Positive, independent self-definition: Something I can’t do at the moment.

Blogger’s note: The following post is only half of a real thought. I haven’t thought of/found the other half yet.

Required reading: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out and Reformim at the Conservative shul

In my junior year of high school (I’m estimating here), I think I can safely say that I was at my most entrenched position in the Reform Movement. I was on the board of trustees of a URJ synagogue, I was the president of a NFTY youth group, I was about to spend a second summer at Kutz,  I went to one of the RAC‘s L’taken seminars and I went to the URJ Biennial. I was really into this stuff.

And back then, one of my Reform obsessions was using positive statement to define Reform practice. I heard a lot of, “Reform Jews don’t do X” or “Reform Jews don’t believe Y.” And I was on a little crusade to come us with positive statements like, “Reform Jews do A” and “Reform Jews believe B.” The merit of such a crusade within the Reform sphere is a discussion for another time–though I won’t be surprised of the comments on this post get into that discussion anyway!

I find myself in the midst of two similar lines of thought now, one very different from the one I remember from high school and one only subtly so.

1. The one that’s only subtly different–Non-URJ Reform

Reform Jews began life (I’m talking 19th century Germany) by defining how they were not like other Jews, hence the negative statements of identity I discussed above. As time went on, we were able to move away from that and begin to define ourselves positively and independently, by what we do, rather than by what we reject. I think I’m facing that entire struggle all over again on a personal level. If, as I announced in this recent post, I am a Reform Jew, but not a URJ Jew, I am forced to go back to the beginning of the entire Reform endeavor. I must now begin again by defining myself in opposition to the URJ, through negative statements and must work my way up to the kind of ideological and intellectual self-sufficiency that will allow me two begin again the project of positive, independent identity statements.

2. The one that’s very different–Indie Minyans

I’m spending a lot of my time these days not only places that aren’t affiliated with the URJ, but in places that aren’t affiliated all. I’m talking about the organization I work for and I’m talking about places I pray, places like Chavurat Lamdeinu, Kol Zimrah and Kehilat Hadar. One of my problems in all of these places, as someone who is a little obsessed with ideology and intellectual honesty, is that I have trouble identifying the ideology. In many cases, there probably isn’t one, which I guess is okay, but it still troubles me. And in trying to articulate why I go to these places, I find myself relying on negative statements about traditionally-structured synagogues.

As Larry Kaufman pointed out in the comments on this post, “Half the fun of going to indy minyans is thumbing your nose at the shul you walk past on the way.” I recently met someone at a party who made me want to tear my hair about because this was essentially the level discourse that she achieved in explaining her love for indie minyans to me. Maybe it angers my because it hits close to home and I have some fun with thumbing my nose too. But that bothers me a lot and that’s a type of fun I want to get away from.

Whew. Moadim l’simcha.

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29 Responses to Positive, independent self-definition: Something I can’t do at the moment.

  1. Larry Kaufman October 6, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    The three-fold job of the synagogue is to be a bet t’filah, a bet midrash, and a bet k’nesset. None of those three speaks directly to ideology. Most Jews don’t care about ideology. They join synagogues for t’filah (someplace to go on the HHD and to be able to access a rabbi for weddings and funerals) and/or for midrash (prepare the kids for their b’nai mitzvah.) And our synagogues do as good a job at those functions as most of their members require.

    Indy minyans (I gather, not having been part of one) are good at t’filah, don’t seem to talk much about midrash, and excel at k’nesset — at creating community. In particular, they create community for a demographic that is hard to fit into the culture of mainstream Reform or Conservative synagogues (maybe Orthodox too — I’m just too far removed from that scene to be able to generalize about it) — young, transient, childless, often cerebral, often Jewishly knowledgeable.

