When I say “the Reform intellectual community”…

…what do I mean?

I’ve been throwing the term “Reform intellectual community” around a bit since I declared independence from the Reform movement. Recently, commenter ML called me out on the term:

David, could you elaborate a little more regarding the Reform intellectual community. What is it exactly and how does it stand apart (or not) from the rest of the Reform world?

Good question, ML. I’m glad you asked. I’ll answer it with a series of definitions, building up to a definition of the Reform intellectual community. In this post, I will attempt the lofty goal of defining four things: the Reform movement, Reform Judaism, Reform Jews and the Reform intellectual community.

The Reform movement is a collection of organizations devoted to building and supporting Reform communities, projects and concerns. This includes the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization made up of Reform synagogues in North America; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization for Reform rabbis in North America; the Religious Action Center, a DC-based political lobby that works on initiatives that the URJ has officially supported; Hebrew Union College, the four-campus institution devoted to training professional Reform leaders, including rabbis, cantors and educators. To be sure, there are institutions that also comprise what I call the Reform movement outside of North America, such as the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Leo Baeck College, but I am most familiar with their North American counterparts, so I tend to focus on those.

Reform Judaism, however, is not the same thing as the Reform movement and much harder to define. I’m gonna make a stab at defining it, knowing full well what kind of bone-picking will commence in the comments.

Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief. Notice that this definition carefully avoids any particular organization, while the first definition, that of the Reform movement, explicitly mentioned specific organizations. This is because Reform Judaism is an idea, while the Reform movement is a group of organizations ostensibly devoted to the promulgation of that idea.

Reform Jews are Jews who subscribe in whole or in part to what we have defined as Reform Judaism. Some of these people, in fact most of them, are also members of what we have defined as the Reform movement, but that is not necessarily the case. I am one example a Reform Jew who is not affiliated with the Reform movement. BZ, fellow Jewschooler and proprietor of the blog Mah Rabu, is another. There are also members of the Reform movement who are not actually Reform Jews, which is probably a whole other post, so I won’t go further into that here.

The Reform intellectual community is the group of Reform Jews (as defined above) who are actively thinking about and actively re-thinking what Reform Judaism is and who actively consider the implications of living as a Reform Jew. This fourth definition exists somewhere at the intersection of the above three–the Reform movment, Reform Judaism and Reform Jews. In this category, I include many in the Reform movement and some outside of it as well. BZ and I, as I said above, are good examples of members of this community who live outside the Reform movement. Rabbi Leon Morris (seasonal congregational rabbi and director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning), Rabbi Mark Washofsky (professor at HUC, author and chair of the CCAR’s responsa committee) and Larry Kaufman (frequent commenter here at The Shuckle, RJ.org blogger and URJ board member) are all good examples of members of the Reform intellectual community living largely inside of the Reform movement. The members of the Rethinking Reform Think Tank are a good example of a mixture of members of this community living both inside and outside the Reform movement. I do not include all Reform Jews (as defined above) in this community because many embody their Reform Judaism in a more passive way, which I say without judging them.

[As a sort of addendum, I’ll add this to my definition of the Reform intellectual community, which Larry Kaufman suggested below: Members of the Reform intellectual community may be working IN Reform, but unless they are also working ON Reform, I would not include them in the intellectual community.]

As you can see, the borders and membership of this community are broad and hard to define. However, I believe it is a real entity. Despite having declared myself apart from the Reform movement (as defined above), I am still a Reform Jew (as defined above), who believes in and tries to embody Reform Judaism (as defined above) and I consider myself a member of the Reform intellectual community (as defined above).

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55 Responses to When I say “the Reform intellectual community”…

  1. jepaikin December 21, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    First comment of what may be many by me. I think you may have triggered some ticking in my brain and I might post my own definition.

    But until then, here’s an all-encompassing question…

    (Preamble: For the purposes of our collective mental clarity, for the time being I want to separate the “idea” of Reform Judaism from the “practice” of Reform Judaism. Such that liturgy, rituals, and the like are practices, while philosophy, theology, and the like are the ideas. Altogether they make up Reform Judaism as whole. Kosher?)

