Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some ideas for Neo-Reform Judaism

Neo-Reform Judaism

I think It's high time to take some time out from our hectic technology-driven lives and plunge back into 19th century Jewish America. Let us re-examine the movement that has revolutionized the definition of a Jew in the 21st century. I will never forget that moment as a young, impressionable 8-year old when my older sister told me that “frumme” jews comprise a mere 10% of American Jews. I was startled: could it be that so many people have lost their grip on the truth and have veered off the correct path? How lucky then am I --I thought-- that I was born into an observant family! As I grew older, I grew into my skin and became comfortable with the knowledge that there is a different, “corrupted”, kind of Judaism out there, although the exact parameters of it were never quite known to me until much later. I knew that the Ultra-orthodox were on the defensive, they did not constitute the normative American Jews. What I never bothered investigating back then is what actually is Reform Judaism, who started it and why? Does it have any merits? And if so, for whom?

After a thorough re-examination of the premises upon which the pillars of my faith rested in 1998, I realized that there were some serious flaws in my religious worldview edifice. I took it apart brick by brick, hoping to reconstruct it bigger, grander and stronger; but, alas, that never happened. First Ultra-orthodoxy and then Judaism altogether failed to stand up to the scrutiny leveled against it by scientific and academic sources I was increasingly devouring voraciously. Frustrated and feeling betrayed by my sheltered upbringing, I set out on a lonely path toward assimilating into the mainstream and re-establishing myself as an “American”.

Now, 13 years later, I have had a chance to look at my transformation from many different angles. I am no longer restricted to seeing Judaism or even Orthodox Judaism as a mere nuisance; I now see the big picture. I see how charedi Judaism, like other conservative movements, could satisfy the need for communities for a status-quo, a cushion of stability; the comfort of knowing that what happened yesterday will repeat tomorrow reliably and consistently, whatever the cost in lost productivity and irrationality such conservatism may bear.

There is, however, an additional notion that has been crystallizing in my mind over the past few years: that change in the charedi world is ultimately inevitable. Some of the other articles on this blog deal with this theme. But I'd like to lay out here some practical steps which I think are very pragmatic and practicable. They are sensible, even for someone who is used to Jewish orthodoxy and is not comfortable with sudden, intensive and radical change in their modes of living.

The reason why we have seen little organized, piecemeal reform of traditional Judaism in recent years is multifold. The primary reason, of course, is that we (that is, the entire Western world) currently live in an age of nationalism and civil rights. The fashionable thing in this day and age is to cultivate one's own identity, race, and faith regardless of its merits. It is very much politically incorrect to try to impose the upper-class elitist views on the rest of society. We seem to even celebrate the outmodish, outlandish idiosyncrasies of various nationalities and subcultures in our country and we even pride ourselves that we possess such diversity and plurality of ideas in our midst. To cite one example: bilingualism. This is something that would have never been entertained a hundred or so years ago. In our present age, however, it is common operating procedure. The Mexican immigrant who wishes to retain his native language after relocating to this country has the “right” to do so and we are very comfortable in government to provide the means for the perpetuation of this trend (e.g. we supply them with voting literature in Spanish, etc...). Charedi Jews therefore naturally found ripe fruit for the picking in recent decades, thus giving them a chance to rebuild their shattered European “old world” communities on American soil, a true miracle – it seemed to them. The upper echelons of our society are practically telling them: “hey you're an idiot, but you “enrich” our culture, so please go ahead and practice your insanely ridiculous version of extreme Jewish observance such as dietary laws, arcane clothing sabbath observance etc... When it's time to erect a museum of Charedi life in 21st century America, we will be uniquely positioned to provide that, given our magnanimous generosity toward Charedi life in the realm of having granted them the liberty and comfortable conditions under which to behave as they please and thus preserve their “special” heritage.

The secondary reason for the resurgence of Ultra-orthodoxy in the past 50 years is that there is a certain powerful argument that is being directed against Jewish reformers. Take Moses Mendelssohn, critics say. He was very well educated in secular studies and immersed in the dominant German culture of the time, although he remained an observant Jew. Yet, five of his seven children renounced their faith and adopted Christianity instead. The other two children's offspring eventually converted as well. The official reform movements that sprang up in Germany and America in the aftermath of his “paving the ground for reform” did not fare much batter. It is now common knowledge that many Reform Jews intermarry with gentiles, have little or no mastery of Hebrew or any knowledge about Judaism beyond the what they learn during the bar/bat mitzvah preparation course. So there you have it, the orthodox argue: you open up one secular book, you institute one minor reform in the liturgy and it's a slippery slope all the way down the hill from there to utter abandonment of Judaism.

