Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mitzvot - Which Are the Low Hanging Fruit?

Until fairly recently, the Conservative and Reform movements were comprised of people who had at least some knowledge of the basics of traditional Judaism. Many had more observant or traditional parents or grandparents, had grown up in more observant homes and in primarily Jewish neighborhoods, and in some way or another were exposed to the basic traditions, rituals, beliefs, and holidays of Judaism. However, many Jews today in these movements have virtually no knowledge of, or experience with, some of the basic ideas and practices in Judaism.

Fifty years ago and earlier, these movements could operate with what I will call subtractive Judaism. They could take the existing set of traditional beliefs and decide what practices to relax, modify, or eliminate. For example, the Reform movement in the 19th century could switch from Hebrew to English (or German) in prayerbooks. The Conservative movement in the 1950s could liberalize some of the stringencies of shabbat and kashrut. But in both cases, they were starting with people who observed, or at least were familiar with, the traditional way of doing things.

That is no longer true. A substantial percentage of people in Conservative and Reform synagogues simply do not have any substantial knowledge of Judaism. They have not read the Torah, have no idea what it says, have not read other traditional texts, do not daven, do not attend services, do not keep any level of kashrut, do not know about most rituals, and do not know about, let alone observe, most holidays other than Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Passover. The challenge facing the Conservative and Reform movement is not what to subtract from traditional Jewish practices. It is what to add to no traditional Jewish practices. In many ways, this is the same issue that Orthodox kiruv groups face.

Given that, what are the low-hanging fruits in Judaism? That is, what are some mitzvot, holidays, rituals, or types of learning that interested but not very knowledgeable Jews might do at relatively low cost and obtain relatively large benefits. Where do you get the biggest Jewish bang for the buck. This is really a very practical question.

For example, Chabad started a campaign 50 years ago or so to get less observant Jews to wear tefillin. My (no doubt ill-informed) opinion is that this is a really odd mitzvah to start with. Non-observant Jews often view tefillin as strange and meaningless, and it reinforces the idea that traditional Judaism is full of bizarre arcane rituals. But Chabad has had some success with this, so what do I know?

I have a few other ideas, and I would be interested in other people's thoughts.

Shabbat evening. It is simply nice to be with family and friends, to light candles, for husbands to say something nice about or to their wives and kids, to drink wine, and to eat challah. And maybe even talk about something important and meaningful.

Shabbat day. More of a challenge, given the rest of life. But carving out time to be with family and friends, not to answer phones or e-mail, not to be distracted by video games or television, and not to worry about work or chores is a good thing.

Sukkot. A really nice holiday. I have no idea why it has fallen out of favor with many Reform and Conservative Jews. It might have something to do with Jewish men and their inability to use tools, but now there are lots of nice kits around. (I like building my own sukkah, but I may be exceptional here. I think I am the only Jewish man on the planet with a tablesaw and several routers.)

Counting the Omer. My kids and I think it is cool, but my wife thinks it a bit silly. There's all sorts of interesting interpretations and things to think about while counting the omer, and it all makes you better and wiser. And I told the kids that if we make it through all 49 days withing skipping a day, we'll go out for ice cream after Shavuot. So far, we are on track.

Reading the Torah. No substitute for that. And lots of good English translations available.

A Really Interactive Seder. Seders do not have to be boring exercises where people take turns reading paragraphs from the Maxwell House haggadah. A little reading and planning ahead of time (and some willing participants), and it can turn into a pretty meaningful performance art, a fun time for the kids, and a great intellectual discussion on the ideas of freedom.

Any other thoughts?

UPDATE: (here's more)
The Rules of L'shon Hara. Judaism takes a very strong position against truthful gossip. One is forbidding to say something negative about someone, even if it is true, with some limited exceptions. (Saying something false and negative falls into a different and worse category.) American culture does not place much value on this idea. People gossip, and much popular entertainment is devoted to this. Judaism is refreshing counter-cultural here.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Will Your Grandchilden Be Commited Jews (Regardless of Denomination)?

The well-known article "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?" claims that only Orthodoxy can save American Judaism from extinction caused by high intermarriage rates and lower birthrates among non-Orthodox Jews. This article addresses a real problem, but in a slipshod way. In Will Your Grandchildren Be Reform?, I have criticized this article for ignoring the relatively high Orthodox interdenominational switching rates. As noted there, a much higher percentage of Jews raised Orthodox switch to other denominations than Jews raised in other denominations. In the comments section, commentators have criticized my critique for not distinguishing between the more nominal Orthodoxy of 50 to 100 years ago (with a presumably higher switching rate) and the deeper Orthodoxy of today (with a presumably lower rate). I think that critique is correct as far as it goes, but the original article is still deficient for failing to include any adjustment for interdenominational switching.

In A Tale of Two Jewries: the “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews Sociologist Steven M. Cohen has examined the data and reached a a much more nuanced conclusion: the overall denominational averages masks the presence of "two Jewries". And this conclusion has startling implications.

