Station Identification

This is the Reform Shuckle, the blog of David A.M. Wilensky, a self-described Reform Jew tired of what it means to be a Reform Jew. I’ve been operating under that title and that premise, with a hyper-focus on liturgy for over a year and a half now. Lately, I’ve been reconsidering it.

In other news, I’m still blogging occasionally at Jewschool. Most notably and recently, check out Jewschool’s first ever hosting of Haveil Havalim, the Jewish and Israeli Blog Carnival, assembled by yours truly.

Tisha B’Av sameach.


24 responses to “Station Identification

  1. Hmm. I’d love to hear what you mean by “tired of what it means to be a Reform Jew,” and why you’ve been reconsidering…

  2. I dunno. I’ve been using a line like that for this blog for a while now, but I guess I never bothered to define it.

    It means that I don’t like the assumptions from any corner. I don’t like what Reform Jews assume about each other and about what Reform means, nor do I like what other Jews assume about what Reform means.

    And I don’t like the opportunities that the Reform community gives its members to be Reform.

  3. Larry Kaufman

    I don’t like what other Jews assume Reform means either — but while I can do my best to enlighten them when the opportunity presents itself, and I can do my best to make sure the Reform establishment projects a brand image in tune with my Reform sensibilities, I have no control over what Chaim Yankel thinks.

    I also don’t like the assumptions some Jews who call themselves Reform make about the other streams, especially when certain idiots pontificate about the error that is (in their warped minds) Orthodox Judaism.

    The brutal fact is that identifying with the two major “halachic” streams involves either taking on behaviors that I doubt you’re ready to take on, or exerting your personal autonomy to deviate from the published position of your stream. And if you do that, you have plunged yourself into a Reform definition of Reform.

    So what are the other available labels? “Just Jewish” is a favorite that shows up in surveys, but it doesn’t mean what you are, nor what you are becoming. It usually means self-identified as Jewish but barely practicing. “Post-denominational” typically means more ritually observant than most Reform Jews but but not ready for the strictures that are called for by Conservative Judaism. A coinage I’ve never seen but I suspect exists if only in some sort of utero is chavuristic, which will probably communicate to other members of the chavurah community although not to most others. And last but not least, a formulation that I think says it very nicely, Reform Litvak. (Gee, where did that one come from?)

    As I tried to say in my recent rj blog post, The Young Shall Dream Dreams, there are two reasonable options for committed young Jews (since I don’t believe Judaism can very effectively be practiced outside a community) — you build your own institutional framework, or you re-fashion the framework you inherit. And to do either, you struggle. Don’t get hung up on the label. And don’t let other people’s misconceptions deny you a label that fits.

  4. I think you’re way off with what Just Jewish and Post- Non- Multi-Denominational mean, Larry.

    If someone says their Jewish, I think that means what you think Just Jewish means. Implicit in Just Jewish is an acknowledgement that there are more complicated labels with more baggage and you’re willingly dissasociating from those labels. I know a student at a Conservative seminary who calls himself Just Jewish.

    And when it comes to [prefix]-denominational, I think a lot of those folks know just what they’re doing and have their own strictures, but don’t like the aesthetic or the dogma that comes with actually affiliating Conservative or Reform. In fact, I think a great deal of those folks are actually model Reform or Conservative Jews, ideologically speaking, but they don’t like the establishments that go with those movements.

  5. 1. You are highlighting the difference between institutional and ideological identification. Your friend at the Conservative seminary may be resisting the ideological identification but he is resisting the institutional, and is decreeing himself his own mara d’atra. And his use of “Just Jewish” may satisfy him, and you, but if the purpose of language is communication to others, it’s not working, and he doesn’t mean by it what most users of it mean.

    2. I’m a lot surer of myself on what Just Jewish means than on what post-denominational means. From what I can see of the congregation here in the Chicago area that calls itself post-denominational, it means we like to daven pretty much like Carlebachean Orthodox, albeit with mixed seating, but we like to live pretty much like our more observant Reform friends, and we don’t want to pay dues to a movement.

    3. By my definition of Reform, you’ll fall into the category ideologically until you become shomer mitzvot without allowing yourself the privilege you now assume of self-determining their relevance to you.

    4. You’re capitulating to the Establishment when you allow it to co-opt the terminology.

    5. Remember my favorite maxim on religious pluralism — We all worship God in our own ways — you in your way and I in His. Shabbat shalom.

  6. 2. It’s funny how engaged Reform members of Reform institutions are fond of mentioning a lack of paying dues to a movement in their descriptions of non-denominational synagogues. Indeed there is a pattern and I have observed it in many people. It is as if to say, “They’re really Reform. They just don’t want to pay their way in the Reform world.”

    4. It doesn’t have to co-opt. It practically invented the terminology! They can have it and I’m willing to struggle with their/our terminological baggage.

