BZ amazes again

BZ, otherwise known in the meatspace as Ben Dreyfus, is known in the jblogosphere for comprehensive posts. But his latest is nearly all-encompassing. It is the longest blog post I’ve ever read. If you’re interested in Reform Judaism, you had better get yourself over to Mah Rabu and read this post. It is important.

Everything after this will refer liberally to the BZ’s post and may be incomprehensible without having read the post.

I think that BZ is hitting the nail on the head with his categories of Reform observance. The categories he outlines are Halachah, Agadah, and Minhag. He notes that while Reform Jews (whether they call themselves Reform or not, he says, noting his NHC buddies as examples) may be Reform Jews in any one or two of those senses, it would be hard to be Reform Jew in all three senses. I’d like to try and define myself using these three terms.

I think we can agree that I’m a halachic Reform Jew. We need look no further than my frequent writings about tzitzit for examples of that fact. I am an agadic Reform Jew in my support of a broadly egalitarian form of Reform Judaism and in my belief in the importance of tikun olam (the social action version of tikun olam). But am I a Reform Jew in the sense of minhag? I compose frequent tirades against structural elements of Reform liturgy and I have come to prefer a liturgical aesthetic more along the lines of Carlebach and (off-beat) chazanut than along the lines of Debbi Friedman and either organs or guitars. I think BZ has me pegged when he discusses a Reform Jew who is Reform only in halachah and agadah, but not in minhag. The anomaly here is that BZ is talking mainly about people who didn’t grow up Reform in this category, whereas I grew up Reform, but have come to find our minhag distasteful and ill-conceived.

Says BZ:

So this is an internal Reform-vs.-Reform tension, which comes down to Reform Jewry as ethnicity vs. Reform Judaism as ideology.
And it’s not the stereotypical “tradition and change” dialectic; one example of a practice based on minhag might be praying in English, while a practice based on informed autonomy might be praying in Hebrew.

Yet in this attempt to exemplify what the Reform ethnicity and the Reform ideology is, BZ has already run into some trouble. The minhag at the Reform synagogue I grew up at included much more Hebrew than the norm in the movment. Meanwhile, one could use informed autonomy to decide to pray in English.

But, BZ, I’m sorry to say that you lose me when you get to the Reform Jewish narrative stuff. I can kind of sense what you’re grasping at, but it’s gonna take another post to explain what you’re after there. That part really had me struggling.

I’m sure I’ll think of more to say about this post soon enough. A real game-changer of a post, I think. Good job, Ben. And thanks for the link. And the challenge. SER and MT compared? I’m more than a little gung-ho for that idea now.

14 Responses to BZ amazes again

  1. hinneni February 18, 2009 at 11:21 am #

    Having read but not fully absorbed the Mah Rabu Mah -Nifesto, I caution against getting so caught up in the distinctions between halacha, aggada, and minhag that we lose sight of that other important distinction, between the ideological and the institutional. The effort to reconcile those two seems to be at the root of the frustration expressed so frequently by dor ha-atid.

  2. davidamwilensky February 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    I think that in a discussion of ideology, which is what I think BZ is going for here, there is no room to discuss the institutional. BZ is right to call the CCAR, URJ, etc. irrelevant to this conversation.

    We are not talking about people who are merely members of Reform organizations or who use Reform to mean non-observance. We are talking, I think, about what it means to be a person who is observant of a Reform way of life, rather than merely paying dues to a Reform synagogue.

    I think that the halachah falls purely under the ideological banner, while agadah is an overlapping force, found both in institutional Reform and in ideological Reform. Minhag, meanwhile, is to be found only in institutional Reform.

    I guess. I’m still getting used to this framework of minhag, agadah, and halacha that BZ has laid out for a discussion of Reform ideology. But I think this a good framework to begin to talk in.

  3. BZ February 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    Thanks for the link and the shout-out!

    David writes:
    Minhag, meanwhile, is to be found only in institutional Reform.

    One of my points is that this isn’t the case. Even if I operate entirely outside of institutional Reform (as I do), the Reform minhagim that I have inherited from my family still have some claim on me (along with other elements that have competing claims; to mix a metaphor, one might say that they have a vote, not a veto). One-day yom tov is the one that I’m most vocal about, but there are others too, and I’m still trying to figure it all out. Likewise, a Sephardi Jew living in a mostly Ashkenazi community (e.g. most Jewish communities in the US) might still retain minhagim from his/her Sephardi heritage.

    • julaybib April 6, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

      BZ wrote, “Therefore, as I try to place my practices into a coherent ideology,”.

      When did the Reform Jewish religion become an ideology, or was it always that way? Isnt that a loss of spiritual emphasis for those Jews who become ideological, and for the world at the loss of a priestly spiritual people.

      • David A.M. Wilensky April 7, 2009 at 5:38 am #

        For some people that consistency is not important. For others, like me, it is key.

  4. davidamwilensky February 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    I see what you mean about yom tov and things of that nature as examples of Reform minhag, but I think that they have more to do with a Reform approach to halachah. I think that they are, in fact, examples of things that Reform Jews have given a considerable amount of legal thought to, and most of us have to the conclusion that this is a piece of halachah that lacks meaning. Thus, most of us choose to discard it.

    There are also things like imahot, which we may also mistake for a Reform minhag. Rather, I think that imahot comes to us from Reform agadah. In particular, it comes from the Reform insistence on egalitarianism.