    Question:

    When attempting to define the idea of Reform Judaism, should we just stick to the ideas and definitions proposed by Jacobson, Geiger, Zunz, Wise, et al, as it was, after all, their idea(s)?

    Or should we accept that the idea of Reform Judaism is an ongoing idea and the definition of it must constantly be reformed?

    If it’s the former, then we’re pretty much set.

    If it’s the latter, then we’re screwed, as there can, by definition, be no single definition of Reform Judaism other than “to each their own.”

    • Larry Kaufman December 21, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

      If we were going to define Reform Judaism by the tenets of its founding fathers, there would be nothing to talk about — but I don’t feel for a minute that we are screwed or precluded in any way from defining a Reform Judaism for today, as David is valiantly trying to do.

      The Reform Judaism of Geiger, Wise, et al is a fact of history, just as the Judaism of Ezra and Nehemiah is a fact of history. We need to recognize them as what they are, and recognize that Judaism has always evolved to meet changing needs of the Jewish community, that meeting those needs today is impossible with a single approach, and then we can proceed intelligently to discuss the Reform approach(es), as they are today, and perhaps as they will be twenty years from now when the Paikens, Wilenskys, Dreyfuses and other young intellectuals of the movement have made their impact felt.

      I do agree with your further division of Reform Judaism into ideas and practices — as I remarked in commenting on the piece on the Think Tank (writing there under the name hinneni), I break the practices into what I called liturgy and lifestyle, with ideology as the third leg on my three-legged stool.

      And given that we’re dealing with a moving target of a definition, we also need to note that ideological Reform Judaism will change at a different pace from institutional Reform Judaism, or as David calls it, the Movement.

      • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 7:25 am #

        That all makes good sense. I should say also that practice and ideas is a good distinction to make, but that I don’t feel the need to make the distinction at this level of definition. It is my assumption that Reform Judaism (as defined here) is an idea and that practices will result from this idea naturally. They will be different practices at different times in different places and with different people, but that accounts for the wide variation of Reform practice.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 7:21 am #

      Re-read my definition: “Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.”

      Notice that this definition carefully encompasses both of the things you’re pointing to. This is because I believe that to say that Reform Judaism is “the ideas and definitions proposed by Jacobson, Geiger, Zunz, Wise, et al” would be too limiting and would ignore what has happened in reality with the Reform idea since those guys proposed it.

      On the other hand, I agree that “If it’s the latter, then we’re screwed, as there can, by definition, be no single definition of Reform Judaism other than ‘to each their own.'”

      To leave out either of these two pieces would be too ignore something that is important in contemporary Judaism, hence my attempt to include both.

  2. jepaikin December 21, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

    I should also note that in your definition, you’ve carved out a nice niche for yourself as a Reform Jew. Nicely done.

    Though if my latter supposition is correct (who’s to say it is, anyways?…) that leaves you in a niche all by yourself.

  3. Ben Sternman December 21, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

    Interesting and I’ll need some time to think about it. Two things immediately came to mind. First, you’ve left out American Conference of Cantors, National Association of Temple Educators and National Association of Temple Administrators under the organizations sections.

    Second, your definition of the intellectual community seems a bit broader than you seem to imply it to be, though I can’t truly judge your intention. I would think that most rabbis, cantors, educators and temple administrators who work for a Reform Temple/Synagogue fit into your definition because those that are not actively engaged in thinking about what it means to be a Reform Jew and what Reform Judaism is tend to be left behind as circumstances change.

    I think that many Board Members of Reform Temples/Synagogues also would be included in your definition because likewise, Boards are forced to think or failing that they will watch as their institutions slowly fade away into irrelevance.

    So, what this means is that anyone who is actively involved in the running of Reform Institution would then fall within your definition. I am not sure if that was your intent however, because of the limited and very specific examples that you’ve cited.

    • Larry Kaufman December 21, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

      Flattered though I am to be identified as a member of the Reform intellectual community, I think there’s a lehavdil between those cited by Rabbi Sternman who think about their own institutions and those who are looking at a bigger picture. (A parable: a bypasser stops to inquire of two workers at a construction site what they are doing. The first one replies, “I’m laying bricks.” The second one replies, “I”m building a cathedral.”)

