Tradition? Tradition! A response to Rabbi Larry Milder’s “I’m Very Reform”

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A few questions I think about often:

  • What is “traditional” Judaism?
  • Does any single group or philosophy own the rights to this label?
  • Is it a monolithic concept – i.e. can you open up a book and see the definition of “traditional” Judaism?
  • Did anything come before “traditional” Judaism? What came after it? Where is it located in the world?
  • What larger forces might have impacted upon “traditional” Judaism to give rise to these other approaches?
  • Does the term “traditional” imply that there is “untraditional” Judaism?
  • What is “untraditional Judaism”?
  • If you call yourself something other than “traditional” Judaism, how does that empower you – i.e. what can you now do with that label that you couldn’t before?

There is an article making the rounds through part of the (online) Jewish world right now, penned by Rabbi Larry Milder of Congregation Beth Emek, a Reform synagogue in Northern California. In I’m Very Reform, Rabbi Milder argues against the conception of Reform Judaism as a watered-down version of what he labels “traditional approaches to Judaism.” He makes the case for a Reform Jewish practice that includes “a commitment to consider [Jewish] duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.” As I consider myself a fairly progressive Jew (though not Reform – see below), I appreciate Rabbi Milder’s desire to inject some more depth into progressive Jewish religiosity.

Many people shared the article, and I continued to see it pop up in my Facebook feed again and again. I had the occasion to read and reread Rabbi Milder’s words, and I began to see a problem bubbling to the surface. His writing was prompted as a lament against those who say to him “Rabbi, I grew up very Reform,” which is supposedly meant to indicate the level of their religious observance, i.e. that they “don’t do much that’s Jewish.

This is a frustrating trope; one that is challenging when you consider the breadth of observance and depth of thought within the Reform Movement. Rabbi Milder rightly goes on to argue that the label “Reform” does not carry with it any stated level of observance (or non-observance, for that matter), ergo it is disingenuous to equate it with a non-serious approach to Judaism. That said, his entire subsequent argument rests on whether or not you understand “Reform” to be a prescriptive or a descriptive term.

PRESCRIPTIVE OR DESCRIPTIVE?

It seems to me that Rabbi Milder understands “Reform” to be a prescriptive term, as he notes that subscribing to this ideology and adopting its label entails a certain level of obligation. He defines this as follows:

“To be a Reform Jew is to approach Judaism seriously, to believe that being Jewish means being obligated. Reform Judaism is not a license to abandon one’s Jewish duties; it is a commitment to consider those duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.

If we understand “Reform” to be prescriptive, then Rabbi Milder is absolutely correct. His understanding of kashrut, Shabbat observance, Torah study, is a decidedly serious model for a deep and engaging approach to Jewish life, and he is right to be flummoxed by those who use the term “Reform” to mean “don’t do much Jewish.” His approach is an aspirational understanding of what Judaism can mean to people in 2015.

The challenge for us is that it is just that – aspirational – i.e. not reflective of the current reality. Aspiring to be more than what we are is essential to the human condition. The idea is also a valuable and important part of how Judaism understands itself in relationship to the world. But aspiration, while it looks beyond current realities, should not be detached from reality, particularly if it blinds us from confronting real challenges about our condition, and opportunities for growth.

Rabbi Milder’s emphatic defence of his own Reform Jewish practice unfortunately ignores the reality of Jewish life for the majority of self-defined Reform Jews today. The truth – as evidenced ad nauseam in the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews and its abundant commentary – is that for most of those who today identify as “Reform” (at least in the United States), Rabbi Milder’s definition of Jewish practice holds little semblance.

If we understand “Reform” to be more descriptive than prescriptive, then we begin to see the inherent challenges facing the Movement today. The reality is that most Reform Jews do not keep kosher, are not defining what they do from Friday to Saturday evening as Shabbat observance, and are not engaged in ongoing Torah study. To be sure, Rabbi Milder himself notes that he hears statements equating Reform with non-practice “all the time.” Is there not a serious dissonance if the majority of Reform Jews are not upholding the very values and behaviours that Rabbi Milder and the Movement define as Reform?

The fact that vast numbers of people use the term “Reform” to indicate the (lower) level of their Jewish ritual observance, and the Pew Survey’s corroboration, points to an important sociological trend that should not be ignored. Whether or not we particularly care for how people define (indeed self-define) “Reform,” should be a separate issue from discussing if that definition has truth.

