Could we all please delete the term Neo-Orthodox from our vocabularies?

The other day, RJ.org become home to a post by Rabbi Howard A. Berman about the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Okay, fine. Then I posted this post, in which I parsed out some of his argumentation. I also argued that the differences between Classical Reform and mainline contemporary Reform are largely cosmetic and totally surmountable.

Then a comment appeared on RJ.org by a frequent commenter there called M.B. The comment covered mainly issues of language (why English is better than Hebrew) in services. This comment upset me, so I will parse the comment out.

Is the Progressive or Classical style service the rabbi advocates to be dismissed as just an aesthetic? For instance: What’s the big deal about English language services for Americans?

Let’s be clear about an issue of diction in M.B.’s opening question. The style Rabbi Berman advocates is not “Progressive or Classical.” It is just Classical.

1. All Americans understand English and therefor [sic] understand the service. Not just little bits of it or have a general idea of what it may be about. They really and truly understand what they are praying and what is being said to them. For Progressive Reform Jews, understanding is a core value.

“For Progressive Jews, understanding is a core value.” As though for some varieties of Jew, understanding is of minimal importance. I can’t stand this type of arrogance amongst liberal Jews, this belief that only Reform Judaism is about questions and study and in Orthodoxy, people just read the Torah literally and don’t study or ask questions. It’s an absurdity! And I’ll come to the issue of understandability in services shortly.

2. When the service is in English, it is shorter. Repetition is avoided. People can stay interested more when the service is more concise, more direct, more concentrated, more powerful.

So, it would be impossible to avoid repetition in Hebrew? This makes no sense. This speaks to service structure and content, not language. This is a wholly other issue M.B. attempts to address here.

3. Because the services is in English, we can reallocate the Sunday school time and other valuable religious educational resources from language study to study of the Bible, ethics, theology, history, and other substantive topics. The students become better educated Jews and are studying things that can have a positive impact on their lives instead of spending most time on pretending to understand Hebrew. Less bored students are less likely to drop out of school and of Judaism.

The point of both Hebrew education and study in Jewish culture and texts is to create a new generation of people invested in being Jewish. Hebrew and Judaics complement each other. I don’t understand Hebrew fluently, but I now more than some and I find it very helpful in understanding texts. I find studying Torah much more fruitful with Hebrew and English in front of me than just English.

M.B. also makes the first of multiple references to “pretending to understand Hebrew” at this point. This not-so-subtle potshot at learning Hebrew is not appreciated here. There is no pretentiousness to learning a little bit of Hebrew to help us better understand our tradition and our holy texts. Claiming that Hebrew automatically leads students to boredom points more to the quality of our teachers than to any inherent qualities of the subject.

4. Because the service is in English, Jews by Choice (most of whom join as adults after getting married to a Jew) are able to fully participate in the service from day one. They are not left feeling like second class Jews because the service is not in their language. They also can devote time in adult education to learning about the Bible, Jewish history and practices, etc. instead of gaining minimal knowledge of Hebrew just to muddle their way through the services like most of us.

M.B. picked the wrong person to attempt to make this argument to. My mother became a member of the tribe when she was in her mid thirties. Despite this, she find it well within her capabilities to teach Hebrew school to non-bored children, adults learning Hebrew for their own conversions, participating fully in services and Torah study, not to mention understanding biblical grammar far better than I can claim to.

We should not, and to take oursevles seriously, cannot, set standards with potential converts in mind. We must set standards for all of us and expect potential converts to understand that part of conversion is about meeting those standards.

5. Because the services are in English, the focus is on what is said which may be inspiring, educational or spiritually uplifting.

The same can be said of services with Hebrew, led from a sidur with an adequate translation. I, and many others, also feel that Hebrew adds to the spirituality of the service.

6. If we know what we are saying, our prayers can be more sincere. How sincere can we be if we don’t understand what we are saying? For Classical Reform Jews, saying what you mean and meaning what you say is important.

Again, M.B.’s comments betray quite an ego for Classical Reform. This is as if to say that everyone else is avidly interested in rote recitation of esoteric silliness. I care greatly about saying what I mean. That passion, in fact, has led me to my obsession with litrugy. Again, if a sidur has a competent translation, this issue is avoided easily. That is, of course, in opposition to sidurim such as the Union Prayer Book and Gates Prayer, which offered us wildly interperative translations.

I’ll break M.B.’s seventh point into a two smaller chunks.

7. If the services are in plain English, they are more appealing to more Jews. Before Reform introduced a modern American service, many Jews were dropping out of Judaism, becoming agnostic, atheistic or simply religiously nothing.

Bad news: “Many Jews were dropping out of Judaism, becoming agnostic, atheistic or simply religiously nothing” anyway. We didn’t singlehandedly solve the problem of affiliation my popping into our leftwing existence. In any case, I think that our movment plays host to a great number of agnostics and atheists anyway. Good news: Judaism isn’t only a religion, so becoming religiously nothing isn’t the end of the world. I want to build active, involved Jews. I don’t care if they do that by moving to Israel, going to services, or reading Heeb magazine. Any way you slice, they’re still Jews.

That is a problem in countries where there is no Progressive Reform alternative today. A lot of nominal Jews (or perhaps we should say people of Jewish ancestry) are repelled by the foreign language services, the foreign style music, the orthodox style religious garb. Unlike the old days, they are free to chose their religion and the danger is that many will be forever lost to Judaism if they don’t have a service that they can fully understand and relate to.

All true. Also all true: Some people are also totally turned off by vernacular language services, organ music, and a congregation wearing no kipot. I don’t think we lose people only by having “bad” services. If people like the community and its values, they will enjoy davening with their community.

8. Many Progressive Jews don’t think that pretending to speak Hebrew is likely to impress God. Classical Reform thinks that God has more important criteria for what is a good Jew, or just a good person. Taking care of your family and friends, serving your community and your country, fighting for freedom and justice in the world are are where we should devote our efforts if we want to do God’s work.

Here we go with M.B.’s insinuations of pretentiousness. I don’t claim that good Jews only daven in Hebrew. That’s an absurd claim to make. I don’t even claim that Hebrew is more important than taking care of family and friends or even more important that any of the other things that M.B. insinuates that I think Hebrew is better than! I just don’t think that Hebrew is getting as much in the way of doing God’s work as M.B. thinks it is!

9. When the services are in our own language, we can reach out to our Protestant and Catholic neighbors and friends and welcome them to join in our worship of the one true God.

I’m not entirely sure what this final point is about of what it’s even doing in M.B.’s comment. Is M.B. interested here in merging with Christiantiy, interfaith services, or if M.B. simply finds it embarassing making funny sounds in front of her friends. Either way, I think that considering what members of other religions think of the way our worship sounds is ridiculous. It’s ours and we should be concerned with what we think of it.

Most of what M.B. says is just plain wrong, but what really pissed me off and caused to set my laptop down and pace around angrily for a moment was this final remark:

These are a few of the reasons why the Classical vs. Neo-Orthodox differences matter.

God, I wish tone of voice could come across on a blog. I AM SO DAMNED TIRED OF BEING CALLED NEO-ORTHODOX, ORTHODOX-LEANING, OR UN-REFORM! All of these epithetss have been slung at me online more than once and I am a sick and tired of. Being in the ritual right wing of the Reform movement does not make me ORTHODOX any more than being a Democrat makes me un-American! I am as Reform as they come.

You can tell I’m upset because I typed in all caps, which I really hate doing.

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14 responses to “Could we all please delete the term Neo-Orthodox from our vocabularies?

  1. David,

    I truly hope that an epitaph is not slapped on you for 120 years. “Epithet” is the word you seek. Yes, I’m a pedant, and what you are saying here is too important to be undermined by a malapropism.

    That said, yes, ugh, and this whole notion of “Neo-Orthodoxy” is afflicting our movement like a pox. Just because I find spiritual meaning in laying tefillin, does not mean I want language about resurrecting the dead or ingathering of exiles in my liturgy. And the fact that I prefer to daven in Hebrew, a language I have taken the time to learn, does not mean I’ve traded in the DH for TMS.

    Have you looked, BTW, at Chaim Stern’s “Paths of Faith?” It has become our house Siddur, the one my wife and I daven from, that I hand to guests, and that I insisted my Rabbi bring to my hospital room when he visited me after my appendectomy.

  2. Shit, Rich. I knew what mean to type. Epithet. Thanks. I hate typos.

    I actually own Paths of Faith. I haven’t really looked at in-depth, but I found that it was remarkably similar to Gates of Prayer. Can you point out what you like about it to me?

  3. William Berkson, writing in a comment at RJ.org had this to say:

    “Neo-Orthodoxy”, as you can read in the Wikipedia article, or the Encyclopedia Judaica, has an accepted historical meaning, namely the Orthodoxy influenced by 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Born in the same era as Reform, it is closely related to “Modern Orthodoxy”. It believes in Orthodox observance, and also integration with modern life. Modern Orthodoxy is most prominently represented by Yeshiva University, with it’s motto “Torah U’maddah”, or “Torah and Science”.

    It is a proud and vital movement, but very different from some traditionalist trends in Reform today. For a start none of these views in Reform accept halacha as the authoritative basis for Judaism.

  4. On the one hand, I applaud your point by point response to MB’s idiocies.

    On the other hand, I decided several posts ago to ignore them. He is so totally warped in his points of view and his assertions about pre-Reform Judaism and about what Jews (of any age) want today that it only dignifies him to take him seriously.

