Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 19 November 2012

Committing to Lack of Commitment

One of the major differences between Orthodoxy and Reformativism is the emphasis on responsibilities vs rights.  For the Orthodox everything is about responsiblities, all 613 of them.  From the moment we wake up until the moment we sit on the edges of our beds before going to sleep there are duties to perform.  Almost no activity during the day is free of some aspect of a mitzvah or two.
For the Reformatives it much more open.  Choice is the buzz word when it comes to Jewish practice.  Personal feelings and desires decide which mitzvos are relevant or authoritative and when with preferences changing in tune with the ongoing shift of norms within the surrounding secular liberal culture.
In short, for Orthodoxy it's about commitment and for Reformativism it's about a lack of one.  And here's the problem for them: how do you build a strong feeling of commitment to a philosophy based on a lack of one?
Years ago I heard a prominent Conservative speak about how he was jealous of Chasidim, of their passion and dedication to their version of Judaism.  He wanted to develop the same passion in students at the JTS.  He wanted to see "Conservative Chasidim".  It was a joke for those of us paying attention.  Agree with their belief system or not, there is no questioning the strength of attachment Chasidim feel towards Torah and worship of the Ribono shel Olam.  Their fanatical level of practice is a reflection of their desire to put God into everything they do all day long.  You cannot replicate that feeling within Modern Orthodoxy, let along the non-religious Jewish groups because a level of passion that strong demands a sense of duty equally as firm.  One cannot be commited strongly to being non-commited.
So it's no wonder that the Reformatives find themselves drifting as Orthodoxy continues to grow in size and strength around them.  Reform may claim to have 1.5 million members but if one attempts to raise a minyan, what percentage of that horde will show up?  How many are dedicated to the prinicples of Reform and how many are counted because they have a paid membership in a Reform temple somewhere?  Ditto for Conservatism which is fading even faster as people search for authenticity, either on the liberal or traditional sides of practice.
How can they gain strength?  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?
Ultimately, the most slef-defeating bromide is this belief:
The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement
No it doesn't.  Judaism did not need Reform or Conservative for centuries just like it didn't need the Karaites to survive.  The American Jewish community shrinkage in absolute numbers, its growing disconnect from Israel, its unacceptable pathetic level of general Jewish education, is entirely driven by the Reformatives who have replaced Torah values with secular liberal ethics wrapped in a rayon tallis.  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.  Until such time, why would anyone take their crisis seriously?


Anonymous said...

The modern world is too good is the problem.

Here in NYC, secular, middle class folks (of all types) are more committed to family and children and values than I have ever seen – but certainly they are done with the yoke of Torah.

And the frum? Kiruv folks are constantly trying to smuggle modern values back into the frum world by rebranding them as Jewish values.

Take a look at “Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

So, the parts of Torah that seem “absurd,” are gone. But the commitment to family in the middle class secular world (both Jewish and gentile)? Those obligations are taken more seriously now than I have ever seen at any time in the past three decades.


Bob Miller said...

Twisted thinking by these alleged intellectuals---a claim that our survival depends on maintaining a movement against survival.

Anonymous said...

About the Karaites. I have read a lot of their websites. Say whatever you like about them, BUT they actually do believe in Torah Mi'Sinai. Yes, they do not believe in the Oral Law. However, they keep more of the written Torah than 99% of Reformatives do. Not so heretic any more, eh? What do you think of that.

SJ said...

* sigh * orthodox judaism is yesterday's news.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Dave, believing in a partial Torah miSinai might be a level higher than Reform but not much. The dogma from our position is clear: the entire Torah, written and oral, came from Sinai. Period.
Plus it doesn't help that we know that the founder of the movement created Karaism in a fit of pique when he was passed over for a job.

Anonymous said...

