Lubavitcher Rebbe promised that if I took care of his children, he would take care of mine." Mrs. Rivkin, regretful of her judgmental attitude, understood that it was incumbent upon Haredim to impart the beauty of Torah, especially to those who have never experienced it.
Me: First, how actually "colorful" or "unseemly" was this conversation? Were these kids swearing or talking about drinking, drugs or sex in front of little kids? Or were they, chas v'shalom, talking about a lady professor wearing pants? Wait, was it unseemly because they mentioned Jews going to university? Because that's kind of not their fault. Second, assuming they were actually being rude in front of the shaliach's kids, this stuff can be avoided if you establish respectful boundaries ahead of time-- or do some thinking and determine that maybe you don't want your nine year old to have Shabbat dinner with frat boys, Jewish or otherwise. Also, how is the ghost-rebbe going to protect these children? Sounds kind of creepy?

Mrs. Yid: How are lady Haredim going to impart the beauty of Torah to others when they're deliberately shut out from educational opportunities? And how are dudes going to be able to impart the beauty of Torah to women if they're dressed inappropriately? Unless they're religious Muslims, of course, but that might be a hard sell.
Orthodox Judaism is a treasure trove, but it's the middle road, what King Solomon called "the path of pleasantness," that doesn't impose strictures on others or reject those with differing views. This is what will inspire the world toward a more civilized and harmonious future.
Me: Not to be mean, ma'am, but you're no King Solomon. If you want to try to convert people (religiously or just rhetorically), you have to actually talk about why your way is good, not just why theirs is awful.

Mrs. Yid: Doesn't impose strictures on others? What Orthodox Judaism are you looking at? Your cheerful rainbow umbrella is not an umbrella. It's a series of shoeboxes where you define everybody in it by what kind of skirt they wear.

On this one, it's Liberals: 1, Orthodox: 0. If you think I'm wrong or off-base, feel free to tell me in the comments.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Someone might want to take some notes

Culture clashes are hard, and symbolism and iconography can be particularly tricky, especially when emotionally-charged political issues are involved.

When I was in High School I had occasion to go to Washington D.C. The purpose of the program was to get students from different political backgrounds to meet each other and have some conversations, and looking back on it, I think that was a valuable goal. That said, it didn't always work out. Me and my nine classmates were the only liberals in the hotel out of 400 students. Many of them had never met a liberal, much less a Jew. I remember at one point someone seriously asked me to explain what a bagel was. As part of that school trip I got to have some, shall we say, interesting discussions with Red-State kids, and it became apparent to me that while liberal blue-staters can sometimes be snide or obnoxious about their beliefs, at least many of them are aware that other points of view exist. They may think they're wrong, they may have simplistic or stereotyped views about their political opponents, but at least they're on their radar. With these kids, it was like we were from another planet.

Case in point: one day after visiting the Vietnam, Lincoln and Korean War memorials, we went back to our hotel and were split into groups and told to design our own memorial-- we were to plan out the cause, the architecture, and the funding.

When it was time for the first group to present, I couldn't believe my eyes. The first thing I saw was a giant cross, flanked by roses with a bunch of small objects ringing its bottom tier. When I looked closer, I realized they were supposed to be basinets. One girl, who earlier had commented that her parents were her greatest heroes for raising her in "a Christian manner," declared that their monument was to all aborted babies, and that their plan was to put a miniature version of the monument in front of every abortion clinic in America. During their presentation, they also passed out pro-life literature they had gotten from a "very articulate" protestor standing in front of the Supreme Court (he had been wearing a Stop sign that he had modified with a magic marker to read "STOP killing babies"). When I glanced at the pamphlets, I noticed they had a picture of a fetus next to a black and white photo of Auschwitz bodies. When the time came to ask questions, I asked them why they would want to alienate non-Christian pro-lifers by using a single religious symbol. "Won't that make them feel not wanted?"

These girls had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. They honestly could not believe that someone would interpret a cross as a symbol of Christianity. "For us, it's not about Jesus, the cross is a universal symbol of Heaven." I replied that without the Christian influence, the cross was just a form of execution and asked them weather they would consider the electric chair a universal symbol of heaven. The teachers didn't appreciate that very much.

I bring this experience up because it seems relevant to the recent brou-ha-ha in Kansas. Apparently a mere eleven years after my bizarre conversation with three girls from Arkansas, some pro-lifers in Wichita have gotten it into their heads to follow up on the fetus shrine (those are their words, by the way) to all aborted babies. Only this time, they've got an even better idea than making it into a giant cross. This time, it's going to be the freaking Western Wall. Or, as the pro-lifers call it, the Wailing Wall (Get it? Because abortion is sad. Brilliant.)

But wait, you might ask. Why would someone do that, and also isn't that stupid? Yes, I know. But try telling that to Pastor Mark Holick, who thinks it's so damn inspiring Jesus may very well come back just to give him a high-five.
[The Western Wall] is a place that memorializes what happened during the Holocaust... Since Roe v. Wade, 60 million baby boys and girls have been murdered, and that is a holocaust unprecedented in the history of mankind.
Okay, A- the Western Wall is not a Holocaust memorial. B- it's not a memorial at all. It's part of an ancient holy site and has been used as a symbol for lots of things, but as far as I know, "Holocaust memorial" has never been one of them. Honestly, how do you get your iconography this wrong? Do we need to have Tom Hanks put on his Robert Langdon suit and slap you a few times?

Also, even when we're actually talking about Holocaust stuff, we still don't like you nutjobs ripping off Holocaust stuff. It's creepy, it's dishonest, it's disrespectful, and it makes you look like dicks, particularly when you insist that you're doing it because you "love" us so much. Why don't you try loving us less and respecting us more, Pastor Mark? Part of respecting someone means listening when they say no. No means no, and we're all saying it, NOOOOOOO.

