Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hasty generalization

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

A wise person I know says “Whenever I read articles where I know something about the content, I always find mistakes or misunderstandings, which makes me wonder how many mistakes there are in articles where I’m not familiar with the topic.” We get to see this principle in action as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz tackles American independent minyanim.

Over the last 10 years, the massive surge in independent minyanim has attracted media attention from both the American Jewish press and the American secular press. (After a while, this has converged so that they seem to write the same article over and over.) But this Ha’aretz piece might be the first time this phenomenon has reached the Israeli media.

The author of the piece, a self-identified secular Israeli, visited DC Minyan, and apparently did little or no research or fact-checking beyond what she saw and heard there. Thus she arrived at the unsupported conclusion that all or most independent minyanim (which in reality display a great deal of diversity) are similar to DC Minyan.

(However, on the plus side, this may be the first news article on 21st-century independent minyanim that doesn’t include a quote from Jonathan Sarna!)

To set the record straight, I’ll give the article a mild fisking:

At present, some 20,000 people are paying members of independent minyanim

The actual number is probably far less than this (especially since the article seems to adopt the “founded in the last 10 years” definition of “independent minyanim”, which is problematic in itself, of course). The vast majority of this wave of independent minyanim have NO members at all, let alone paying members. DC Minyan (profiled in the article) is on the extreme fringe of post-2000 independent minyanim in this regard, in that they have wholeheartedly embraced a synagogue-style membership structure, with membership dues, activities that are restricted to members or have different prices for members and non-members, etc.

(The havurot of the late 1960s and the ’70s may have been an early precursor of the independent minyanim, but they tended to be more counter-culture in style, and their latter-day heirs are more likely to be found in the Renewal movement.)

In reality, many havurot of the late ’60s and ’70s still exist, and many of their participants are still found in those havurot. “Latter-day heirs” may not be well-defined (and therefore not falsifiable), but the havurot of the ’60s and ’70s rejected rabbinic authority, as do many of the newer independent havurot/minyanim, while the Renewal movement embraces it.

Like many of the independent minyanim, DC Minyan defines itself as a “traditional egalitarian” community; the men and women sit opposite each other, without a partition - but still separately.

Both statements here are true, but the semicolon (suggesting that this is the usual definition of “traditional egalitarian”, and that this practice is “like many of the independent minyanim”) is highly misleading. DC Minyan is one of only two minyanim I know of with this precise set of practices (equal ritual participation by men and women, separate seating); most communities that define themselves as “traditional egalitarian” have mixed seating.

This makes it possible - unlike at typical Conservative and Reform congregations - for Jews of all denominations to take part.

Yeah, try again. The number of self-identified Orthodox Jews who would attend a service led by men and women that has separate seating but no mechitza (but wouldn’t attend such a service with mixed seating) is tiny, and probably much smaller than the number of non-Orthodox Jews who would be put off by the separate seating.

However, DC Minyan’s website does stipulate that people who identify with a different sex from that written on their birth certificates are invited to sit in the section designated for it. “No one will ask what gender you are,” Zuckerman adds.

They’re mixing up sex and gender here, though I wonder if this article was first written in Hebrew and then translated.

UPDATE: The Hebrew version has a number of differences from the English, which seems not to be a direct translation. Did the same writer submit articles in both Hebrew and English, or did a translator exhibit significant editorial license? “Paying members” and the disclaimer about early havurot appear only in the English. The line quoted above about “traditional egalitarian” is even worse in the Hebrew: “DC Minyan defines itself as an egalitarian community, and therefore the men and the women sit side-by-side and without a mechitzah, but separately.”


  1. Haaretz is a Hebrew paper. All the English stories online are translations of Hebrew articles.

  2. Right, but do their US correspondents, who presumably interview their sources in English, write anything up in English, or do the quotes get translated from English to Hebrew and back into English?

  3. I have no first hand experience, but I would assume quotes get translated to Hebrew for publication, and then a translator in Israel translates the finished pieces back to English. It's much easier than trying to keep track of the original English quotes and inserting them back into the translated article.

  4. Ben, excellent comment, as usual. I was struck by many of the same points when reading the Haaretz piece. Thanks for the careful explication and for posting it.

  5. As usual, Ben, a deft explication. We're so lucky to have you!

  6. The correspondent, Natasha Mozgovaya, is a russian immigrant and has not an inkling of the Jewish-American world. Her blog was really depressing to read, and this piece really took the cake.
    (She didn't even know to call rabbis הרב, she called them רבי).