Archive | November, 2009

“Integrationist” Reform weakened by ritual?

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.

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Spot the error–or, Arutz Sheva can’t read the Bible

Crossposted to Jewschool.

Arurtz Sheva, the news service of the West Bank’s settlers says:

In a powerful echo of the Biblical story of the patriarch Abraham, a Mumbai doctor smashed his father’s idols and eventually decided to become a Jew in the Land of Israel.

Abraham was born Vagirds Frads to a Hindu cleric who worshipped idols, and a mother who prepared food for them. As did the Biblical Abraham, young Vagirds could not understand how his father could honor a man-made statue, nor why his mother would cook for them. “Sometimes I eat it in secret,” he confided…

What’s wrong with this? Special Thanksgiving Turkey points to the first person who gets it right.

The full article is here. Hat-tip: Yid By Choice.

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To stand or not to stand?

A recent discussion on iWorship, a listserve for Reform congregational ritual committee members and other interested parties, has thankfully inspired me to go back for the post to this blog’s real purpose and strong suit: ritual and liturgy.

The discussion surrounds the issue of whether to sit or stand for the Shma and was started in reaction to a moment in Shabbat worship at the recent URJ Biennial when the service leader asked the Jews in the pews to remain seated for the Shma.

For someone who has spent most of their prayer life in a typical Reform settings, such a request is quite jarring. Indeed, I found it jarring the first time a service leader in NFTY suggested that remaining seated was a legitimate possibility, during the Shma. Remember that the Shma is not the two-line credo that Reform Jews often think of when they use the term “Shma.” It begins with that statement of faith and continues on with several lengthy paragraphs about the nature of divine reward and punishment, acceptance of commandments, and a brief review of several important mitzvot.

It is long, and until relatively, was not seen as central to the service. The center of the service was The Amidah. For me, the Amidah still is the most central litrugical “rubric,” as Larry Hoffman often puts it. So that perceived centrality will certainly color my opinion on this and how this post unfolds. Standing for The Amidah is thus a no-brainer. Standing for an additional, lengthy section is unnecessary.

The Reform movement did a few things to change this. By asserting in early Reform thought the centrality of what they called “ethical monotheism,” the Shma would, of course, come to the forefront of the liturgy. All the more so because, at the same, all but the opening line and the first and final paragraphs of what had been the Shma were excised from most Reform liturgies. This makes the Shma even more focused on what looks like ethical monotheism. For instance, a lenghty section on wearing tzitzit got tossed out along with divine reward and punishment, leaving a much more “ethical” sounding bulk about teaching mitzvot to your childern and about being mindful “in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you wake up.”

At the same time, The Amidah was robbed of its integrity and much of it began to be recited sitting down. So the Shma replaced it as central and we began to rise for the Shma, but only the first line of it, which was seen as a sort of analog to Christians rising to recite The Nicene Creed.

So here we are. Reform Jews have abridged the Shma and placed a new emphasis on it, which makes it perfect for standing. And that’s by and large what we do. We’ve been at this for a while, and there is little sign of change. This instance at the URJ Biennial and many instances in NFTY and at our camps are grand exceptions, which may well become the rule rather than the exception during my lifetime.

Here’s why I sit during the Shma:

– It’s long. I say the longest version of the Shma, rather than the abridged Gates of Prayer or the less abridged Shabbat morning Mishkan T’filah verion. So given the choice between standing for a long time and sitting for a long time, I’ll go with sitting.

– I don’t look to it as central. Certainly, as someone who has made tzitzit a sort of personal ritual crusade, it’s important to me on the level that it has a lengthy bit about tzitzit, but it’s not the most important thing in the world.

– To me, The Amidah is paramount and of utmost centrality. If there’s going to be one long bout of standing in the service to place emphasis, I’d much rather have it be The Amidah (which after all means “The Standing”).

– When I was first introduced to the idea of sitting, it was explained that you should try not to change your position during a single prayer. Rather, spaces between prayers are the appropriate time to stand or sit, unless there’s some good reason to do otherwise. So if the Shma and V’ahavta, treated often by Reform Jews as two separate things, are really the same prayer, it would be undesirable to stand for the first line (Shma) and then sit back down for the V’ahavta (the other two paragraphs of the Shma that Reform liturgy retains). This made a lot of sense to me and influences my decisions to sit stand and bow at all times.

What do you think? What happens in your community? Do you go along with that or do you defy it, sitting in a place where most stand, or standing in a place where most sit?

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The URJ on blogging: “Yay blogging! We almost get it!”

3,000-some-odd URJ Jews are in Toronto this weekend for the URJ Biennial. I’m following along on twitter (#urjbiennial).

Every biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union, make his “State of the Union” sermon from atop the mega-pulpit erected for the convention on Shabbat morning. In this sermon, Yoffie announces the Union’s newest biennial initiatives. Last time, he unveiled the “Shabbat” initiative–how creative, Jews celebrating Shabbat!–and this time he’s unveiled something called the Embracing Technology initiative.

Overall, I think it’ll be a good thing. We here in the Reformish corner of the jblogosphere have been straining to be heard for some time so it’s nice to find a new Union site basically devoted to how to get your congregation into the conversation going on out here.

Except, oh wait. It’s not about how to jump into the conversation. It’s about how to start a blog for your congregation. And how to moderate comments. How inspired. The fact that moderating comments is one of the chief concerns of the site is pretty tell-tale.

When stuffy corporations begin blogging or tweeting, it’s a huge change in the way they think, and it’s rarely as quick as you’d want it to be. From Sinai, marketing was a one-way conversation. You’d spread your message and if people liked it and the way your presented it, they’d buy your stuff (or do whatever it is your advertising wanted them to do).

The new way is two-way. You say what you have to say and a conversation starts. If you’re doing it right, it’s an open conversation and it happens in real time. When the blogger or the administrator is away from the computer, the conversation continues because at all times of day or night, people can continue to make their comments on your post. Or, in the case of twitter, they can continue to @reply to you or use #tags that refer to you.

If your blog is moderated, this process grinds to a halt. The open and real exchange of ideas that a blog done right promotes is over when your moderate. The openness can be scary.

You need no more proof of the fact that the Union doesn’t get what we’re doing out here than to check out With a few notable exceptions, the blog has become more and more of a URJ cheerleader in it’s year and a half of existence.

So, congregations, if you’re listening, the way to get into the conversation out here on the internet fringe isn’t to do what the Union is telling you. The way to do it is to read some blogs. And when you feel like you get it, start your own. Don’t jump in based on URJ advice alone.

Shabbat Shalom to everyone out there in Biennial-land.

Update! Just found RJ Blogs, where they’ll create a blog for you. With WordPress. Very impressive. *eye roll*

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