Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Two Foundational Problems With Liberal Judaism (And the Solution)

Liberal Judaism is stuck between two foundational intellectual problems: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. They usually manifest themselves in an attack from the right and an attack from the left. I do not think the problems are intractable. But rather than arguing in generalities, I will take a ritual that is easily subject to both of these attacks---counting the omer--- and see if we can not only defend against the attacks but show how counting the omer can be meaningful and important, regardless of its historical origins.

Here's the basic problem. Liberal Judaism generally accepts the conclusion of modern Bible scholarship that the Torah was written well after Moses and by multiple authors. In doing so, it rejects the traditional historical claim that the Torah was literally written by God. It adopts a more flexible approach to halacha and rituals, and in doing so runs into two quite serious foundational problems.

The religious right argues this type of Judaism must be inauthentic. If liberal Jews do not believe in the literal historical truth of the foundational story of Judaism---God gave the Torah to the Jews on Mt. Sinai---then nothing solid remains of Judaism. Under that view, the Torah is just a bunch of stories and laws written by ordinary people a long time ago. There is no compelling reason to do any of it. Sure, it might contain some wisdom or good ideas here and there, but Jews cannot take it too seriously if they do not believe that God told us to do these things.

The non-religious left makes the opposite argument. Jews should do certainly do the parts of Judaism that are "good" ideas, like don't steal, be nice, and give charity. But one should do them because they are good ideas, not because Judaism says to do them. And there is no reason to do the "bad" ideas, or the "neutral" ideas, or most rituals. That knocks out things like keeping kosher, fasting on Yom Kippur, and putting on tefillin. And once a Jew does the good practices because they are good, and avoids doing the other practices because there is no reason to do so, there is nothing left of Judaism. Thus, the non-religious left argues that Judaism is irrelevant.

This is the scylla and charybdis of liberal Judaism: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. And these two manifests themselves in much of liberal Judaism. I attend a Conservative synagogue, and I certainly see both of them. Many Jews my age (mid 40s) simply opt out of many traditional Jewish practices. They do not keep kosher, attend synagogue, celebrate many holidays, daven, wear tefillin, etc. The attitude of many of my friends is simply that it seems irrelevant, sort of silly, and a little strange to do these things. After all, God did not literally said to do these things, and there just does not seem to be a good reason to do so. And when they do do these things (for whatever reason), it lacks authenticity. So someone might to go synagogue (say, for a bar-mitzvah), but will not feel elevated by the davening, does not know what the Torah parsha says, and does not expect these things. They feel a little like a religious tourist, watching and even going through the motions without really participating.

The result is what we see in the Conservative movement. Synagogue membership is declining, and adults who were raised Conservative become less religious and unaffiliated with a synagogue (in lots of cases) and Orthodox (in a handful of cases).

The solution to the twin problems of inauthenticity and irrelevancy is (not surprisingly, and, in fact, definitionally) authenticity and relevancy. The issue is how to achieve these.

For liberal Judaism to be relevant, Jewish practices and beliefs must reflect divinity (however understood), elevate us spiritually, help Jews live much deeper and richer lives, and contain some insights into life that are not generally available in secular culture. And to be authentic, it must not be dependent on the historical origins of the Torah, but on how it has evolved and been interpreted for the past 3000 years, regardless of its historical origins. Jews must be able to feel fully engaged when doing these things.

I think that Judaism for the most part meets these challenges. The problem, as I see it, is that most liberal Jews lack even the most basic education about what Judaism is, and this ignorance is too often (but fortunately, not always) fostered by ineffective religious schools. The problem is not inherent in liberal Judaism itself.

I have detailed some general thoughts on these ideas in many other blog posts. But rather than arguing from a general level, I thought I would take a particular example of a simple mitzvah and show this works in practice. My example is counting the omer. In the next few blog posts, I will explain the mitzvah itself, it biblical and historical origins, and its subsequent history. In doing so, I hope to show how this seemingly odd mitzvah is highly relevant to life and how liberal Jews can authentically count the omer.

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