      Although I can (and eventually will) quibble with your description of Reform Jews, and can add scores of names to your roster of Reform intellectuals, what I really want to grapple with is your effort to define Reform Judaism. Rather than quarrel with yours, I refer you to a definition that appears on the URJ web site:
      • A God-centered Judaism that combines respect for Jewish law and Jewish tradition with a progressive religious outlook designed to remain relevant and meaningful to contemporary North American Jews
      • A commitment to Torah (lifelong Jewish learning), Avodah (worship of God through prayer and observance), and G’milut Hasadim (the pursuit of justice, peace, and deeds of loving kindness) – expressed in lifelong study of the sacred Jewish texts, creativity and spirituality in worship and social action fulfilling the vision of the Prophets
      • A commitment to K’lal Yisrael, the entirety of the Jewish people, with special focus on the people and the state of Israel and on world Jewry, particularly on the needs of Progressive congregations everywhere
      • A community-focused religion that honors the personal autonomy of the individual and the institutional autonomy of the congregation, within a framework of egalitarianism and inclusiveness

      This “definition” appears on the web page addressed to congregations that are contemplating affiliation with the URJ, and to some extent straddles the ideological and the institutional. Full disclosure: as a member of the New Congregations Committee, I was a primary draftsman of the statement, which can be found in its entirety at
      http://urj.org/about/union/affiliate/.

      • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 7:33 am #

        That’s a fine list of attributes, but it is no definition. If it were a definition, it would be far broader than the concise sort of quickie definition I was going for. But again, I don’t see anything to quibble with in that list.

        • jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 10:46 am #

          Pursuant to my thoughts below… I don’t think you’ll ever get that broader definition you’re looking for.

          Perhaps all we can hope for is a fine list of attributes again and again.

          • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 11:50 am #

            Well, without going round in circles about this list of attributes, can anyone say what makes my definition wrong?

            • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

              Yes, I can say what makes your definition wrong.

              Reform Judaism as an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief is no more, and its having morphed into something else is not helpful in describing what it is today:

              A God-based approach to historical Judaism that, by rejecting divine revelation, encourages an eclectic and evolving communal ritual practice consonant with modernity, while accepting that individuals may accept or reject any specific ritual observance.

              Note that this statement, the same length as yours, avoids the often misunderstood concept of autonomy, which really translates as “We can’t enforce any of our rules, and we’re not going to kick you out just because you decide not to follow some of them.”

              • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 5:20 pm #

                “We can’t enforce any of our rules, and we’re not going to kick you out just because you decide not to follow some of them.”

                Which is also true…

              • BZ December 22, 2009 at 9:04 pm #

                A God-based approach to historical Judaism that, by rejecting divine revelation, encourages an eclectic and evolving communal ritual practice consonant with modernity, while accepting that individuals may accept or reject any specific ritual observance.

                I’m not into all this talk of “rejecting”. I think it’s better to define Reform Judaism by what it is and not just what it isn’t. (You guys have seen this already, but this is my attempt to begin thinking about thinking about this.) And “accept or reject any specific ritual observance” doesn’t come close to the full set of options, since most ritual observance choices are not binary. There are many ways to keep Shabbat – it’s not just a yes or a no.

                Note that this statement, the same length as yours, avoids the often misunderstood concept of autonomy, which really translates as “We can’t enforce any of our rules, and we’re not going to kick you out just because you decide not to follow some of them.”

                That’s not what autonomy means. If we’re talking about ritual observance, the Reform movement (or Reform Judaism) doesn’t have “rules” on many issues (CCAR Responsa provide “guidance, not governance”, and provide guidance primarily on communal issues, not matters of individual observance), so individuals can’t follow or not follow them. (Your definition of autonomy applies more to the Conservative movement, or Chabad.) To me, autonomy means that the authority that other denominations grant to rabbis in interpreting Torah and halachah is granted by Reform Judaism to all individuals, and that all individuals have the power and responsibility to study and determine what the rules are. (And it goes without saying that we should strive to follow the rules as we understand them.)

                • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 9:35 pm #

                  WORD.

