Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Reform Commitment?

Years and years ago I heard a speech at the local Conservative synagogue near where I lived given by some bigwig from The Jewish Theological Seminary.  What I remember best about his talk was his insistence that Conservatism was inferior to Orthodoxy in one important way: passion.  I recall him pounding on the lectern and shouting that he wanted to see "Conservative Chasidim"!  He wanted Conservative Jews to be as passionate, as emphatic, as in love with their version of Judaism as Chasidim were with theirs.  And he was dead serious despite the ridiculousness of his position.
As a recent article from JTA notes, Reform seems to have discovered it needs to do the same thing, create some kind of passion and commitment amongst its members.  For too long Reformers have emphasized "personal Judaism", a religion in which each personal custom-makes his or her own observances while calling this myriad of approaches based on nothing more than personal values and secular liberal  values a "stream" of Judaism.  The problem, as the Reform leadership has finally figured out, is that this is like herding cats.  It leads nowhere when no two people can present identical visions and work on them together.
The problem with trying to create a "community before individual" approach is that such a vision is the antithesis of Reform's founding values.  Being Reform (and Conservative nowadays for that matter) is all about the "me".  What do I think Jewish values should be?  What do I think God should be in favour of?  What do I gain spiritual satisfaction from?  There may be some concept of surrendering to a greater set of values but inevitably those values are secular liberal ones that the person already believed in.  Sacrifice, saying to oneself that what one feels isn't the final arbiter of what is right or wrong, is simply not in the Reformative lexicon.  How then can HUS figure a way around this and remain true to what makes them Reformers?
Unfortunately the author of the article chooses to duck the idea with the following statement:
A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have “personal choice” as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever. Rather, personal choice must been seen simply as a given and the starting point for a variety of commitments we make.
So personal choice remains the foundation for one's approach to Judaism.  The community, the Nation of Israel, remains secondary even with this new vision.  Where's the change?  Of course, I learned something new in this part of the article:
It is noteworthy that even the official standards of the Reform movement itself are routinely disregarded because “personal autonomy” trumps them. Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to Reform laypeople and too seldom consulted by the rabbis, gather dust in libraries because Such literature is often at odds with a Reform Judaism for which personal choice is the central value.
Reform has standards?  I mean, I was aware of the JTS' A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.  Heck, as a kid I even read the thing.  As others have noted before me, if Conservative Jews en masse read and practised everything in that tome, then Conservativism wouldn't be the near-shade Reform that it has become today.  I was unaware, however, that other than a vague belief in an impotent God who approves all our actions to keep us happy and a commitment to social justice, that Reform had any other standards.  As for thoughtful responsa, as Rav Avi Shafran once opined, don't they all end in "Yes, you're allowed"?
The author further notes one of the core difficulties Reform would have in defining itself:
Put more simply, a disproportionate emphasis on personal choice has “dumbed down” our movement. While sometimes marketed as “informed choice,” this rarely has meant more than learning a snippet of a classic text about a particular issue rather than the kind of immersion and wholesale commitment that ongoing learning requires.
In general, we Reform Jews have not yet distinguished ourselves as sufficiently conversant with the vast literature of our biblical and rabbinic past. An increased commitment to Jewish study that leads to greater practice would build upon and greatly expand the many opportunities for “lifelong learning” that have flourished in Reform synagogues over the past two decades.
Well yes, when one of the founding decisions of Reform was to chuck the Shulchan Aruch and, along with it, any Jewish texts that actually demanded commitment to "archaic" values, you can hardly be surprised at the depth of ignorance of actual Jewish lore that the average Reform Jew possesses.  Snippets, random quotes and mistranslations of legal terms with actual meaning such as tikon Olam are about as deep as Reform lets its people get.  Even the "lifelong learning" has to be taken with a grain of salt.  When Reformers open the Talmud, they aren't interested in the Rashba or Rif on a subject.  They're still just looking for those snippets to justify their social justice and other liberal approaches.  This is completely the wrong way to approach Torah study but they simply aren't aware of that.
Finally, the author concludes by showing that he doesn't really understand the true purpose of Reform:
While Reform has distinguished itself in its commitment to social justice, now it must meet the challenge of grounding those commitments within a broader religious life that joins together the ethical and the ritual, the global and the local, the societal (repairing the world) and the interpersonal (repairing oneself). And for all of Reform’s emphasis on creativity, an increased commitment to study and practice will deepen and expand the creative impulse, allowing for a flourishing of new commentaries, music, art and poetry.
The word "distinguish" is completely misplaced.  Reform isn't about being distinguished.  It's about the exact opposite: creating a secular liberal movement with a token colourful set of "rituals" just like other ethnic groups.  It's about being as American as Americans (at least those that vote Democrat come Hell or high water).  It's about not standing out, about speaking up on topics that already are considered politically correct and never, never going against the liberal grain.
The upcoming Jewish festival in Montreal also nicely demonstrates this ignorance of what real Judaism is as it encourages its members to adopt a "Do it yourself Judaism".