    When I was a twenty-something, there were no indy minyans that I was aware of — but I think I then fit the profile that I envision today, and had I known of one, I’d probably have been there. And maybe then I’d not have married (as I did twice) into the Reform movment, and found that, for my age and stage, it worked for me.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 7, 2009 at 10:26 am #

      I sense that indie minyan types piece those three function together in different places, Larry. Some minyanim, such as Kehilat Hadar, have a huge focus on study. Hadar is an outlier in this, of course, being that they have their own Yeshiva, but study is not unheard of. At Chavurat Lamdeinu in Madison, NJ, where I daven most shabatot, there is a pre-service tanach study section. Other people may find other ways to study, whether they go to events like Limmud or go to informal study groups with friends.

      This is a small effort, but Kol Zimrah has a volunteer do a d’var Torah every time they meet.

    • BZ October 8, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

      I’m not sure that most synagogues really qualify as batei midrash either, particularly for people over 13.

      • David A.M. Wilensky October 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm #

        Maybe not for everyone involved, but every synagogue I’ve ever been to more than a few times had some sort of adult ed program that I can recall. Whether people make use of it and whether it’s a good adult ed program are other matters, but they’re usually at least there.

  2. Harold October 7, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    One way to synthesize this information–at least for me–is to try to frame it in a positive form. Larry does a good job of this by stating what synagogues (URJ or otherwise) do well, and what indie minyans do well. Perhaps you can try to state what you want–and maybe how you want it–and then search from that perspective.

    This is analogous to David’s effort to get Reform Jews to state what they do and what they believe rather than what they don’t do and don’t believe.

    Larry also brings up a different point that I find increasingly interesting. It is not a secret that most synagogues don’t do a great job meeting the needs of the 18-30 year old group. As Larry states, synagogues handle the life cycle events and basic education needs in way that meets the needs of the 30-99 year olds. Indie minyans, it seems to me, meet the needs of the 18-30 group. I don’t know if they do well with older people who have kids and other needs. I’m not saying whether that’s good, bad or otherwise. Just interesting.

    Getting back to the point, I should add this disclaimer: I discussed part of this issue with David yesterday.

    And one observation that Larry makes has to do with where you are in your life. At one point, an indie minyan may be everything you need and more. At some other stage in life, it may be the synagogue on the corner that meets your needs. So thinking about all this in terms of what you do want, should help you on your journey.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 7, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

      I’m kind of tired of journeying, but feel compelled to keep moving.

      I like people who are older than me and younger than me and sometimes I even like people my own age.

      It would be a bizarre bifurcation of Jewish life to simply accept the idea that one institution will take care of you up to the age of 18. Then, you’ll leave for a different kind of institution until you’re 35 or so, and then, finally, you can come back to the place you started.

      I want to be part of a community where all ages and stages of life experience life together.

      • Larry Kaufman October 7, 2009 at 4:29 pm #

        And what’s the closest approximation to that community you’ve found so far?

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 7, 2009 at 11:25 pm #

          Maybe Kane Street, actually. I think any synagogue with the type of services they have on Friday night might fit the bill.

          Chavurat Lamdeinu might count, but it has a weird age breakdown, being mostly people in their fifties and older, one or two folks in college, no young professionals and a single family with kids that comes maybe once a month. It is also limited, in that it only offers services on one day of the week and nothing during the rest of the week.

          • BZ October 11, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

            Any young non-professionals?

    • BZ October 8, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

      It is not a secret that most synagogues don’t do a great job meeting the needs of the 18-30 year old group. As Larry states, synagogues handle the life cycle events and basic education needs in way that meets the needs of the 30-99 year olds. Indie minyans, it seems to me, meet the needs of the 18-30 group.

      I’m turning 30 next month, and I don’t anticipate waking up one day next month and suddenly discovering that existing synagogues now provide everything I’m looking for. Demographics are only a small part of the picture.

