The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

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How Do You Do Shabbat?

The Jewish Daily Forward has an article, “The Change-the-World Shabbat Dinner,” by Abigail Pogrebin about new approaches to community service in the Jewish community–with a special focus on how some of those community servants spend Shabbat. Before writing this article, Pogrebin spoke at some length with Rabbi Adam Chalom, dean of IISHJ (where I’m a rabbinical student) and congregational rabbi for Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the Chicago area.

Pogrebin’s conversations with Rabbi Chalom heavily inform her exploration of how the Avodah Jewish Service Corps members celebrate Shabbat. The article is well worth the read, and gives great insights into how and why secular and Humanistic Jews continue to celebrate Shabbat and understand our Jewish identities.

The Forward’s Issues with Secular Jews

I sometimes feel as though I could keep the blog filled with articles playing media critic to The Forward.

My latest thing? This article, a kind of interview cum review cum puff piece on David Brooks and his latest book. (And while we’re at it, I’m not over the moon about The Forward’s new logo and on-computer site design–lots of wasted white space and hidden navigation–but whatever.)

Jane Eisner, The Forward’s editor, interviewed David Brooks about his latest book, which is a series of personality profiles on different aspects of building good character. Eisner appears genuinely puzzled that the “liberals’ conservative” of the New York Times, who is Jewish and has a child in the IDF, didn’t remember that it was Passover and that Eisner might not be eating bagels. Brooks reacted with genuine embarrassment when Eisner pointed out why she would not eat a bagel.

In her article, Eisner appears genuinely perplexed that there are no Jewish persons profiled in Brooks’s book, and wonders at why Brooks’s work often reflects no apparent Jewishness at all. Brooks, she notes, is purposefully private about his own faith.

All the while, Eisner tells us that she and Brooks talked about the new book within a strongly Jewish frame of reference: Adam 1 and Adam 2, concepts set forth by none other than “the Rav,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book (initially an article in Tradition), The Lonely Man of Faith.

So, what gives?

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“The Forward” Considered Harmful?

(This is a rant. I’m not overly concerned if you don’t agree with its conclusions. But sometimes, enough is enough.)

Way back when I was doing software development, I read an article (really a letter) by computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra called “Go To Statement Considered Harmful.” Lots of software developers read it, because it’s about a basic bit of programming technique. And because I think The Forward has continued to make the same error, over and over, and does so at the risk of harming individual lives and the broader health of the Jewish community, consider this my Dijkstra moment.

I’ve lamented before the apparent backwardness of The Forward. Once in a while, The Forward does something that gives just a little hint of promise, like starting its Seesaw column. And then it takes steps back.

Oops, it did it again. Continue reading

Sometimes, the Truth Hurts. Can You Handle It?

Jay Michaelson of The Forward has a recent editorial, How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands. In it, he reviews three recent scholarly works regarding the formation of the Hebrew Bible–the composition of the texts, their sources, and the canonization process. (I’m not 100% impartial to the review, as I studied a little bit with the author of one of the books discussed, but I’ve not yet read the books themselves.)

Michaelson is, I think, correct that the truth matters. More crucially, he notes that the truth hurts. There’s one problem with his thesis: no one knows it!

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Israelsplaining

Critical as I often am of The Forward, it does occasionally provide some gems. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always push hard enough, even when it does turn over the correct stone. Even a blind pig will find an acorn once in a while.

Having extensively mixed my metaphors, what am I talking about? This. Apparently, the Israeli government wants to drop a few hundred million dollars to save American Judaism to help American Jews figure out how to be Jewish. Or something.

It’s like mansplaining, but about Israel. It’s “Israelsplaining”!

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Moving (The) Forward

As regular readers have probably figured out, I get a decent amount of my Jewish news from The Jewish Daily Forward. That’s not to say I wholeheartedly endorse every story they run, or every editorial position they take.

And now, I’m going to bite the hand that feeds a bit.
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An article that bears reading

Some recommended reading for you today: this article from The Forward about Chicago-area Rabbi Brant Rosen.

Why? Rabbi Rosen is a noted critic of Israel–he heads the rabbinical counsel of an organization, Jewish Voices for Peace, was named by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top-ten anti-Israel groups. (Rabbi Rosen states in the article that he finds this ironic since his wife worked for the ADL for fifteen years.)

I’m not going to advance any arguments about Israel, the ADL’s list, JVP’s positions, or the like. But I am interested in the role of the rabbi in a congregation, and in the role of Israel in American Jewish life, and this article brings up both of these issues at some length with a specific case–that of Rabbi Rosen.

Whatever your perspective, this is an interesting–and to people on various sides of all of these issues, no doubt infuriating–article.  Tze u’lmad–go and study.

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.