The June 5 Le Mood festival — which carries the tagline “This ain’t your father’s religion” — will feature more than 60 workshops exploring the food, culture and quirks of the Jewish world.
“We’re trying to reach out to people who have a connection to Jewish life but haven’t been satisfied with the ways they have of interacting with it,” said festival organizer Mike Savatovsky. “We just want people to connect and do whatever is Jewish for them.”

"This ain't your father's religion" is a great tagline since what these folks are promoting really isn't Judaism, the religion of their fathers and their fathers' fathers before them.
Derech agav, anyone ever notice how the people dedicated to creating "personal" Judaism where everyone's defintion and mode of practice are unique are the first ones to scream about the threat to Jewish unity when the Chareidim suddenly announced "Do such-and-such our way or else!"?
Judaism, real Judaism, requires one to put aside one's personal feelings in many cases.  It requires one to submit to higher authority, to spend one's life learning the requirements God has placed on us.  It is not about "finding oneself" but about finding God in this World through the learning of his Torah.  It has been this way for over 3500 years in all its various forms.  One needs commitment and to put one's views second in order to become "Chasidim", something antithetical to Reformatives.  That's why there can never been any "Conservative Chasidim".  Until the Reformatives realize this and come home to that approach, any changes they make will be window dressing only.
And all of this is a shame because as this article by Andrew Silow-Caroll notes, there are many amongst are brethren who feel a strong attachment to the "Jewish" part of their identity even in the absence of any knowledge of what Judaism is.  As the Chumash predicts and many recent thinkers note, there is a spark of Jewishness in each of our souls that cannot be extinguished no matter how much bacon fat and atheist gravy gets poured on it.  It manifest and guides a Jew's behaviour, often in strange ways in the absence of any Torah to guide it.  How else to explain the plethora of Jews in social movements and Nobel prize laureate get-togethers?  The faint echoes of Sinai are there but need to be fanned in the proper direction. 
This is actually a tremendous opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, if either movement was interested in committing itself to outreach.  Perhaps they may yet grab the opportunity.


SJ said...

Seems to me Reform Judaism is more about Democrat social programs than it is about providing a path for them to save their souls.

Joshua Josephs said...

Dr. Ironheart,
This is a very interesting commentary, but I am curious what steps you feel that MO should take to help people who have a me first approach to Judaism incorporate themselves into the fold. Afterall the left wing of MO has spent the last two decades struggling with this problem on a number of issues most notably the role for women.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that MO has been struggling with the conflict between "me first" and "Torah first" for a long time. One thing that distinguishes MO from Chareidim is that the latter demands a "Torah first" attitude as part of membership while MO encourages autonomy and free association.
MO, in my opinion, needs to pull back on such an attitude, develop a community image and start encouraging its membership to develop some loyalty to that image. It should be about a positive association with a set of values, minhagim, etc. that draw people in and encourage greater practice.