    Shabat Shalom.

  7. Have you ever thought that maybe you’re not a Reform Jew?
    I don’t know why I am still so attached to the Reform Movement…but the label ‘Reform Jew’ is working less and less for me.

  8. Kelly, I am a still a Reform Jew. Of that much I am certain, though I don’t know to what extent. It may be merely that Reform has become, as Leon Morris suggests, my Eidah, my Jewish line of origin. For instance, though I don’t know how I feel about it, I always say the Imahot because that’s Nusach Reformi just like a Sefardic doesn’t think about that fact that they daven their Sefardic nusach rather than the Ashkenzi one.

    That make sense?

  9. I think Rabbi Andy Bachman recently came out as “Just Jewish” on his blog:
    I found that post helpful, because I often chafe under the Reform label. There is a certain connotation of ersatz-Judaism with ‘Reform’ that I have a hard time clearing from my mind. Example–“What does it mean to be a Jew?” is a question that means really Jewish, whereas with the adjective ‘Reform’ minimizes it like the adjective ‘Messianic’ would, albeit to a much lesser extent.

    Now, I can make the intellectual argument that the “Reform-is-a-verb” definition is a wholly authentic way to be Jewish. But my gut reaction is what is in the paragraph above.

    So, with Rabbi Bachman’s implicit permission, I’m going to be a just plain Jew who happens to serve on the executive committee of a Reform congregation, struggling to achieve that ‘integrity of process’ that he mentioned.

    • That certainly throws a weird wrench into this. I met Andy in the summer of 2005 at a Reform summer camp. I wrapped tefilin with him on the porch of his fac cabing (didn’t like it, as it turns out) and one day he put the damn idea in my head that I should be a Reform Rabbi, which is an idea I held onto until fairly recently.

      • One of the reasons I linked to that post here was that you had mentioned previously and admiration for R’Bachman.

        Out of curiousity, have you dropped the notion of becoming a Reform rabbi, or the idea of becoming a rabbi in general?

  10. We had easily three times as many people at this year’s Tisha B’Av commemoration at my Reform shul than we had in the last two years. When I commented on this upsurge to the rabbi, he said, “The more Orthodox we get, the more people come.”

    I laughed, but I wonder about how correct he is. For example, when I joined this shul, there were only two men who would stand during the Amidah; now there are easily ten folks who remain standing through the whole prayer. I’m aware that these things ebb and flow, of course, but I’m glad to see the uptick.

    It bothers me that to so many people the term Reform seems to connote a lazy, uneducated, or undedicated branch of Judaism; our mission in Reform Judaism, imo, is not to excuse ourselves from practice but to understand why we practice. Choosing how to practice does not excuse us from the practice of our religion. In fact, it makes it more incumbent upon each of us to practice.

  11. One trouble is that all the words we might choose have “dictionary” meanings that broaden them beyond the ideological/institutional meanings we try to apply and distinguish by using a capital letter — conservative vs. Conservative, progressive vs. Progressive, etc.

    My personal choice is Progressive, because it avoids the negative value judgments implicit in Reform, because it implies the forward direction also implicit in the etymology if not the current application of Halachah, and because it connects us to similarly-conditioned Jews in other parts of the world.

    But having been an observer of one effort and a participant in a second effort to change the institutional label from UAHC to URJ, I became exposed to some of the emotional factors that color the Movement’s branding.

    Meanwhile, take a look at the description of the Reform movement on the URJ web page addressed to congregations that are considering affiliation. As a primary draftsman for that document, I think we came up with language that is broadly encompassing yet accurate.

    Let me also respond to David’s remark about the fixation “engaged” members of institutions — this is not just a Reform phenomenon — have with dues (for which read, financial support). Fact is, im eyn kemach is more than just an aphorism, it is a reality (once you accept that the institution is a necessary underpinning for the delivery of Torah, with an impact that extends benefits to those outside the institutional doors). Without an intrastructure (sic), you wouldn’t have the extrastructure. And intrastructures are built and sustain themselves only if they satisfy needs for their sustainers.

    • That argument is predicated on an understanding that I don’t necessarily agree with. That understanding being that not only do we need small-scale communal organizations like synagogues, but we also need, not want, but need, the giant, lumbering coalitions of synagogues.

      If these independent groups can function, and, as you say, continue to deliver the Torah to the Jews in the pews without forking over that extra kemach, what’s the issue?

      It’s the recurring notion in American Jewish life that affiliation=real Jewishness.

      • Large denominational institutions can do things that small communities can not do: take for instance the granting of smicha to women, or recognizing patrilineal Jews. In isolation, any given chavura/minyan/congregation could not decide to accept and promote a change like that. Then there is the support of rabbinical schools–Larry would be able to confirm, but IIRC it’s like 25% of the MUM dues goes to support of HUC. Likewise with camping programs.

