Monday, March 20, 2006

A Problem with Liberal Judaism

There's a problem with all liberal forms of Judaism. In fact, it's inherent in their very being liberal. This is true for Reform and to a lesser extent Conservative but it is very much an issue with the Reconstructionists. The problem is that all these movements are saying that traditional beliefs are not true and that they must then go on a kind of salvage operation to figure out what parts can be kept and which parts must be left behind in the light of modern knowledge.

But what this leads to is a sense of a loss of legitimacy or a loss of genuineness. People don't want their religion or philosophy or way of life to be salvaged leftovers to showcase in a living room. They want to be sitting and using certified and complete antique sets. This is part of the reason why Orthodoxy is so strong today. It holds that sense of genuineness and of being "real" Judaism and not some form of Judaism-lite. It holds it that way because an Orthodox Jew can pick up a Jewish text from millennia ago and find direct correspondence with how he lives today. Orthodox Rabbis have to understand Talmudic logic, not just for heritage appreciation, but really because they apply it all the time to Halachic issues that arise.

Other forms of Judaism have to accept these same vaulted texts as meaningful to Judaism but at the same time must reject as not true often large parts of them. Classic texts are seen as Judaism's past in liberal movements, but are Judaism's present in Orthodoxy.

How to get past this apparent discrepancy and to give liberal Judaism the sense of legitimacy while still using traditional sources is a pressing issue. Ideas like continuous revelation and an evolving religious civilization are useful, but they still don't jive well with rejection in a historic religion. I'm certainly open to suggestions.

24 comments:

Jewish Atheist said...

I pretty much agree with your assessment (which is why I am not a Reconstructionist/Renewal/Humanistic Jew) but I don't have any ideas. I think that any movement started with your motives is doomed from the start.

From praying for rain to describing a universe with Meaning, people use religion to soothe their fear of the unknown. If you begin with the lack of groundedness necessary to be religiously liberal in the first place, your religion isn't going to have much to offer, psychologically.

"God created us and told us exactly what to do" is a powerful statement. "Some power, perhaps God, perhaps love, perhaps aliens, perhaps chance created us and we may find hints of, or may figure out on our own, what to do" leaves one no better than basic secular philosophy does.

Hrafnkel said...

Contrarily, it really depends on which reconstructionist synagogue one goes to, as one of the basic premises of the movement is that the nature of the synagogue is determined by communal consensus. I had the opportunity to interact extensively with two rabbinical students from the Recon. Seminary and their views/halschic observance were approximately on par with conservative, and sometimes leaning towards MO. It is, however, an interesting dilemma with no easy solution.

-Benjamin

alex said...

I never understood how the liberal movements understand "continual revelation". The best I could come up with is: "We don't believe in any revelation, but it's continuous. And it comes to the people in our movement."

(JewishAtheist said) "people use religion to soothe their fear of the unknown."

Then again, people can use atheism to soothe other fears.

Mis-nagid said...

Duh.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people want a living tradition, not a "leftovers in a showcase" but I think that lack of continuity is not the problem in a lot of liberal circles; the problem is that Judaism is not being fully lived by too many members of heterodox communities. they or their parents or grandparents often have first put judaism on the back burner of their lives, and then later picked a heterodox label.
there are vibrant liberal jewish communities, where people do not simply show up at the synagogue, but regularly get together to pray, learn, and celebrate.

Orthoprax said...

Sorry, I've have computer problems lately and haven't been able to respond.

JA,

It would depend on what people are trying to get out of religion. It needn't be a religion for metaphysical salvation, but for a general way to respond to reality and find positive ways to behave and think.

Alex,

"I never understood how the liberal movements understand "continual revelation"."

I think it's basically a redefinition of revelation, where it is some sort of divine inspiration that changes people's conceptions of how the religion should be.


Anon,

"there are vibrant liberal jewish communities, where people do not simply show up at the synagogue, but regularly get together to pray, learn, and celebrate."

I understand that, but the point is that such groups are foundationally weaker than one truly based on thousands of years of tradition.

Valke said...

I would argue that conservative judaism is more "true" to the rabbinical judaism of the early centuries, in that it promotes discussion and evolution of halacha. If you look at the talmud, it is not a list of laws. It is a long discussion with dissenting opinions and an open ended conversation. One of the reasons it was meant to be oral was that it was an ongoing conversation. What can be more "liberal" than that?

Valke said...

I want to add that I believe the process embraced by conservative judaism is based on thousands of years of tradition and that I don't believe the process embraced by orthodox judaism is necessarily based on such tradition. Our "tradition" has always been change within the constructs of Torah and halacha.

Orthoprax said...

Valke,

As I said, this is less of a problem for Conservative Judaism, especially the truly conservative Conservative Judaism you are describing. The problems arise when you start being skeptical and rejecting traditional beliefs.

One can be within Conservative Judaism but have a generally Modern Orthodox mentality in terms of belief.

Lisa said...

You wrote "How to get past this apparent discrepancy and to give liberal Judaism the sense of legitimacy while still using traditional sources is a pressing issue."

I don't understand this. Why is this a pressing issue? Why should "liberal Judaism" have a sense of legitimacy? It's not legitimate, after all.

Lisa said...

Valke, the Conservative movement is not based on thousands of years of tradition. Leaving aside the greater part of the movement, which is merely based on keeping up with current social fads, even the most "observant" parts of the movement have abandoned the Torah methodology, which is an integral part of the Torah itself, and have chosen, instead, to employ methodologies which are derived from German philosophy or from general American cultural imperatives.

What you get from applying these non-Jewish techniques to Torah texts isn't Torah. It's a gruesome hybrid.

The Jewish Freak said...