Oh, sorry, you had something else to add?
We understand that some Jews consider it controversial,” he said of the wall. “It is our hope that it will be of help to the Jewish people, like it is in Israel.”
Uh huh. Here's a tip, Mark. If you want a memorial to be "helpful" to someone, it helps to actually talk to them before you co-opt their stuff for your own grandstanding project. As an example:
A wall modeled on the Western Wall in Jerusalem will stand at the site of the Jewish cemetery in Bilgoraj, in south-eastern Poland. 
The wall, which is being funded by the Isaac Bashevis Singer Association of Bilgoraj, will display the names of Jews who lived in the town.
See, this Jewish cemetery, which has actual significance to Jews, is memorializing some Jews with a symbol of a place that's holy for, that's right, Jews. The town isn't just sticking a ying-yang on there because they think it looks cool and pretending that it "might be helpful" to some Taoists.

For extra awful, check out this wacko's website. Not only is this "National Life Center" going to have the Wailing Wall surrounded by crosses (each one represents a whopping 10 million abortions, now that's value!), apparently there's also another planned statue which has a cross, a "weeping Rachel" (really?) and Jesus holding an aborted child.

Dude, either go to art school or hire someone that actually has some idea what they're doing. You couldn't come up with weirder Judeo-Christian mash-ups if you were trying.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Sage, not a Saint

Rabbi Elyashiv, the last "great sage" of Haredi Judaism, died today at age 102. While he has been admired by many in the Orthodox world for his integrity and respected for his knowledge and leadership, I don't feel it's quite appropriate to celebrate his life "with a full cup."

As a leader, he was "principled" to a fault, vigorously refusing compromise or accommodation with other communities he disagreed with. In cases where he could have ruled leniently, he quite often decided that the true path to righteousness lay with hardship and difficulty-- for his followers and for many others. As Failed Messiah notes, his tenure as leader of the Haredi world also saw not a few moments of hypocrisy, as well, most notably declaring that it was forbidden for Haredi Jews to donate organs but perfectly kosher for them to accept them. Leah Vincent at Unpious discusses how Elyashiv's positions may have empowered and enabled child abusers in Haredi communities. Anyone who has kept abreast of academic/intellectual freedom in the Haredi world knows how far-reaching Elyashiv's power was when it came to silencing writers like Natan Slifkin or Nathan Kamenestsky. And, of course, under his tenure, the position of Haredi women, particularly in Israel, has deteriorated even further under an epidemic of misogyny masquerading as a concern for modesty.

Reports suggested that he had sacrificed much to become a great sage in his community. He seemed to be estranged from his family and lack personal connections with friends or colleagues. Worst of all, under the pretense of caring and assisting their great rabbi, a group of hangers-on used his name and position to advance their own pet interests and biases, in activities that can only be described as elder abuse as the rabbi's mental and physical state steadily deteriorated.

I would like to admire R. Elyashiv. But the truth is that I feel sorry for him, and his family, and even his followers, who have spent so much time denying any problems with his health (or their community's) that they now seem at a total loss to do anything now that the inevitable has happened.

A sof shalem to Rabbi Elyashiv. And hopes for a chayim shelayim to the ones whose lives he touched-- for good and bad.

Battle of the Tznius Ladies!

Mrs. Yid has been covering her hair since our marriage over a year ago. She has also pretty much stopped wearing pants and usually dresses pretty conservatively. My parents, of course, blame me for all of this and have occasionally accused me of brainwashing my wife-- despite the fact that I never told her, nor for that matter, even asked her, to do any of this. (For the curious, Mrs. Yid says that she likes scarves but under zero circumstances would she ever be interested in a sheitel, half-fall, or a pillbox hat. Frankly, she doesn't even like the idea of lady-not-kippot. On snoods: "They look like a big sock or a saggy butt-diaper on your head.")

Anyway, based on this, I feel qualified to call Mrs. Yid the tznius lady of my local community. Which, as it turns out, is quite convenient, because Garnel recently alerted me to the existence of another tznius lady, Mrs. Ella Lerman, of Chabad in Crown Heights, who has just put out an article high-fiving herself on, well, being the tznius lady. I thought it might be fun to let the two tznius ladies in my life go head-to-head and write down the carnage that follows. Here goes:
I was born in Crown Heights and I have lived here all my life. My husband and I were directed by the Rebbe to stay in Crown Heights after we were married. I have been teaching in Bais Rivkah for over 25 years and now I have a new title. I am the tznius lady. It has taken me a while to say that out loud. Let me try that again with a little more pride. I am the tznius lady. It is hard sometimes, especially when I see people crossing the street when they see me.

Me: Could this be an indication that perhaps you're doing something wrong? No?
I am nervous to be speaking to you tonight. Not only because I am talking to such a large crowd, kein ayin hara, of the Rebbe’s Shluchos, but I am also worried whether I will do justice to this topic. Will I be able to get you to feel the passion that I feel? When I go to speak to principals at our schools, my husband asks me why I am so nervous. I tell him how much is riding on getting people to see how vital tznius is. Are we up to the challenge?
Me: I'd love to know exactly what is riding on the tznius, but unfortunately she never answers.
This may surprise you, but I asked for the job of tznius lady. I told Bais Rivkah that someone needed to stand in front of their doors and tell mothers that they couldn’t enter if they were not dressed according to Jewish law, and I offered to do the job. My family was not excited about this.
Mrs Yid: What a nosey yenta!

