Thursday, May 19, 2011

In defense of autonomy

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The article making the rounds this week is Rabbi Leon Morris’s oped in the JTA, “Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’”. In past blog posts, I have both agreed and respectfully disagreed with Rabbi Morris; here I’m going to do the latter (from my usual perch as a Reform Jewish expat).

Rabbi Morris’s thesis is “A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have ‘personal choice’ as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever.” And I certainly don’t take issue with those other Jewish values, including “an increased commitment to Jewish study” and “committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts”. Yes, these are needed now more than ever. But I think he’s beating up on a straw man, and basing his argument on two unfounded claims:

1) “Personal choice” is the core principle of Reform Judaism.
2) “Personal choice” is to blame for the Reform movement’s ills.

I’ll address these points one at a time.

1) No, “personal choice” is not the core principle of Reform Judaism.

The core principles of Reform Judaism are the same as the core principles of any other stream of Judaism. “Personal choice” takes center stage only when Reform is contrasted with other denominations. Calling it the core principle of Reform Judaism is like saying that the 24-second clock is the core principle of NBA basketball. Yes, the 24-second clock is one rule that distinguishes NBA basketball from other forms of basketball, but the core principle of NBA basketball (like any form of basketball) is still getting the ball into the hoop.

But don’t take my word for it; take a look at the CCAR’s official platforms. The 1998 Pittsburgh Principles have God, Torah, and Israel as the three major section headings — what you would expect from any Jewish religious movement. Under these headings, there are 30 separate principles, and I count at least 22 (a solid majority) that people from all major Jewish religious streams would agree with. (And among the other principles, some of them are non-universal for self-referential reasons, e.g. “We are committed to promoting and strengthening Progressive Judaism in Israel…” and “We are committed to furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the world…”, which non-progressive Jews would disagree with because they already disagree with progressive Judaism.) “Personal choice”, “autonomy”, etc., do not appear explicitly at all. The closest approach is “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”, and even there you can only find it if you know what to look for. So in the CCAR’s most recent platform, personal choice/autonomy constitutes less than 1 of the top 30 principles.

The previous platform, the 1976 Centenary Perspective, had a greater focus on autonomy. This is manifested in such statements as “Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual”, “Reform Jews respond to change in various ways according to the Reform principle of the autonomy of the individual”, and “We stand open to any position thoughtfully and conscientiously advocated in the spirit of Reform Jewish belief.” Still, this platform lays out principles under the subheadings of “God”, “The People Israel”, “Torah”, “Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”, “Our Obligations: The State of Israel and the Diaspora”, and “Our Obligations: Survival and Service”, and only one of those sections (”Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”) includes any mention of choice/autonomy. There, autonomy is a means, not an end.

The earlier platforms, before 1976, don’t have anything remotely close to personal choice; the tone was that the authors of the platforms knew what was best for everyone.

Ok, so even if “personal choice” isn’t the core principle of theoretical Reform Judaism as expressed in official platforms, is it the core principle of folk Reform Judaism as popularly understood by self-identified Reform Jews? I don’t have any scientific data on this, but I suspect that most Reform Jews, if asked to explain their religion on one foot to someone from New Guinea who had never met a Jew, wouldn’t start with personal choice, but would start with elements that are common to all Jewish denominations. Personal choice would only start to come up if they were asked to explain Reform Judaism to an Orthodox or secular Jew from Israel who had never met a Reform Jew. (And even then, I’m not sure that this is the tack that the typical low-information Reform Jew would take in distinguishing Reform from other denominations; I think many would instead say some version of “We’re Reform(ed), so we don’t do that.”)

And I do think Rabbi Morris is indeed talking about the core principles of Reform Judaism in the absolute, and not just the core differences between Reform Judaism and other types of Judaism, since the other principles that he proposes replacing “personal choice” with are not unique to Reform Judaism — they are embraced (at least on paper) by the other movements as well. On this absolute scale, it is not accurate to say that personal choice is the core principle of Reform Judaism, either in theory or in practice.

2) No, autonomy is not the problem.

I’m going to run the risk of spawning a completely off-topic comment thread and say this anyway: Rabbi Morris’s response to autonomy in Reform Judaism reminds me of the Right’s response to the Obama stimulus.

President Obama proposed a stimulus that many economists warned was insufficiently large (even before it was cut down further by Congress) to pull the economy out of recession. When, as predicted, unemployment remained high after the stimulus (albeit not as high as it would have gone without the stimulus), the Republicans drew the conclusion that the stimulus had failed, that the very principles of Keynesian fiscal policy were at fault, and that the solution was fiscal austerity.

I don’t dispute that much of the Reform movement is characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. But it is inappropriate to blame this on an ideology that has never been fully put into practice in the Reform movement, particularly in the more ignorant and uncommitted segments. I haven’t found Reform communities where informed autonomy truly exists as a way of life; I have only been able to find this in non-denominational communities.