This second point is what I would like to repudiate here. We should not be afraid of change. There are many subtleties and nuances within Judaism and we don't need to label them “reform” if we don't like to (since this term has assumed a stigma in our age of enhanced faith). In fact, the very first “Reform society of Israelites” (yeah, “Jew” was considered a stigma back then, so they chose to refer to themselves as Israelites or Hebrews) of Charleston, South Carolina of the 1820's wasn't anything revolutionary really. They made only minor changes in the ritual such as the introduction of an organ, a sermon in English and perhaps the omission of certain portions of the traditional Sabbath prayers. The Pittsburgh platform that officially formulated Reform Jewish doctrine did not emerge until many decades later and even that is merely a descriptive document stating what is already the case, not prescribing what direction the Reform movement “ought” to take. My point is that we do not need to think of black and white when it comes to introducing reforms or “modifications” (maybe this term sounds more benign) into the synagogue and Jewish normative behavior.

Here are some ideas I'd like to propose:

Dietary laws. Stop with the hashgachah (food preparation supervision) thingy. Even rabbinical Judaism acknowledges the “cancellation” of small amounts of forbidden food mixed in a large quantity of kosher food. The FDA now requires all ingredients to be listed and so we get a pretty accurate picture of how kosher a product is without the need to create an entirely independent kosher food industry, which has the effect of limiting the social interactions of observant Jews.

Abolish the second-day holiday festival known as the “exilic” holiday. We are indeed in exile; but let's face it: those who originally practiced it, did so because they in fact did not know which one was the official holiday as ordained by the sanhedrin in the land of Israel. For many centuries now we follow a fixed calendar and so there's no need for this nonsense any longer. All Orthodox people know that the the three-day observance when a holiday falls on Thursday is a major drag. By the time sabbath comes around many people would rather welcome a fast day than a feast day of two required full-course meals (I know I'm not alone here; c'mon people, back me up here). I want to see some brave talmide hakhamim who have the guts and courage and nerve to stick their neck out and proclaim that the secondary exilic holiday is not quite as holy as the first one! (to say the least).

Give me a break from all those mindless recitals of long scriptural passages every day. Are you kidding me? Nobody gives any thought to what they are saying? I remember I had a melamed (teacher) in kittah teth (lit. ninth grade) –I swear to god this is true-- he would put on his rabenu tam tephilin and he would say viyehi noam adonoy elohenu alenu umaase yadenu konenu alenu umaase yadenu konenu alenu umaase yadenu konenehu. He repeated those four words twice, an obvious homoteleuton error. I suggest they start the davening with barekhu eth hashem hemevorakh. Cut to the chase, which is essentially recital of shema and the amidah 18-blessing prayer. Again, I'm not talking for myself here. I'm talking for folks who strongly cherish their cult and believe in what they practice. Isn't is better – consistent with their own ideals and priorities -- to devote the time for more Torah study in lieu of the babbling of a mind-numbing hodu every day?

I've got a lot more that I want to share with my readers on this topic, but I'll leave it for later.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Future Trends in UOJ (Ultra Orthodox Judaism)

Predictions of the Future.

This blog is supposed to be about future predictions. While I have diverged from this topic often since the blog's foundation, I think it's time to return home. And so, I hope to do a series of monologues on predictions of various sorts.

Let's start with the Ultra Orthodox Jewish (UOJ) sector. I call it a sector as opposed to a “community” because there is hardly any consensus within this highly diverse consortium of ragtag groups, which is serious problem for its long-term survival, a point which I shall return to at a later time.

One observation that I must make as a prelude to predicting future trends in the UOJ sector, is its past. It never ceases to impress me how the world seems to have forgotten how persecuted, isolated and cornered Jewish Orthodoxy was (let alone Ultra-orthodoxy) until quite recently. Of course, I don't personally have any recollection of those envious days. But as a student of history, I can't help take notice that Jewish history pages are vociferous and unequivocal on this matter. For approximately 150 years --since the early nineteenth century until after world war II-- traditional Judaism was under siege. The forces of change were overwhelming. It wasn't just for ignoble “conform to the prevailing winds and be acceptable to gentiles” reasons that reformers sought to eliminate or modify centuries-old laws and practices. There were, moreover, idealistic motives for change: the system just wasn't very logical. Not playing music on the day of rest, for example, runs diametrically against the very spirit of the day of rest. So does the prohibition against travel, which is something uniquely suited for a day of rest and recreation.

A quick survey of the field demonstrates that the core of Judaism was radically reshaped in those years. Judaism went from a religion where the normative behavior is shulkhan-aruch-bound to one in which the normative behavior is rooted in tradition but democratically determined through systematic reevaluation of all its tenets and practices. This was very true in Europe where the majority of Jews had adopted some level of reform by the mid nineteenth century. But it is even more pronounced in America where Orthodoxy barely even existed before WWII. Jewish immigrants to America in those years were extremely eager to shed their outlandish European customs and adopt the American way of life and fulfill the American dream.