Me: I like how she decided there was a problem, she informed the school how big an issue it was (apparently it even violated the ever-straightforward"Jewish law,") and also luckily volunteered to help them out. Now that's just convenient! Also, it sure is lucky that though she's supposedly a teacher at the school, she has enough free-time to be head tznius guard at the front entrance. Maybe they gave her a TA this year?
Many women would get angry at me. They’d yell at me and give me dirty looks (one woman even spat at me). When I was done, I’d sit in my car, shaking and sometimes crying. One woman yelled at me, “How dare you tell me what to wear?”
Me: And yet you remain totally convinced that God has ordained you to be the arbiter of what all Chabad ladies should wear. Interesting.
I answered her calmly, “I dare because I have been employed by Bais Rivkah, so this is my job. Also,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “if your parent was being disgraced in the streets, would you sit at home and do nothing, or would you be out in the streets to bring back honor to your mother or father? Well, it is my Rebbe, my Rebbe’s community, my Eibershter and my Torah that is being disgraced. I can’t just sit at home!”
First of all, you're employed by the school to teach, not to be tznius lady. This job didn't even exist until you badgered them into creating it, so don't act like your hands are tied. If you retired tomorrow, I am fairly certain they would not be scouring frumy-Craigslist (Chaimslist?) to find a replacement. Second, I'm not sure how "going out in the streets" brings back honor to one's parents. Then again, my parents don't tend to be disgraced in the streets, so... wait, what are we talking about?

Mrs. Yid: I'm pretty sure there's a Torah value related to not embarrassing other people, no? Besides, I'm almost positive this lady was not dressing in a tank top or shorts to go to her daughter's school. Ooh! This lady's tights aren't bulletproof! Scandalous!
I received many calls regarding my new job. Most people were very supportive and even excited that we were taking a stand. Some mothers said, “Can’t you instead motivate the mothers to dress in a tzniusdik manner with speeches and workshops?”
Mrs. Yid: I will concede I am sure there are already enough stupid workshops going around. However, funnily enough, I can believe that women who are no longer in school might let their Torah-fences drop a millimeter or so. Heaven forbid grown women decide what they want to wear out in public and not be hounded by angry camp-mommies! Also, I love that in a conversation about modesty they add "dik" to every word.

Me: I'm very curious about the ratio of calls that congratulated her on "taking a stand" versus people that either told her to stop doing this and play nice, or just cursed her out for humiliating moms just trying to drop their girls off at the damn school.
I explained to them that though all that is very important, the time had come for what I call “Mehn tor nisht, mehn ken nisht, mehn muz nisht.” We should not, we cannot, we must not. It is unacceptable to dress in a non-tzniusdik manner. It is against halachah and it will not be tolerated. When you are boarding a plane, the security personnel don’t say to you, “Let me first tell you about how wonderful it is to be safe from terrorism. Then, if you feel inspired to, you can leave behind your knives and guns.”
Me: Oh good, someone's finally found a non-Hitler version of Godwin's Law. Now the frummies can play, too. Shall we call it Ella's Law or Lerman's Law?
No, these are the rules if you want to board the plane. Of course, learning about the beauty of tznius is important and we want to approach everyone with love. But the time has come to say, “These are the rules; these are the halachos.”
Mrs. Yid: As interpreted by who, what when?

Me: By her, right now. Duh. All hail mighty tznius lady!

Mrs. Yid: No one may disagree with her, ever! Because apparently she can't tell the difference between children under her domain and dress-code from adult women, who may do what they like.

Me: Only until they get within 15 feet of the school door. Then they're on Tznius Lady's turf!
It takes guts and a lot of courage to say something, but when it hurts enough you scream. My job here is to empower you to “say something.” We cannot be silent. Say something to your daughter, your neighbor, your student, yourself. Say it with love and let them see how much you are bothered by what we are doing to Lubavitch.
Mrs. Yid: She's causing people to scream, huh? Sounds very loving to me. Maybe she should carry a cattle prod and just tap people on the offending body part. That way she won't have to strain her voice.

Me: I'm just thinking of how much guts it takes to humiliate random parents under the quasi-authority of the school. Truly, you are the bravest lady in the land. Also, yes, I would love for all these women to use their guts and courage to tell you, (with love) how much they are bothered by what you are doing to Lubavitch. If only.
I spoke to a woman who teaches in one of our schools. I asked her not to wear dark- colored nail polish. She was not happy that I had called her. She said to me, “If you would just stick to the black-and-white areas we wouldn’t have such problems with tznius. It is because you pick on things that are in the grey areas, that’s why we are losing the girls.” I was almost crying. 
I said to her, “Are you telling me that from a teacher in one of the Rebbe’s mosdos I can only ask for the basic halachos of tznius? Are you telling me that the girls in school don’t deserve role models? Do they have to see their mechanchos with very long sheitlach and dark nail polish?” I ask the same of the Shluchos that I ask of the Bais Rivkah teachers, the parents of our students, and Crown Heights residents. You are our teachers, our role models. You are who we aspire to be.
Mrs. Yid: I do not think nail polish is the thing on which any society lives or dies. Also, I love how we maintain identical standards for young girls that we do for adult women. This just doesn't seem right. Their main problem is that their rules are so stupid and restrictive that their girls don't want to follow them. And the mothers and teachers clearly don't, because there are gray areas... which honestly, aren't even that gray! I don't think the tznius lady is going to win this argument.

Me: As a teacher, I have to say I am almost positive that every teacher in this school would love to toss this woman out a window. Like they don't have enough to worry about, what with trying to teach actual material to their students along with all the random brainwashing about how they're nothing more than baby machines and "not obligated" to do anything other than light candles. Now they also have to worry about not corrupting them with their slutty nails. Also, how totally unsurprising that as soon as someone contradicts tznius lady, she bursts into tears. God, I'm happy to not have her as a colleague.

