Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Count the frames: the answers!

I've already posted about the workshop I led last week, applying George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant to intra-Jewish religious discourse.

While I don't think we came up with a solution in the very limited amount of time that we had, the workshop got a conversation going, and I hope this is only the beginning.

Some have responded by saying "But if you say ______, that's a frame too!". Perhaps I haven't made myself clear: I'm not saying that we should eradicate frames. I'm saying precisely the opposite: frames are unavoidable. So if we have to use a frame, we might as well use one that represents our own values rather than someone else's values.

After an introduction to the frames that are out there ("observant", "religious", "traditional", "kosher", "shomer shabbat", "ba'al teshuva", "levels/degrees (of observance, etc.)", "left/right", the very idea of a linear spectrum, the process of Artscrollization in which this is the way that things have always been for all normative Jews everywhere), we did a chavruta study on this Associated Press article, and each group had to count the uses of framing in the article, both by the people quoted in the article and by the s'tam of the AP reporter. One group came up with 33!

Now let's look at some of the examples (and you're invited to come up with more).

Starting with the very first sentence:
The branch of American Judaism that occupies the middle ground between those who buck tradition and those who fully embrace it have been confronting the dwindling appeal of their movement in a meeting this week in Houston.
While it's possible that they meant that Orthodox Jews "buck tradition" and Reform Jews "fully embrace it", it doesn't seem very likely. So right off the bat, the movements are defined on a single axis based on allegiance to "tradition", tautologically defined as what Orthodox Jews do (since they're the ones who "fully embrace it"). Then someone pointed out that the framing starts even earlier in the sentence: "middle ground". Even if you assume that a one-dimensional spectrum exists, in order for something to be in the "middle" there must be well-defined endpoints and a metric to determine the distance between two points. (I am reminded of the joke: "Two camels are walking in the desert. One says 'Move over, I want to be in the middle.'") Then someone beat this one and found framing even earlier: "branch"! This tree metaphor implies that one form of Judaism is the "trunk" while others are "branches". (Someone else responded that this need not follow, since Orthodox Judaism could also be a "branch".) I don't think anyone took issue with "The", though they could have. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response to a Jewish Week op-ed that claimed that the Conservative movement was "in the middle" and thus more nuanced and thus more thoughtful (like all the annoying people who thought their position on the Iraq war was self-evidently superior because they disagreed with what they saw as the "left" and "right" positions):
It is arrogant to suggest that the Conservative movement has a monopoly on nuanced thinking and struggling with Judaism, while the Orthodox and Reform movements respond to traditions by “simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.” Anyone who holds a principled position considers his/her expression of Judaism to be the optimal balance of tradition and modernity. The same claim of uniqueness might have been made by an Orthodox Jew in Flatbush who feels that Yeshiva University has gone off the Torah path but the Jews of Borough Park refuse to engage with the modern world, or by a Reconstructionist Jew who believes that the three major movements are too resistant to innovation but Jewish Renewal has gone too far, and this claim would still have been wrong.

Ok, back to the AP article.

The Conservative movement teaches a traditional Judaism that is moderately flexible. For example, Conservatives allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services.

Ok. "Allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services." Clearly a parallel structure, using two verbs that are synonyms. The implied reading of this juxtaposition is that just as the Conservative movement's decision permitting driving on Shabbat was intended as a kula (leniency) to allow something that ideally shouldn't be allowed (and regardless of anyone's personal views, including my own, this is certainly how the CJLS framed the driving teshuva), egalitarianism is also just another kula. There is no suggestion that, for many Jews, egalitarianism is a core principle that necessitates equal roles for men and women; here it is just seen as an example of relaxing traditional requirements.

However, unlike clergy in the more liberal Reform stream, most Conservative rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings.

This one is just factually incorrect (unless "clergy" is unconvincingly parsed as "some clergy"); most Reform rabbis don't officiate at interfaith weddings either.

The Orthodox movement has the strictest adherence to Jewish law and tradition.

Funny how that works, when "Jewish law and tradition" is defined as "what Orthodox Jews observe". If you're going to come up with any objective historical criterion that doesn't depend on the Oral Torah being given on Sinai, then it's either a tie or the Karaites win. (Also, "the Orthodox movement"? Try again.)

