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.