Sunday, October 02, 2011

Reform surrender

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Happy 5772! Another year, another blog post I don’t really want to write. But I’m writing it anyway, because who else will? Criticizing the Reform movement on its own terms (as opposed to either not criticizing it, or judging it by external standards) is a lonely beat.

An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts.

Some of the other blogs that have picked up this article have understood it a certain way: one blog gives it the headline “Reform Girl Tries Out Orthodox Judaism For a Week”, and another describes the experiment as “practicing Orthodox Judaism for a week”.

Had this been the actual stated objective of the experiment, I would have no objections. There are many streams in modern Judaism, and each one could stand to gain a better understanding of the others. One way to gain this understanding is by experience. (I’ve visited many types of Jewish communities myself, and occasionally I’ll pray out of a Yemenite siddur just to shake things up.)

But those who characterized the experiment this way didn’t read closely enough. Just as the word list in the famous psych experiment doesn’t include the word “sleep”, this article doesn’t use the word “Orthodox” even once.

In the author’s own words, the aim was different: “For seven days, I would do every Jewish ritual I could think of—big or small, no exceptions—to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.” This was done in order to “g[i]ve the informed choices I make as a Reform Jew renewed depth and meaning”.

Starting with this goal, there are a lot of different ways that this week could have gone. For example, it could have looked something like The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, an amusing read in which Jacobs chronicles his attempt to observe all the biblical commandments, including the more obscure ones such as shiluach hakein. Of course, modern Judaism (in all its forms) is more than just biblical, so one could envision a version of this that also includes practices originating in rabbinic literature and later. This experiment could have included a broad assortment of rituals (some still observed today, and others revived for this purpose) taken from all periods of Jewish history, and practiced in all parts of the Jewish world. Imagine shacharit from Kol Haneshamah, mincha from Nusach Ari, and ma’ariv from Seder Rav Amram, or the non-prayer equivalent of all that.

But that’s not how it ended up. (At least that’s not how it was described in the Reform Judaism article; the experiment may have included a wider variety of Jewish rituals, but we don’t have any written evidence for that.) Instead, the actual implementation looks a whole lot like a week in the life of a 21st-century American Modern Orthodox college student (albeit with more self-reflection). And not just any Orthodox college student, but specifically, a female one. Thus, “every Jewish ritual [she] could think of” didn’t include things like tefillin or tzitzit, which seem to be standard stops for people (of all genders) who are experimenting with Jewish rituals. Perhaps she didn’t think of those. But then in the discussion of “modest” clothing, the author mentions “male friends who wear kippot”. So if kippot count as a ritual (and I’m not sure I would classify them as such, but they certainly count at least as much as skirts do), then they are an example of a ritual that the author thought of (which we know because she wrote about it) but didn’t try (as far as we are told).

Thus the implementation involved Orthodox gender roles, contemporary Orthodox modes of dress, contemporary Orthodox views of kashrut (the author checks cookies for a hechsher – a practice that certainly originated after the Reform/Orthodox split), and apparently an Orthodox daily minyan (the author writes that “as a woman I simply did not count”). So the bloggers who characterized this experiment as “Orthodox Judaism for a week” can be forgiven for making that leap. Though it was framed as an exploration in informed autonomy, “Orthodox Judaism for a week” is basically how it turned out.

My point here isn’t to pick on some college student. As I wrote in Hilchot Pluralism Part VI, this result is typical when you bring together students from Reform and Orthodox backgrounds. When one group of students is brought up to self-identify as “not doing everything” and another group is brought up to self-identify as “doing everything”, the first group can hardly be faulted for believing the second group, when they haven’t been given any alternative paradigm. (Besides, as a Harvard alum married to a Princeton alum, I have low expectations for anything coming out of Yale, alma mater of George W. Bush and C. Montgomery Burns.)

Rather, my reaction is summed up (mutatis mutandis) by David Hammer, in his response to an article by an engineering undergrad who had volunteered to teach physics in a first-grade classroom:
I do not fault the author: He was new to thinking about science teaching, in a context that inspired presumption, and his intentions and enthusiasm were sincere. I would welcome Physics for First-Graders as an early paper in a science education seminar, hoping to see more sophistication later in the semester. But I cannot fathom the decision at Kappan to publish the ingenuous impressions of a novice, as if they represented an important contribution to the community. The Professional Journal for Education should have more respect for the profession.
Reform Judaism is an official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism, mailed out to every member of a URJ congregation. As such, I think it was irresponsible for them to print this article. The URJ is supposed to be “for Reform Judaism”, but by running this article, it is promoting the frame that being “more observant” is synonymous with Orthodox Judaism. In this frame, Reform Jews can make choices about their observance, but the menu from which they make these choices is contemporary Orthodox Judaism (rather than the full scope of Jewish practice from the past, present, and future).

At the end of “frum week”, this author decided that this lifestyle wasn’t for her, mostly because it was too difficult (plus one sentence on why it was ideologically problematic). But someone else might be inspired by this article to try out the same experiment, and might not come to the same conclusion of “Davening is hard. Let’s go shopping!“. Thus Reform Judaism finds itself in the position of doing recruiting for Orthodox Judaism, by promoting the frame that Reform is a sampler but Orthodox is the real deal. Even if many Reform Jews do indeed think of their Judaism this way, the movement’s official institutions and publications should be showing more leadership and presenting alternative options. Even if many Reform Jews have already surrendered their sense of authenticity, the movement shouldn’t be joining them in retreat.