Conservatives have resisted pressure to liberalize core teachings to prevent less observant Jews from leaving for Reform synagogues, which generally give a greater role to gays and to Gentile spouses of congregants.

I.e. people who want to leave for Reform synagogues must be "less observant", because they have the chutzpah to drive on Shabbat or be gay or whatever. Also "to gays and to Gentile spouses of congregants" implies that just as Gentile spouses are a priori marginal members of the Jewish community, so are gay people.

"If a person decides that they are really not interested in observance, then the Conservative movement is really not the place for them," said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative leader from Israel who attended the Texas meeting.

"If a person decides that they hate America, then the Republican Party is really not the place for them," said President George W. Bush.

The entire article is based on the idea of a one-dimensional spectrum, with an equivalence between the "left" and apathetic Jews and Jews whose practice is least similar to Orthodox on the one end, and the "right" and committed Jews and Orthodox Jews on the other end. If any non-Orthodox movement's self-image places it on this spectrum, then of course it's going to lose members!

And I'm sure you can find more examples in the article. Post them in the comments!

The next text we looked at was from the CCAR's A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism (1999). It was the part that gets quoted the most, perhaps because the rest ("We affirm that every human being is created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that therefore every human life is sacred.") is stuff that no one can disagree with.

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

And the commentary on it:

The whole array of mitzvot. This paragraph reflects the most significant break from the Pittsburgh Platform. By committing ourselves to study "the whole array of mitzvot," Reform Jews affirm that all the mitzvot of the Torah can call to us as they call to all Jews, though we may feel "addressed" by different ones at different times in our lives– – and by some perhaps not at all. When asked whether he put on tefillin Franz Rosenzweig is said to have responded, "Not yet," implying that there is a difference between hearing the call of a mitzvah and being ready to respond to it in the affirmative.

Others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention. Where there used to be a number of Reform synagogues which forbade their worshipers to cover their heads or wear tallitot, more and more synagogues feel addressed "as a community" by these mitzvot, setting out kipot (head coverings) and tallitot for those who feel addressed "as individuals" to wear these garments, without requiring anyone to wear them. In a time when more and more people are using diet to express their beliefs, "our peoples’ ongoing relationship with God" makes an increasing number of Reform Jews look seriously at aspects of kashrut. The Third Draft of the Principles specifically mentioned kashrut, tallit, tefillin, and mikveh (ritual immersion) to demonstrate the principle that there is no mitzvah barred to Reform Jews, even as the Reform movement does not compel the observance of any mitzvot.

So what's the problem? When this platform came out in 1999, I thought "Hey, that's swell! I'm a Reform Jew who keeps kosher and wears a tallit, and now the CCAR is acknowledging people like me." It wasn't until later that I realized how self-defeating this wording was.

"Ongoing study" -- hey, no quarrel there. But "the whole array of mitzvot" implies that there is a single set of mitzvot (with their interpretations) that is the same for all Jews and is unchanging over time, and our choices are limited to how we relate to this array, not what the array contains. And what determines the contents of this array? The Torah? No! It's the practices of the Jews whom we perceive as "more observant" than ourselves! What's the smoking gun? It's the juxtaposition of "mitzvot", "kipot" and "tallitot". The author is complicit in Artscrollization, by mixing together tallitot (explicitly commanded in the Torah) and kipot (a late custom that no one before 1999 claimed was a mitzvah) into an undifferentiated hodgepodge of "observant" Judaism. This is allowing someone else to own the mitzvot, rather than saying that they belong to us and they evolve over time, and each of us is empowered to study and come up with an interpretation.

The "Not yet" story seems philosophically indistinguishable from Chabad: you're ok the way you are, but this is the direction you should be moving in sooner or later. I am confused by the Reform movement's embracing of this idea, which may be a reasonable zeroth-order approximation for those who are starting from nil, but is also a contributor to the mass exodus of educated Reform Jews to Orthodoxy. I am reminded of this ancient joke.

So the next step is for liberal Jews of all types to come up with new frames that reflect their values. Go and learn it!


  1. oh man, the link to the ancient joke is down and and not cached because its probably been down forever and now i'll never now what the joke was

  2. It's this one: