Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An unlikely moment of consensus

Via Ned Resnikoff, and David Schraub, Glenn Beck thinks Reformed Judaism is too political. I'd call it Reform,* and am not sure how radical Islam enters into it, and will admit that I've read the text but not watched the video because I don't feel like Beck at the moment... but the politicization of that branch of Judaism was one of my own greatest pet peeves back in the days of Hebrew school. Beck may be as anti-Semitic as the next right-wing populist demagogue, but on this, he and yours truly are in something along the lines of agreement.

I mean, Reform Judaism as I experienced it - and I'm talking personal experience from a long while ago, as opposed to systematic research done recently - was, at this one rather large Upper West Side temple, at least, more about politics than religion, but with politics taking the moral place of religion. It was assumed that Good meant a very specific list of left-wing positions that had nothing specific to do with Judaism, Reform, Reformed, or otherwise. We worshipped a Donkey god, from the left.

It made quite an impression, in particular a lobbying trip they had us take to DC when we were 13 or so, to be this cute but old-enough-to-seem-informed presence. I don't remember for which audience or on what topics, only that I agreed with, if I remember correctly, only one of the several stances we were there to promote, and I never went through any phase of being a social conservative.

While the usual contrarian reaction to Hebrew school is to become, for a time at least, a self-hating Jew, my response couldn't be that, because Hebrew school wasn't all that Jewy. So in high school and early college, I rebelled against the all-good-people-are-liberals message by being the token right-of-center sort, flirting with libertarianism and neoconservatism (OK, not so "token" at UChicago); later in college I got into Francophilic Zionism, and the Jewish nationalism of Bernard Lazare - and let's not forget dear Herzl - struck me as a much more appealing way to be a non-observant Jew than being a Semitically-themed left-leaning Democrat. I can't say I've given American Reform Judaism much thought lately, but whenever the prospect of reconnecting with Judaism from a religious and not just scholarly angle comes up, I think back to this experience, and am not sure the only branch of Judaism that would have an atheist with a non-Jewish boyfriend is for me. (Yes, there's Reconstructionism, but I'm not entirely sure what that entails, and until grad school thought it was something like Jews for Jesus.)

So, readers who've had/are now having positive experiences with Reform Judaism, and who aren't liberal Democrats, comment away.

*The relevant Woody Allen joke.


Ned Resnikoff said...

I was Bar Mitzvah'd by a reform synagogue that I guess was sort of "political" insofar as the rabbi was one of the first in the state to perform a gay marriage and was otherwise politically liberal. But he didn't let that intrude on the sermons too much, and I only really noticed it because my Hebrew school class was so interested in politics and pushed the rabbi and his wife into discussions about it. Primarily, they were focused on teach us about theology.

The point being, sure, it was politically liberal, but it wasn't anything like Al Qaeda or (waaaay on the other end of the spectrum) the Muslim Brotherhood, which are political organizations first and foremost. It was a religious community that sometimes took political action.

And what's the problem with that? People's moral convictions are heavily influenced by their religious backgrounds, and you can't really talk about political convictions without bringing morality into it. I'd rather see religious communities be upfront about the political implications of their beliefs than not talk about it at all. And I'd rather see generally progressive religious movements talk about it than give far right evangelicals a monopoly on faith.

Besides: Beck should be one to fucking talk. Last week he did an entire episode with self-proclaimed prophet Joel Richardson on how the Twelfth Imam might be the Anti-Christ, and the implications for American foreign policy. And for years he's been making tons of hay about how progressives are all uniformly dirty atheists.

This isn't about keeping religion out of politics. It's about the fact that Beck seems entitled to delineate the difference between good and bad Jews. For him, it's not Jew-baiting if you're only painting the bad ones with ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes.

M.S. said...

Yeeah, keep in mind he also pulled a "only the Orthodox REALLY count!" card. All this is is trying to deligitimize the criticism he's gotten from those rabbis saying "oh hey btw, way to fail with your constant Nazi references". He's really not behaving any differently than the far left saying only Neuteri Karta are "real Jews". It's really none of his godamn business. Also, he's Mormon no? I wouldn't be picking and choosing which religions are only "political" if I were him.
Bearing that in mind, not exactly a great place to start in on a critique of American Reform movement.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I agree that the lines between religion and politics are blurry under the best of circumstances, and will reiterate both that what I described were my experiences at one temple, not a thorough assessment of the movement, and that I don't see the connection to radical Islam. Also, to respond to your point and M.S.'s, the gist of my post was that I agree with Beck on so very little that I was amazed to find a teensy hint of overlap, even if it what I agreed with I only agreed with after thoroughly removing it from the context in which Beck said it. My point was not, aha, Beck is actually a force for good.