How about a sincere search for the truth? After all, what else is there? Really.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

"Why should "liberal Judaism" have a sense of legitimacy? It's not legitimate, after all."

Ok, that's one point of view. But from my perspective Orthodox Judaism isn't legitimate in terms of reality or rational thought while liberal forms of Judaism are just not very legitimate within the traditional construct that is Judaism.

The best would be to have a rational Judaism that at the same time would embody a true sense of tradition and continuance as well.

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lisa said...

Orthoprax, why? If Judaism isn't legitimate, why not chuck the whole thing? Isn't that more intellectually honest than trying to remake it in your own image?

What's the purpose of calling the result Judaism? To make it feel more comfortable? That seems awfully disrespectful to those Jews who don't share your feelings about Judaism being invalid.

Lisa said...

Freak, a sincere search for the truth is a great thing. But Judaism's only claim to having any connection with truth is fundamentally intertwined with--and based on--an unbroken chain going back to Sinai.

Drop that chain and go back and try to "fix" things that you think went wrong thousands of years ago, and you're not dealing with an unbroken chain any more. Abandon the methodology, as though it isn't part of the content, and you're not dealing honestly with the content any more.

That's the problem. Look, there's a lot of crap in the frum community. No question. And I speak as a victim of that community myself. If anyone is mi-chutz la-machaneh, it's me. But I don't get what the point is in trying to create something that is not Judaism and label it as Judaism. That's not a sincere search for the truth. That's relabeling things for personal emotional reasons.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

"Orthoprax, why? If Judaism isn't legitimate, why not chuck the whole thing? Isn't that more intellectually honest than trying to remake it in your own image?"

Unlike you, I do not see Judaism as just some provincial set of beliefs. Judaism, as it is widely understood and as true to history, is a mosaic of beliefs and practices that the Jews, as a people, have followed since time immemorial, literally.

Understanding this true nature of Judaism as more than a religion, and much more like a civilization or way of life, makes it perfectly possible for one to be and feel and 'do' Jewish even if one doesn't believe in the traditional metaphysics underpining much of the system.

Since Judaism, as I understand it, can be understood as "what the Jews do" then I, as a Jew, have as much a right as any other Jew to take the heritage I have received and to take a stance for its future course.

"What's the purpose of calling the result Judaism? To make it feel more comfortable?"

No, because it really is driven largely from the heritage I have received and the form it takes is easily recognized as a form of Judaism. I am a Jew. I haven't left my people.

"That seems awfully disrespectful to those Jews who don't share your feelings about Judaism being invalid."

Essentially you are saying that any form of Judaism that strays from Orthodoxy is disrespectful towards those who would consider that Judaism only rightfully refers to Orthodox Judaism. Well, that's just too bad. Orthodox Judaism is not "Judaism TM."

To those who believe in a provincial monolithic Judaism do not just have a false conception of history but are dogmatic and bigoted as well.

Lisa said...

Orthoprax,

Essentially you are saying that any form of Judaism that strays from Orthodoxy is disrespectful towards those who would consider that Judaism only rightfully refers to Orthodox Judaism. Well, that's just too bad. Orthodox Judaism is not "Judaism TM."

You're mistaken. Orthodox Judaism is redundant. Bottom line: there's too much division between "us" and "them" in this word for one more unnecessary division to be morally unjustifiable. You call me bigoted, but what you're really doing is taking what you consider to be a roll-your-own cultural division and preserving it to get your own emotional ya-yas off. Do you think Jews are somehow "better" than non-Jews? What possible reason can you have for maintaining one more "us vs. them" if Judaism isn't something Hashem commanded us to do?

Lisa said...

I meant "justifiable", of course.

lakewoodyid said...

This is part of the reason why Orthodoxy is so strong today. It holds that sense of genuineness and of being "real" Judaism and not some form of Judaism-lite. It holds it that way because an Orthodox Jew can pick up a Jewish text from millennia ago and find direct correspondence with how he lives today.

I was a bit surprised to see that written by you, after our arguments we had on GH.

Because you sign us off as backwards behind the time people.

Is it Orthodoxy thats queer and unstable, or is the pressure from today's influence that makes you uncomfortable with it.

On your current post, you seem to say that our system has worked until now.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

"You're mistaken. Orthodox Judaism is redundant."

In your vaulted opinion, of course. Frankly, if you knew the history of Judaism you would have to note that it has changed over time - practically and theologically. This evolution indicates that no modern form can lay claim to being the one and only correct form of Judaism.

What kind of chutzpah must you have to suggest that your narrow and intolerant creed is the one true Judaism? Feh.

"What possible reason can you have for maintaining one more "us vs. them" if Judaism isn't something Hashem commanded us to do?"

I value my heritage and my unique identity as a Jew and I have no desire to that heritage be submerged and disappear into the process known as assimilation. We have a unique history and a unique perspective on the world that I see no reason to let die just because you believe it engenders immoral social striations.

I see no reason to suppose that keeping a unique way of life or distinct identity is immoral in any way.

Your black and white way of looking at the world is as unattractive as it is unfair and fallacious.

Orthoprax said...

LY,

I never said Orthodoxy is unstable, I just think it's wrong.

I also think that the thought processes that one must generally have to truly accept Orthodoxy leaves the individual either with deep ignorance and/or with the inability to think critically and to properly assess claims about the world.

The system has worked well until modern day because in the past, meaning before the Haskalah, Jews just weren't aware of the foundational problems with it. Now with education and a more sophisticated understanding of history and science, many of the beliefs become rather untenable.

onionsoupmix said...

Hey, have you guys read One People Two Worlds ? It's this book which is a collection of emails between an Orthodox Rabbi and a Reform one. It is just like these discussions here, just a little louder.

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