Last year, on the final day of school, a Friday, I was proctoring the 12th graders who were taking their last test. I saw one of my students with the buttons of her shirt open quite low. I knew I had to say something. She is a good student, the daughter of Shluchim, a really nice girl. I started to give myself excuses. “I don’t want to embarrass her. I will speak to her when she comes up to the desk to hand in her test paper.” 
Well, when she put her test in the envelope I didn’t say a word. After all, there were other girls at the desk and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. 
That Friday night, I dreamt that I saw this student walking in the street with pants on. On Shabbos day, after a Pirkei Avos shiur, I told my friends what had happened and what I learned from it all. I didn’t speak to the girl, not only because I didn’t want to embarrass her, but because I didn’t want to appear not cool. I knew that the girl liked me and I didn’t want her to think of me as an annoying, nagging teacher. 
When we don’t speak up it is because we want to appear hip and cool, G-d forbid.

Mrs. Yid: Nobody thinks she is hip or cool. Ever.

Me: I wanted to do something but I didn't because I'm a weenie and had a vague feeling I shouldn't be a jerk to someone in public! And then, later, I had a dream! And then after that, rather than doing the thing I thought I should do in the first place that actually required me to follow my judgmental convictions, I blabbed about my student behind her back to my friends! Aren't I the best role model ever?

I have asked women who struggle with keeping the halachos of tznius to come to my house dressed in a tzniusdik manner. I have refused to patronize stores in Crown Heights where the saleswomen are dressed in a not-tzniusdik manner... I have decided that it is cool to stick up for your principles!

Mrs. Yid: Fine, you're entitled to shop wherever you want to, though I'm not sure what you're going to wear if the stores in Crown Heights aren't tzniusdik enough for you... I suppose you can shop at some Islamic stores, though you may not enjoy that.

Me: I'm in favor of anything that limits this woman's contact with other people. Boycott everyone, I say! Quick, boycott the school! That will teach all those kids an important lesson!
I often wonder, how did the environmentalists make it so cool to go green? Recycling isn’t glamorous and using cloth diapers can’t be fun. Then I realized, they got celebrities on board and made it popular. The Shluchos are our celebrities. You are creative, devoted and so talented. If you decide to dedicate yourselves to bringing back the pride and dignity to our women and girls, and to restoring the glorious, shining name of Chabad, it will happen.
First, I'm not sure that's how the environmental movement got people to go green. Second, I like that the best role model you can think of for your tznius crusade isn't some authentic Torah-true sage or movement (mussar, maybe?) but those goyishe, earth-worshipping hippy pagan types with their godless Hollywood celebrities. Why do you even know about celebrities? Did someone show you a TV? Are you a BT, Mrs. Ella Lerman, if that is your real name? How do we know you weren't born Eileen, or G-d forbid, Erica?
This is a call to action. It is time to take a stand. When people tell me the terrible things they are seeing in our communities, I tell them, “Don’t tell me the horror stories. Tell me what you are doing about it!” We need to be bold and brave. It requires strength and mesirus nefesh. This is not the battle hymn of the tiger mom, this is the battle cry of the Yiddishe Mamme.
Mrs. Yid: The Battle Whine, maybe.

Me: Again with the Pop Culture! Who let you read the Wall Street JournalDoesn't sound very tznius to me. Does your rebbe know about this?
I am asking the over 1500 women in this room to stand up. If each one of us makes a decision to dress according to the law and to commit to living a tzniusdik lifestyle, the world will look very different tomorrow.
Mrs. Yid: Right, because if we decide to dress according to the law, we can agree to a few general principles on what needs to be covered. Instead, we have to go according to the guidelines established by random rebbes and Tznius Queens. If everyone made up their own tznius people probably would be happier, though they'd also dress less tznius-- if we take this lady's ideas to their logical conclusion everyone should be walking around wearing a bedsheet, like Charlie Brown in that Halloween episode.
Pictured: The two Tznius Ladies. And the Rock of our Salvation, why not.

Me: Am I the only one unconvinced that 1500 women committing to not wearing dark nail polish is not going to make the world all that different?
So, this is our challenge. When you finish reading this article, what will you do about the terrible chilul Hashem which we are seeing in our neighborhoods? Are you going to say, “Enough, from now on I will make sure that my skirt is covering my knees when I sit, walk and climb the stairs”? Will you be careful with necklines that fall too low and clothes that are too tight? Do we really want to cheapen our beautiful, Torah way of life for a few inches?
Mrs. Yid: You know what would keep knees covered regardless of what you're doing? Pants.
It is time for us to ask our boys’ and girls’ schools to set high and true standards for their students, teachers and parents. Many people do not have a Rav or a mashpia to guide them, but everyone sends their kids to school and they respect the school’s rules. We must demand from anyone who has authority: principals, camp directors, heads of organizations, etc., not to quietly accept and tolerate behavior that goes against halachah.
Mrs. Yid: People don't respect the school's rules! They tolerate the school's rules! Also, if she got her way on skirts, she'd move on to criticizing girls' nail polish for being the wrong shade of tan.
Many people will be reading this article. Will you be the one who will sigh and say, “This is terrible,” and then do nothing? Or will you decide that you can make a difference and take action right away? Our children need us to protect and guard our Yiddishe, chassidishe lifestyle, for them and their children. May we be matzliach and may we have, in abundance, true nachas from our children and grandchildren.
Me: Is "none of the above" an option? Why not?

Mrs. Yid: This is terrible. But I think I like our solution of making fun of her better.

