In an oddball pre-Thanksgiving op-ed piece in The Forward, Rabbi Jacob Neusner tells the story of his beginnings as a Reform Jew, his rabbinical education and career as a Conservative Jew, and his eventual return to the Reform fold.
It’s an interesting story, which you can read in full here.
Here at The Shuckle, we’ll look at a few of his more bizarre statements about Reform Judaism.
First of all, you have to understand Neusner’s dichotomy (false? jury is out on that…) of Jewish life. He declares that American Jewish life is composed of self-segregationist and integrationist elements. He places Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform streams in the integrationist camp, meaning that they seek to be integrated into broader society and that they find their truths in many places, including in the Torah.
The self-segregationist group, according to Neusner is composed of “Orthodox groupings such as Hasidism and yeshivish or Mitnagdic Judaism,” who find truth only in Jewish traditional learning. OK. Fine. Without giving it too much thought, this seems like a fairly apt dichotomy, though I might argue that most dichotomies of religion fail at some point. But that’s for another blog post.
Neusner is fairly “triumphalist” about Reform Judaism, as Rabbi Andy Bachman noted in a brief Facebook wall post about this today. And triumphalist he is:
Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling. After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.
He then goes on to decry “The sorry state of Conservative Judaism.” I’d argue that the Conservative movement has actually been the more bold of the two lately. Just compare their Hekhsher Tzedek with the URJ’s new “Let’s eat less red meat, but not acknowledge that mindful eating is a Jewish tradition” initiative.
But then he gets to the bit that really gets me upset:
Over the past half-century, however, the integrationist Judaisms have sometimes seemed to lose sight of their convictions. Modern Orthodoxy has been under siege from its right flank, while even Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites. The outcome of this reversion to tradition has been to effectively present the integrationist Judaisms as less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy.
He’s so close to being on the nose that it hurts me to read it.
Have “integrationist Judaisms” been seen recently as “less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy”? Yes. But is that recent phenomenon only? I’m not sure. Is it because the Reform movement has realized that people like ritual? No.
Neusner incorrectly identifies increased ritual observances as Reform’s true plight. In my eyes, as any regular reader of this blog will know, that is the Reform intellectual community’s latest triumph! What has led to us being seen as “less authentic” is an obliviousness to or an unwillingness to thing about framing and branding, as any reader of BZ will know.
Ironically, if you buy into BZ’s reading of this situation (and I do), you will see that Neusner is guilty of the very thing that has led to the sense of diminished authenticity he’s upset about. “Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites.” Here he buys into the framing of the word “traditional” offered up by the right. He agrees with them, implying, “If it’s a ritual more common on the right, it is something truly worthy of the word traditional.”
I reject that. I’m a Jew of tradition and of Reform and there is no contradiction in terms in saying so.