  3. Jason Rosenberg October 7, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Larry Hoffman teaches that self definition is always a matter of “censoring-in” and “censoring-out.” That is, we define what characteristics makes us who we are, and we also define what characteristics make someone “other.” The point is, no one ever really defines themselves in a wholly positive or negative way. We’re always doing both. The early Reformers were not only defining how they were different from other Jews – that clearly was one part of it. But, they also defined themselves as Modern (in the strict sense of the term), as ethical, and so on. So, maybe the point is that you don’t need to worry about whether you are using positive or negative definitions, but rather admit that you need both!

    But, ignoring that for a second, I’d still be interested in hearing more about why you think you might need to begin by defining yourself in opposition to the URJ. Why is it not possible to simply ignore the URJ? I don’t mean that pejoratively towards you or the URJ – I just don’t see how they become a mandatory part of the conversation (other than to say “Reform, but not as the URJ defines it” and leave it at that).

    As for your interest in ideology, and your discomfort with a lack thereof, that’s an issue which is near and dear to me. I am very much an ideological Reform Jew, although (like many Reform Rabbis I know) I often feel a bit out of place in the reality of RJ. Even though this is NOT how I live my life (which, in large part, might be connected to my being a Professional Jew), I think there’s a really strong argument for going with the feel of a place, over the ideology. Not because I think that ideology doesn’t matter, but because ideology can often come out of practice, rather than simply lead to it. In other words, we can objectively examine all of our different options, and pick the one which seems to best match our ideological stands. Or, we can try something on, and then step back and analyze it, semi-subjectively. If an Indy minyan feels right, but doesn’t fit intellectually, then you don’t have to call that hypocrisy. You can instead use that as a window into yourself – if you think something should be wrong for you, but it seems to be right, then maybe that says something about yourself!

    And, to be self-promoting for a moment, I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashana about Reform Judaism, as I understand it. If anyone’s interested, it’s at http://www.mybetham.com/news.html?news/TheShofarandReformJudaism.htm

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 7, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

      “You don’t need to worry about whether you are using positive or negative definitions, but rather admit that you need both”

      I do love Larry Hoffman. Yet, I don’t accept this status quo. I know it’s true, but I yearn to get away from it. So I will keep trying, even if it’s futile.

      “I’d still be interested in hearing more about why you think you might need to begin by defining yourself in opposition to the URJ.”

      Because that is how a separation of identity takes place and it always is. My persona was developed in a URJ synagogue, in a URJ youth group and at URJ camps. To begin to be anything other than what those groups contributed to the creation of the current David A.M. Wilensky is to first say how those URJ influences are diminishing and why and to say how I see myself as different from those who remain within the fold.

      “Ideology can often come out of practice, rather than simply lead to it.”

      Again, I’d accept that as true, but not desirable. Hidur Mitzvah is great and can create beautiful things, but Hidur lishmah is silly. Hidur Mitzvah is great because it beautifies a good idea, a Mitzvah. Similarly, if a service is full of great music, but everyone there believes something I find unconscionable, or if there is no substance good or bad, there is a problem.

      “If an Indy minyan feels right, but doesn’t fit intellectually, then you don’t have to call that hypocrisy.”

      I don’t have to. But I do.

    • Larry Kaufman October 7, 2009 at 5:51 pm #

      Rabbi Rosenberg asks:
      Why is it not possible to simply ignore the URJ?

      and also:
      Reform, but not as the URJ defines it

      Ignoring the URJ is somewhat like ignoring the elephant in the corner — especially if you extend URJ , as David did in one post (and refused to allow in another), to cover all the institutions and organizations with which it is affiliated — CCAR, HUC, camps, RAC, and member congregations. (There are relatively few congregations that identify as Reform but are not part of the Union — I know of only two in the Chicago area, one thriving, one moribund — while about thirty are affiliated, and I imagine that pattern is replicated across the continent.)

      I’m not sure what there is in the URJ definition of Reform to object to — although I can understand objections to some of the ways the institutions fulfill their roles, and to some of the ways many adherents fulfill their roles. (It is very possible to love Judaism and be very put off by (some) Jews.)

