Friday, July 24, 2015

#TBT: “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” at 10

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Ten years ago this week, I posted “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” to Mah Rabu, a new blog that was just a couple months old. It was a golden age of blogging in general, and Jewish blogging in particular. Twitter didn’t exist yet; Thefacebook existed but was just for college students; blogs were where it was at.

This post, framed as a “work in progress”, defined three different “stages” of Jewish pluralism:
  • Stage 1: “Frummest common denominator”
  • Stage 2: “Let’s make everyone comfortable”
  • Stage 3: Identity

The taxonomy came about as a result of my experiences with multiple Jewish communities that were all trying to be pluralistic, but in practice meant very different things by “pluralism”. Defining these stages was a way to articulate these different approaches to Jewish pluralism, and also a way to highlight the ways in which some views are marginalized and silenced by some forms of pluralistic discourse.

This part has often been misunderstood, but the taxonomy classifies pluralistic discourse, not pluralistic outcomes. It’s not about what the community ends up doing, but about how it gets there. So, for example, a Stage-1 pluralistic community might have identical practices to a non-pluralistic community, but the difference is that in one community, those practices are adopted because they are perceived to be a “common denominator” that is acceptable to everyone even though it is recognized that everyone has differing individual practices, while in the other community, those practices are adopted because they are seen as the norm for the community.

“Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” seemed to arrive at a time when it was needed, and it became more influential than I ever expected; to this day I still hear about pluralistic Jewish organizations that are assigning it as required reading. It also became the backbone of the theoretical framework of the Hilchot Pluralism series, which became a place to systematically document and analyze pluralistic practices in the independent Jewish world.

So, 10 years later, do I still agree with it? Yes and no.

I still stand by almost every word in the original post. I think the categories themselves are still useful, and accurate enough as descriptions of different modes of discourse. I think the shortcomings of Stages 1 and 2, and the challenges of Stage 3, are still relevant.

Where my thinking has changed is in labeling the categories as “stages”. That’s the part of the original post that had the weakest support – I had plenty of data (from my own experiences) about how different pluralistic communities operate, but not so much longitudinal data about communities that actually changed their approaches. Two separate influences made me revisit the “stage” structure: 1) I’ve been involved in pluralistic decision-making in communities that were grappling with multiple pluralism issues, and have seen that it’s not always possible to take a uniform approach to all issues, because of the differing nature of those issues. 2) The original taxonomy was modeled after educational theories such as Piaget’s stages. Since then, my understanding of educational theory has become deeper (10 years ago I was a high school physics teacher, and now I have a Ph.D. in physics education research), and critiques of Piaget are also valid critiques of “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism”.

Why aren’t “stages” the right description? Because this description implies that a given community is in a single stage of pluralism (or non-pluralism) at any one moment in time, and takes a single approach to pluralistic discourse around all issues that may come up. But that’s not how any community really works. Every community has issues around which it does not attempt to be pluralistic. And on issues where a community does consider itself pluralistic, it’s possible for the same community to take a Stage-1 approach to some questions and a Stage-3 approach to others. Multiple “stages” can coexist at the same time. (It’s also possible that some people in a community will try to argue for a position using discourse from one stage, while others use discourse from another. If this isn’t identified, it can lead to people talking past one another.)

For those who want to see their communities take a Stage-3 approach to pluralism, this more fragmented picture can be seen in a half-empty or a half-full way. The half-empty perspective is that even when you think you’re in a Stage-3 commmunity, the other “stages” never really go way. But the half-full perspective is that if you want to move a community towards Stage 3, you don’t have to do it all at once; this can happen one issue at a time (even if there are some issues where other “stages” are more entrenched).

What are the ways that you find it useful to think about Jewish pluralism in 2015?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Madness 2015: Guide to the Parties

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

There's a week left until the Israeli election, which means there's less than a week to enter March Madness 2015!  To aid in the process of making your picks, here is a guide to the 26 parties running in the election, as we have done in the past.  We include links to their websites if we can find them (English if available, otherwise Hebrew if available, otherwise Arabic if available).  The full candidate lists are available in Hebrew.  Again, we're using the translations of the party names from the official election website (whether or not these are the most accurate translations).