That said, back to the question at hand. In my experience, the problem wasn't that the temple my family belonged to embraced a radical or horribly upsetting set of political views, but rather that to belong to the community, you had to share a number of beliefs that were really tangential to religion. Specific stances on (again, I'm forgetting which issues were at stake, so something along the lines of) affirmative action would perhaps be taken by a religious movement on the whole, but we were expected to individually show our commitment to social justice as defined in a specific way, as though one was a bad Jew for taking a different approach. I mean, one of the rabbis at the time was an out lesbian, and this I would not think to count as something "political" about the temple. By political I really do mean, an emphasis on having a particular stance on various issues on which reasonable people agree, as opposed to being an overall progressive/tolerant environment. I get that the line is tough to draw, and one person's "tolerant" is another's "political," and that to some, letting a woman of any sexual orientation be a rabbi is "political," but the lobbying trip really clinched it for me.

What also bothered me - and continues to both impress and frustrate me about organized not-super-religious American Judaism - is that it was presented as somehow more Jewish to worry about "fixing the world" than to have concerns specific to Jews themselves. On the one hand, obviously it's sensible, ethical, etc. to put a greater emphasis on Darfur or Katrina than, say, the implications of a keffiyeh trend at a local high school. All religions do well to mobilize for the greater good. But my (admittedly incomplete) sense of the French equivalent of organized not-super-religious American Jewry is that it's more acceptable here to get involved with questions of Israel, anti-Semitism, Jews' place in the nation (understood in historical context even by non-historians), etc., and I wouldn't have minded seeing a bit more of that.

David Schraub said...

You should look into Reconstructionist Judaism -- I'm still Conservative b/c I like my home congregation and Rabbi, but were I deciding my affiliation in a vacuum, that's what I'd pick.

To the post main, one of my problems is that I don't see a clear distinction whereby "politics" and "religion" are separate spheres. As one Rabbi remarked on this controversy, Judaism as a religion has always had a lot to say about just and proper social organization; there is no moral separation of synagogue and state in that respect. And in general, to the extent that the bulk of the Jewish community intersubjectively is defining certain obligations or practices as "Jewish", well, how else does anything become Jewish other than that sense of communal commitment to it? Obviously, it's annoying to be a dissident voice to any such obligation, and I think the Jewish nomos is rich enough to admit debate over these questions, but I don't think there's any reason by which we can pre-fiat that these concerns are really "political" rather than "religious".

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, Reconstructionism sounds promising.

"Obviously, it's annoying to be a dissident voice to any such obligation"

Annoying for an adult, but as an adolescent, more than annoying. I couldn't switch congregations, or 'out' myself as a Horrible Person. Being to the right of my fellow 13-year-olds was hardly the most tragic thing ever, but the fact that this political stance was tied up with Judaism left me looking elsewhere for a Jewish identity.

As for the rabbi's thoughts, I agree that Judaism has a history of being more than a religion - or, more accurately, that the 'just a religion' definition we treat today as, uh, sacred is itself a pretty modern invention. albeit one tailored around Christianity. And I absolutely don't think American Jews should be thought less 'American' if Judaism influences their politics, whether it means supporting universal health care or being a Zionist (or, hey, what's wrong with both?) But as these religions currently exist I don't think Judaism is more or less 'about' social justice than are other faiths. And the extent to which a political aspect of Judaism is interpreted as universalist as versus about uniting and helping Jews worldwide, organizing Jewish organizations in a particular way, etc., varies a good amount. As much as I agree more with the secular political causes embraced by Reform Jews than with those embraced by, say, Mormons, I don't like the idea of it being officially declared "Jewish" to have a particular stance on a contentious issue - even if it's a stance I share. As I mentioned in my previous comment, where "contentious" ends and a more universal sort of social-justice advocacy/tolerance/progressiveness begins is often confusing indeed.

rshams said...

Totally agreed, Phoebe, about how we can agree with a lot of the politically liberal stances taken by most Reform Jews while being uncomfortable with how those stances become synonymous with being a "good" Jew in that community. I go to a Conservative synagogue, and while the rabbi and most of the congregants are liberal, there are enough high-profile Republicans there (this being DC) to prevent any overtly political sermons (other than vague references to civility and understanding in politics) or community events. So, it does seem to me to be an issue particularly in the Reform community.

