“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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14 Responses to “Integrationist” Reform weakened by ritual?

  1. BZ November 30, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    Now that you’ve said what I would dislike about Neusner’s article (and thanks! it saves me the effort), I’ll note what I did like: “More recently, Reform Jews have allowed their denomination to be painted as an inferior brand of Judaism — a set of compromises of convenience. Reform Judaism needs to stop apologizing for itself. Instead, it must revert to the clarity and courage — if not to the details — of the Pittsburgh Platform and reassert in the face of contempt the right and duty of Reform.” I don’t agree with the details either in the present day, but the Pittsburgh Platform had a lot going for it — at the very least, in its self-confidence.

    As for the paragraph you quote as “the bit that really gets me upset”, I think he’s not wrong that many in the Reform movement who support the practices in question frame them as “re-adopt[ing] some traditional rites” and “reversion to tradition”, and this framing is destructive, and does “effectively present the integrationist Judaisms as less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy” (though that’s probably not the main point he’s trying to make).

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 1, 2009 at 8:47 am #

      The part you like only adds to the irony!

      The fact that the people doing it frame it as being “more traditional” doesn’t give Neusner an excuse to use the same destructive terms.

  2. larrykaufman December 1, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Neusner makes clear that he went to JTS rather than HUC not from ideology, but because he thought it would give him a better Jewish education, enough so that he was willing to accept the dietary discipline it would exact. Nor does he cite any discernible ideological reason for his return.

    While I agree that many Reform Jews use the destructive framing that BZ rightfully deplores, I’m not sure that Reform Judaism institutionally joins that chorus — note the excision in the published Mishkan T’filah of language like “traditional choreography” used in at least one of the beta editions.

    I have been sensitized by BZ’s articulation of the framing issue, but am still struggling to find appropriate terminology to discuss what’s been going on. While joining your chorus that JN has it wrong — the jury still seems to be out on how to say it right.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 1, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

      But if he wanted to return to Reform ideology when his education at JTS was complete, he could’ve. He notes that he did not do that and that he is only now returning to the Reform world.

      And he does say that he is returning because it is the most compelling option. Compelling, we can assume, in its ideology.

      And there’s nothing hard about saying the Reform movement is making more extensive use of ritual forms that it once set aside. That’s an easy, neutral was of saying what Neusner wants to say.

      • Larry Kaufman December 2, 2009 at 10:50 am #

        I like your phraseology, but its making more extensive use of ritual forms is a silly reason for becoming Reform — considering that those forms are already in place in the movement JN is leaving.

        I’m a Reform Jew because the movement models normative Reform behavior and then allows me to make eclectic choices — whereas the Conservative movement in which I was raised “expects” that its adherents will make certain choices, even though they know damn well that their expectations aren’t being met.

        Is that what’s bugging Neusner? And if so, why now? It’s been true for years. (Admittedly, the range of choices the Reform movement offers and accepts has broadened greatly over the last 30 years.)

        • David A.M. Wilensky December 3, 2009 at 8:50 am #

          I’m not suggesting that’s why he coming back to Reform. On the contrary, it’s clear that he sees it as a weakness.

  3. rogueregime December 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    It seems to me there’s nothing wrong with talking about “tradition”…the problem is capital-T “Tradition.”

    “Jews” — of all stripes — have on the whole, sometimes in large majorities, sometimes not, done things that, taken together, constitute “tradition.” I don’t see the problem with saying that what one does is conected to what came before. The problem is when tradition becomes “Tradition”; when we start talking about the Jewish way rather than Jewish ways, that’s when I think one gets into trouble.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 3, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

      Agreed. And I think that’s what’s going on here. By claiming that Reform was outside of “tradition” and is now “returning to traditon” we delegitimize Reform’s claim to be a part of Jewish tradition, which is my claim as well.

      • rogueregime December 3, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

        By claiming that Reform was outside of “tradition” and is now “returning to traditon” we delegitimize Reform’s claim to be a part of Jewish tradition, which is my claim as well.

        This is an excellent point, even though, as a Reform Jew, I have been struggling with its implications for many years.

        On the one hand, of course you are right: To the extent we are Jews, what we do is in some sense by definition part of Jewish tradition. As long as we self-identify in this way, we have a role to play in defining who we are.

        The problem, for me at least, is what happens when one takes this position to its logical conclusion: Does anything we do automatically become part of Jewish tradition?

        To take a blunt example, while I don’t have exact figures I would assume most Reform Jews don’t “keep kosher” in anything approaching the halachic understanding of the practice. So then should we say that (a) keeping kosher is not a necessary part of Jewish tradition, (b) not keeping kosher is a part of Jewish tradition, or (c) an individual Jew’s autonomy to decide whether or not to keep kosher is a part of Jewish tradtion? Now multiply the issues to include every aspect of halacha, and imagine that (a), (b) and/or (c) is used to situate each aspect vis-a-vis Jewish tradition. Then what is there? What is left to constitute tradition?

        I don’t know the answer, and I’m not even sure I’m asking the right questions. I’m just trying to puzzle out what it really means to be an authentic Reform Jew. I (proudly) call myself one, but what does that mean?

        • Larry Kaufman December 3, 2009 at 2:51 pm #

          rogueregime’s question, does anything we do become part of Jewish tradition, lacks clarity as to who “we” is. We — you and I? We — a given congregation? We — a widespread active practice (as opposed to an abstentiion from a practice) among individuals or congregations?

          The operative change in Reform practice, or tradition, or whatever you want to call it, is that we no longer define ourselves in terms of what we don’t do. And we have the freedom to develop new “traditions” as we go along, which may or may not be recycling of practices Reform Judaism once laid aside.

          Although Reform shies away from the term Halacha — equating it with Orthodox law — we have a de facto Reform halacha that sets before us normative Reform Jewish behavior. By normative, I mean behavior modeled by most congregations, whether or not followed by most congregants. Thus, although I personally do not follow any kind of dietary laws, I do expect that congregational functions will not serve pork or shellfish, nor aggressively mix dairy and meat (e.g., lasagna), that foodstuffs will have been produced and brought to market ethically, etc. And I have no problem with calling that Reform Kosher, although others do.

          So that’s my way of saying that dietary restrictions are an appropriate and authentic part of Reform Judaism — and that these and other ritual behaviors should be modeled for us in the synagogue.

          We might note that institutional Reform once eliminated the bar mitzvah, and that it came back because Jews who were otherwise prepared to identify as Reform wouldn’t let it go. Once upon a time, Reform rabbis wouldn’t allow the breaking of the glass as part of the wedding ceremony — but the Jews who were getting married wouldn’t let that one go, either. Does any Reform rabbi still forbid that?

          Our problem, exemplified in this discussion of what Prof. Neusner said, is not with what we do, but with what we call it. Authenticity is somewhat like the classic statement about pornography — we know it when we see it. And tradition? It’s like the organizations, synagogues or other, who do something and call it “our first annual whatever.” If we do it, and expect to do it again, we’re building a tradition.

          • David A.M. Wilensky December 3, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

            I would also argue (maybe) that choosing not to do something is as active as choosing to do something. As long as we choose with intent, rather than flippantly or for convenience’s sake.

        • BZ December 3, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

          It’s a tough question. Here are some attempts to address it.

          • rogueregime December 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

            Thank you so much for posting these links… There’s a lot to digest there!

        • David A.M. Wilensky December 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

          Great thoughts!

          “So then should we say that (a) keeping kosher is not a necessary part of Jewish tradition”

          If you’re a Reform Jew, you’re implying that (a) is the case in using the word Jew to describe yourself, whether you keep kosher or not.

          “(b) not keeping kosher is a part of Jewish tradition”

          It is. Even before Reform Judaism and the like gave Jews the language and methodology to do so with intent, Jews were living secular, Jewish lives all over Europe and the US. And they’re lives, like our lives, were and are a part of the life and tradition of the Jewish people.

          “(c) an individual Jew’s autonomy to decide whether or not to keep kosher is a part of Jewish tradition”

          I maintain that Reform has become one of the ways people access Jewish religious traditions. It has become a part of tradition. If that is the case, then, yes, (c) is a part of Jewish tradition.

          “What is left to constitute tradition?”

          Religious tradition or cultural tradition? Every Jew makes a choice about kashrut. They choose to observe it or not observe and if they chose to observe they choose how to observe it and where and when to observe it. Either way, in making the choice, they’re making a choice that has some validity in the range of Jewish tradition that exists and has existed.