The Centenary Perspective (the platform with the greatest embrace of autonomy) says “Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” This frames informed autonomy not as a privilege but as a responsibility. A Reform Jew who truly believes in informed autonomy has the obligation to study Jewish texts to the point where s/he can make educated choices about all areas of Jewish practice. In principle Reform Jews have the responsibility to become far more knowledgeable than Orthodox or Conservative Jews (who can defer to their rabbi’s p’sak) or Reconstructionist Jews (who can defer to their community’s consensus). Needless to say, this is not how it works out in practice.

Rabbi Morris would have us believe that this failure of informed autonomy qua responsibility to take root among the masses is an inevitable consequence of an ideology that lacks the power to motivate. I would respond that the experiment hasn’t been attempted. Reform institutions have not provided the tools necessary for individuals to carry out the demands of informed autonomy. It’s not like Reform synagogues across the country are offering advanced Talmud shiurim (or even introductory Talmud shiurim, in the original language) that no one is showing up to. And even if there are opportunities outside the movement for high-level Jewish learning, the Reform movement’s culture is not one that values this among laypeople. Individuals who express interest in learning more are told “You should become a rabbi”, not “You should become an educated Reform Jew”.

But it’s not just that the Reform movement hasn’t embraced the “informed” part of informed autonomy (which is part of Rabbi Morris’s point); it has never truly embraced the “autonomy” part either. The average rank-and-file Reform Jew may exercise autonomy in selectively opting in and out of Jewish life, but when he is in a Jewish context, he does what he is told. To take prayer as just one example, Reform synagogues are the Jewish worship contexts in which it is least socially acceptable for individual participants to have their own practices about when to sit and stand, or which siddur to use, or what to be doing at any point during the service. Instructions are given throughout, and everyone is expected to conform. Rabbis may have less power on paper in Reform Judaism than in other movements (in which they render binding p’sak), but in practice, they are granted more elevated clerical status by Reform Jews than anywhere else in the non-haredi Jewish world. Rabbis are considered indispensable to “officiate” at any sort of Jewish ritual; most laypeople do not feel empowered to do it themselves.

What we see is not informed autonomy gone too far, but rather a population that is neither Jewishly informed nor Jewishly autonomous.

While we don’t have empirical data on what the Reform movement would look like if informed autonomy were a large-scale reality, we do have data from another controlled experiment: Let’s say you start with a population that looks a lot like the American Reform Jewish population, and an institutional structure (synagogues, rabbis, etc.) that looks a lot like the structure of the Reform movement. But you take Rabbi Morris’s advice and remove personal choice from the stated principles of the movement, and replace it with something about communal religious standards. Then what you get, according to the data, isn’t the engaged and passionate liberal Judaism that Rabbi Morris and I would like to see — what you get is the Conservative movement! And outside of a few isolated pockets, the Conservative movement is also characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. Most Conservative-affiliated Jews aren’t familiar with their movement’s official principles, and much of what Rabbi Morris writes about the Reform movement applies there as well: “Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to [Conservative] laypeople … , gather dust in libraries.” The experiment yields the same result, but this time, it can’t be blamed on “personal choice”.

The answer is not to remove informed autonomy as a Reform Jewish principle and replace it with other values, but rather, to implement informed autonomy in truth so that these other values will come along with it. Create a culture in which informed autonomy is seen as a responsibility, so that individuals have to become knowledgeable in Jewish text and tradition and apply this knowledge creatively to meet the needs of the present age. Armed with this knowledge, individuals will be better equipped to form true communities.

I realize that this is a tall order. Many members of Reform congregations don’t have a strong ideological commitment to progressive religious Judaism, and won’t be interested in this project. But it’s possible to start smaller. Even if it won’t work to implement informed autonomy for an entire congregation at once, it can start with a committed core who can at least make informed autonomy a socially acceptable option. And if even that committed core isn’t attainable (yet) in every community, it can start in some communities that can be held up as role models and successful proofs of concept. And if those role models of informed autonomy are not to be found in the Reform movement, then the Reform movement can look to successful models elsewhere.

I hope that turning informed autonomy into a reality, and not just a slogan, will (as Rabbi Morris concludes) “allow us to experience a richer, fuller liberal religious life — one that is passionate, inspiring and moving, one that matters ultimately and allows ‘Reform Judaism’ to mean so much more.”


  1. You can make the case that what distinguishes Reform is not its attitude toward informed autonomy, but toward uninformed heteronomy. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both believe that the truly informed individual can make his or her own decisions (though they may assign different weights to precedent and tradition; of course, you have that on the SCOTUS as well)). An excellent (Orthodox) explication can be found in R. Moshe Feinstein's introduction to his collection of responsa, Igrot Moshe.
    The question is what to do when you're uninformed. There are several heteronomous sources of authority - family practice, community practice, the local rabbi, the Mishna Berurah, etc. The Centenary Platform does not address what the default source of authority is or should be, and many have simply not filled that gap.

  2. Oy. Now that you've posted a Reform perspective, you might be interested in a Conservative perspective. Not much better, as you said. :(