Me: I'm just amazed that this women comes from a shaliach family and yet seems totally unaware of the fact that many shluchim have learned that the best way to motivate people to take on halacha is to not badger or guilt trip them into doing it. I wonder if this is part of the "Crown Heights bubble" I've heard people speak of, how Crown Heights as ground zero of Chabad operates on its own different wavelength and, to a degree, philosophy than the rest of the movement. Anyway, it's rather sad on a number of levels. Also, let's hope none of her granddaughters decide to put on nail polish, or god forbid, go off the derech. They'll probably be nagged to death.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Defining Jewishness (mine and others)

Ongoing blog friend Antigonos continues to put up with my ramblings and even wrote me a nice long note. Here it is:
Rabbi Eugene Lipman, z"l, once said to me that there is only one defining criterion in Judaism: does one believe that there was a Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai, or that the Torah was written, not by God, but by man [divinely inspired, maybe, but then, maybe not]. 
The former are Orthodox, and the rest are...well, the rest.  This is about the basic underpinning of a religious world-view, and not specifically about level of observance.  American Jews tend to get obsessed with bservance to the exclusion of philosophy.  Judaism becomes defined, on a sliding scale from 1 to 10, by how one "Jews it up" [a favorite phrase of Rabbi Alan Miller's].  Pesach is marked by a box of matzah on the table but otherwise living as usual = Reform; going berserk with spring cleaning, selling hametz, using special cutlery, plates, pots and pans = Orthodox, and doing the same as the Orthodox but not eating gebrochts as well = ultra-Orthodox. [You'll notice I'm leaving out the Conservative, for a reason]  Shabbat is a day to be a couch potato; Passover becomes a festival of "Freedom" [so blacks like the President can celebrate it too] and isn't a celebration of a particular event in the history of a particular people. 
That's a false interpretation, alas.  The basic divide concerns the place of halacha in Jewish life.  If [actually, "iiiiffff" in a Talmudic singsong ] one believes that Torah is a human product, then humans can change it, or dispense with halacha altogether, and that, to a large extent, is what the Reform have done [there's something of a backlash nowadays since Reconstructionism probably has its largest impact on current Reform thinking].  If one believes that God has directed you, through Torah [d'oraita] and the Oral Law [d'rabbanan] how to live, and to live this way is a manner of turning one's life into a form of perpetual worship, then one can't rewrite halacha to suit one's desires.  This is the view of the Orthodox.  The Conservative have never really developed a coherent philosophy on the authority and justification of halacha, and each congregation seems to be as "traditional" as they want to be.  As a result, currently the Conservative Movement is having a lot of trouble.  The Orthodox know who they are, and the Reform more or less incorporate anything they want to include, and the Conservative...well, they're there somewhere. Sort of.  I guess.

Just for a taste of where we are... I don't believe the Torah was written by God. I just don't. I don't know exactly what various people have meant by "divinely inspired," but at this point in my life, it's appropriately vague enough that I can get behind it. I guess. The short answer, I suppose, is that while I'm not sure I always believe in God, I do believe in the Jewish people, and that framework, at least these days, makes sense to me. I see halacha and Jewish traditions as important, though not necessarily binding-- or at least, not binding in a static way. This makes sense to me, given that Jewish life historically was not static. That's not to say I believe that halacha can mean "whatever I want it to mean;" on the contrary, I feel that since I am still not entirely sure where I stand on the issue of halacha being personally binding, I have less personal motivation to skew halacha one way or the other. Still, my sense is that there's more inherent flexibility to the system (as demonstrated by various thinkers and practices in Jewish history) than many contemporary Orthodox Jews (particularly on the Haredi side) give it credit.

To touch on your Passover example: our Passover consists of cleaning, selling hametz, and going 8 days on matzah and potatoes. We have a seder firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, at which invariably most of the guests aren't Jewish. We clearly aren't Orthodox. But we aren't just doing lip service either. We're somewhere in between, a distinction I will claim proudly.
This can have massive implications.  Probably the biggest one is the problem of patrilineal descent, which  imply is not accepted by any but the Reform, and has made it very difficult for ANY American Jew to get married in Israel [and I have known of some tragic situations in the US, btw, although American Orthodox rabbis are more lenient in converting the non-Jewish spouse who mistakenly thinks she -- it is usually a she, obviously -- is Jewish but really isn't.  And that's because of the children] 
So I don't think that a division between "Orthodox" and "in-married non-Orthodox" is really valid.  Reform, which I think absorbs most of the mixed marriages, isn't a "diluted" form of Judaism even though many American Jews think it is.  Further, it matters which partner is Jewish, and which is not.   American non-Orthodox Judaism is rapidly becoming a separate religion -- rather as Unitarianism is only marginally Christian compared to the Catholic Church [and I suspect many Catholics wouldn't consider it Christian at all]  Since most Israelis regard the "shul I rarely if ever attend is Orthodox", both what is called here "Progressive" [Reform] and "traditional"[Conservative] movements have expressed wonder that more Israelis don't join non-Orthodox congregations.  It really isn't odd -- Israelis may be observant or may not, but non-Orthodox forms of observance just don't seem really "Jewish".
I've definitely heard that, and I support Israelis' (and all Diaspora Jews') right to affiliate and support whichever individual congregations or movements they choose. My one quibble is that up until extremely recently, the deck has been significantly stacked against the liberal movements by virtue of the Orthodox monopoly over state functions, as well as the government providing the Orthodox funding while denying it to other movements. If the liberal movements can't seriously compete in Israel, so be it. But I don't think it's quite fair to write them off given the massive advantages the Orthodox have enjoyed thanks to the state. On an emotional/intuitive level, I think I somewhat understand the desire to have an authentic knowledge base or service aesthetic available when you want to access it (this is partially what's been percolating in me since my early college days), but it is interesting that there's such a disconnect between typical secular Israeli identity and continuing loyalty to Orthodoxy when it comes time to have a wedding or go to a holiday service. I wonder if a big part of that isn't the fact that Reform and Masorti are viewed as being foreign/imported traditions and as watered-down or somehow inauthentic versions of the real thing.
I would take issue with you when you write that "many" [I would amend that to "some"; I don't think the numbers reflect the reality of what happens to mixed marriages -- which is usually no religious affiliation at all] Reform mixed couples are raising Jewish children.  They are raising Reform children, which usually means little knowledge and less observance, not to mention the halachic problem in the case of non-Jewish mothers.  And I know Conservative rabbis who will not accept children from mixed marriages in Hebrew school according to patrilineal descent.  Like certain parts of the Episcopal Church, the whole business of homosexual and female rabbis, and gay marriage, is driving some Conservative to being modern Orthodox. [Recent studies show, btw, that in NY at least, the most rapidly growing community is the Orthodox, while both Reform and Conservative are dwindling, through indifference, not increased religious awareness]
You're quite right that I shouldn't extrapolate outwards based merely on my own experiences; however, living in a very liberal city and hopping around within the various liberal communities in that city, my observations have been that within the quasi-observant liberal community there seem to be a fair number of intermarriages. This is certainly not to claim that most intermarriages necessarily lead to Jewish children, just that it does happen, and I feel that's a worthwhile counterpoint to be aware of given that many people continue to believe the old line that as soon as a Jewish man marries out, that family and any children are by definition "gone." I'm not questioning the statistical data, just saying that the opposite is also part of the whole picture.