Cohen notes that American Jews tend to fall into two broad categories:

  1. Jews who have a relatively high level of observance, are affiliated with a synagogue, attended Jewish educational or social institutions as a child (day school, religious school, summer camp), have married other Jews, have children, and send their children to Jewish educational or social institutions; and

  2. Jews who have a lower level of religions observance, are unaffiliated with a synagogue, have intermarried, and who do not have children or who do not send their children to Jewish educational or social institutions.

In short, there is a Jewishly committed group, and a Jewishly uncommitted group. Or perhaps a core and a periphery. (Cohen refers to them an the in-married and the inter-married, although the groups seem to me to capture much more than simply choice of spouse.)

What is largely missing in a middle, or a moderately committed group. In the past, this group may have been by less observant people with a strong ethnic sense of Judaism. But in the past several decades, ethnicity as a force in Judaism has strongly declined. Cohen notes that we have experienced "ethnic decline but religious stability."

Cohen found that the committed group tends to raise children who are themselves committed, and the uncommitted group tends to raise children who are themselves uncommitted. But his most interesting conclusion is that the committed group is dispersed throughout the denominations in approximately equal numbers. That is, in absolute numbers, there is about the same number of committed Jews who are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. But since the Reform movement is the largest, followed by Conservative Judaism, followed by Orthodoxy, the percentage of "committed" Jews is very high in Orthodoxy, smaller in Conservativism, and smaller still in Reform.

Because of this, the overall averages for the denominations picks up and masks the averages of two very different sub-populations within that denomination. So a much smaller percentage of Reform Jews (say) attend a passover seder than Orthodox Jews, but that is because Reform Jews have a relatively low number of "committed" Jews (who do attend seders in high numbers) and a relatively high number of uncommitted Jews (who do not).

The implications of this are striking. Contrary to the Orthodox claims, the "solution" to the "problem" of Jewish continuity is not for Jews to become Orthodox; it is for Jews to become religiously knowledgeable, committed, and involved. That is, if a Reform of Conservative Jew really takes Judaism seriously --- that is, has a high level of Jewish knowledge, observance, and belief, affiliates with a synagogue, marries another Jew (by birth or conversion), and sends his or her children to Jewish institutions --- that Jew has a relatively high chance of that Jew's children doing the same.

An important warning: this is not grounds for complacency. Reform and Conservative Jews cannot simply join a synagogue and send their kids to camp and think that they have ensured Jewish continuity. They need to strive for a serious and deep understanding of Judaism, actually practice it, and teach this diligently to their children. The v'ahavta has it right, and v'shenantam l'vanecha is at the core. The challenge for Conservative and especially Reform Jews is to be able to do this in a synagogue where only some of the members have similar beliefs and practices.

What does this involve? More in future posts.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Little Foxling and the Documentary Hypothesis

Da'as Hedyot has republished a five-part autobiographical post from blogger Little Foxling about his path away from Orthodoxy and the Documentary Hypothesis. The personal and intellectual story is fascinating.

Before I started this blog, I was hunting around the web for info on the DH. I came across LF's comments on someone else's blog. Someone had made a silly point, and LF responded by presenting the DH. He was immediately attacked by pretty much every other commentator. He then took on the whole room, point-by-point: LF vs. 15 other people. His arguments were precise, on point, and solid. It was clear he had a deep knowledge of both traditional sources and the documentary hypothesis and had really thought through these issues. I was quite impressed and started reading his blog regularly.

Unfortunately, LF stopped blogging and moved on to other things. He and I still occasionally e-mail each other.

Among other things, LF notes that Orthodox Jews have not effectively responded to the Documentary Hypothesis. They either ignore it, mischaracterize it and mock it, or (falsely) claim that scholars no longer belief in it. This neglect is quite dangerous. Sooner or later (and probably sooner, given the internet), it will lead more and more Orthodox Jews to doubt and eventually disbelieve the central factual tenet of Orthodox Judaism, namely a literal "Torah from Heaven" or Torah min Hashamayim. They will leave Orthodoxy, and the people who do so (like LF) will disproportionately be the brighter ones. When you are in a Galilelo vs. the Pope type of argument, you simply do not want to be taking the Pope side. It might work in the short run, but you end up losing very badly, and looking very foolish, in the long run.

Orthodoxy needs to effectively respond to the discoveries of modern Bible scholarship or come up with a better theory of revelation. The failure to do so risks seriously undermining Orthodoxy.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Research Question - Traditional Sources

I have now blogged about the Horeb / Sinai issue from the DH perspective. I am now looking at traditional explanations for the use of these two names, and I have a general methodological question: how do I research this in particular, and similar issues in general?

I have a few approaches:

1. Look at a Torah with commentary. (Rashi, etc.) The problem here is that this requires looking at each of the 40 or so instances of Sinai and Horeb to see if there is comment.

2. Poke around the web. I've found some general sources that reference other things. Like a short Talmudic discussion in Shabbat 89a-89b.

3. Check sources that argue against the DH. I've found a brief passage discussing this issue in Eisenstein's Commentary on the Torah. Nothing in R. Etshalom's book or Cassuto's book.

But other than these three approaches (Torah w/ commentary, web, traditional sources on DH), can someone think of a good way of researching this textual issue in particular, and similar textual issues in general?