                  Also, I’d use the tail end of what BZ is saying to further get into the idea of how a Reform Jew can be a non-member of the RIC:

                  Though each individual is vested with the sort of authority BZ describes, they might defer on most matters to the consensus they see Reform Jews around them coming to or by deferring to other individual Reform Jews. This, in fact, is the way that I would say most Reform Jews behave, which places them outside of the Reform intellectual community because they allow other Reform Jews to do their thinking for them, which I say without being judgey.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 7:30 am #

      I know there are many Reform organizations I left out; I was merely citing a few examples. Of course, I left out NFTY, WRJ, MRJ, ARZA, IMPJ, IRAC, etc as well.

      I’m okay with varying definitions of the intellectual community, though I would not include anyone based solely on their profession or on their leadership role in a Reform community. A trustee on a synagogue board is not necessarily a member of the intellectual community, not are they necessarily not a member. It would depend entirely on the person.

      If my definition seemed limited, it was because I was relying on shining examples (not to toot my horn), people who are obviously (to me) members of the Reform intellectual community.

  4. Rivka December 22, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    Just out of curiousity and hopefully to expand my own reading list, can you think of any women who are part of the Reform intellectual movement as you define it?

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 7:37 am #

      Rivka, I would include Jill Cozen-Harel, a current HUC student and member (if it still exists) of the Rethinking Reform Think Tank. I would also include Rabbi Sue Elwell, the new head of worship (or whatever her title is) for the URJ. Also, Alyssa, a friend of BZ and I and another example of someone living outside the movement. I would include my friend Kelly, and several members of the iWorship listserve as well.

      Admittedly, Rivka, I’m sorry to say I can’t come up with any names that are big enough names to rival Leon Morris or Mark Washofsky and that pretty much all of the women I can think of are friends of mine.

    • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 9:56 am #

      Whether or not you agree with her product, any list of members of the Reform intellectual community, irrespective of gender, would have to include Elyse Frishman. And if by intellectual community you mean those who shape the way the Reform movement worships, you would have to include Debbie Friedman.

      There is also a sizable list of women who are doing important work in Torah scholarship etc., but their intellectual contribution involves working IN Reform Judaism, but not ON Reform Judaism.

      But Rivka’s question brings up an interesting side issue: given everything we read about the “flight of men” from synagogue life and leadership, and given the expressed commitment of Reform Judaism to egalitarianism, we might ponder why the list of women is so short.

      • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 11:53 am #

        “working IN Reform Judaism, but not ON Reform Judaism”

        Perfect, Larry! While writing this post, I was trying like hell to articulate that so thanks for figuring it out.

        Right you are. I think Debbie Friedman is a perfect example of someone working IN reform, but not ON reform. Elyse Frishman might make the cut, but I’m neither sure nor able to force myself to include her, so strong are my absurd feelings about her sidur.

        • jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

          I’ve got to disagree, David, on the Debbie Friedman note.

          She’s on faculty at Hebrew Union College, and trains Jewish musicians, songleaders, and shlichei tzibbur at URJ events. I would say she most definitely works both IN and ON Reform Judaism.

          And regardless of your perspectives on MT, I find it hard to believe you wouldn’t include Rabbi Frishman!

          • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 9:42 pm #

            I’m not saying I wouldn’t include Frishman. I just don’t want to. And the difficulty of defining who is in and who is out of the RIC is okay with me. I just wanted to point out that such a thing could be said to exist.

        • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

          I’m so glad you said “so strong are my absurd feelings about her sidur.”

          I would have expected “so strong are my feelings about her absurd sidur.”

          Like it or not, her sidur has sold more copies, and been adopted by more congregations, than anyone expected, and will have a pronounced impact on Reform worship for years to come.

          And banal though you may consider it, Debbie’s misheberach created an almost universal practice of praying for good health for others in a movement where that practice was unknown — whether or not it’s her misheberach being used.

          • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm #

            Fine. But had Debbie given thought to what it means that Reform Jews have adopted intercessory prayer because of her? If she has, maybe she’s in the RIC.

            Either way, I’ll reiterate that the RIC is so loosely constituted that many people could be in or could be out. I merely think it’s useful to point out that it exists.

      • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 11:57 am #

        OK, Larry, I like that so much that I added it to the body of the post.

  5. jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Each time I think more about this, it brings me closer to believing that Reform Judaism in its current state cannot be defined at all.

    The zeitgeist of Reform Judaism is such that it is – as Larry eloquently puts it, a moving target.

    Something that is always changing cannot be defined. Perhaps it’s the existentialist in me that accepts that there is no definitive statement one can make about an ongoing, evolving, constantly moving idea, other than the fact that it is an ongoing, evolving, constantly moving idea.

    While we can’t define Reform Judaism, we can describe it. We’re doing a good job of that right now.

    Perhaps it’s just semantics, but maybe things might be a bit easier for us if we stop trying to define RJ and accept that inherent to its existence is that it is undefinable. Instead, let’s focus on describing it in its current form.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm #

      By your own admission, it had no current form since it is constantly changing. Thus, focusing, as you suggest, “on describing it in its current form” is just as impossible as the broader definition I am attempting.

      Again though, what is incorrect about my proposed definition? Does it lack truth? Does it inaccurately describe where we are or where we have been?

  6. ML December 22, 2009 at 10:47 am #

    Thanks for addressing my question, David.

    As for myself, I would consider myself a Reform Jew ideologically. I attend Reform services (among others) but am not a dues paying member of any Reform institution or organization.

    Labels are difficult things. I often lead services for a local Jewish Renewal group (who incidentally, meet in a Reform synagogue). Now I have no other experiences with Jewish Renewal other than with this particular group and from reading books by Rabbis and intellectuals who identify with Renewal. They like that I’m an experienced song leader (thanks to the URJ’s Hava Nashira institute) and know dozens of Carlebach tunes. Nothing that I do or experience with this minyan falls outside normative Reform practice. So is it Reform (but outside the “movement”)?

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

      Maybe. Arriving at a ritual style that would not be foreign within the Reform movement isn’t Reform unless you arrive at that style and that form of practice by way of a Reform thought process. Does that make sense?

      • ML December 22, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

        I don’t think one could do so without using a Reform though process. Sure, it’s different than a traditional Reform service (Gates of Prayer) but also different from a Conservative or Orthodox service.

        • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 9:43 pm #

          Sure you could. You might simply adopt it because you like it. Or you might arrive at something that looks very mainstream Reform movement through a thought process that was far closer to a Reconstructionist mode of thought.

  7. ML December 22, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    My other question would be this: If the Reform intellectual community doesn’t exist to reform Reform, then what is it for? What’s the point/goal?

    • jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 10:58 am #

      Should all of Reform Judaism, ideally, be a part of the Reform intellectual community? Shouldn’t they be one and the same?

      • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

        This takes us back to the original distinctions between ideas and people/institutions. While eventually I will comment on David’s description of “Reform Jews,” for now suffice it to say that ideology is not necessarily part of their package, nor is intellectuality. And it’s pointless even to wish it were otherwise. (Nor is this unique to Reform Judaism — it’s just characteristic of humankind.)

        And ML’s query — what’s the point — presupposes that the RIC is a formal body, rather than a handle for the inchoate group of Reform Jews who, by their writing, thinking, leadership, or whatever, influence the ways in which the movement moves.

        As even this discussion demonstrates, defining who is a Reform Jew will be even harder than defining Reform Judaism. Later.

        • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

          I’ve got no beef with this comment, except I’d amend one bit of it. Rather than:

          “The [RIC is the] inchoate group of Reform Jews who, by their writing, thinking, leadership, or whatever, influence the ways in which the movement moves,”

          I would say:

          “The RIC is the inchoate group of Reform Jews who, by their writing, thinking, leadership, or whatever, influence the ways in which Reform Judaism moves.”

          What do you think?

          • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

            I have no problem with using the whole instead of the part, although more often than not it is adoption by the institutions of the movement that demonstrates the scope of the influence.

            As for BZ’s humbility, to use a word taught me by my great influencer Rabbi Fred Schwartz, we can probably draw a fairly straight line to the URJ technology initiative from the pioneering BYBS web site and from Mah Rabu.

