Saturday, November 21, 2009


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Blogging from the Bolt Bus on the way, appropriately, to the National Havurah Committee board meeting:

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote this insightful post last fortnight following the elections:

Why did Democrats lose in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday? Because independent voters moved against them, say the pundits.

This is true [... b]ut it doesn’t really tell us very much. It’s a lot like saying: the Yankees won the Game 6 last night because they scored more runs than the Phillies. Or: the unemployment rate went up because there were fewer jobs.

It’s worth a read in its own right, but I want to focus on one section and draw an analogy to the Jewish community:

Part of the problem is that ‘independents’ are not a particularly coherent group. At a minimum, the category of ‘independents’ includes:

1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

These voters have almost nothing to do with each other and yet they all get grouped under the same umbrella as ‘independents’.

Similarly, many overlapping terms are used for Jewish individuals and communities who are not affiliated with any of the major denominations: independent, unaffiliated, nondenominational, postdenominational, Just Jewish, etc. Each of these terms connotes somewhat different shades of meaning, but even so, within each such category, and certainly within the union of all those categories, there are people who “have almost nothing to do with each other” except for what they aren’t. And so when we try to talk about people and communities outside the denomination, we suffer from the same confusion and conflation that Silver writes about, conflating essentially the same six categories that he lists (among others).

American political discourse often assumes incorrectly that all “independents” are in category 5, with positions right in between the Democrats and the Republicans (and so the way for a party to pick up these voters is to adopt some of the other party’s positions), when in fact there are other types of independents too. Similarly, until very recently, “unaffiliated”/”Just Jewish” was associated strongly with category 4: “People who are extremely disengaged from [Judaism]“. (It was recently enough that I had to write this article to explain to a mainstream Jewish audience that this isn’t always the case, though I think the other types of “independent”/”unaffiliated”/etc. Jews have gotten enough attention since then that maybe the points in that article are now obvious to everyone. But maybe not.) The survey results seem to indicate that this is still true of most people who check “Just Jewish”, though I wonder how much those results are contaminated by active independent/nondenominational/blah Jews who also think of themselves as “Just Jewish” and aren’t survey geeks and therefore don’t know that “Just Jewish” isn’t the option they’re supposed to pick.

Even worse, category 4 is sometimes conflated with category 3: Some think that people who are extremely disengaged from Judaism are on the extreme left! This is the idea behind phrases like “very Reform” and “ultra-Reform”. The analogy to American politics shows this conflation to be ridiculous: you can’t have extreme-left views if you don’t have fully-formed [political | Jewish] views. There are also people who hold extreme-left Jewish views (along one or more axes in n-dimensional space, some of which can be classified as left-right spectra), but this is a very different population from the apathetic masses.

Participants in independent minyanim and other unaffiliated/nondenominational communities are often mischaracterized as falling into just one of these categories, when the reality is that there is great diversity within and among such communities, so they can’t be neatly placed into just one. One common characterization of independent minyanim, particularly those of the “traditional egalitarian” style, is that they are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, i.e. Conservative in everything but name, placing them in category 1. Another common characterization is that they fit between two denominations on a linear left-right spectrum (category 5), e.g. “to the right of Conservative and to the left of Orthodox” or “to the right of Reform and to the left of Conservative”. (The former is wrong on the facts in many cases, while the latter is simply incoherent.) And indeed, there are some individuals who see themselves as Conservative (or Orthodox or Reform) in everything but name (or even in name too) and are involved in nondenominational communities, and other individuals who identify as “Conservadox” or some other hybrid of multiple denominations. But independent/nondenominational communities also include plenty of people from category 2: those whose approaches to Judaism can’t be placed on a one-dimensional spectrum.

In the comments, feel free to add to the list of types of “independent” Jews.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More press for independent minyanim

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Independent minyanim have been popping up all over the press lately. First of all, they make an appearance in this CNN piece on “New Jews”, but that deserves a whole snarky post of its own, so I’ll leave it alone for now.