Those who have been following past Israeli elections might notice that, while 26 sounds like a lot, this is actually the fewest parties we have seen in a long time.  There are two likely reasons for this: 1) The new election threshold of 3.25% has forced smaller parties to consolidate.  2) It has only been 2 years since the last election, so there has been less time for new parties to form.

Parties represented in the current Knesset:
  • Habayit Hayehudi: This far-right party, with links to the (overlapping) settlement movement and Religious Zionist movement, first ran in its current configuration in 2013, with Naftali Bennett at the head, and he is running at the top of the list again.  Habayit Hayehudi was a key coalition partner in the current Knesset, and will likely be again if Netanyahu forms the next government.
  • Joint Arab List: An alliance of 3 Arab parties (United Arab List, Ta'al, and Balad), and the left-wing Arab-Jewish party Hadash.  It was forced into existence by the new election threshold, since Hadash and Balad each got less than 3.25% of the vote in the last election, and the combined UAL-Ta'al list got slightly more, so all the parties feared for their survival.  As a result, it is diverse, comprising factions from the Islamic Movement to the Communist Party (no, Fox News, those aren't the same thing).  At the head is the new Hadash leader, former Haifa city councilmember Ayman Odeh.
  • Likud: The Likud is led once again by (and strongly identified with) incumbent PM Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who hopes to become the first person since Ben-Gurion to be elected to a fourth term as prime minister. Whether he will succeed depends not only on how many seats the Likud wins, but on whether the right-of-center (and haredi) parties collectively add up to 61 seats.
  • Meretz – Israel's Left: Meretz is on the left with respect to both Israeli-Palestinian issues and domestic issues, and is led again by Zahava Gal-On.  They're hoping to block Netanyahu from forming the next government.
  • Shas: It's the first election since the death of founder R. Ovadiah Yosef, and the Sephardi haredi party has been beset by internal struggles, between Eli Yishai (who led the party through the 2000s) and Aryeh Deri (who led the party through the 1990s, went to prison, and returned to the Knesset in the last election).  Deri won out, and Yishai left to start his own party (see Yachad, below).  But then posthumous recordings were released in which R. Yosef said bad things about Deri.  Humiliated, Deri resigned from the lame-duck Knesset, but he's still at the top of the Shas list for the election, so he'll be back.
  • United Torah Judaism: In an election campaign filled with mergers, splits, and other excitement, the Ashkenazi haredi party is the island of stability.  They have 7 incumbent MKs, and those men (all men, of course) are filling the first 7 spots on the party list.  Yaakov Litzman is at the top of the list for the 5th time.
  • Yachad: After losing the leadership of Shas (see above), Eli Yishai started a new party.  While its platform shares some issues with Shas, Yachad is more of a right-wing party than a standard haredi party, recruiting candidates such as MK Yoni Chetboun (who left Habayit Hayehudi over their support for the haredi draft bill) and Baruch Marzel (of the far-right Otzma Leyisrael party).  Its platform calls for the annexation of the territories and for a greater role for religion in the state (but also for protecting the environment and reducing economic inequality).
  • Yesh Atid: This party, focusing on social and economic issues, was new in the 2013 election and came out of nowhere to win 19 seats (which actually makes them the largest party in the current lame-duck Knesset, following the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu split and some other shifts).  Party leader Yair Lapid served in the government as Finance Minister, but was fired by PM Netanyahu after public disagreements, leading to the collapse of the coalition and to this election.
  • Yisrael Beiteinu: This right-wing party with a Russian immigrant base, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, ran on a joint list with the Likud in the last election, but the two factions split last summer during the Gaza war (Lieberman was concerned that Netanyahu's response was not hardline enough).  In recent months, a number of senior party members have been implicated in a corruption scandal.
  • Zionist Camp: A center-left alliance between Labor (which leads the opposition in the current Knesset) and Hatenuah (which was part of the coalition until Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was fired from the government).  Under the agreement creating the joint list, if the Zionist Camp forms the next government, Labor leader Yitzchak Herzog will serve as prime minister for 2 years, followed by Hatenuah's Livni (if, of course, the government lasts 4 years).
Parties not represented in the current Knesset:
  • Arab List: Not to be confused with the Joint Arab List (whose name in Hebrew and Arabic is just the Joint List, but voters could still get confused), this party brings together other Arab Israeli factions that didn't enter the Joint List.  It was founded by former MKs Taleb a-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party (formerly one of the factions within the United Arab List) and Muhammad Kanan of the Arab National Party (a breakaway from the UAL).  However, a-Sana has since endorsed the Joint List.
  • Democratura: This party, founded by Doron Hakimi (author of Who is Muhammad? and other books), proposes a new constitution for Israel that would elect each MK from a geographic district.
  • Green Leaf: As usual, their signature issue is marijuana legalization, and their tag line this year is "Proud of my choice".  This time, their platform also emphasizes health care.  They broke 1% of the vote in the last election, but that didn't make the election threshold.
  • Green Party: The Green Party focuses on environmental issues, and has had some success at the local level, but it has never been elected to the Knesset.  This year, they originally submitted their party list under the name "The Greens Don't Give a [possibly untranslatable]", but this name was rejected by the Central Elections Committee.
  • Hope for Change: An Arab party that supports full equality and integration for Arab Israelis.  In the 2013 election, they came in second to last.
  • Kulanu: In almost every election, there seems to be a new party that exceeds expectations by attracting voters who are disaffected with the conventional left-right spectrum.  It was Gil in 2006, Yesh Atid in 2013, and Kulanu hopes to be that party this year.  Kulanu was founded by former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon, who served as Communications Minister and deregulated the cell phone market.  Prominent first-time Knesset candidates include Michael Oren (former ambassador to the US) and Rachel Azaria (deputy mayor of Jerusalem).  The platform focuses on economic issues and transparency.
  • Light: A secular party calling for separation of religion and state, and universal military or national service.
  • Perach: Shefa, Bracha, Chaim Veshalom: The name means "Flower: Abundance, Blessing, Life, and Peace", and it's a haredi party based in Beit Shemesh.  You can join the party as a Copper Club, Silver Club, Golden Club, or global Diamond Club member.  They're not aiming high: they have only 5 candidates on their list.
  • Protecting Our Children – Stopping to Feed Them Pornography:  A better translation, of course, would be "Stop Feeding Them Pornography"; amusingly, this sounds like the opposite!  The name sums up the platform.  UPDATE: The party has dropped out and endorsed Habayit Hayehudi.
  • Rent with Honor: This party calls for more direct democracy, including giving voters the power to recall Knesset members and to propose Knesset bills.
  • Social Leadership: It ran last time under the name "Moreshet Avot", and finished in last place.  Party leader Ilan Meshicha Yar-Zanbar has pledged to donate most of his Knesset salary to the needy, and has suggested that MKs should be paid minimum wage.
  • The (Temporary) National Team: They oppose corruption and economic inequality, and call for returning wealth and power to the people.  I think the "temporary" part of the party name is meant to indicate that they don't intend to be career politicians, but it's not entirely clear to me.
  • The Economics Party: This party was founded by American-born brothers Danny and Benny Goldstein.  This time around, the brothers have had some disputes, leaving Danny in the #1 spot on the list, and Benny all the way down at #5.  The platform focuses on economic reforms.
  • The Pirates: ARRRR!  They're not actual pirates, but they're connected to the Pirate Parties in various European countries.  The party leader, Ohad Shem-Tov, lives in New York and is not planning to return to Israel to vote.  This time they are calling themselves the "petek lavan" (blank ballot), suggesting that they are a protest vote.
  • Ubezchutan – Haredi Women Making a Change: No, that's not a typo for Uzbekistan; "uvizchutan" means "and by their (f.) merits".  This party was founded by haredi women to protest the exclusion of women candidates from the major haredi parties.  Not surprisingly, it has stirred controversy in the haredi world.
  • We Are All Friends: The Na Nach party is back!  Their campaign slogan this time is "Im tirtzu" ("If you will it"), and the platform is about the power of positive thinking.  (Since the name of the party in Hebrew is "Kulanu Haveirim", will some voters mix them up with Kulanu?)
Good luck!  One more week to enter!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Knesset March Madness 2015!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The Israeli election is around the corner, which means that it’s time for… MARCH MADNESS 2015!  From the people who brought you March Madness 2006, February Madness 2009, and January Madness 2013, we announce our fourth Knesset prediction pool!

