Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Committing to Engagement

Garnel had a post last week about the Reform and Conservative movements that was framed around the idea that non-Orthodoxy's raison-d'etre is a "lack of commitment." He believes that this, in turn, is precisely the reason why so those movements are losing members. As he put it,
how do you build a strong feeling of commitment to a philosophy based on a lack of one? 
A movement that makes any actual Jewish practice optional can't expect to raise large numbers for a rally. No one is going to pack a stadium with a crowd shouting "We want to do whatever we want and still be considered good Jews!"  Yes, there will always be candidates for their so-called rabbinic programs but how many dedicated pro-feminist and pro-gay people who also have a liking for Bible studies are there out there?  And how can they connect to congregations that see a lack of connection as part of their Jewish identity?
Let's start by putting aside the strawmen of non-Orthodox Jews perpetually searching for the perfect rabbi who will give them permission to do whatever they want while still being declared "good Jews." I don't know anyone who lives that way and if they do, I hope they get some help. While we're at it, we can also shelve the line about liberal congregation members viewing "a key part" of their identity being a "lack of connection."You know, because the whole point of joining a community is so you can keep feeling good and alienated. (Is Garnel confusing unaffiliated and non-Orthodox here? Is he vaguely alluding to the challenges of non-Orthodox kiruv? I can't tell.)

Anyway, this was the part that really tweaked me:
Reform needs Orthodoxy (we supply them with all those OTD's) but the American Jewish community does not need inauthenticity.  It needs an open admission that a lack of interest in proper Judaism is not in itself a genuine form of Judaism and to stand up and create real standards that define them.
First, I agree with Garnel that the primary problems in American Jewish life today are a lack of interest and engagement in Jewish education, culture, identity, and so on. There's no question that the liberal movements are shrinking, though there are plenty of reasons offered as to why.

However, no one is served by simplistic, reductionist and ultimately dishonest depictions of what liberal Judaism-- or liberal Jews-- believes.

Let's start with the movements themselves: from my research and experience, both personal and academic, I strongly disagree that the ethos of non-Orthodox movements is "a lack of interest in proper Judaism". Quite frankly, this gives Orthodoxy more credit and importance in the eyes of the non-Orthodox than it deserves. Liberal rabbis don't go to seminary for six years to spite the Orthodox. I don't wake up on Saturdays and go to shul because I'm thinking, "Yay, I can't wait to go do Judaism WRONG!" The engaged non-Orthodox Jews I know have many affirmative reasons they choose to be Jewish, and choose their particular path in Judaism. In my experience, "I don't want to be Orthodox" isn't often on the list.

The simple matter is, for many American Jews, including those with strong Jewish educations and who are committed to Judaism and Jewish identity, Orthodoxy is not even an option. A skeptical or scientific POV-- which is increasingly common these days-- is largely incompatible with the philosophical and theological demands of Orthodoxy, and if you don't have those as a motivator, it becomes extremely difficult to take on mitzvot that have practical ramifications in your daily life-- to say nothing of the fact that Orthodox belief and practice contain some things that, to modern eyes are, at best, extremely challenging, and at worst, deeply problematic, even offensive. And, as Garnel wrote in his post about YCT, Orthodox culture is increasingly less open to differences of opinion or practice. So given all that, why would anyone who hasn't had some sort of mind-blowing experience where they're suddenly convinced of its existential correctness choose Orthodoxy? The mere suggestion is a total non-starter. And yet many Jews still feel that being Jewish-- in some form-- is important to them. They value it. So they find some middle point. That's the motivation. The binary nature of his post suggests that if a Jew isn't willing to be Orthodox they might as well leave Judaism entirely. I don't see how that helps them, or the Jewish people.

Is there superficiality in liberal communities? Of course. Is there ignorance, apathy and laziness? Yes again. However, the more I read about the various layers within Orthodoxy, the more it becomes apparent that these issues are not limited to liberal Judaism. No community is safe from apathy or disengagement, not even the Haredi communities which do their best to ensure continuity by stigmatizing the outside world and keeping their children as segregated as possible.

Garnel may see non-Orthodox Judaism as illegitimate and clueless, and I don't deny that the movements have their issues, practical as well as existential. However I see the major divide in klal israel not being over a lack of interest, but a lack of a common worldview, both of existence and of Judaism itself. Orthodox Jews view existence through the prism of halacha and Orthodox theology first, and apply this same rubric to their views of what Judaism is. Non-Orthodox Jews, to varying degrees, view existence through other perspectives (modern, post-modern, scientific, materialist) and then try to graph Jewish law and theology onto it as best they can, which necessarily creates a multiplicity of Judaisms as well. If you genuinely believe in a literal Torah mi-Sinai and that the Torah is literally true as well as infallible, then you're probably not going to take issue with halacha, no matter how at odds it might be with your internal reason or personal ethics or preferences, because it came from God. On the other hand, if you don't share those foundational beliefs, then a lot of halacha just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and so you're naturally going to use your brain and conscience to the best of your ability to figure out how best to live your life in a way that makes sense to you. For some people this approach will incorporate many elements of halacha, for others, less. But that, I am convinced, is the dividing line: is there one objective truth, or not? And if there is, is it Orthodox Judaism's truth? Statistics suggest that most Jews don't think so.