      Fighting the status quo is frustrating but not futile, and change doesn’t happen if no one is trying to make it happen. But it doesn’t always come about as quickly as one might wish. As my rabbi pointed out on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l — who was always a maverick — became a pariah because he was a premature advocate of a two-state solution — a position that thirty-some years later is mainstream.

      As someone who has generally effectively fought for change from the inside, I can still appreciate the provocateur. And I suspect you’ll continue to be that even when you come, possibly kicking and screaming, back into the fold.

      • David A.M. Wilensky October 7, 2009 at 11:44 pm #

        “I’m not sure what there is in the URJ definition of Reform to object to.”

        Me either. Because I have no idea what the definition is! Say what you will about Classical Reform (and I have been known to say all sorts of terrible stuff about CR), at least back then the URJ (then the UAHC) had the cajones to say what it was and who they were. Now, the URJ has no idea who it is or what it wants to be.

        And maybe that’s become part of the problem for me. As I’m feeling increasingly confused, the URJ’s confusion isn’t helping me any.

        The URJ is in a poor position to provide religious direction to its members because there is no unified idea of what the URJ’s direction is.

        • Jordan Friedman June 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

          When people say that CR is not for them, I can definitely understand why. Still, it remains a profoundly valid and meaningful expression of Judaism for many, including a few young (college age) people like me–it’s not just the seventy-somethings who cling nostalgically to CR. So, I would gently urge you gain a better understanding of it so that you are no longer tempted to “say all sorts of terrible stuff” about it. Since you’re quite observant even for Mainstream Reform, I’m sure you know all about lashon hara.

          I am quite explicitly CR in my personal practice, but out of necessity, I go more mainstream when practicing Judaism communally. I am completely uncritical of all but the most extremely traditional factions within Mainstream Reform, because I understand why different levels of observance are meaningful to different people, and I have to respect that. May we all one day feel comfortable deciding and practicing exactly what “elevates and sanctifies” our lives–no more, and no less–and without fear of ridicule.

        • Nicole Czarnecki January 17, 2011 at 3:46 am #

          The only thing that the URJ as well as the USCJ and OU seem united in is an intolerance for Jewish Christians. If a Jew wants (URJ) or must (the more orthodox USCJ and OU members), he or she can believe in Bar Kochva or Menachem Schneerson or even Buddha; but (apparently) G-d forbid that a Jew should believe in (the Jewish) Jesus of Nazareth.

          • David A.M. Wilensky January 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

            Nicole, let me bring you back to reality for a hot second.

            Jews don’t believe in Jesus. It’s the basic historical dividing line between Jews and Christians. I don’t know what you think is going on in the real Jewish community, but the vast majority consider the Chabad meschichists (who are a minority within Chabad) to be heretics. No one believe in Bar Kochva so I’m not sure what you think you’re getting at there. And given that Buddha isn’t a deity, you’re in a real grey area there.

            And the fact that Jesus was a Jew doesn’t make believing that he’s the messiah a Jewish belief.

            • Nicole C. January 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

              I was born a Jew. David, you’re just as factually correct and tolerant as the URJ, and you might as well call yourself the Reform Schmuckle if anything.

              • David A.M. Wilensky January 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

                The Reform Schmuckle! Terrific, Nicole. I love it. I was thinking about changing the name lately and I appreciate the suggestion.

  4. ML October 22, 2009 at 10:24 am #

    As someone who already turned 30 and made a little Jew, your perspective is unlikely to change. Nothing is different for you as an adult, especially at a Reform shul. Under the identity of “parent”, you may be welcomed into a number of activities, but all revolve around you as a parent of a particular child.

    As a Jew who taken Judaism seriously, I could never see my child being educated at a Reform shul (even though I, myself was.) Most of the people that suddenly “return” to Reform/Conservative Judaism in their 30’s, presumably because are now married and have children, likely do so in a detached manner. They want their kids to be raised with some tradition (even if they only have a slight idea of what this may be) but invest little of their own time and life in the pursuit. I’ve heard this referred to as “dry cleaner Judaism”, where one mostly participates as a parent by dropping off and picking up.