  5. BZ February 18, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    I see what you mean about yom tov and things of that nature as examples of Reform minhag, but I think that they have more to do with a Reform approach to halachah. I think that they are, in fact, examples of things that Reform Jews have given a considerable amount of legal thought to, and most of us have to the conclusion that this is a piece of halachah that lacks meaning. Thus, most of us choose to discard it.

    Perhaps these practices originated out of a Reform approach to halachah, but their perpetuation is minhag. I’m not “discarding” 2-day yom tov myself (maybe I would anyway if I had the opportunity, but I haven’t been in that position); I’m upholding the practices of my ancestors who discarded it long ago. This is what I was trying to say about how each generation should be leaving a legacy, rather than continually rewinding to some pre-Reform baseline and selectively deviating from there.

    There are also things like imahot, which we may also mistake for a Reform minhag. Rather, I think that imahot comes to us from Reform agadah. In particular, it comes from the Reform insistence on egalitarianism.

    Yes, the minhag of imahot was originally motivated by Reform aggadah, but again, this wasn’t a change that I made myself. Also, as you know, there are many versions of the imahot out there: Rachel first or Leah first? Ezrat Sarah or Pokeid Sarah? So why do I use the version I do? It’s the minhag I received.

    • BZ March 3, 2009 at 7:08 am #

      Also, as you know, there are many versions of the imahot out there: Rachel first or Leah first?

      BTW, I say Leah first, as I’ve been doing for ~20 years, and the fact that Mishkan T’filah (as I just noticed this weekend) has Rachel first is of zero significance to me. This illustrates the difference between Reform identity as an inherited minhag and Reform identity as loyalty to an institution.

      There’s also a distinction to be made between “Reform is my edah” and “Reform is my community”. Reform (by that name) isn’t my community; I’m like the token Sephardi in a mostly Ashkenazi community who still retains some Sephardi identity and practices.

  6. davidamwilensky February 18, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Fair, but I’m merely pointing out that neither of these things are mere minhag. Guitar and organ are. They lack any agadic or halachic meaning; they are pure aesthetic. One-day yom tov and imahot, however reflect a Reform halachic decision that has become the Reform minhag.

    But you and I, BZ, have clearly given thought to both of these minhagim and have halachically decided to continue them in our own lives. If we did them only because it was Reform minhag, we could call them minhag practices only, but we do them because they are minhagim that continue to hold halachic water for us, so we continue them. But we do not continue them merely for minhag’s sake.

  7. Rich February 22, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    I have often joked that if the Pittsburgh platform had begun, in the manner of Pirke Avot, “Isaac Meyer Wise and David Einhorn received the tradition . . .” we’d be looking at different attitude toward Reform. When BZ talks about defining a myth about Reform Judaism, my sense is that it is along lines like this that it ought to be done.

    The challenge is that the 1885 Pittsburgh platform does its level best to present a break with the chain back to Sinai, and reads more like an utterance of Korach than an utterance of Moses. I’m not sure how to get around that.

    • davidamwilensky February 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

      However, I think that the actions of the UAHC (and URJ, more recently) over the last half century have publicly reversed so much of Pittsburgh that I find it to be mostly rejected document these days.

  8. BZ February 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    I have often joked that if the Pittsburgh platform had begun, in the manner of Pirke Avot, “Isaac Meyer Wise and David Einhorn received the tradition . . .” we’d be looking at different attitude toward Reform.

    But it does, sort of. The Pittsburgh Platform still situates itself in Jewish history and tradition.

    “We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God­-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers…
    “We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people…
    “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission…”

  9. BZ February 22, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    Fair, but I’m merely pointing out that neither of these things are mere minhag. Guitar and organ are. They lack any agadic or halachic meaning; they are pure aesthetic. One-day yom tov and imahot, however reflect a Reform halachic decision that has become the Reform minhag.

    But you and I, BZ, have clearly given thought to both of these minhagim and have halachically decided to continue them in our own lives. If we did them only because it was Reform minhag, we could call them minhag practices only, but we do them because they are minhagim that continue to hold halachic water for us, so we continue them. But we do not continue them merely for minhag’s sake.

    I guess my position of categorizing these things as path-dependent minhag (albeit minhag with halachic and aggadic justification) is something I’ve arrived at as a result of knowing people who basically share my core Jewish values and yet don’t have these practices.

    I know people who observe 2-day yom tov because of minhag avoteihem even though they’re aware of all the reasons for 1-day yom tov and aren’t opposed in principle to 1-day yom tov; 2 days is the tradition they inherited.

    And I know at least one person with unimpeachable feminist and egalitarian credentials who is ok in principle with liturgical evolution and who doesn’t say the imahot. This person grew up without the imahot in the amidah, and argues that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov shouldn’t be seen as individuals of the male gender, but as gender-free archetypes, and that adding the imahot diminishes this. I can see where this person is coming from, but I could never adopt an imahot-free amidah for myself, because the amidah as I have always said it includes the imahot, so I would be actually excising them from where they’ve always been, which would be a much more problematic statement than merely refraining from adding them to an amidah that didn’t include them in the first place. So path-dependence can play an important role in the aggadic statements that we’re making with our minhagim.

    • davidamwilensky February 23, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

      Agreed, I suppose. I am certainly glad that you’re introduced path-dependence to my vocabulary. It’s very useful.