Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

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On Second Thought

I said here (in a comment to the repost of Rabbi Adar’s blog post responding to my prior post, which in turn was a response to a post of hers) that there is no real dispute between Rabbi Adar and myself over sacrifice vs. trade-off.

Upon reflection, I think that’s not entirely true, but not for the reasons either of us discussed in our posts (which I think sort of turned into an example of “things rabbis do in Talmud and midrash”).

The difference on our positions stems from a in baseline set of conclusions about what’s actually happening in Jewish tradition. If you ever wondered, “Why not just be Reform, Humanist Jew in Indianapolis?,” well…you’re about to get part of the answer.

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Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism – Part I – Rationalism and Mysticism

(This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about pitching–both as a public proposition and in a more musical sense–Humanistic Judaism. This post will discuss what I think the challenge is Humanistic Judaism faces in gaining traction among American Jews. In the coming posts in the series, I’ll think a bit about how we might do that, and how we might pitch Humanistic Judaism outside our own circles–particularly since Americans don’t do doctrine much in their selection of a religious community.)

(Note that while I am a rabbinical student at IISHJ, I’m speaking here for myself–not the school, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, or the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.)

Last November (it seems like ages ago, so much has happened!) I went to a retreat for rabbinical students that was sponsored by Clal‘s Rabbis Without Borders. (Many thanks to Rabbi Chalom at IISHJ for encouraging me to go.) Students from various denominations and seminaries attended–Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (an “Open Orthodox” yeshiva), Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler (Conservative-affiliated schools), the Academy of Jewish Religion (nondenominational), HUC-JIR (Reform), RRC (Reconstructionist), ALEPH (Renewal) and IISHJ.

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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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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.

Member Poaching Item 2: They’re Eating our Lunch

Chabad, I mean. They’re eating our lunch. (No offense intended to Chabad members–it’s a compliment to you, a smack at most of the rest of us.)

Let me explain.

Take a look back at that article that started the series off. Only one of the “start-up” synagogues mentioned is a liberal Jewish congregation. The other two? Chabad.

(“Liberal” here unfortunately means “everything not Orthodox.” Way to cede the debate, everyone. Nice job. But I digress.)

What the heck is going on here? I’ve got some ideas.

Money is certainly part of the issue. The traditional synagogue structure we know (where “traditional” = how it’s been since you’ve been paying attention) is premised upon high overhead costs for members; Chabad doesn’t really do this to people.

But there’s something else going on. Going back through that article, the story of the mother who left the Reform synagogue for one of the Chabad congregations is very telling: she left because the synagogue leadership didn’t care whether she was there or not, and the religious school didn’t teach Hebrew or much that she found meaningful or important as the concerned parent of a Jewish child.

Chabad filled that gap.

Now, if someone really clicks into Chabad in a real, I’m-a-baal-teshuva way, that’s great–it’s where that person probably belongs. But not everyone who goes to Chabad really does fully click in that way; I imagine many or even most don’t really do so in the end, but I don’t know for certain. The problem, of course, is that where we in the “liberal” denominations could be providing many of the things people get from Chabad, we don’t. This is especially problematic in someplace like the U.S., where most religious groups–Jews, Christians of most stripes, etc.–are marked by relatively free movement between communities/churches/synagogues based on not too much more than what fits best for the congregants, who don’t always (fully, sometimes at all) grasp doctrine.

I think there are a few related issues that feed this problem for “liberal” Jewish groups.

One problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by selling ourselves. If your competitors don’t charge simply to allow people to feel like they can show up or look for help, and you do charge, you lose. You lose because you lose the economic value proposition game–why pay more when you think you can pay less?–but more importantly, you lose because you aren’t what you should be: open, welcoming, and trying to help.

Another problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by failing to sell ourselves. I’ve already alluded to this one. By calling ourselves “liberal” Jews, we cede the language game to an unacceptable degree. Why are there halakhically non-observant, “liberal” Jews who donate to observant “Orthodox” causes whose ideologies would otherwise be unacceptable to the donors? In part because we on the “liberal” end have taken up the “conservative” name, incorporated it into a form of “liberal” Judaism (Conservative Movement, anyone?), and ceded “Orthodox” to 20% of the Jewish community in the United States. And in our “liberal” Judaism, we often make it clear that we’re making accommodations to the modern world that allow our members to feel better about non-observance.

So in the marketplace of Jewish ideas, as they come through to the average Jewish family looking for a place in the Jewish community (or who encounter a place in the Jewish community), we have “liberal” Judaism, which packages itself as a compromise, and “Orthodox” (and, especially these days, Chabad) Judaism, which packages itself as simply Judaism. In the latter of these categories, Chabad is the most outgoing and welcoming generally. Who would you, all things being equal, go with?

So what do we in the “liberal” Jewish community do about this? Oh, but if I told you my ideas, you wouldn’t have to come back for the rest of the series!


Related articles from elsewhere


August and Everything After

Hopefully after next week I’ll be able to write more openly on the blog about who I am/why I’m writing/what I’m doing. (Thus, the title of this post.)

Aside from the chaos of ordinary life (and, let’s be clear, it is chaotic right now), I’ve spent some time thinking more about the balance among the secular, humanist, and Jewish pieces of things. And while I recognize the importance of reason, observation, fact, etc., in the mix–I don’t think you arrive at the positions I’ve arrived at without these–I continue to be concerned that the secular and humanist portions of things are, to be blunt, off-putting to outsiders.

This isn’t to say that I reject the principles; rather, we need to do better at the branding of things if we want to be truly attractive to those outside our community. The problem we face by emphasizing reason, fact, observation, science, etc., is that we make humanism too hard, and that risks losing people who would at least be allies.

It’s difficult to be humanist as humanism is presented and as it exists. I think Epstein backs into this insight in Good Without God when he discusses what he expected to find as opposed to what he actually did find when he traveled in Taiwan and China, namely, that people who were ostensibly Buddhist were not actually focused on the formal teachings of Buddhism as we learn them in religious studies classes. It’s not that those individuals didn’t self-identify as Buddhist, at least in a nominal way–it’s just that they lived differently, secularly.

Circling back to humanist Judaism, I wonder if we face a problem that might, in some ways, be similar to that faced by Reform Judaism in the early- and mid-1900s.  As envisioned, Reform Judaism was difficult in the sense that its leaders and its early adherents were often Jewishly well educated and knew, often intimately, what they were rejecting. Later generations did not.

If history is repeatable here–and that’s not necessarily a given–my concern is that humanist Judaism might be “too hard” for many people unless we can moderate the need for the level of education required to sustain things. At the same time, the difficulty associated with humanist Judaism might be a deterrent to new members because while humanist Judaism’s approach to matters of observance quite nicely comports with how most modern Jews live their lives, the intellectual demands may not play so well, and the humanistic emphasis on reason, etc., may heighten this difficulty.

I have no solution to this problem, if it exists; just another thing for me to think about in August–and after.