I do think some people who have responded to this criticism (including the rabbi linked to by David Schraub) are being slightly disingenuous in their own defense. If they support the separation of religion and state, in both the U.S. and in Israel(as almost all politically active Reform Jews do, as do I), then it is very hard to also support a particular set of political positions by saying that they are mandated by their religious tradition. It's deliberately inconsistent. Because if they were such biblical literalists that Isaiah's words about social justice and helping the needy motivated their stance on health care reform, then they would also be stoning their gay friends, separating linens and wools, and settling the East Bank. I'm being facetious, of course, but there could be some acknowledgment that many Reform Jews' views on political matters influence their interpretation of religion, and not the other way around.

David Schraub said...

I have trouble grasping the conceptual distinction you're drawing here. Any doctrine of faith that one disagrees with as a 13 year old is going to be somewhat alienating insofar as your opportunities to strike out on your own and join an alternative conception of Judaism that doesn't promote that doctrine will be limited. But surely the problem can't be that there exist religious doctrines that some people (or children) disagree with -- that applies to everything from "Judaism obligates ending DADT" to "Judaism is passed down matrilineally" to "Jews must keep Kosher." I take it your objection is only to the first, but that returns to the arbitrary line between doctrines which are "really" political versus those "really" religious. And of course, other religions most certainly do define positions on secularly-contentious political issues as important doctrines of faith (e.g., Catholicism and abortion) -- there's no conceptual reason why Judaism can't have a similar relationship regarding other issues.

With respect to Rshams Church/State objection, I don't think it flies -- I don't think even the most ardent separationist would say that voters aren't allowed to even form political opinions based on perceived religious obligations. There is, I think, a Habermasian requirement that these obligations be translated into some sort of secular, shared moral vocabulary when presented in the public square (and I think Jews -- of all denominations -- who participate in politics "Jewishly" are pretty good about doing that, in part because we're a religious minority and thus utilizing solely sectarian rationales wouldn't get us anywhere). But to claim a constitutional violation in the genesis of these commitments? That's (a) probably impossible (b) hard to square with the overwhelming constitutional protection accorded to religious belief and (c) creepily thought-police-y.

rshams said...

I didn't say it was unconstitutional (obviously Reform Jews aren't out to impose halakha on America, and the actual practice of left-leaning Jewish political activism is of the "secular, shared moral vocabulary" variety that David refers to). And it isn't the genesis of people's political commitments I'm concerned with, either. Nothing thought-police-y here.

I'm referring to actual statements made by those in the Reform movement that talk about the Jewish religious tradition mandating certain policies and how that specifically motivates their political activism for left-leaning causes. This includes the rabbi whose website David linked to. My main issue with these defenses is that they're inconsistent and disingenuous. If it was the religion influencing the politics, and not the other way around, then Jews would be forced to support a great deal of abhorrent policies.

People pick and choose what they find meaningful in their religion all the time, there's nothing wrong with that. Many Reform Jews find Judaism's emphasis on social justice very meaningful, because they feel it aligns with their political views. They should say that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think rshams explains this better than I could - the idea isn't that Reform Jews should be viewed as having dual loyalties for embracing progressive causes in the name of Judaism, but that if you're talking about people who object to bad political causes being embraced in the name of religion, these same people should not be embracing good ones in the name of religion, either.

As for the first point, re: 13-year-olds specifically, I suppose I do find it more problematic when one sees a child holding a political poster, for example, than being taken to church or synagogue. Any presence in the political conversation implies that one has come to one's own conclusions - the lobbying trip didn't really allow for that, a problem because 13-year-olds can have, but not necessary express, political opinions. Meanwhile, it's sort of assumed, with religion, in the contemporary US, that a) everyone is what their parents tell them to be by default, without it being assumed that children do or don't really believe what they've been taught, and b) that a hefty part of what religion is is about identity, not belief, especially in Judaism. So basically, I think it's better to tell a 13-year-old or 7-year-old that being Jewish means not eating shellfish, not celebrating Christmas, etc., than that Judaism means one thing or another re: DADT. Obviously within a home, values are passed on, and it's hard to separate out which are religious and which are political. But altogether announcing that a child holds specific political views, for reasons I am, I realize, finding it difficult to articulate satisfactorily, strikes me as more problematic than referring to a child or adolescent as Mormon, Reform Jewish, etc.