A quick note

So, a couple of things.

First, I’m back from the Rabbis Without Borders retreat. There’s a bit of unpacking (mentally) I need to do before I post any significant reflections on the experience. It was, however, an absolutely wonderful experience, and that I was able to attend was an amazing thing.

Second, there will be some reorganization happening on the blog, after which I’ll likely be revealing more about myself. But there are interests other than mine involved with revealing additional information; the consequence of this may be that some prior posts will, after the review is done, either be deleted or made private going forward. I’ll try not to make hidden too much content, but we’ll have to see.

Quick update from the Retreat

The Rabbis Without Borders fall student retreat wraps up today. It has been unbelievably moving and often simply fun, and challenging in many very good ways.

I’ll be sad to leave, but this has been a phenomenal weekend that I will write about later. My thanks in advance, however, go to not only to CLAL, the faculty, and my fellow students, but also Rabbi Adam Chalom, dean of my rabbinical school, for making the program known to me and paying the fee for me to attend.

How Conservative Judaism Lost Everyone Else

Michah Gottlieb, a professor at NYU, has an article on the Forward’s website titled, “How Conservative Judaism Lost Me.” In it, he discusses how his commitment to what he thought were the Conservative movement’s principles–devotion to halakhah with a more modern and secular-scholarly approach to issues–led him to leave the Conservative fold.

He argues that it was exactly people like him that the Conservative movement should have been courting as new leaders, but it failed to do so, and thus lost people to modern Orthodoxy.

I suppose there is something to this in the sense of leadership and purpose. But I’m not persuaded that this problem is really what caused the diminution of the Conservative movement from its prior place as the largest of the modern American movements.

I understand Gottlieb’s frustration (and it’s nice to see a fellow IU Bloomington alum do good), but JTS (the flagship seminary for the Conservative movement) had long been described as a group of Orthodox faculty teaching Conservative rabbis who would be spiritual leaders for Reform congregants. People like Gottlieb–and, at one point, me–haven’t really been the Conservative movement’s major problem over the last twenty years.

I understand how this could seem to be the case to Gottlieb. He mentions coming of age at a time when the ordination of women was the big controversy roiling the Conservative movement, and it’s easy to see a kind of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” thing happening: Conservative Judaism compromised halakhically on this issue, lost members and scholars to either the Union for Traditional Judaism (which was initially kind of Conservative Judaism without womens’ ordination) or the OU, and decline followed.

I don’t think the numbers necessarily bear that out, however. When you look at the Pew survey results, you would have expected Modern Orthodox Judaism to have grown proportionally, and it hasn’t.

I think, instead, what likely happened is that some people fell away from Reform affiliation and refugees from an adrift Conservative movement backfilled the ranks. Other Conservative Jews likely left affiliation altogether, and some–but a more limited number–likely took Gottlieb’s path. (His contention that his path is the more common one is not based on broad evidence, but rather is anecdotal and particular to what is possible in areas like New York. There’s nothing like what Gottlieb has here in Indianapolis, where the Orthodox synagogues have pushed farther to the right and alienated the folks who had come over from the Conservative movement in the past.)

I think Gottlieb’s article is important because, while I disagree with his conclusions about how the Conservative movement should have gone about retaining its place, I do agree with his observation about the movement itself–that it is ideologically adrift. Unfortunately, so is much of American Judaism.

That said, I don’t think that the Conservative movement’s new emphasis–expressed by one rabbi as Kadsheinu B’mitzvotekha (sanctify us with your commandments)–is going to appeal to anyone outside its present ranks and perhaps some on the conservative edges of Reform and the liberal edges of the Orthodox world. What It may do, however, is staunch the flow and preserve some kind of “middle,” which Gottlieb argues is important for the continued vitality of American Jewish life.

And even the new approach advanced by the United Synagogue is a bit schizoid. Kadsheinu b’mitzvotekha–but also be more welcoming to the non-Jewish family of Jewish members.

I suspect the bigger problem for the Conservative movement is that the membership of the Reform movement is starting to look more like most Conservative Jews, while retaining enough of a liberal edge to keep some–but not all–of its present membership profile. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis talk enough like Orthodox rabbis to alienate liberal members while more conservative members will dislike the influx of LGB(T?) clergy and more favorable treatment of non-Jewish spouses.

All of this bodes ill for the continued vitality of JTS and the American Jewish University, which grew in response to the movement’s growth but will now inevitably shrink. This is particularly sad, I think, for JTS, which has in the past produced some very important scholarship and very important scholars. (Not that–as Gottlieb observes–this justifies its continued approach. And I find that realization especially disappointing because I’ve personally benefited from studying with some of its alumni.)

And all of this is wrapped up in the general lack of mission and direction. For example, the JTA article on the United Synagogue 100th anniversary convention shows that there is still navel-gazing on whether independent and alternative minyanim are harmful to synagogues–focused on the institution, not the needs of Jews themselves.

The question all movements should be asking–at the movement level, and within individual congregations–is, “What are we about?” After that, we can figure out where we are and where we should go. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement’s eternal compromise position likely puts it in the worst place of the large modern movements; it’s got a big hole to dig out of.

In the weeds

I’ll be out of town and away from the blog for most of the rest of the week. I’m headed on Thursday to the Baltimore area to attend the Fall 2013 CLAL Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat.

But I wanted to put out a blog post about what I’ve read so far, and where my concerns lie.

Much of the reading material is on how to make effective, growing congregations with a clear sense of mission. And so, after I finished the reading materials, I decided to do a bit of extra reading; that’s how I ended up reading parts of Wolfson’s Relational Judaism.