ASPIRATIONS

This issue is reflective of wider gaps between laity and leadership, and is certainly not a phenomenon unique to the Reform Movement. But it is one that we cannot attempt to wash over, simply by encouraging people to consider themselves as Reform, even if their practice does not accurately reflect the supposedly prescriptive definition.

We should confront the reality head-on: for the majority of Reform Jews, at least according to the metrics which Rabbi Milder has established, identifying as “Reform” does indeed equal a lower degree of ritual observance. And if that is a reality with which we are uncomfortable, we should not isolate ourselves into a bubble by saying “no no no, that’s not what Reform Judaism is really about,” instead, we should work to change the reality. This is where aspiration comes into play.

Do we want those who identity as Reform Jews to see themselves as more than instead of less than? Do we want them to engage in more serious Jewish practice? Do we want to aspire to be more than what we currently are? Do we want to envision a world where “Reform” isn’t a minimalist descriptive label, but an aspirational prescription for seriousness and depth?

If so, we need to confront another challenge, one that underlies Rabbi Milder’s arguments, and one that comes to light when considering the role that aspiration plays in Jewish life.

TRADITION?

The standard to which Rabbi Milder measures his practice throughout his writing is an unidentified “traditional approach” to Judaism. I’d like to know to which “tradition” this refers. Is it traditional Ashkenazi Orthodoxy? Is it traditional Sephardi Judaism? Is it traditional American Judaism? Is it traditional Canadian Judaism? Unfortunately, it remains undefined, aside from a reference to halakha, so we are left to assume that “traditional” refers to some vague notion of Orthodox Judaism, which, by virtue of being “traditional,” is seen as more authentic.

Rabbi Milder refers to “traditional definitions” of Shabbat, “traditional Jewish prayers,” and “traditional prohibitions” of kashrut, and that his own “Reform” practices do not follow these “traditions.” But whose traditions are they? Do they not belong to all Jews? Are they not ours, too?! By labeling these “Reform” practices as “not something else” and judging them against the “traditional,” we give weight to an external (presumably Orthodox) standard. But all Jews own and have access to our tradition!

I believe this idea is encountered far too often by too many Jews: that Orthodox Judaism is the metric by which all other expressions of Judaism should be measured. Moreover, I believe that this idea is flawed and unattractive to most Jews searching for depth and meaning in their lives. People crave authenticity, and to sell ourselves as detached from our own tradition neuters this authenticity.

TRADITION!

To be sure, there is no singular “traditional” Judaism. The assumption that there is remains one of the most challenge assumptions that progressive Jews face – case in point, note how Israel’s adoption of an official state version of Judaism leads to disengagement and disenfranchisement from Jewish life.

I ultimately question the need for most Jewish labels. What energy does the label “Reform” provide us when held against the label “traditional”? Are these labels even opposites? Why choose one over the other? If we are going to label our Judaism, shouldn’t the label add something rather than limit it?

No one label, group, or movement can claim to be the sole proprietors of Jewish tradition. Tradition is something which we have all inherited, and must wrestle with on a daily basis if we are to be the practitioners of a serious Judaism of integrity (Rabbi Milder’s own stated goal).

Suggesting that contemporary Shabbat, Kashrut, Torah study, and other Jewish practices are less “traditional” removes from them a sense of authenticity and relevancy to most Reform Jews – which is precisely why these Reform Jews continue to define themselves as less-than. Less than whom? Less than the Orthodox who we are holding up as the de facto owners of “traditional” Judaism!

If we want Reform Jews to see themselves as more-than instead of less-than; if we want Reform laity to aspire to greater depth of Jewish living, if we want Jews to aspire to great seriousness and meaning in their lives, then we must all take full ownership of our tradition. It belongs to all Jews, everywhere.


A full-disclosure point: I have strong ties to the Reform Movement. My family joined a Reform synagogue in the Toronto suburbs when I was 8, and I went on to be strongly involved in Reform youth movements through university. Upon graduation, I worked for the Union for Reform Judaism, and am currently pursuing ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Do I consider myself a Reform Jew? No, I don’t think so. Can’t I just be Jewish?

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One thought on “Tradition? Tradition! A response to Rabbi Larry Milder’s “I’m Very Reform”

  1. Nicole Arnold says:

    Hi Jesse,I really, really liked this.  Thanks so much for writing and sharing.  I struggled with Rabbi Milder’s article quite a bit.  You articulated my struggle and responded to it beautifully. Hope all is well with you. Take care,Nicole

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