On a personal level, I consider myself very "interested" in Judaism, and continue to work towards becoming a more educated, thoughtful, and committed Jew. I read the parsha, I study Talmud, I go to shul, and I'm still working on my Hebrew. But since I don't share the foundational beliefs of Orthodoxy, and since I find much in Orthodox practice and culture personally objectionable, my practice is not focused around Orthodox standards, and never will be. Not because I'm "not interested" in Judaism, but because I do not see Orthodoxy as the only "proper" manifestation of Judaism-- not least because I don't believe a single proper Judaism exists in the fist place! What some seem unable or unwilling to realize is that for many like me, this viewpoint doesn't stem from an emotional defiance or specific hostility, but sincere belief. You can come up with all sorts of caused for this belief, but it's there, and I refuse to accept a scenario in which my only choices are "belong to a community that you fundamentally disagree with" or "don't be Jewish."

A lot of times in these types of discussions people will use terms like legitimate, authentic, or the increasingly popular "true." I do believe in concepts of authenticity, but in my view Judaism is too large and too varied to have a single authentic expression. There are traditional beliefs and practices in Judaism, certainly, but those have evolved over time and many would be unrecognizable to, say, a Jew living in the first Temple era, much less one of the patriarchs. I don't think anything can be called Judaism, but I do think that a lot of times people give "tradition" more legitimacy than it's necessarily entitled to. The reality is that there are many ways to do ritual, many ways to find God and/or meaning, and yes, even many ways to observe halacha-- remember that this was part of the reason the rabbis got mad at Yosef Karo for writing the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam for putting down the Principles of Faith.

So while I do believe that you can do things "authentically," I also believe that authenticity is only really meaningful in context-- you can have an authentic Orthodox Jew and an authentic Reform Jew, for instance. They may be doing different things but both are being authentic to their traditions, beliefs and understandings, and that doesn't bother me-- because I see both as being part of Judaism. Obviously, if you disagree with that premise, you have a problem. But that's primarily an Orthodox dilemma, because despite the successes of the B'aal Teshuvah movement and Orthodoxy's claim to "true authenticity," when most American Jews leave their liberal temples, they don't head for an Orthodox shul, they stop going to shul altogether.

That said, while most American Jews have no interest in being Orthodox, many are still attached, in various ways, to being Jewish. So what are their options? If some had their way, these people would "self-deport" and never engage with anything Jewish again. Like it or not, it is through the liberal communities that many Jews come into some form of observance that they otherwise would not participate in at all. Some may think that if they aren't frum or doing things to frum standards whatever they do is treyf anyway; I say if Jews are studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, being involved in Jewish worship, etc, it's a win. Again, it comes down to your perspective: is it better to do something rather than nothing? Because realistically, for many American Jews, that's the choice. Not Orthodox or liberal, but liberal or nothing. Frum folks not liking it doesn't make it not true. So the question becomes: if the choice is liberal or nothing, how does choosing the latter benefit klal israel?

Let's go back to commitment: Obviously, a major focus of being an Orthodox Jew is being committed to halacha, and this is an area where many liberal Jews may differ from them. However I don't believe that liberal Jews are committed to a "lack of commitment"; I think they're committed to being Jewish, and, in some form or another, staying Jewish, in spite of having a complicated, even antagonistic, relationship with Jewish tradition. At their core, affiliated liberal Jews believe in staying connected and engaged with Judaism even if they don't take all of it as gospel; indeed for many of them, it is the precise act of giving themselves permission to look at the tradition in a non-literal and non-binding way that is crucial in helping them to stay connected. I realize that may not make sense to some of our Orthodox compatriots, but I think that's the crux of what many liberal Jews believe. They can criticize if they like, but my sense is that's much closer to the truth than "committing to non-commitment."

I agree that there are some big problems in American Judaism today. But I don't think they center around a lack of "authenticity"-- because that implies that most Jews see Orthodoxy as authentic and still choose not to follow it. That's not what I see going on. I think Reform and Conservative and the others need to figure out how to be authentic to their core principles and spread those messages. If people respond to them and the movements grow, so much the better. If not, then hopefully the present generation of alienated Jews will figure out some kind of connection that works for them. Maybe in a generation's time we'll see a non-Orthodox field less dominated by one or two movements and instead a more equal split between the four major ones. On the other hand, maybe what we're seeing right now is another generational/ideological split like we saw 100 years ago during the huge immigrations of Jews to America. Perhaps when all is said and done, it will leave the liberal movements smaller but stronger, with the more apathetic/less engaged members ultimately deciding to cut the chord. I don't know, and honestly, I don't have a particular preference for how things shake out. I have found a path that works for me and my family and since I don't claim to have access to the one true way, I don't feel all that worried about the existence of unaffiliated Jews in the world, or about whether liberal Judaism will survive in the long-term. People will live their lives the best way they see fit, and if liberal Judaism can speak to them and engage them and touch them, so much the better. If not, then not.