Two articles focus on independent minyanim: one in the August/September issue of Hadassah Magazine (it’s old, I know, but it wasn’t available online when it first came out, so it seems to have slid under the blogosphere’s radar), and one (which is really four and counting) in the latest edition of the URJ’s Eilu V’Eilu.

What do all three pieces have in common? The obligatory quote from Jonathan Sarna, of course. Seriously, is it the law that he has to be quoted in every single one of these stories?

Anyway, the Hadassah piece is in some ways the usual story about independent minyanim, but it does a good job presenting the diversity of independent minyanim, discussing the wide range of different practices within and among minyanim. It also presents independent minyanim mostly in their own words and own ideas, defining them by what they are rather than what they’re not: “pluralism, egalitarianism, social justice and song-filled prayer”, “to take responsibility for our own Jewish lives”, “joy, reverence, inspiring prayer, high-level educational programming with support for beginners, a culture of cooperation and openness”, etc. Unlike other articles on this topic that have appeared in the Jewish press, there is no worrying about Jewish continuity or intermarriage or the future of the denominations, and there is a quote from a pulpit rabbi saying that independent minyanim are swell, since it is “exciting to see people serious about their Judaism and seeking to come closer to God in an active way.” There are a few glitches here and there: this article propagates the error (which was quickly fixed) from the initial release of the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study, saying that “more than half [of independent minyan participants] spent over four months on an Israel program”. (The actual survey question asked about spending more than four months in Israel, not specifying anything about a program.) In a closing section about what happens when minyan founders move out of a neighborhood, there is a sentence about some Tikkun Leil Shabbat founders that is technically correct yet amusing: “Novey and her husband travel to Tikkun Leil Shabbat on Friday nights from their Maryland home.” This makes it sound like they’re trekking into DC from deep suburbia or Baltimore or the Eastern Shore, when in fact their apartment (like my apartment down the street) is just a few feet from the DC line, in a Maryland neighborhood that is more urban than the adjoining parts of DC, and is much closer to TLS than (for example) the distance from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. (We’ve even walked home from TLS, though it’s not a short walk.) Anyway, props to Hadassah for running this article (and a network of hospitals in Israel).

Eilu V’Eilu is a weekly email sent out by the Union for Reform Judaism, in which two writers each month debate some question, in the style of The Onion’s popular Point/Counterpoint feature (except that the writers are real people). And sometimes the two sides even disagree, but it seems that they don’t always check to see that the panelists actually have opposing views, so other times (such as when I participated) the two writers basically agree on the main points, and then are forced to search for minor points to rebut. (The best example of this was when the presidents of the Men of Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism faced off about whether there should still be single-sex congregational organizations. This is like the chairs of the DNC and the RNC “arguing” about whether there should be a two-party system.) This month’s dialogue fits into the latter mold. The question is “Are the growing numbers of independent minyanim a challenge to the movements?”, and the interlocutors are Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. As it turns out, both are supportive of independent minyanim. It might have been more fun, in a demolition derby kind of way, to see Rabbi Kaunfer go up against the old (hopefully straw-man by now) “Independent minyanim are destroying American Judaism by luring young adults away from the synagogues they would otherwise join” argument, but oh well.

In Week 1, Rabbi Kaunfer argues “Independent minyanim are not a challenge to the movements — the Internet is.” The point is that one-size-fits-all (or three-sizes-fit-all) movements are on the way out, since the Internet “allows people to organize into groups with very few start-up costs”, making it easier for communities to serve niche markets. Independent minyanim (independent of the major denominations) thrive in this new reality.

This is a positive development for Jewish life. When people care enough to stake out their own nuanced, complex relationship to Judaism, and reject broad labels in the process, they demonstrate that being Jewish matters deeply to them. If you claim to be “nondenominational,” people can’t make assumptions about your Jewish identity like they can when you claim a traditional denominational label. Instead, you have to explain what about Judaism you connect to—forming the baseline of a robust Jewish conversation.