How to Enter: Go to the Knesset March Madness link and put in your predictions for how many seats each of the 26 parties will win. (We’re using the English names of the parties from the official Knesset website, even though some of them are ridiculous translations and transliterations.)  All predictions must be non-negative integers (0 is allowed), and your predictions must add up to 120. (For reasons discussed below, it is impossible for a party to win 1 or 2 seats, and unlikely that a party will win 3 seats.  However, if you choose to hedge your bets and guess that a given party will win 1, 2, or 3 seats, that is a legal entry in the contest.) Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. (If you win, feel free to share which organization you chose and why.)  Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.

Prizes: The winners will get to choose from among several prizes:
In addition, the winner will be invited to make a statement to the world.

The Rules (for the real election): The 26 parties have submitted ordered lists of candidates. Here is the full list of candidates in Hebrew, and lists of the parties in Arabic and English (it’s possible that these links will be updated to include the candidates’ names as well). On election day (March 17), Israeli citizens will go to polling places in and near Israel, and vote for a party (not for individual candidates). All parties that win at least 3.25% of the vote will win seats in the Knesset, proportional to their share of the vote.  (This is a change for this election; the election threshold last time was 2%.)  For example, suppose The Pirates win 1% of the vote, Rent with Honor wins 33%, and The (Temporary) National Team wins 66%. Then The Pirates win no seats in the Knesset (since they were below the 3.25% threshold), and the other parties will proportionally split the 120 Knesset seats: Rent with Honor gets 40 seats (so the top 40 candidates on its list are elected), and The (Temporary) National Team gets 80 seats. If vacancies arise later in the term, there are no special elections – the next candidate on the party’s list (e.g. #41 on the Rent with Honor list) enters the Knesset. It is mathematically possible for all 26 parties to win seats in the Knesset; best of luck to you if you pick this outcome in the pool.

The Rules (for the March Madness pool): The deadline to enter is Monday, March 16, 2015, at 11:59 pm Israel Standard Time (4:59 pm EST). When the final election results are published, each entry will receive a score based on how many Knesset seats were predicted correctly. For example, suppose the results are as in the above example (The (Temporary) National Team 80, Rent with Honor 40). I predicted 60 seats for Rent with Honor, 50 for The (Temporary) National Team, and 10 for Perach. Then my score is 90, since I correctly predicted 40 seats for Rent with Honor and 50 seats for The (Temporary) National Team.  The entry with the highest score wins!

Ties will be broken based on two tiebreaker questions:
1) Of the parties that do NOT win seats in the Knesset, which will come closest?
2) Which party will get the FEWEST votes?

The tiebreakers will be resolved in this order: exact match on question 1; exact match on question 2; closest on question 1 (if you picked a party that DOES win seats, you’re out of consideration for this one); closest on question 2.

Sometime soon, we’ll put up a post with descriptions of all the parties and links to their websites.

Good luck!!!!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mid-decade update

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Now that we're into Cheshvan, it's time for a mid-decade update!

Four years ago, we noted that for the entire decade of the 2010s, there are only two patterns of Hebrew years:  Rosh Hashanah on Monday and on Thursday.  This means that most or all of the fall holidays are on weekdays for the entire decade, and 4 of the last 5 years have included a string of 3 "3-day yom tovs" for the 2-day yom tov folks.

We made the following prediction:  This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.

Now that the 2010s are half over (in regard to major Jewish holidays), it's time to assess whether this prediction has been accurate so far.

I'm not claiming that this is scientific data collection methodology, but I'm calling for anecdata.

In the last 5 years, did you switch from 2-day yom tov to 1-day?  If so, post in the comments.

And to be fair (and to assess, again unscientifically, whether there has been a real shift or just a dynamic equilibrium) we'll ask the opposite question too:  In the last 5 years, did you switch from 1-day yom tov to 2-day?

A few guidelines:
  • If you don't want to out yourself and post under your real name, that's fine, but then please use a pseudonym (not just "Anonymous") so that we can count unique individuals.
  • Switches to or from 0 days of yom tov don't count (that's measuring something different).
  • We're asking about what you do when you're outside of Israel.
  • We're not asking about Rosh Hashanah.
  • We realize that people aren't always completely consistent, and that practices can vary based on the situation.  Answer based on which practice you primarily identify with.

Thanks for your cooperation!  I'll ask the same questions in 5 years, if blogs are still around.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Internal monologue

Lonely (and whiny) internal monologue upon the latest of many recent widely discussed articles on streams of American Judaism:
"It's great that this discussion is happening, but why is no one writing about my form of Judaism?"
"Because I don't have time to blog anymore."

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

"Independent minyanim" in 1985

A late-breaking update has been added to this old post on the history of the term "independent minyan".  Scroll down to the bottom.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Notes on the Pew survey

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.

1) Orthodox Retention

There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.

This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.

To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.

The result was that the data fit the exponential very closely (R2 = 0.9932), with an attrition rate of about 2.4% per year:

Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.

2) Denominational Identification

First of all, the exact question asked on the phone survey was “Thinking about Jewish religious denominations, do you consider yourself to be [RANDOMIZE: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform] something else, or no particular denomination?” (Kudos to the survey writers for randomizing the order of denominations! Shame on the report writers, who did not randomize or alphabetize the order when reporting the results.) So the survey participants were asked about denominational self-identification. Any discussion of the results (whether by Pew itself or by the media) that references denominational affiliation is not accurately reporting the results; there was no question that asked about denominational affiliation.

This distinction is particularly important when it comes to the “Reform” label. Reform Jewish identity is complex and multifaceted, but there are many people for whom the “Reform” label doesn’t mean affiliation with the Reform movement or affinity to Reform Judaism as a system of religious belief and practice; it means “I don’t do anything; I’m Reform[ed].”

This phenomenon is supported by the survey data themselves: 20% of the “Jews with no religion” category (i.e. people who first described their religion as “none”, then answered in response to a followup question that they consider themselves Jewish aside from religion) identified as “Reform”. Of all the Jews who identified as “Reform”, only 34% are synagogue members (so this category does not represent URJ members), and 16% said that they never attend Jewish services (including high holidays).

This means that any results about the “Reform” population have to be taken with a grain of salt, and can’t be translated into generalizations about Reform Judaism or the Reform movement. This goes both for the results that make Reform look bad (e.g. low rates of Hebrew literacy or of seeing being Jewish as very important) and for the results that make Reform look good (being the largest denomination and having the highest “retention” rate).

What we can conclude is not that Reform Jews are likely to be Jewishly inactive in various ways, but that people who are Jewishly inactive in various ways are much more likely to identify as “Reform” than any of the other denominational labels.

3) Intermarriage

The intermarriage rates are based on the percentage of the “net Jewish” population, i.e. those who consider themselves Jewish. Now that there has been substantial intermarriage for more than one generation, there are many people who were raised by one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent and who have gotten married themselves. Such people may identify as Jewish or as non-Jewish, or may be on the fence. It’s probably fair to assume that people who are on the fence are more likely to marry non-Jews than people who identify unequivocally as Jewish.

Therefore, in the same way that unscrupulous school administrators can improve their average test scores and graduation rates by getting rid of students who are likely to lower those stats, Jewish leaders who want to lower the intermarriage rate may be motivated (consciously or otherwise) to alienate intermarried families so that their children don’t identify as Jewish (so that if those children go on to marry non-Jews, it won’t count as an intermarriage). This may explain the behavior of some parts of the Jewish community.

Note also that the intermarriage rates by denomination are based on current self-identification. If someone was raised Orthodox and then marries a non-Jew, it is unlikely that s/he currently identifies as Orthodox. Given that, the most surprising part of the 2% Orthodox intermarriage rate is that it’s so high – these are Jews who are married to non-Jews and continue to identify as Orthodox.

Finally, the intermarriage statistics are only for current, intact marriages. Therefore, the apparent rise in intermarriage over time may be somewhat misleading. The report notes that “some research indicates that “in-marriages” (marriages between people of the same religion) tend to be more durable than intermarriages; if this is the case, then the percentage of intermarriages in the 1970s and 1980s may have been higher than it appears from looking only at intact marriages today.”

4) Money

One result that raised some eyebrows was that only 76% of Ultra-Orthodox respondents refrain from using money on Shabbat (suggesting that 24% do use money on Shabbat). The explanation for this may be simple: The question wording was “Do you personally refrain from handling or spending money on the Jewish Sabbath, or not? [INTERVIEWER NOTE: IF ASKED, “REFRAIN” MEANS TO NOT DO SOMETHING]” This double negative may have been confusing (especially for respondents whose first language wasn’t English), and the clarification was only for people who requested it. Some significant number of Ultra-Orthodox respondents may have answered “no”, thinking they were saying “No, I don’t handle or spend money on Shabbat.”