Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

Crossposted to Jewschool.

I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.

One of BZ’s long time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right of them define themselves. BZ’s new op-ed in The Forward, Reframing Liberal Judaism, addressing the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial, is his new opus on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:

[…] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.

Check out the whole piece here.

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3 Responses to Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

  1. BZ October 22, 2009 at 5:10 pm #

    Thanks for posting this! To be fair, I should clarify that the Forward solicited (and I wrote) the oped 6 months ago, and since they decided to publish it for this week, they asked me to add an intro about the biennials to give it a current news hook, so I don’t think they were thinking “Hmm, the biennials are coming up, who should we ask to write something?”.

  2. David A.M. Wilensky October 22, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    Ah. Well, still an interesting choice on their part.


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