Rabbi Kaunfer makes a solid argument that more segmentation is actually a good thing. I agree with the overall message, but unfortunately, there are a number of distracting minor issues with the article (though I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume based on past experience that some of these errors may be due to editing). Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot. It goes on: “The lines between the big-three movements also blurred: what is the fundamental difference between the right wing of Reform and the left wing of Conservative, or between the right wing of Conservative and the left wing of Orthodoxy?” As I have argued before, the wing of Reform that he’s talking about (where one finds Hebrew, kashrut, etc.) is actually the left wing when viewed within an intra-Reform frame (rather than projecting frames of other denominations onto Reform); the right wing of Reform is the small-c conservative wing that holds onto tradition for tradition’s sake (aka Classical Reform). It’s the lefties of both movements that find common ground. (Cf. the advocates for the peace process are left-wing Israelis and left-wing Palestinians.)

Rabbi Kaunfer writes: “At Mechon Hadar, we have tracked the growth of independent minyanim (see In the past ten years, they have exploded. In 2000, there were three of them; in 2009 there are more than sixty.” Here he is using the definition of “independent minyan” that was used in the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study. That study was only looking at communities founded since 1996. So what he means is that three independent minyanim were founded between 1996 and 2000 (and, possibly, still existed in 2007 — I’m not sure whether or not these figures include minyanim that ended before then), while many more were founded between 2000 and 2009. Yes, it’s true that the growth of independent minyanim has exploded in the last ten years, but this is a misleading way to show it. By this definition, no independent minyanim at all existed in 1995! This isn’t true, of course. For example, the Newton Centre Minyan qualifies as an independent minyan by most definitions, but it was founded in 1973. Rabbi Kaunfer links to this Zeek article which identifies differences between the minyanim founded in more recent years and the havurot founded in the ’70s, and as a general trend, these cultural differences are real, but it’s not a sharp line by any means. While Hadar and some other post-1996 minyanim may focus on “quality control”, plenty don’t and are included in the statistics nonetheless. The somewhat arbitrary cutoff of 1996 may have made sense for the survey, just so that there would be some boundaries in which communities are being studied, but I don’t think it makes sense going forward to define every community founded before 1996 as automatically not being an “independent minyan”.

Rabbi Mintz’s opening piece (which spreads the same inaccurate claims from the Spiritual Communities Study, inflating the growth rate of independent minyanim and repeating the “Israel programs” claim) is a very welcome voice to hear from the synagogue movements:

If independent minyanim can appeal to those who may not at this point in their lives step into a synagogue, why should we be threatened? Why shouldn’t we pay attention to where these young Jews are heading and strengthen our movement by creating vibrant minyanim of our own? No one is stopping us. [...] The Reform Jewish community needs to not only blow our own shofar, but also to listen closely to the new voices that are blowing our ancient instrument. They are showing us the possibility of a new engaged, immersed, committed generation.

Instead of suggesting that independent minyan participants are doing something wrong by building meaningful Jewish communities, or that it doesn’t matter because they’ll come crawling back when they have children, Rabbi Mintz is saying that synagogues and movements can look inward and learn from the successes of independent minyanim and use this to strengthen their own communities. This message is particularly welcome coming from the Reform movement, which thus far has not appeared to be as aware of the independent minyan phenomenon as the Conservative movement has been. Let’s hope this is where things are headed in the future.