Yes, the Orthodox are growing. Part of this is due to organizational incompetence among the liberal movements, a general allergy to religiosity among people my age and younger, and, of course, the fact that on average Orthodox folks tend to have at least two to four more children than their liberal counterparts. I'm not begrudging the Orthodox their numbers, just saying that I'm not sure that necessarily demonstrates that more people are specifically becoming convinced of Orthodox theology or arguments.
An Israeli perspective on your survey questions might interest you.  In chu"l, you have to actively do something "Jewish" to maintain a Jewish identity [unless you are unfortunate enough to have an ID with "Zhid" stamped on it]; here you don't.  You just ARE.  Big difference! 
Seder participation is very high in Israel among secular Jews -- roughly 80% according to some articles I've read.  Pesach is one of the best-observed holidays in Israel, with otherwise secular folks going mad with cleaning. 
Ditto Hanukah candles.  I'm a little surprised by the question.  Hanukah is such an unimportant holiday, really [yes, I know it's a Jewish Christmas in the US]  Here in Israel just about everyone with kids lights candles [kids make hanukiot in school, so most families light one for each member, and put them, as required by halacha, in the window or in boxes outside the house], but there is very little gift-giving.  The kids only get a single day off school. 
As to charity ["Jewish" goes without saying], I think most Israelis do give some charity, although to an organization like Yad Sarah, which supplies medical equipment as a free loan, or to the Israeli Red Cross --  Magen David Adom -- instead of a religious charity is more common among the seculars. Donating charity as a form of giving a present for a special occasion is quite common too. 
Very, very few Israelis [unless they have medical problems, as I do -- I'm diabetic --] eat on Yom Kippur.  A lot of secular folks, however, will go to sleep after the seudah mafseket and try to stay asleep until Ne'ilah to avoid having to go to shul.  However, synagogue attendance is very high -- there's that wonderful story about how the Arabs goofed by attacking Israel on Yom Kippur.  Mobilization was very easy; men went from shul to shul and everyone was notified immediately.  If the Arabs had attacked on Sukkot, when a lot of Israelis either travel or have barbeques in the woods, mobilization would have been very difficult.  The other halachot of the fast are observed, too: no leather shoes [Crocs!], wearing a kitel or white clothes, etc., by a lot of not particularly religious* men. 
Is being Jewish important?  I think most Israelis would find that question confusing.  We would phrase it "being observant"; we're all Jewish. 
Jewish events?  Are you crazy?  The _country's_ Jewish!  I'll skip over the "are you attached to Israel" question. 
Do you talk about Jewish-related topics?  What else?  Two Israelis, three political parties.
Ipso facto, every Israeli is part of a Jewish society.  In fact, one of Israel's main problems is that the country is filled with Jews  Men wearing kippot, the crocheted variety, are everywhere, and not all of them are strictly Orthodox.  My youngest daughter's father-in-law does this, and he is "traditional". 
Shabbat meals?  I wouldn't guess a percentage, but families do get together much more here than in the States.  For one thing, the distances are smaller, which makes it easier.  A substantial percentage of Israeli "traditional" types make Kiddush, eat a Shabbat meal, sing zemirot, even bench -- and then watch TV or go to a soccer match on Saturday.  Most married women light candles on Friday night; less non-Orthdox families make Havdalah.  Some traditional Israelis won't travel on Shabbat, others will. Living in Jerusalem, where's there's no public transport means the city shuts down more on Shabbat than Tel Aviv, where everything is open. 
Synagogue membership is rather different here than in chu"l.  It's much less formal.  The davvening is also much less of a performance.  Shacharit on Shabbat is two hours, barely, from start to finish: no choir, no sermon [indeed, no rabbi].   There are little "shteibelach" on nearly every block [every ethnic group has its own, and sometimes even every family or clan within an ethnic group does].  You can drop in.  Shopping malls have synagogues and the loudspeaker will announce if they need a minyan for mincha or something.  There are even commuter trains which have a daily minyan for shacharit in one carriage.  A lot of otherwise only mildly observant men lay tefillin in the morning, which is rather surprising when you think about it, as these are the sort who only go to shul on major holidays or even only on Yom Kippur.
With easy access to kosher restaurants and kosher food generally in supermarkets, a much higher percentage of non-Orthodox Israelis keep kosher homes "because my mother did".  Young Israelis are more likely to eat non-kosher until they marry, then they keep kosher "for the kids".  [The army, of course, keeps kosher kitchens since seculars can eat kosher but religious soldiers obviously can't eat non-kosher]
Opportunities for study are all over the place; there are even radio shiurim on certain channels.  The average Israeli is, although no scholar in Judaic studies, far more knowledgeable than an American Jew -- after all, he can easily read primary source material in the original language, and living in the Land [Israelis are nuts about archeology and historical references], it all seems much more pertinent.  But the younger secular generation is becoming less interested -- partly because of the polarization between the haredim and the non-religious.
Very interesting take on the survey questions! I definitely like the fact that in Israel the "traditional" and even "liberal" streams seem to be based more on preference, ideology and tradition than a lack of knowledge about what they're doing, which I feel like, at least among the laity these days, more often tends to be the case among liberal streams in the US. I think more than anything, what I'm working towards is an ability to put the Reform/Reconstructionist philosophy of "personal choice" and "community folkways" into real practice by being informed enough about what normative/historical halachic perspectives have been to then make my own determinations about what I think is right or relevant. Where I think Conservative Judaism may have the edge on Orthodox Judaism in this regard is that CJ seems to be more tolerant of dissenting views (in terms of personal practice) than OJ, where communal pressures and conformity, particularly regarding public religiosity and strictness, seem to be ever-increasing. I like the idea of being part of a community that respects people wherever they happen to be, while also taking Jewish tradition seriously and being willing to draw some lines about where tradition does and doesn't go (which is not to say that I reject contemporary liberal values-- just that I value a community that has the intellectual honesty to admit that the conflict exists).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Playing by the Rules

I have a new post up on intra-community liberal Jewish friction/differences over at Too Cool For Shul, but the money quote relevant to this post is here:
with us slowly starting to take more mitzvot (or pseudo-mitzvot) on, the idea of belonging to a community that actually purports to follow some version of halacha-- in both positive and, perhaps "restrictive" ways, no longer feels quite so at odds with our own philosophies. Mrs. Yid told me shortly before we got married that for her to feel connected, she needed to feel like she was actually doing Jewish things, and I think there's something to that. 
...Though I'm still not exactly sure how much halacha I'm prepared to personally accept, I think I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of being part of a community that at least seriously considers what halacha has to say, and I think worship style is part of this evolving sensibility as well. However, some of our foundational core values are also inclusiveness and diversity, so I think balancing those two elements is going to be an ongoing process as we try to take our Judaism and our community-building more seriously.
So that's background to this interesting piece by Rabbi Jason Miller, where he mulls over what to do about intermarriage and non-halachic Jewish kids.
it is important to understand that the Reform Movement's 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn't create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies "in Reform communities"). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of "Who's a Jew" has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement's notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B'nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles' events. 
...this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together. 
Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status. 
My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding. 
After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.
More than almost any other issue, I find patrilineal descent and "Who is a Jew?" to be one of the most painful and raw problems in contemporary Jewish society today. On the one hand, as a person who has patrilineal Jewish cousins (and matrilineal cousins who have never set foot in a synagogue and were raised Christian), I find the standard Orthodox response that my uncle's kids are less Jewish than my aunt's both unreasonable as well as downright insulting. (Particularly given the scholarship suggesting that at various points matrilineal descent was not the determining factor of Jewishness.) At the same time, I also acknowledge that my standard response ("My future kids can deal with their Jewish status if they want to at a later date") may be on the overly-glib side.

The real issue comes down to whether you accept halacha (or Jewish customs/folkways) as in any way binding, and if you do, how you integrate that understanding and worldview into modern life, including the important value of treating others with respect and decency. As such, though I'm not sure that Rabbi Miller's solution is necessarily workable, it's refreshing to see someone from the liberal community at least treating the topic as an actual issue that needs to be thought about and that needs some sort of resolution, even if it's not the one he proposes.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Defining the Present and Future of Non-Orthodoxy

For quite a while, lots of people have been assuming that as the Conservative movement moves left and the Reform movement moves right, eventually there will be some sort of merger between the movements, if not officially, then in practice. So it's interesting to read comments like sociologist Steven M. Cohen's, where he very explicitly draws a line between non-Orthodox Jews.

rather than divide the world into two ‎‎(either Orthodox/non-Orthodox OR in-married/intermarried), I prefer to ‎divide the world into three (Orthodox, in-married or unmixed ancestry non-‎Orthodox, intermarried and mixed ancestry). The differences across these ‎boundaries are real, even as the groups do bleed into each other.‎ 
For example, how wide, in fact, is the difference between the Modern Orthodox ‎parent of a Ramaz Yeshiva student, and the Sabbath-observant parent of a ‎Schechter day school student? Or, for that matter, who is likely to be more ‎engaged in Jewish life: the non-married Reform-identifying young adult or ‎his/her intermarried parents who belong to a thriving Reform temple? In short, ‎the divides I (and you) are suggesting do make sense, but they need to be ‎qualified with a consciousness of their imprecision and fluidity.‎ 
In fact, each of the three camps I’m suggesting itself may be divided in two. ‎Among the Orthodox, we found incredibly large differences between the ‎Modern Orthodox and the Haredim, especially with respect to participating in ‎the larger Jewish community. Among the in-married non-Orthodox, we found ‎substantial differences between Conservative and Reform Jews, especially if ‎affiliated, countering the widely held notion that the two venerable ‎denominations are no longer meaningful. And among the intermarried ‎population (be it by ancestry or current circumstance), Jews divide ‎significantly between those who see Judaism as their religion and those who do ‎not.‎

The one area where I think Cohen may be overstating his case is that at this point, "intermarriage" can mean a lot of things. In the Reform movement, lots of intermarried couples are raising Jewish children within Jewish institutions. Even among the Conservative movement, you have people that intermarry and then later convert. So I'm not convinced that it makes sense to frame the in-married and the intermarried as two entirely distinct groups, or to place the biggest "dividing line" between Jews who marry Jews and Jews who don't (though I should note that in the study the authors comment that they treat marriages where one partner was not born to Jewish parents but consider themselves Jewish--whether formally converted or not-- to be in-marriages). Rather, it seems that the greater divide among non-Orthodox Jews is between Jews who are involved and connected, and Jews who aren't. Connection can come in a lot of ways-- institutional involvement, community involvement, organizational activity, artistic activity, education, even reading! But at its core, the issue of involvement or connection comes down to whether people identify as Jewish intellectually and emotionally and then do something to put that into practice. These people can be contrasted with those that, for whatever reason, don't have or feel that connection. A lot of times these categories are re-cast as affiliated and unaffiliated, but I think affiliation tends to carry too much denominational baggage. If someone isn't a member of a shul but does other Jewish stuff (religious or otherwise), do they count as affiliated? Considering that a huge percentage of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue, this suggests that the term "affiliated" is no longer that useful to measure Jewish involvement, commitment or enthusiasm. (Cohen's study examines issues of "affiliation" as well as "engagement".)