Have we completely forgotten those good old days? I continually long for those times when there was all the reason NOT to observe and practically no good reason to observe; whereas at this stage of the game the reverse seems to be the case: there is every reason to be observant and there is hardy any sufficiently good reason to drop out of the system. The wind is blowing in a different direction and so the sail boat boat has been re-routed accordingly.

If I had lived in the 1850's in my ancestors' native land, I would have been a happy camper. I would have been a member of a burgeoning reformed community and my liberal views and and hash criticism of accepted dogma would have been welcome like water in the desert. Now I live in an environment where my thoughts and words fall on deaf ears. The contemporary right-leaning Jewish community craves for spirituality and is just not interested in any intellectual reasoning about the basis of their religion. The left-leaning Jewish world, on the other hand, is so far ahead of me in the game of integration and assimilation into the American mainstream that I am as alien to them as a newly arrived immigrant. They clearly have more in common with a typical catholic Italian than with me. They don't speak my language, both literally (my native tongue is Yiddish) and figuratively (they are not sensitive to the non-American idiosyncrasies of the Hasidic world, such as bluntness when making requests).

So where do I stand?

Well, from the previous depiction of events, the future seems bleak. However, I've got an ace up my sleeve! There is some great news. The “gospel” (=good news) is that there is a very bright future laying ahead of the me and the OTD community in general. I have been predicting massive defections from orthodoxy for many years now but I am now finally seeing concrete data that corroborate this reversal of the magnetic pole. The “Footsteps” movement did not exist when I first executed the “Great Rebellion” in January 1999 (Yeah, I know, it's not the softest of terms for this event but remember: I am an erstwhile hasid, so I'm not quite used to sugar-coating; so yeah, it's also a “transition” but rebellion is more like it). I had zero friends with whom I could find common ground in this unbearably challenging journey to American-hood. I truly felt like an immigrant in a foreign land; only that most immigrants have the benefit of the support of co-immigrants during their early, trying times whereas I did not have this benefit. By now, Footsteps is a thriving organization and community and I have every reason to believe that this trend will only multiply and intensify in the years to come.

I'd like to articulate several factors which I believe will be influential in bringing to bear my prediction of massive defections from Orthodoxy:

1) Internet Information. We live in the “information age”. During the technology age (from which we recently emerged), ideology was obviously not important. It was an age of applied science, technology and industry. This is no longer the case. Anyone who is abreast of the latest news knows that the big names in the American Economy are now Google and Facebook, which have trumped the economic stalwarts of old, such as Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel and --later during the consumer age-- retailers and service providers such as Mcdonalds, Macy's, Walmart etc... In this “information age” it is inevitable that information that indicts and ultimately incriminates Orthodoxy will come to light, since the Orthodox world thrives on misinformation and concealment of certain knowledge which it deems heretic or dangerous. The Ortho world knows it cannot confront this information head on for it will lose at trial. Its defense strategy is the American legacy one of “plead the fifth”: let's hope the prosecution doesn't have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and if they do let's buy some time through extensive deliberations and appeal of the verdict.

2) Extravagance. Unlike my parents' and grandparents' generation, which constituted the progeny of Holocaust survivors and Holocaust survivors, respectively, the new generation is not bothered by the sense of attack felt by the previous generations. They don't perceive a threat to their very existence and so they can afford to divert their attention to other topics. They don't harbor the gut feeling which equates losing one's religion with losing one's very identity and unique existence. They don't feel the need to establish a "status-quo" environment in America before any questions of reform can be addressed. Needless to say there is still a giant mountain of prejudices and biases, which must be scaled laboriously before the other side may be reached. But there is just one less obstacle in the way in the current generation: there is no sense of an attack, physical or spiritual. Naturally then, curiosity will set in and those who are talented enough will inevitably encounter a great deal of damaging evidence to the Ortho system and will seek to take action as a logical result by proposing changes or --barring that-- dropping out.

3) Rabbis are losing control. It used to be that information was centralized, both in the secular and the religious world. Now with the prevalence and immediacy of the Internet, the community leader is likely to be bypassed or overriden. Religious claims can easily and quickly be vetted on the Internet and alternative theories and ideas --stemming from lay individuals, peers of the information-seeker-- may be consulted. This significantly weakens the Rabbi's leadership and hegemony over his community.