        That being said, I agree that there is nothing less Jewish about taking part in an indie minyan as opposed to formal affiliation. In fact, there is much that is preferable in the post/non/trans-denominational groups: that the regular just-Jewish participants take an active responsibility for the ritual and communal life of their fluidly-bordered tzibbur, rather than passing that responsibility off to professional Jews.

  12. Randi makes an interesting point – there are things that large-scale movements can accomplish that independent congregations can’t – I believe that it’s closer to 50% of MUM Dues that go to HUC, the RAC needs to be included in the list (of course, that isn’t an argument FOR movements, to some), and there is much more.

    What I find really interesting is that this becomes something like a “prisoner’s dilemma.” As a Reform Rabbi, I wholeheartedly, unquestionably assert that non-denominational/non-movement-affiliated life is a valid choice (i.e. I do not assert, in David’s words, that “affiliation=real Jewishness,” even though I know that others might). But, I also believe that Judaism would suffer immensely were that the only option – I feel that the movements really do serve a purpose. So, any one Jew choosing an alternative path might be good for that Jew, but ALL Jews choosing an alternative path might be bad for all of us.

    Assuming I’m right, what motivation is there for an individual to affiliate? The cost (monetary and otherwise) goes to the individual, the benefit goes to the group. It makes you wonder if, in a highly individualistic age, the movements CAN survive and, if not, what the consequences will be.

  13. The movements ONLY survive because they fill a need.

    Synagogues ONLY survive because they fill a need.

    Although we are enjoined Al tiphrad min hakal and Al tifrosh min hatzibur (or do I have them reversed?), I don’t believe most dues-payers pay because they are mitzvah-bound, but because they want something.

    I see affiliation as commanded for anyone who wants to use a synagogue — no, you don’t have to let the oylam in for Yom Kippur Yizkor — but I accept the validity of affirmative secular Judaism. (I was brought up in Labor Zionism, after all.)

    I just don’t believe that indy minyans, unaffiliated congregations, even the alternative seminaries, could exist if the greater community and its mega-institutions were not propping them up.

    And this belief is reinforced as I look at synagogues that have left the URJ or the USCJ, and then come back. And the synagogues that get started on their own, and eventually come knocking on the Union’s door. And the Jews who feel no need for a synagogue until little Sammy’s bar mittzvah starts to approach. Etc, etc., etc.

  14. Movements fill a need for some. For those who don’t, they go elsewhere. I see all you saying that it’s valid for those Jews to go elsewhere, but with the other hand you’re typing out an argument that without the movement’s we’d all go to shit.

    • Well, yeah. I mean, it may sound counter-intuitive when you put it that way, but that seems to be the reality. I can’t think of a persuasive argument as to why an individual Jew, who is capable of making a rich Jewish life for himself/herself, NEEDS to join a movement. But, at the same time, I do think that the Jewish world would be in some trouble without the movements. Would it die? No-we lived without movements for a long time. But, it would be a major, major upheaval.

      So, unless someone can convince me that one part of that equation is wrong, I’m happy to live with that (slight) disjunct!

    • No, I’m not saying that you’d disappear if the movements disappeared. I’m saying that you wouldn’t be where you are had institutional Judaism not propelled you or at least furnished the infrastructure to get you where you are.

      I agree with Rabbi Rosenberg that individuals don’t need movements. But when they choose synagogues, the synagogue’s movement identification may be part of the decision — note I said identification, not affiliation.

      The major movements are not going to disappear, because the synagogues need some of the services they provide (seminaries, camps, placement, educational materials, brand identity, advocacy to name a few). There are reasons for this beyond the maxim that no Jewish organization goes out of business while someone still wants to be president and someone still wants to be executive director.

      But those who want to be active, educated, engaged Jews with mimimal institutional ties, can say no, thanks, to the movements, but what they should be saying is thanks but no thanks.

  15. Not necessarily that “we’d all go to shit,” but that things would be quite different–less mechanism with which to evolve halacha or what constitutes normative Judaism, and a tougher time growing rabbis. Less dependence on rabbis however, may not be such a bad thing.

    Besides, it’s the non-affiliated groups that help the movements know which way to grow. It’s symbiotic.

    Certainly, movements are good for geographical areas such as Albuquerque and cities of smaller populations. Without the movements’ support, we’d all have to move to the big cities or fade away as Jews.

    However, I personally have weak attachment to a particular movement. If I had to relocate to a different city, I would readily affiliate with a USCJ synagogue if it was vibrant or closer to my residence. I’m beginning to think that I would even prefer to pray a traditional liturgy beside a mehitza rather than sit through any meditation service ever again. I’d still have to find a place that would let me leyn though…

  16. B”H

    “Tisha b’Av Same’ah??”

  17. About the most tragic day in the calendar for Am Yisra’el?

    I see.

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