    My wife, who is a UJ graduate, day school teacher, and firmly committed Conservative Jew (in ideology if not always practice) has a big say in our family’s Jewish life. However, I have no problem regularly attending (and substitute teaching at) a Conservative shul. Part of this is that we have little for indie options where I live and part is that the particular shul we attend feels like how many people describe their indie minyans.

  5. Nicole Czarnecki January 17, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    As a Messianic Jew (Jewish Christian), I see another reason to be un- and even dis-affiliated and -associated with the URJ (and the USCJ, etc.): particularly with the Union of “Reform” Judaism, they have no interest in (as you pointed out) Classical Reform Judaism. Even if Classical Reform held that Torah was something than divinely inspired, they at least recognized Talmud as non-divinely inspired and (from what I gather) were at least tolerant of patrilineal Jews, and of Jewish Christian and other Non-Reform Jews. In the Union of “Reform” Judaism, there’s no tolerance for Jewish Christians.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      That’s because it’s an oxymoron–emphasis on the moron. If Christians wanna have seders and claim that the matzah and the wine have something to do with communion, they can go right ahead. But you need to know that belief in Jesus is beyond the pale. It’s not a Jewish belief.

      • Nicole C. January 17, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

        You’re just as tolerant as the URJ. You may as well go back to them.

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

          Nicole, it’s not an issue of tolerance. It’s an issue of definition.

          I tolerate the existence of Jews for Jesus. I am not persecuting you. On the contrary, Jews for Jesus are out to get Jews, preying on vulnerable Jewish college students.

          Every religious group gets the right that define itself. The Reform movement certainly has a variety of struggles with self-definition, but it has decided that belief in a messiah that has already come is not something that is within its admittedly big tent.

    • BZ January 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

      What is your basis for suggesting that the modern Reform movement is intolerant of patrilineal Jews, or that Classical Reform was tolerant of Jewish Christians?

      • David A.M. Wilensky January 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

        Oh, word. I didn’t even notice that bit the first time I read the comment. I’m gonna venture a guess that Jews for Jesus and the period when RJ was dominated by CR did not overlap a whole lot, historically speaking.

        • BZ January 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

          Nicole might not be referring to Jews for Jesus (which is a specific organization), but just to people of Jewish ancestry and Christian religion. Still, I’m not aware of CR ever including such people as part of the Reform Jewish tent.

          • David A.M. Wilensky January 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

            Ah, excellent point, BZ. That is an interesting area. Under Israeli law–not that I’m advocating Israeli identity laws as authoritative–I believe that someone who has consciously left the Jewish religion for another religion is not eligible to Right of Return. However, a Jew who is generally non-religious is eligible. And a non-Jew married to or widowed by a Jew is also eligible. I’m pretty sure that’s all true. And tangentially relevant to what we’re talking about.

            But, if we leave aside the issue of Jews of Jesus and just talk about people of identifiably Jewish descent who have come somehow or another to believe that Jesus was the messiah, I’m curious what the objection might be. There is no Christian denomination that I’m aware of that would find no theological qualms anywhere in Jewish liturgy–even Reform liturgy.

            So, if Nicole is a member of a Church, I’m not sure why she wants to be accepted by the URJ. And if she is a Jew for Jesus–and I’m totally open to the fact that she may not be one–they have their own synagogues where she would be totally accepted. So what does she needs the URJ for?

            And even if, despite all of this, she still wants acceptance from the URJ, she’s got to go up against the following sterling logic: every religious groups has the ability to self-define–and the URJ has self-defined her as an outsider.


  1. Hey, Nakedhead! The David A.M. Wilensky Story | The Reform Shuckle - January 18, 2011

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