4) Structural changes in the community. Williamsburg no longer resembles an Eastern European Shtetl. Many shops and stores there have been recently renovated and many more will likely follow suit as old, arcane business models fail to compete against modern ones. As the Williamsburg small business owner is confronted with the need to deal with modern computer systems, for example, they are also drawn into other fields which suck them out of the ghetto walls and into the “unprotected” world. They may, for example, develop an interest in learning how to use Microsoft office or how to make money in the stock market. This quest for acquisition of more competitive survival methods will ultimately lead to serious clashes with the mainstream world and those clashes will have to be resolved one way or another. If, for example, the stock market book mentions a movie and the reader is now intrigued by the movie and after watching it becomes impressed with the actor and learns that the actor is Christian and then learns the actor's biography and discovers that the actor is a nice guy after all, this chain of events poses an ideological dilemma for a religiously observant person. After all, both lifestyles cannot be valid simultaneously. If the UOJ is the true representative of the “chosen nation” and is loved by god who has a monopoly of all that is good and true, then how does this Christian actor or actress fit into the picture? Are they not loved by god? They sure seem like nice and decent individuals and they sure got the money to back up this appearance (“money talks”).

Friday, July 02, 2010

About the Merits of Ex-Hasidic Community Cohesion

About the Merits of Ex-Hasidic community cohesion

I just finished reading Samuel Katz's post on this topic at (sorry, copy and paste for the URL didn't work). I would like to provide my opinion on this matter, which differs somewhat from his.

While reading the article I mostly identified with his thesis and I definitely agree that he's got a point. However, in the end of the article it was pointed out that he does not personally consider himself a member of the "ex-orthodox" community. That's something that I highly question, as well as some of the general corollaries to his article.

It is known (as Jacob Stein pointed out) that the Eastern-European Jews who made their was into Ellis Island by the millions starting in the 1880's struggled similarly to us, ex-hasidim. Despite the fact that numbers were on their side, back in those days the country was not very accomodating to subcultures. The pressures to conform were immense; the desire to conform was also intense. The Jews WANTED to adopt much of American culture, while at the same time they also wanted to preserve many elements of their heritage, namely those that they felt were compatible with a Western, American lifestyle.

The descendants of those Jews are now, as we all know, heading towards assimilation and many Jews (mostly those on the right) now invoke this phenomenon as a repudiation of Conservative and Reform Judaism. What they don't realize and what Reform Jews will usually be loathe to admit (or perhaps not even aware of it consciously) is that the entire institution of Reform Judaism is now, iglai milta lemafre'a (the matter is retroactively revealed - a Talmudic expression), merely a transitional vehicle from Eastern European Jewish Ghetto provincialism into the mainstream structure of Western society. The Jewish assimilative process is not a condemnation of Reform Judiasm; that would only be the case if the overarching goal of the original immigrants were preservation of their faith and identity. It wasn't! Their goal was oriented in an entirely different direction: material success! They wanted money, better standards of living, educational opportunities and even the adoption and participation in many of the entertainment and behavioral norms of Western society (their opportunities were more limited in Europe due to lingering stereotypes). At worst, loss of identity could be considered "collateral damage". However, I would argue that even though the first Jewish immigrants didn't know it at the time and they couldn't have seen this far into the future, they were heading in the assimilative direction all along and assimilation actually WAS their ultimate goal (subconsciously).

Why am I mentioning all this? Because the Jewish community in the United States has managed to create a highly intricate social and political structure on their path to assimilation. It seems that their self-identity never was a contradiction to their rabid appetite for everything American. In fact, it could be argued that those identity enhancement institutions (including such organizations as AIPAC, The Jewish Federations, etc...) paradoxically sped up their integration into mainstream, by giving them the power and efficiency of a group as opposed to an individual.

I don't see any reason why our Neo-reform movement should be structured any differently. As they say "if ain't broke, don't fix it". The system our progenitors used worked just fine for them. Why do we not appropriate those very same tools to achieve the very same goals. We can and should identify as ex-orthodox Jews, while at the same time voraciously devour the all-so-sweet delicacies of our profligate country, the United States of America, God bless it. There are so many opportunities available to each and every one of us, occupational-wise, community-wise, politics-wise, career-wise. Yet there's no need to behave Judas Iscariot-like and deny our fellowship in the ex-orthodox community.

Having said all this, I should also add that if getting stuck in the intermediate transitional stage were a serious issue, then I agree that we may have to seek other transitional models. However, I am quite confident that at this stage of the OTD movement there isn't any real possibility of cozying up along the way. There simply aren't enough of us yet to form a strong all-encompassing, comforting ex-hasidic haven, and the diversity among us is wide while resources are scarce. Ex-hasidics can thus tremendously benefit from support groups such as Footsteps, Cholent etc... while at the same time knowing that such groups merely provide temporary reprieve from the real battle ahead of them: cracking into mainstream America.

Edited 6/29/2011