The irony, though, is that while some Orthodox like Garnel rightfully chastise liberal Judaism for sometimes being too idealistic, they simultaneously seem to believe in a fantasy in which somehow if  Reform and Conservative suddenly disappeared, it would lead the masses of unaffiliated and uneducated Jews to suddenly choose Orthodoxy and Orthodox standards as the guidepost for "legitimate" Judaism. That's just as utopian as anything the early Reform rabbis said about the demise of Orthodoxy.

The truth is that the Orthodoxy ship has sailed, and most of the Jewish people opted to stay on the dock. The question is where they go next.

7 comments:

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Wow, nice piece.
Obviously we disagree about a few important points but let me try to clarify.
You're right, I don't think anyone wakes up in the morning and says "How can I spite God today" or "How can I sin against the Torah today?"
Here's what I see as the fundamental difference between the Orthodox and the non-orthodox.
The Orthodox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Let me open up the halacha books and find out.
The Heterdox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Well, my values include X, Y, and Z so I'll say that those values are Jewish values and be a good Jew.
Now obviously this is not about conscious statements but when you hear heterodox people talking about how supporting gay marriage or unrestricted abortion is a Jewish value then you get the impression that heterodox Judaism is defined as "Here are my values, and I'll call them Jewish". And then an adjective in front appears.
In addition, there's a branding disagreement. For the Orthodox there's a clear definition of Judaism - matan Torah, one God, supremacy of halacha, etc. Now within Orthodoxy there is a battle being wages over a bunch of peripherals, stuff you identify in your post like the rationalists vs the irrationalists (eg. Slifkin controversy) but the basics are what define Judaism.
So when someone comes along and says "Well I'm a Reform Jew so I practice Judaism even though I don't believe in Matan Torah" we look over and say "Well that's like saying that Sprite you're holding is really a Coke because you want to have Coke but not to actually buy it.

Z-Dog said...

Orthodox Jew: how can I be a good Jew? Let me check the Torah. Hmmm... this Torah says all kinds of things that seem abhorrent to me. Wonder if anyone has interpreted them differently. Let's check the talmud. Hmm. Some stuff has changed, but I'm still stuck with others. Let's check the rishonim. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you reach the modern day. Pretend that no changes are permitted or happen any further.

Heterodox Jew: how can I be a good Jew? That's just like being a good person, except I do it in Hebrew or in a temple or something. But those things are hard or suck, so I'll just be a good person. How do you do that again? I'm not sure, maybe it says something in Pirkei Avot that reminds me of what I learned in the ashram. Wow, there's some cool stuff in this Torah and Talmud, except for what isn't, but I can ignore that stuff b/c it was written by sexist primitives. But the good stuff is pretty good. Wish I knew more Hebrew so I could understand it. No time for that, have to go pick up the kids from sat morning soccer practice and go to the clam bake for Israel.

Friar Yid said...

Z-Dog- so I take it you're either quite active at your local Conservadox shul or about to wash your hands of the whole enterprise. :) Is there another option I missed?

Antigonos said...

I like Garnel's comment. Again, I am struck by the huge difference between US and Israeli Judaism. You are all so much more synagogue and rabbi centered than we are. I don't think many Israelis define their Jewishness by religious observance -- although, because the way the country is structured, we probably are more "observant" than the average non-Orthodox American Jew. Must mull on this for a while, and then try to find time to blog.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Antigonos- I think a big part of that is that Jewish culture is accessible wherever you are. I don't think you necessarily need a population majority for that to happen, but you at least need to be a sizable amount of the population on a national or local scale for that kind of culture to function; either that or an incredible degree of buy-in from everyone in the community. If America was a smaller country or if the Jewish population was more on par with, say, the Catholic population, then I think it would be a significantly different ball game here. The other thing I see going on is that Israel was founded around a community model, whereas the United States is not only more individualistic, but also has always had Jews as a very small minority group, most of whom arrived after the country had been around for a while, so Jews have always been late-comers and had to adapt to the pre-existing culture and create new communities and institutions, as opposed to having some already on the ground that they could use as a starting point.

My point being, had there been no Shoah and Jewish culture (religious and secular) had continued in Europe as it had been going in the 1900s and Jews were only immigrating to the US now, I think you might have some very different models, both of Jewish community as well as modes of identifying as Jewish. When most American Jews think of non-religious Jewish culture, they don't think of great philosophers or artists or writers; they think of entertainers and schtick-- and a big part of that is because so much of that wisdom and self-knowledge was abandoned by their ancestors to better fit in. It's a big challenge to get it back, and in my opinion, a lot of it will probably have to be through the synagogues because they're some of the only functional (?) institutions left. Maybe in 20 years we'll see a more varied playing field, but it will take a lot of work to get there.

Z-Dog said...

Friar, I could write a similar summary roundup of any spot on the spectrum - everyone has their absurdities and hypocrisies. When folks like Garnel come out claiming the victory or superiority of their approach, it frustrates me because the frame is all wrong. It's fine to be R or O or C, or anything else, despite the strengths and weaknesses of their philosophical positions. The point isn't to figure out which Judaism is "right" and then evangelize for it. The point is for each person to find their relationship to god, to people and to community, and to try and improve every day.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Here, here!