Wednesday, December 09, 2009


I blogged previously about the URJ's Eilu V'Eilu series on independent minyanim. Now the series is complete. In week 3, Rabbi Sydney Mintz and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer responded to questions and comments from readers. Week 4, with their closing statements, was sent out on the email list but not (yet?) posted online.

In week 3, Rabbi Kaunfer responds to one question about education with an extended answer that appears to be an excerpt from his upcoming book. Rabbi Mintz responds to several questions, and one of them in particular highlights how many misunderstandings are still out there about independent minyanim and about Reform Judaism.

The questioner asks:

In general, Rabbi Mintz is right in saying that we need to blow our own shofar. But even a cursory look at the halachic think tank at Mechon Hadar demonstrates that some of the differences between the minyanim and Reform Judaism will make the gap somewhat hard to bridge.
The fundamental error here is assuming that structure and content are perfectly correlated, i.e. that because independent minyanim share an approach to the structure of Jewish community, they must also share views about Jewish ideology and practice. And I can see how someone might arrive at this assumption, since it's much more true in the synagogue movements. But as I showed in a recent post, "independent" Jewish individuals and communities come in all shapes and sizes, and as ZT showed, ideological categories and structural categories are often orthogonal. So comparing "the minyanim" and "Reform Judaism" is comparing apples and oranges, since the former is a structural category with diverse ideologies, and the latter (in the context it's being used here) is an ideological category.

The secondary error is the implied syllogism "Mechon Hadar sees itself as providing resources for all independent minyanim; Mechon Hadar holds X views on halachah; therefore, all independent minyanim hold X views on halachah." This is along the lines of the famous "All men are mortal; Socrates is mortal; therefore, all men are Socrates." Mechon Hadar is just one organization, and is doing good work in the world, but has no authority to speak for all independent minyanim, nor does it claim to speak for all independent minyanim (not even for Kehilat Hadar). It provides resources that are there for whoever finds them useful.

Among the many flavors of independent minyanim, there are in fact some that take approaches that can be characterized more as "Reform" (for various values of "Reform"). Of course, there are still significant differences between those minyanim and conventional Reform synagogues, but the "conventional synagogue" part is more significant to those differences than the "Reform" part.

The questioner continues:

Specifically, Reform Judaism is affirmatively not a halachic movement (even though our rabbis have the capacity to provide responsa grounded in halachah) and the Conservative Movement that minyanim members are fleeing in droves still claims to be halachic. The egalitarian nature of Reform Judaism will appeal to minyan'iks but they will ultimately reject our lack of halachah.

First of all, minyan participants are fleeing the Reform movement in droves too (survey results show that 44% of Kol Zimrah participants and 18% of independent minyan participants overall were raised with a Reform identity), and the Reform movement ignores these statistics to its peril. Fortunately, the existence of this dialogue indicates that some people in the Reform movement aren't ignoring it anymore.

Second of all, I have addressed the "not a halachic movement" claim in previous posts, so I'll just link there and not reinvent the wheel. All I'll say here is that this letter represents an extreme (small-c) conservative view of the nature of halachah. There is a growing grassroots movement out there to think about halachah as a "language of applied values" (or "critical common sense" or one of the other ways of referring to it). This approach positions itself in opposition to "formalism" -- viewing halachah as a formal system, focusing on the application of procedural rules and the "halachic process". So on the spectrum from critical common sense to formalism, the view of halachah in this letter appears to be waaaaay off the far end, past formalism. That is, the only way I can make sense out of "not a halachic movement (even though our rabbis have the capacity to provide responsa grounded in halachah)" is to understand halachah not merely as a process (which at least can continue to develop over time, even if this development is highly constrained) but as a fixed static set of legal texts. Thus, according to this view, Reform responsa can be "grounded in" that set of texts, but do not themselves constitute halachic works, and what Reform Jews do isn't halachic because it doesn't follow the conclusions of those texts. Of course, I think Reform Judaism should hold a progressive view of halachah, not an extreme conservative one. I hope I'm arguing with a straw man, but fear that I'm not.

On balance, then, I think Rabbi Mintz is correct that we should view and respond to minyanim as a challenge and an opportunity. One possible way would be to help unaffiliated minyanim with space and try and provide links for our members to participate in their worship. But here's an interesting thought experiment: Suppose a minyan wants to meet at our synagogue but refuses to count women as part of the minyan? What if it forbids musical instruments in the service? What if it wants to exclude our some of members from participation (or at least, from counting as part of a minyan) because they are Jews of only patrilineal descent? How would we deal with those issues?

This is neither interesting nor a thought experiment. It's not a thought experiment because it has been tried as a real experiment: Darkhei Noam and Kol Sasson are two examples of non-egalitarian independent minyanim that meet or have met in Reform synagogue buildings, successfully as far as I know. And it's not interesting because if an independent minyan (as distinct from a synagogue-sponsored minyan) makes an arrangement to meet in a synagogue (whether that arrangement includes paying rent or whatever other agreement they reach), the relationship between the minyan and the synagogue is one between sovereign entities, and therefore it shouldn't matter to the synagogue what exactly the minyan is doing as long as it doesn't interfere with the synagogue's own services or other activities. The independent minyanim that meet in churches are never asked whether their ritual practices conform to the church's principles.

The musical instrument question is particularly ill-posed (and I say this as a big supporter of musical instruments). "Forbidden"/"permitted" is almost never the right frame to think about musical instruments in services, since musical instruments played by people other than the service leaders are almost never "permitted". Generally, musical instruments are either used by the service leaders or not used at all. But if an independent minyan's practice is for the service leaders not to use musical instruments, this doesn't mean that the minyan holds that musical instruments are "forbidden". This is because independent minyan generally make decisions about policy (i.e. what they do), not about halachah (i.e. what everyone should do). There are all kinds of reasons why a minyan might decide not to use instruments, which need not involve taking a stance on whether instruments are forbidden. (For that matter, I suspect most independent minyanim don't have an official stance one way or the other on patrilineal descent.) And certainly, there is no fundamental Reform ideological opposition to having a service without instruments (I have been to many Reform services without instruments in my lifetime).

Yet this questioner seems to think there might be a problem with having a service without instruments using space in a Reform synagogue. What's the problem? They're not stopping anyone from using instruments in the sanctuary service. Is there a concern that the minyan participants are somehow going to take over the synagogue and mold it in their image? This is generally the last thing on a minyan's mind when it looks for space -- the minyan is operating much lower on Maslow's hierarchy, just looking for a place to hold services to maintain its existence, not thinking about future coups.


  1. (For that matter, I suspect most independent minyanim don't have an official stance one way or the other on patrilineal descent.)

    Well, if they have to define who they consider Jewish for the purposes of alíyas, etc. ...

  2. Right, that's how it could come up, but the wavefunction doesn't collapse until someone directly asks the question.

  3. Data point: Shachar, the Shira Chadasha of Riverdale, also meets in a Reform shul.

  4. Also Migdal Or in Washington Heights.

  5. Here here! Well fisked Brother Dreyfus.

  6. Steg, I think most minyanim have a don't ask don't tell policy on that one. If you act like you belong, you belong. If you act like you don't, you don't.

  7. Another Data point: Kehillat Yedidia in Jerusalem, what started out as a left leaning indy minyan in the 80s and now has a building, has a no-egal-davvening-on-the-premesis policy, even if you pay rent and there's nobody else in the shul at the time. So it's not just "movements" who are scared by others co-opting their identity.
    In general, the christians are nicer to minyanim b/c there's no chance they'll take over their shul, but with insecurity comes the nonsense.

  8. It is my experience as well that most places have a "don't ask, don't tell" type of practice.

  9. the urj week 3 link brings you to week 1; also still no week 4 online

  10. The week 3 link works ok for me...