        • BZ December 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

          …a handle for the inchoate group of Reform Jews who, by their writing, thinking, leadership, or whatever, influence the ways in which the movement moves.

          Well, if the definition requires having actual influence (particularly over the movement), then I would have to be removed from the group.

          • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

            Well, I think that the influence bit may be overblown in Larry’s definition, but, as I said, I think that movement is the wrong word here and that, if anything, we influence Reform Judaism as a whole. And if part of Reform Judaism is what I think and do, then you do have some influence, BZ. Anytime a Reform Jew reads something you’ve written and thinks it sounds right, you’re having an influence.

          • Randi December 22, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

            I think you have more influence than you think. It may be indirect, but from my view it is as much as POTCCAR.

            • ML December 22, 2009 at 6:50 pm #

              You understate your influence, BZ. But don’t go a’changin’.

      • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

        No. Let’s stick to our definitions. What you’re asking, in the terms provided in this post is: “Should all Reform Jews be a part of the Reform intellectual community?”

        And I’d still answer, no. Some may be willing to accept the conclusions reached by some contemporary or some earlier Reform intellectuals and move forth from there without giving it active consideration on their own. These people would be Reform Jews without being members of the Reform intellectual community.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

      I don’t think I said what the Reform intellectual community’s purpose is, merely what they do. What they do is think about Reform, the possibilities it presents, the implications it has and ways (new and old) to approach it and act it out.

      For some members of the Reform intellectual community, that will manifest itself in an explicit purpose to reform Reform, but for others it may not.

      Being that the Reform intellectual community isn’t an organized group with leaders or platforms or stated goals, it would be impossible to define any purpose or goals for the group, though individuals members of the group may share goals, which may include “reforming Reform.”

      • jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 4:13 pm #

        If what the Reform intellectual community does is “think about Reform, the possibilities it presents, the implications it has and ways (new and old) to approach it and act it out,” then can you answer these questions:

        What differentiates someone in the RIC from someone who’s not in the RIC?

        And what makes the person who’s not in the RIC still a Reform Jew?

        • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

          As I’ve said elsewhere in the increasingly Bizantine comment thread, the RIC is hard to pin down as is who is in and who is out. And that’s okay. My point in this post was mostly to point out that such a thing exists and that I think it’s a separate thing from the other three things defined in the post.

          And someone who’s not in the RIC can be a Reform Jew by acting out things thought up by those in the RIC (or those who used by in the RIC). You can live a Reform Jewish life without devoting bazillions of brain hours to thinking about the implications of living a Reform Jewish life.

  8. Randi December 22, 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    If one is not a Reform Jew, but is nonetheless a member of a Reform institution and engaging with the RIC, can that individual get temporary inclusion in the RIC?

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

      But my guy reaction is no because I’m not sure what it would mean for you to engage with what it means for you to live as a Reform Jew if you admit to not being a Reform Jew.

      I have a Christian professor who teaches about Islam. He obviously thinks intellectually about what Islam means, but does that make him a member of any Muslim community? Not quite.

  9. jepaikin December 22, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    Taking part in this conversation right now are some of the wisest thinkers in Reform Judaism. Or, in the spirit of humbility, at least some of the people who think about Reform Judaism the most (wisely or otherwise).

    Add to this short discussion the years and years of others’ struggling attempts to do the same thing we’re trying to do.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the fact we can’t come to a conclusive definition of Reform Judaism is proof positive that it is inherently undefinable.

    And that’s not a bad thing. Every try to “define” a good book, a beautiful painting, or a moving piece of music? Good luck trying. As I noted earlier, I think the best we can hope for is an ongoing attempt to describe it in its various (ultimately unlimited) forms. You CAN describe the book, the painting, and the music.

    In that sense, the idea of Reform Judaism is an art, while the idea of Orthodox Judaism is a science. There will always be a diversity of opinions and perspectives on both, though Orthodox Judaism enjoys the ability to point to itself and say “this is what we are.” Reform Judaism can’t really do that. But we can point to RJ and say “to me, this is what we look like. This is how we feel, etc…”

    While I might envy the ease with which it’s possible to talk about the idea of Orthodox Judaism, I would very much hate to lose the benefits found in the art of Reform Judaism.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

      I just don’t accept that argument that because something that has yet to be defined is undefinable. I certainly don’t believe that trying to define and undefinable things is bad either.