Having read the first few chapters, however, I’m not overly impressed. Wolfson is committed, rightly or wrongly, to the community and synagogue structures we have. I understand this impulse, and it’s important to some extent to use the resources that exist to build the future. But I sense that, if the structures turned out to be unhelpful, Wolfson would not be willing to see them go away or at least be radically altered.

And so, I went sniffing around for other resources. Fortunately, I know someone who works in the realm of congregational consulting in the non-Jewish world and was able to point me to some good resources, including the work of Brian McLaren.

If you’re Jewish, you likely have exactly no clue who McLaren is. McLaren is one of the leading advocates of something called the emerging church movement. That movement is challenging much of the received orthodoxy of what it is churches are called to do, how they encounter social needs at large, and how they encounter changes in the world both at the congregational level and the theological level. It’s about mission, about meeting people where they are and making change in the world, allowing the ultimate mission of Christianity–which McLaren identifies as doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven to make earth more like heaven–to shine through, not the factional dogmas that are so easily identified with modern Christianity. (I first encountered McLaren eight or so years ago, when I picked up his book, Generous Orthodoxy, as part of an interfaith reading group a former student of mine had organized at her home.)

McLaren takes a lot of heat.

We need some of that in the Jewish world. Not just mission, but leaders willing to take some heat.

So I started to read McLaren’s Everything Must Change. I’m not far in–about five chapters (the chapters are quite short, about 10 pages each, and there are about 30 of them in the book). Even after that, I can see we’re in the weeds in the Jewish world. We’re not changing–we’re not, at the broadest levels, really thinking about change, except to wonder with perplexity on the fringes about why it is younger people won’t affiliate and other members are falling away.

I can’t imagine, yet, someone saying to, say, the General Assembly of the United Synagogue that “everything must change.” Why? Because all of these organizations–CCAR, United Synagogue, the OU, etc.–are focused on affiliation.

And while I am affiliated with a specific movement, I recognize the need for pluralism, to meet people where they are, and to make congregational life not about affiliation but about engagement.

For the most part, we don’t do this in the Jewish world. We need to–fast. I’m hopeful that what I learn at the CLAL retreat will contribute to that.

In the meantime, I think we have it exactly backward. We’re deep in the weeds.

Fitness, Ethics, and Humanism

It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.

Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.

Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.

As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.

I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.

Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.

But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.

We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.

When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.

Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.

Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.

Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.

I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.

I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.

How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.

Some messianic speculation

No, don’t worry, still putting the “secular” in “secular Jew in Indianapolis,” I promise. Also, I apologize for the reduction in blogging pace: I’ve been doing some alumni stuff with one of my graduate programs, it’s been at night, and I’m not in my twenties anymore–so it takes me two or three days to recover from those nighttime programs.

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts in the car, and as frequent readers know, I particularly like the New Books Network podcasts. There are always lots of history, religion, philosophy, etc., conversations with authors of interesting books that I’ll almost certainly never have time to read. The network recently published, on the New Books in Jewish Studies channel, an interview with Rabbi Elaine R. Glickman about her book, The Messiah and the Jews.

The beginning of the conversation struck me as really quite odd. Rabbi Glickman said that throughout all her schooling–she’s a graduate of HUC, so that’s five to six years of education beyond the bachelor’s degree level–she had really never encountered the Jewish concept of the messiah. That is, not the Christian concept or the concept as understood by messianic Jews (who, sorry, are Christian–trinitarianism is just not an accepted Jewish concept), but the messianic idea within Judaism, from the Davidic stories to Hasidism and onward.

I have to ask–how is that possible? What the heck were they teaching over at HUJ in the early and mid-1990s? I’m not sure how you get a graduate degree in Jewish studies without encountering, at least once, Gershom Scholem and/or Moshe Idel. Or how you study modern biblical criticism without also studying apocalypticism and the connection of the line of David to that concept.

I understand, of course, that the Reform movement was long antagonistic to traditional messianic concepts. But I have to say, I’m puzzled, unless Rabbi Glickman was simply overstating superficial coverage as no coverage.

Moving from that, after listening to the podcast I’m concerned with how Rabbi Glickman presented a reason for liberal Jews to believe in the messianic concept. I understand the desire to see a world that isn’t like this one–one that is better, where things get better, where there is what we would understand to be genuine justice and no suffering. And I appreciate Rabbi Glickman’s worry that many Jews could apprehend this concept as not requiring us to work for change in this world–though that would be a misunderstanding (usually from lack of knowledge, as Rabbi Glickman does note) of the import of traditional Jewish messianic ideas.

But wishing something were different does not necessitate a belief that there will be a time where all things are different. Or, put another way, if you believe in some form of messianism–whether merely in the idea that there will be some perfect age, or in the notion that the messiah will be a specific person whose appearance will radically alter reality and result in punishment–believe because you believe, not because the mere act of holding an idea is comforting.

I once listened to a Maurice Sendak interview with Terri Gross on “Fresh Air,” where he acknowledged that he was an atheist–he did not believe in a god or in an afterlife–but he wished he did, because he recognized that he wanted to and somehow believed that he might see his loved ones again. It’s a conflicting feeling for many, I’m sure.

But here is the conclusion I draw: I don’t have great insight into why it is we so desire an afterlife or a redeemer who will make the world perfect for us, beyond recognizing that one source of hope for the future can be a desire for relief from the suffering that is characteristic of the world in which we live. As a humanistic Jew it is more important to me that, whatever your belief, you act from love to heal at least some of the hurt. I don’t think there is more that can be asked.