Articulating a problem of language

I want to be Reform Rabbi. I also want to be an expert liturgy. I also want to be a reforming Reform Jew.

Steps previously identified:

1. Finish college

2. Master’s in liturgy

3. Rabbinical school.

Problem: I believe that a Rabbi ought to be able to pick up a sidur, a tanach, a page of talmud and be able to make sense of them. I also believe Rabbis should speak Hebrew ably.

I’ve been thinking lately that the real problem in our movement is an inability to take ourselves seriously. We complain that more traditional streams of Judaism don’t take us seriously, but we don’t even take ourselves seriously. We don’t take liturgy seriously, we don’t take education seriously, and we certainly don’t take Reform ideology seriously.
What I mean when I say that I want to be a reforming Reform Jew is that I want to reverse this. I want to make myself an example of what a Reform Jew who takes being a Reform Jew seriously looks like. I feel that to do any less than learn to speak Modern Hebrew, and learn to translate sidurim, tanachim, and talmud would be to do less than take myself, as a future Rabbi seriously.

Problem: I’m gonna guess that to do a graduate program in liturgy will require me to do three of those things (talmud, sidur, tanach). And I just don’t when I’m gonna learn to do those things. I’m concerned that I there’s no way for me, here at Drew, to learn to do these things.

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12 responses to “Articulating a problem of language

  1. hmm…not to put a damper on it, but i wonder if it makes more sense to skip the masters in liturgy and go right to rabbinical school. you can get the hebrew and liturgy that way and then write your thesis on liturgy…or if you want, after ordination pursue a phd in liturgy. just a thought.

    in terms of taking ourselves seriously…i do think that many of us *do* take ourselves and our religiosity seriously. i agree with you that there are many laypeople who don’t. but that’s why we keep doing what we do, eh?

  2. HEBREW COLLEGE! [Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum]
    HEBREW COLLEGE! [Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum]

    Duh man, why bushwack the whole thing on your own? Learn beautiful torah with other hardcore smart Jews share your struggle. Screw the denominational system for learning, it won’t serve you when it comes to your education. Then come back and serve the Reform community if you want. Seriously man, you have like 2 more years of college, 2 years of a masters and then five years of rabb school (assuming you don’t take any time off). You don’t want that.

    Love from J’lem.

  3. Point well taken, Phyllis. I don’t mean to say that NONE of us take ourselves seriously. I just mean that we haven’t yet reached the critical mass where the percentage of those that take it seriously outweight those that don’t. Until then, those of us that do, have to be extra careful to do what we’re doing well.

    Getzel, I know, I know. I’ve thought about it. But I don’t just want to serve the Reform system. I want to help change it. And that’s something you do from the inside. And you get really inside by going to HUC. That’s where you build the network.

  4. David, could you possibly provide examples of how Reform Judaism doesn’t take itself seriously? I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.

    While I (and you, I’m sure) often disagree with plenty of Reform liturgy, I think it’s hard to argue that the movement doesn’t take liturgy seriously. I mean… the CCAR just spent a decade creating a new siddur that involved a great deal of insight and dedication. Whether or not you like the final product, I think it’s a stretch to say that liturgy isn’t taken seriously.

    And here’s the icing on the cake… if anything, I think the Movement takes Reform ideology TOO seriously. If the baseline Reform Ideology (capitals on purpose) is “choice through knowledge” (I know… blah blah blah), then we’ve arrived to the point where people are choosing not to choose. And that choice has made them leave the bounds of the Reform Movement proper, but it is the very same movement that gave them that choice to begin with. See what I’m getting at?

    When a movement’s only “true” ideology is autonomy, the people who are most dedicated to that ideology are the ones who are on the farthest fringes of the movement (in both directions… observance and non-observance).

    I recall a similar argument made about post-modernism that went something like this:

    We’re not modern anymore, we’re post-modern. But the very fact that we can acknowledge that means that we’ve past post-modernism. In fact, we’re so far past post-modernism that we’ve come back full circle to modernism again.

    The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the Movement in its organizational sense is TOO focused on Reform ideology. Perhaps it should focus more more on Jewish learning and living as a whole, in a non-movemental sense (certainly still with a modern, pluralistic, egalitarian focus), and leave the autonomy to the autonomous…

  5. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the Movement in its organizational sense is TOO focused on Reform ideology. Perhaps it should focus more more on Jewish learning and living as a whole, in a non-movemental sense (certainly still with a modern, pluralistic, egalitarian focus), and leave the autonomy to the autonomous…”

    Perhaps that’s exactly what I was trying to get at. The choice not to choose is not a choice at all, Jesse. It’s an abdication of the responsibility to choose. If one seriously engages in the Reform choice-making process and one arrives at a point at which one has chosen not to choose to do anything Jewish at all, I’m not sure what one is still doing as a part of any religious Jewish movement.

    Further, I’m also talking about the pitiful state of the way we educate our children and about the extreme willingness of many, if not most, or our synagogues to bend over backwards to accomodate the most ridiculous Bar and Bat Mitzvah requests, from people who we won’t see until they have grandchildren who are in need of B’nei Mitzvah.

    As for liturgy, I think they did take the creation of Mishkan Tfilah seriously, but not the content of it. It is full inconsistencies and ridiculous, silly, meangingless poetry.

  6. David – I’m still not sure how the movement doesn’t takes liturgy seriously. If by inconsistencies you mean the use of “Malkeinu” vs “Shomreinu” and other such word changes, then how do you account for the already plethora of names for G!d that we include in our siddur? And your assertion that it contains “ridiculous, silly, meaningless poetry” is a highly subjective statement. Perhaps for you, yes… but for others, that poetry is a form of prayer.

    While we’re on the topic of subjectivity, let’s talk about Existentialism! You state “the choice not to choose is not a choice at all,”….. ahh but of course, it is! The last time I checked, Judaism was a strong proponent of Free Will. We’re not a fatalist religion. And in Existentialism (and Judaism), when you choose not to choose, it’s still a choice (a paradox, indeed). The thing is, you still have to (personally) take responsibility for the choice you have made.

    Of course, to many of us, the people who practice no Jewish lifestyle but still call themselves Reform aren’t really Reform. But maybe we should ask ourselves why they call would still themselves Reform. If it’s just out of convenience so they can prop themselves up on something, then it’s not fair, and they aren’t Reform. But if they are searching for something we’re not providing…..

    It’s all about the autonomy! If we give people the right to choose what they want or don’t want to do, we can’t get mad at them when they don’t choose the way we want them to. So maybe a little less focus on autonomy?

    A last note on your comments on education… what is this pitiful state that we exist in? Of course, the picture looks very different across the board, but the last time I checked things weren’t that bad. Let’s make sure that we make a clear distinction between pedagogy and curriculum. The Movement has a very good pedagogy – from ECE to NFTY, and now with a greater focus on KESHER (still not the best, but at least better than it was 5 years ago), the Movement is clearly focused on education, and has put a lot of time and money into it. Whether or not you agree with the CURRICULUM is an entirely separate argument.

    And I do agree wholeheartedly with your remarks regarding Bnei Mitzvah. But that’s already changing, too, eh?

    I guess what I’m looking for is some hard examples of how Reform Judaism doesn’t take itself seriously – do you have any instances where the Movement clearly did something without putting any thought into it? It seems to me that your issue is more with content than it is with form, no?

  7. “If by inconsistencies you mean the use of “Malkeinu” vs “Shomreinu” and other such word changes, then how do you account for the already plethora of names for G!d that we include in our siddur?”

    That’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to structural silliness such as an unwilingness to say musaf or to include all the kadishes and the totally meaningless prayer for not-the-messiah in the Amidah and the ideologically-incompatable re-inclusion of Meitim and the ever-present, meaningless M’chayeih Hakol.

    “You state “the choice not to choose is not a choice at all,”….. ahh but of course, it is! The last time I checked, Judaism was a strong proponent of Free Will.”

    Yeah so okay fine, but the choice to do nothing at all I think comes from a place of lasiness and of insufficient eduaction. I won’t blame other peoples’ poor eduaction in them, but it is a problem I have previously mentioned that our movement is not seriously addressing.

    “But maybe we should ask ourselves why they call would still themselves Reform. If it’s just out of convenience so they can prop themselves up on something, then it’s not fair, and they aren’t Reform. But if they are searching for something we’re not providing…..”