    Of course, I also have a viewpoint about anonymous posts — and although my posts on your blog are signed with a nom de web, hamaveen yaveen, or more to the point, enough people in the Reform web community identify me as Hinneni that it’s not really hiding who I am.

  5. I also argued that the differences between Classical Reform and mainline contemporary Reform are largely cosmetic and totally surmountable.

    About this I’m not so sure the SCRJ website says this about their principles–
    “We believe that Judaism is a religious faith with a universal message for all people.”

    Is the present normative Reform understanding of Judaism that we are a universal religion, or that we are that more of a People with a covenant? This is, in my view, the significant departure between the Classical Reformists and the mainstream: that Judaism is just a religion.

    I share your extreme frustration with MB. I missed his dismissive comments about keeping the service dumbed down for converts, otherwise I doubt I could have shown any restraint. I may still need to call him out on that. And I understand Hinneni’s point about not engaging MB, but I think that on the RJ blog it is important to show that MB’s view is not prevalent.

    To Hinneni–I post under a pseudonym at RJ. I gave this some thought: the reasons are fairly complicated. Happy to explain in an email if you’d like…

  6. Hinneni, I came to a similar conclusion shortly after I posted this. Earlier today, I read through the comments on Strengthening Reform 9, the one with like 2o comments. After reading this absolute horseshit about the Talmud from M.B. there, I’m not really gonna interface with this individual anymore.

    Randi, all true enough.

  7. Randi, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with “Is the present normative Reform understanding of Judaism that we are a universal religion, or that we are that more of a People with a covenant? This is, in my view, the significant departure between the Classical Reformists and the mainstream: that Judaism is just a religion.”

    I don’t know what a “universal religion” is, other than an expression of the nineteenth-century view that all the world’s religions would synthesize into one, and that one would look very much like Classical Reform.

    Another distinction might be that Classical Reform was much more concerned with the state of the world (universalism) than with the state of the Jews (particularism). To some extent, it seems possible that the universalism is the part of the divorce settlement that went to the American Council for Judaism when the SCRJ gang split.

    I watched, and indeed lived, the transition of the once-Classical Temple Sholom into the mainstream of the movement, marked in great measure by less universalism, more particularism. (There came a rabbi who asked of every new initiative, Where’s the Torah?) That pendulum appears to be swinging again, to a healthier balance. (If I am only for myself, who am I?)

    It will be interesting to see if Rabbi Berman responds to the questions that have been posed to him on rj.org.

  8. Larry, it will be interesting indeed to see if Rabbi Berman responds.

  9. Also all true: Some people are also totally turned off by vernacular language services, organ music, and a congregation wearing no kipot.

    And for this reason I think everyone is better off if there are lots of different options and people can pursue the one that is best for them. But I guess that makes me “Neo-Orthodox”.

  10. and although my posts on your blog are signed with a nom de web, hamaveen yaveen, or more to the point, enough people in the Reform web community identify me as Hinneni that it’s not really hiding who I am.

    Yeah, me too. More people in the blogosphere know me as BZ than by my real name, so using my real name would actually be more anonymous.

  11. I’m not particularly bothered by anonymity. I’m not a huge fan of it and I prefer to use my own name, but I give a big, fat whatever for other people keeping themselves anonymous.

  12. My initial study of Hebrew was motivated by feeling lost during services, so I do feel some empathy for converts struggling with Hebrew. That’s why I wouldn’t want our movement to use a siddur with no transliterations, even if I’ll be glad to have an edition without them.

    After entering into Hebrew study with the simple goal of just being able to figure out where we were on the page, I was surprised to be able to detect that a GoP translation had nothing to do with the related Hebrew. That small moment of mastery propelled me towards years of studying, teaching, and setting a fine example for my splendid son.

    But it’s not just about being able to participate in services. Since Hebrew is from a completely different family, understanding how the verbs work and other grammatical geekinesses help me understand Judaism in a way that simply reading translations just never could.

    It’s thrilling that you are taking advantage of the time and resources to really dive into this!

  13. Sometimes I wish these blogs could do LJ style nested comments.

    Paths offers a generally more honest translation than a lot of reform siddurim (less important now than it once was, but because I often entertain people whose Hebrew is weak, I prefer that they have accurate renderings). The prayers follow reform custom, which means most of the content that I find theologically objectionable in the Conservative and Orthodox siddurim is absent.

    Things I don’t like are the use of “metim” instead of “hakol” in gevurot – I treat it as q’rei/ketiv and read “hakol” for “metim,” following the custom of gates of prayer. I also don’t like the fact that “she’asani yisrael” is missing from the morning blessings – I think it reflects an outdated squeamishness about particularism.

    It’s fairly easy to daven out of, and not to heavy to hold. Has accomodation for those who lay tefillin and don tallit.

  14. Thanks for pointing all that out, Rich. On my first perusal of it, I didn’t think much of it, but I’ll give a second look.

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