Garnel, believing in written Torah miSinai is not just a level higher than Reform or Conservative, it's WAY higher, since they actually do the mitzvot of the written Torah. I say that the Karaites live in a parallel halachic universe.
We rejected them, no we're stuck with the Reformatives. It's called 'le mieux est l'ennemi du bien" because we said they were heretical, now we are punished with heretics who are waaay more heretical, since they- Reformatives don't even believe that G-d gave the Torah. Anan Ben David is old hat. That was 1000 c.e. Since then they developed their alternative halacha- called Sevel ha Yerusha. You can Google it. How do you say Google in Australian? Geewgul!

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hah! Love it!
I think we're agreeing on basics but I see the severing of the Oral Law from the Written Law as a major stumbling block. Interpreting "an eye for an eye" literally is wrong and again the Torah. Not allowing any fires on Shabbos (even those lit before) is against the Torah. Accepting that the Written Law was all that was given at Sinai means accepting an incomprehensible document that cannot be applied to real life. It needs the Oral Law to accompany it.
As for the Reformatives, well yes we're stuck with them but we're also a much larger group than the Karaites.

Anonymous said...

I am glad we agree on basics, but believe me I would have rather had the Karaites as "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" than the Reformatives. The Karaites certainly view the mitzvot as commandments from Hashem and not just "suggestions".

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Okay Dave, I can definitely agree with that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Garnel.

Y. Ben-David said...

I know Karaites in Israel and they inform me the level of observance among their community is VERY low. They are bitterly divided on issues regarding the calendar and even religious leaders among them are not Shabbat observant. Their community will whither away. I have an article about them from the Makor Rishon several years ago and they asked one of their leaders if he was concerned that their community will disappear. He replied some thing like "if that is the Divine will, so be it". Can you imagine prominent Jewish scholars saying something like that?! They would fight for Judaism and Torah until their last breath and many did just that, literally, during the mass persecutions of the Holocaust and Soviet Communist oppression.

Anonymous said...

YBD, you sound happy about it. There was a symposium about Karaite Judaism held by Ben Gurion University in March 2012, and from all the lectures I saw on Youtube, I would say that they are very traditional, much more than Reform or Conservative. Also, for a small movement, they have a huge amount of religious literature. You should look at their website. I have no intention personally of becoming Karaite. However, I feel that it is a much more religious movement than Reform or Conservative. Not everyone is going to want to become Orthodox. If you limit Judaism to people who are Orthodox, you might as well tell 90 percent of Jews today that they're heretics. Regards,Dave.

Y. Ben-David said...

The Karaite I know best is the oldest of three brothers. He married a Karaite lady from a prominent family, but he is not Sabbath observant, he is what in Israel is considered Hiloni (secular) although he attends family gathering on holidays which are conducted according to the Karaite tradition. He does not view Karaism as a religious belief system but rather as an "ethnic" identity. The next brother married a Rabbanite Jewish lady and his parents were upset, but they came to accept her. Then his youngest brother also married a Rabbanite lady and his parents didn't care any more. So, if this is typical, and he tells me it is, then the community will disappear in the long run. Since Karaism is NOT a valid form of Judaism, this is not a tragedy, as long as they merge into the mainstream Jewish community. "Mixed marriages" have to be carried out by the Rabbanite Rabbinate (i.e. mainline Judaism) because Karaites consider all non-Karaite Jews to be mamzerim, whereas Sefardic Rabbis, based on the RAMBAM will conduct a "mixed marriage" on condition that the Karaite accept our normative Rabbanite halacha, which as Hilonim they are usually willing to declare.

Friar Yid said...


I believe the point of the essay you quoted (though awkwardly phrased by the writer) was that given the low observance level of the American Jewish community as a whole, Reform and Conservative Judaism are important institutions to ensuring that some degree of Jewish attachment and identity continue. It's not that the Orthodox need us, it's that many of those who can't be Orthodox do. There need to be alternative ways of connecting to the wonderful heritage of Jewishness beyond Orthodoxy's fence. I know many in the Orthodox world disagree with that and think anyone who goes OTD is better off assimilating entirely, but I think that's pretty myopic as well as cold.

I wrote more on this but it wound up becoming too long. Expect a post soon.