In Week 2, Rabbi Kaunfer apparently didn’t see anything to dispute, so instead he asks and answers the question: “what is the future of the ‘alumni’ of independent minyanim?” And the answer is fantastic; you should just go and read it. The key point is that there’s not just one path that everyone takes when they get priced out of the old neighborhood, but many possibilities:

  • More independent minyanim
  • Minyan-synagogue hybrids [not to be confused with human-animal hybrids]
  • Minyanim as training grounds for future synagogue members
  • Rabbis who bring independent minyan ethos to their communities
  • Minyan participation as a deviation from an otherwise unengaged Jewish life

Rabbi Mintz responds to something that isn’t actually what Rabbi Kaunfer said. She says she disagrees with his statement that the Internet is threatening the movements, and gives examples of how synagogues (not just independent minyanim) are using the Internet successfully to build community. But Rabbi Kaunfer wasn’t talking about synagogues, he was talking about movements. It’s important to keep the synagogue-vs.-minyan/havurah axis separate from the denominational-vs.-nondenominational axis separate in principle, even if they’re not entirely uncorrelated. And if anything, Rabbi Mintz’s examples support Rabbi Kaunfer’s claims: one of the examples she provides of a thriving synagogue is New York’s B’nai Jeshurun, which is not affiliated with a movement!

Coming next, in Week 3, they’ll respond to questions and comments sent in by readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rabbi Yoffie endorses flexitarianism, the "kashrut establishment"

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Last week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in past years, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next two years.

The sermon began with a great shout-out to the Biennial’s host country:

We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. [...] I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?

Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service - all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.

This American (who can name the last three Canadian prime ministers and knows all the words to “O Canada”) says hear hear! (However, I was surprised that this was the only mention of health care, an issue that was featured so prominently two years ago, given that this sermon was just a few hours before the House passed the health care bill.)

The major initiatives are about food and technology. David A.M. Wilensky has already weighed in on the technology part, so I’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to say about food; I’ll just focus on two points.

First, kudos to Rabbi Yoffie for endorsing flexitarianism (though he didn’t use that word). “Flexitarian”, the American Dialect Society’s 2003 Word of the Year, refers to someone who isn’t fully vegetarian but eats mostly vegetarian. There are different reasons for not eating meat, and a flexitarian lifestyle makes sense under some of these but not others. If you’re vegetarian because of a categorical opposition to eating meat, then being flexitarian doesn’t make sense, since eating any amount of meat is wrong. But even if you’re not opposed in general to eating meat, there are solid reasons for eating less meat than the standard American diet, mostly based on the effects of meat consumption. And if two people cut their meat consumption in half, that has the same effect as one person becoming fully vegetarian.

Rabbi Yoffie lays out some of the reasons for meat reductionism:

My proposal is this: let’s make a Jewish decision to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat.
[M]eat consumption in North America has doubled in the last fifty years, and we can easily make do with far less red meat than we currently eat. And contrary to what many think, Jews are not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. The Talmud suggests that fish and garlic are the foods that we should serve to honor Shabbat (Shabbat 118b); it also instructs us to eat meat in modest quantities (Hullin 84a). Remember too that in biblical Israel, the common diet consisted of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, along with milk products and honey. My point is this: for the first 2,500 years of our 3,000 year history, Jews consumed meat sparingly, and we can surely do the same.

And we must. The meat industry today generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change throughout the world. According to a U.N. report, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined. And the preparation of beef meals requires about fifteen times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals.
Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing our collective meat consumption by twenty percent would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. And this twenty percent reduction is something that every one of us - every Jew, every family, every synagogue - can do.
Perhaps we can begin by offering some Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders that will delight with their variety, creativity, and taste, and that will be a model for our members of healthy, festive, meat-free meals.

This is a way that non-vegetarians can make a real difference in our environmental impact and our use of resources. Vegetarian meals are already standard at public functions throughout much of independent progressive Jewish culture; this would be a welcome shift if the URJ brings it into mainstream Jewish institutions as well.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon goes downhill after that:

What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.

In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that “Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine.” Ours is an ethically-based tradition, and Reform leaders saw no connection between the intricate rules of kashrut and ethical behavior. Sadly, for too much of the kashrut industry, this disconnect still exists; in recent years, kashrut authorities have failed in their duty to treat workers, immigrants, and animals with compassion and justice. For that reason, we applaud the Conservative movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes ethical factors into account.

Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.

What is he trying to accomplish here? Is this just a “No Ortho” disclaimer to preempt reactions along the lines of “I’m Reform, so you can’t tell me what not to eat”? Or is there something more to it?

The reason I find this problematic is, of course, framing. One could advocate for the exact same practices, but frame it differently, and the way Rabbi Yoffie framed it seems like a big missed opportunity.

He does note that ethical eating is about “what is proper and fit to eat”, a translation of “kashrut”:

But we do now realize that we need an approach of our own–our own definition of what is proper and fit to eat. Because our ethical commitments remain firm, and we understand - as we did not a century ago - that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension. We now know that God cares what we eat, and that eating can be an entrance to holiness. We now see that when we eat with mindfulness, even the humblest meal can become a sacred act.

But rather than framing this sacred eating as a form of kashrut (cf. the framing of “eco-kashrut” and the “Hekhsher Tzedek”), he frames it as “not kashrut”, with no connection to the dietary laws in the Torah and Talmud (which are part of the textual heritage of all Reform Jews, regardless of practice). He could instead have framed it as a modern application of those laws — not only in the general category of sacred eating, but in some of the specifics. For example, I see a strong connection between my kashrut observance and my meat reductionism, and find that one reinforces the other. Kashrut sharply limits what meat I can eat (I can’t just pick up a McDonald’s hamburger, or french fries for that matter), makes meat less accessible and more expensive (more accurately reflecting the true cost of meat consumption), and makes me think twice about eating meat even when I have kosher meat available to me (since it means no dairy concurrently or for a while afterwards). The original kashrut in Leviticus 17 restricted meat consumption even more, limiting it to sacrifices (until Deuteronomy came along and loosened the rules). (To have a brief “No Ortho” moment of my own, I find that these restrictions on meat, which I think of as being at the center of kashrut, lose some of their power if everything, even vegetables, can be considered “not kosher” based on where it was cooked or whether it’s broccoli. But that’s not an important point.) So when Rabbi Yoffie cites texts supporting meat reductionism, it’s strange that he doesn’t include the Torah’s most obvious example of a structure limiting meat consumption. This structure can be an inspiration for modern efforts at meat reductionism, whether or not those modern efforts incorporate specifics of that classical structure.

Rather than framing kashrut as something that has multiple approaches (which might include vegetarianism, eco-kashrut, the inaccurately named “Biblical kashrut”, etc.), Rabbi Yoffie says “There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part”, suggesting (again) that there is a well-defined external definition of “wholly” observing kashrut, and that other kashrut practices are merely “in part”, and everyone’s kashrut practice is on a linear spectrum from 0 to 100.

Of course I agree with his condemnation of Agriprocessors et al., but when he (as the leader of the largest Jewish denomination in North America) implicitly equates kashrut with “the kashrut establishment” (see the parallelism in “…kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment…”), he also grants power to that establishment and in a sense does accept its authority, in the sense that he does not challenge the connection between kashrut and that establishment.

Also, the frame of “rejection of kashrut” is strange in the 21st century. As Rabbi Yoffie notes, the majority of Reform Jews don’t keep kosher. This means that the majority of Reform Jews in this generation (unlike in Kaufmann Kohler’s generation) can’t “reject” kashrut, since they didn’t have it in the first place. See this post and this post for more discussion of this point.

Oddly enough, if Reform congregations follow Rabbi Yoffie’s recommendations and hold more vegetarian events, they’ll actually be more accessible to people with various kashrut practices, though this is apparently just incidental.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

One year later

So show us why we came here
Before we lay on the ground
Give it to us loud and clear
Make the devil turn around

The world around me’s turning
I’m just standing still
The time has come for changes
Do something or we will

--Phish, "Crowd Control"

(This is directed not only to the Obama administration, but to the "filibuster-proof" U.S. Senate majority, the Democratic majority in the New York Senate, and anyone else I helped elect on promises of change.)