  10. Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 8:35 pm #

    OK, time to chime in on the Who is a Jew issue, Reform subset. David’s bold-face definition:
    Reform Jews are Jews who subscribe in whole or in part to what we have defined as Reform Judaism.

    He then goes on to differentiate among those who are members of the Reform movement, those who are ideologically Reform but not formally affiliated with any Reform institution, and those who are affiliated but not Reform. (There are certain ambiguities in this taxonomy, ensuing from accepting the movement as the sum of its institutions. I think the movement is defined not only by its institutions but also by its serious adherents.)

    When I first grappled with this question some 25 years ago, the grappling group had a concern with “protecting the brand” — tossing out, as it were, those who self-identified as Reform, or often, very Reform, meaning non-affiliated, non-practicing. And at that time, the best umbrella term our task force could come up with was “affiliated with a Reform institution.”

    Now however we find non-affiliated but practicing Jews self-identifying as Reform — which in the case of the two who have been cited, DAMW and BZ, seems to mean ideologically committed to intensive Judaism on their own terms. Given that their own terms do not separate them from community, even though their communities may be non-aligned, I have no trouble accepting them as Reform Jews, AND as members of the Reform movement even if not its institutions. And I do not disqualify them because their practice is more intensive than mine.

    As for those David references as members of the Reform movement but not Reform Jews — I surmise these are employees or students at Reform institutions whose ideological roots and personal identification are elsewhere. I have no problem with their opting out, as long as they are not biting the hand that feeds them in the process. But see below for another take on members of Reform congregations who may not be Reform Jews.

    Going back to David’s original formulation — with the troublesome (to me) phrase, who subscribe in whole or part. Subscribing suggests some act of volition, which can lead to overestimating our subscribers.

    In any Reform (or Conservative, or Reconstructionist) congregation, you will find members who “needed” a school for their kids, or a place to be on the HHD, or the assurance that someone would officiate at their funeral — and chose what they chose because it was convenient. Does membership in a Conservative synagogue make someone a Conservative Jew? (I have elsewhere defined a Conservative Jew as someone who believes the rabbi must keep kosher and be shomer shabbos.) And if membership is not the criterion, what is? And are the criteria different in Reform?

    What it comes down to is that it’s even harder to create a definition for Reform Jew than it is for Reform Judaism, because we have to accommodate the default or accidental Reform Jews as well as the actual subscribers.

    But this whole discussion started when David posed a question about the meaning of the Reform intellectual community — and I think we’ve nailed the what even if we disagree about the who.

    • David A.M. Wilensky December 22, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

      “As for those David references as members of the Reform movement but not Reform Jews — I surmise these are employees or students at Reform institutions whose ideological roots and personal identification are elsewhere.”

      Them too, but I was mostly thinking of people who join a Reform synagogue because it they just like the particular synagogue better than the other joints in town, but might move to another city and join a Conservative synagogue because they like it better than the local Reform outfit.

      • Larry Kaufman December 22, 2009 at 10:43 pm #

        Those “floaters” are the people I described as default or accidental Reform Jews. When they float from one movement to the next, their lifestyle doesn’t change, only their worship style. USCJ expects them to be kosher/shomer shabbos; URJ doesn’t — but they will be what they will be regardless of those expectations.

        One thing is for sure, though — since they don’t intellectualize any of it, they are not members of the RIC.

        • Randi December 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm #

          I fall into this category (as if you didn’t know) of one who is affiliated with a Reform institution but I remain very resistant to labelling myself a Reform Jew.
          If I had to geographically relocate, I fully confess to having no brand loyalty to the “Reform movement.”

          As such, it’s OK with me not to be considered part of the RIC, even though I find it fascinating and especially informative since somehow I have ended up in a position of leadership within a Reform congregation.

          However, I do intellectualize *all* of it. Which is probably why I can’t bring myself to fully embrace a Reform identity.

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