At first blush, I'm also somewhat skeptical of Cohen's comment about "substantial differences" between Conservative and Reform Jews. Glancing through the chapter on engagement, it I think the general gist seems to be that on average Conservative Jews tend to attend services more, keep more Jewish traditions, and may follow or be engaged in more Jewish issues or concerns. Those are certainly fair differences to note, but I'm unconvinced how defining they will continue to be as this generation ages and their children grow into adulthood. To varying degrees, a lot of these differences are cultural and familial by-products, and that means that they can and likely will continue to shift. Also, looking over some of the questions asked in the study, it seems to me that some of the areas they're looking at are either somewhat biased or minor in terms of importance/significance. For instance, asking whether someone's closest friends are Jewish or whether they fast all day on Yom Kippur. To me, these feel very generationally or religiously-tied, and while I won't deny that there can be a correlation between them as data points and painting a larger picture of someone's Jewish engagement, I would strongly disagree with the opposite conclusion, that if someone doesn't do these things they're necessarily not Jewishly engaged. Statistics are important, but only if you're asking the right questions. The other thing that I would note, living in a very liberal area with plenty of liberal congregations, is that sometimes people who come from a more liberal background (say, Reform) are more comfortable seeking out and experimenting with different forms of observance, including more traditional ones, than people who are more ideologically fixed. So if a Reform shul decides that it wants to practice having a Carlebach-style Friday night minyan, it may actually gain more traction among its members who are used to trying different things than a Conservative shul that's more stuck in its ways.

I feel like these kinds of studies struggle with staying relevant; as younger generations continue to experiment with and explore various ways and contexts of being Jewish, older identity issues such as "having close Jewish friends" or even "feel very attached to Israel" cease to be a very good indicator of much.

Just as a test, here are the questions from part of their engagement survey, specifically looking at the non-Orthodox. My answers are compared to other non-Orthodox folks in my age range (18-34) not living with their parents (thank god):

  • Do you usually or always have a seder in your house? YES (58%)

  • Do you usually or always light Hanukkah candles in your house? YES (55%)
  • Are your friends mostly Jewish? NO (I can count my close friends on two hands and my Jewish ones on one.) (30%)

  • Do you give to Jewish charities other than the Jewish Federation? NO, I don't even give to them. Actually I don't even know how to get in touch with them. (28%)

  • Do you fast all day on Yom Kippur? YES (though the two years before the most recent one I was sick and didn't) (52%)

  • Is being Jewish "very important" in your life? YES (38%)

  • Have you been to a Jewish Museum or Jewish Cultural Event in the past year? YES... Young Guard Havdalah  counts, right? (44%)

  • Do you feel "Very Attached" to Israel? Um... (25%)

  • Do you talk regularly about Jewish-related topics with friends? And my parents, and my wife, and my wife's parents... (28%)

  • Is it very important to be part of a Jewish Community? I suppose so, then again I only joined a synagogue a month ago (I actually still need to send them their check) (21%)

  • Do you regularly participate in Shabbat meals? SOMETIMES (curse Mrs. Yid's lucrative job!) (33%)

  • Do you give to the Jewish Federation? NO (8%)

  • Are you a member of a synagogue? YES (sort of, almost) (29%)

  • Has anyone in your house been to a JCC program in the past year? NO (Too far away) (31%)

  • Do you feel part of a Jewish community "a lot"? Which community? My shul? The city community? Sort of, I guess? (17%)

  • Do you regularly access Jewish websites? I'm here, aren't I? (34%)

  • Have you engaged in Adult Jewish Programs in the past year? YES-- go Tanakh class! (28%)

  • Do you study informally, either alone, with a friend, or a teacher? YES-- Parsha study for the win! (35%)

  • Do you usually or always light Shabbat candles? YES-- Havdalah candles are sometimes trickier to get to. (17%)

  • Have you volunteered for a Jewish Organization in the past year? NO (24%)

  • Do you have a kosher home? NO-- but the kavannah is pure! (19%)

  • Do you regularly participate or belong to a Jewish organization? Does the Jewish webring count? No? Then how about shul membership... once that check goes through...? (19%)

  • Do you attend services more than monthly? YES-- sometimes twice a month! (Seriously, we're working on it.) (8%)

  • Do you belong to an online Jewish Group? YES-- and I call it the Judeosphere! (32%)

It's interesting that many of my answers tended to match the study's findings among my age group (it's not surprising that those numbers are significantly lower in many areas than the same demographic that lives with its parents, as those responses are probably skewed from parental involvement): more ambivalence on Israel, less ritual observance, and just generally less interaction with formal community structures, be they financial, organizational, or activist. On the other hand, the top affirmative responses show that holiday rituals, Jewish cultural activities, text study, online communities and self-identification are meaningful focal areas. The good news from this is that it suggests that there's still interest and identification with Jewishness as well as elements of Judaism, but the trick is for the organizations, synagogues and other institutions to find ways to tap into that interest and keep themselves relevant, because clearly plenty of young Jews are perfectly happy creating their own organic and eclectic communities rather than specifically looking for Jewish identity and fulfillment within the traditional contexts of the synagogue or the JCC.

Honestly, I would love to see a study done that focused more on intermarried, unaffiliated and especially younger Jews. Preferably, they'd even get young sociologists to plan and conduct it.

Any volunteers?