    My point exactly. We don’t take ourselves seriously enough to give them something serious enough to grab onto!

    “It’s all about the autonomy! If we give people the right to choose what they want or don’t want to do, we can’t get mad at them when they don’t choose the way we want them to. So maybe a little less focus on autonomy?”

    Never. There is a process. One gets educated. One tries things out. One makes decisions. We do not empower people to/people do not empower themselves to take part in this process.

    “A last note on your comments on education… what is this pitiful state that we exist in? Of course, the picture looks very different across the board, but the last time I checked things weren’t that bad. Let’s make sure that we make a clear distinction between pedagogy and curriculum.”

    I’m not talking about NFTY and Kesher and the Camps, Jesse. Clearly they’re doing OK. I’m talking about the crap that goes on at the average synagogue on Sunday mornings. It’s a viscious cycle. People aren’t committed enough so they won’t commit their kids to a rigorous religious school. Because they’re not committed, we don’t ask much of them. Because we don’t ask much of them, they’re not committed… etc and on and on.

    “And I do agree wholeheartedly with your remarks regarding Bnei Mitzvah. But that’s already changing, too, eh?”

    Yeah. Slowly and only in a few places.

    “It seems to me that your issue is more with content than it is with form, no?”

    Both. Not only does Sunday school education look more like some afterschool extracurricular thing like fucking chess club, but it’s actual content is pretty minimal too.

  8. Emily Katcher

    Re: Sunday School, word.

    As an ed director who has done away with Sunday School, I couldn’t agree more. By creating a multi-generational Shabbat experience (actually on Shabbat morning,) we reinvigorate Shabbat, we bring to life our vision of what the Reform Shabbat can be, and we become an actual community into which our youth must be trained to enter.

    My goal as a Director of a supplemental school is to produce literate Jews, Jews with some basic ability to access Torah and Siddur as primary sources. We don’t use workbooks or textbooks, we get the actual texts into their hands as soon as we can.

    Having said that, I have to point out that the primary job of the supplemental school is not necessarily this literacy, desirable as that is. It is Yiddishkeit, and the creation of Jewish community for our kids. I, and all the teachers who work with me, must always remember that we are the face of Judaism for these kids, that the classroom is the Temple for them, and when we don’t honor that, and make it as full of meaning and joy and relevancy as possible, we fail.

    RE:Chess club, I just read that “when religion no longer distinguishes between good and evil, it ceases to be religion and becomes a bowling club.” I will attribute when I can recall the author……..

    I got busted big last Shabbat for saying that something was bad in my drash.:)

    Also, go to Rabbinical school and get in there, soldier! You can continue to work toward a further liturgy degree while you are changing the face of Liberal Jewish religion.

  9. Well hello there. I was going to suggest that you subscribe to iWorship, but then I saw your name and recognized you from there.

    I think a sea change in the movement is in the offing. New rabbis out of HUC are more serious about praxis than their predecessors – check out this Rosh HaShanah sermon from our Assistant Rabbi who graduated in 2006. It left me feeling hopeful for the movement.

    Last year our adult ed department took a gamble on a Shabbaton – the institution people predicted poor attendance – but our totals tripled their expectations. So the congregants are growing more serious too.

  10. Rich–Just added your blog to my reading list.

    Rich, Jesse, Phyllis, Emily–I’m not suggesting that the entire movement is terrible and hopeless. Of course things are looking up. The whole gist of this is just that I’m anxious to become a part of that–to start help making things get better.

  11. Rich – this is a good way to get yourself publicity. I’ve also added you to my Blogroll.

    David – I’ll set the various minutiae of the argument down for now. I suppose – if I haven’t been clear enough – that my standpoint is as follows: as much you and I want to take issue with a lot of the “substance” of Reform Judaism (and I do think that you and I are in agreement on most matters), the very fact that you say that “of course things are looking up,” is indicative of how Reform Judaism takes itself seriously. We are Reform-ing. We’re not stagnant. I’d say that’s taking things pretty seriously.

  12. Jesse- For either you or me to claim that “we” (read “reform jews”) are doing anything in particular is too much a generalization to be a useful statement.

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