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Jacob Neusner’s return to Reform Judaism

December 15, 2009

In a recent article in Forward, Jacob Neusner, the famous Conservative Jewish scholar, described his return to the Reform Judaism of his youth. I am not Jewish, but his article interests me because of its arguments involve switching paradigms: from one model of Judaism-confronting (encountering?) -modernity versus another. He writes

Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling. After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.

His attempt to present reasons seems to me to be incoherent, of which more later. He defines 2 basic kinds of Judaism: “self-segregationist” and “integrationist.” The integrationist Jews are looking for Jewish identity with a hypen. For this latter form has as “its urgent question the issue of how to be Jewish and something else.” He identifies Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox as sharing this latter form, while the former are composed of various Orthodox “groupings.” Basically, he believes the only viable form of integrationist Judaism lies in the Reform movement, seemingly because both the Modern Orthodox and Conservative movements lose too many members to the segregationist Judaic forms, plus, in the case of conservative Judaism, to the Reform movement itself, or to non-affiliation.

In contrast, Reform Judaism, claims Neusner, is “the Judaism defined by the American condition.” There are, he says, three commitments that define Reform Judaism as the appropriate form. He goes on:

These three commitments of Reform Judaism — reason and criticism, the secular dimension of the culture and the autonomy of the individual — secure the freedom of modern Jews. And they amount to a Judaism that has profound support in our tradition.

The problem with what Neusner writes is its utter circularity. Hasidic Judaism has “profound support” in the tradition, as do other forms of Orthodoxy. But the three commitments he describes above are either fully present in segregationist Judaism (such as the place of reason and criticism, which seems to be a strong feature of much of the commentary tradition that predates the 19th century), or else are so typical of modern Euro-American post-Enlightenment culture that one does not need any form of Judaism to feel entitled to them. If anything, any cultural or religious identity, any joining, is antithetical to individualism as the telos of modern life.

My own very limited understanding (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) is that the Conservative movement is in its ideals orthorpractical, meaning that as an institution, it believes that the rules (halacha) of the 613 laws (mitzvot) are in force; but practically, individual members vary widely in whether they carry them out. In other words, to put it in language slightly foreign to Judaism, Conservative Jewish belief about halacha is orthodox, while lay practice is heterodox. I’ve had Jewish people tell me that “Conservatives expect their rabbi to be kosher for them.” In contrast, Reform Judaism is explicitly non-halachic, and does not consider the 613 mitzvot in any way essential to Judaism.

There is a real tension between being a fully comfortable individual in the  world, and being a fully-identified member of any group with transcendent claims. This tension is theoretically much greater for Conservative affiliated Jews than it is for Reform ones. But in his article, Neusner has not identified any coherent course by which Jews can navigate between modernity and the inherited demands of either orthopraxy or orthodoxy. Surely the various forms of Orthodox Jews also believe they ha balanced their Jewish identity and practice with their status as modern Americans; but their answer is very different from Neusner’s. I see Orthodox Jews driving cars and using credit cards, both of which suggest a degree of accomodation with contemporary American norms; I also see them walking (not driving) to temple on the Sabbath.

I’m tempted to say that Neusner’s essay comes down to “I changed my mind.” Well, that’s something we all do; it’s perfectly legitimate as a personal statement of how one finds oneself in a new spot. But as an intelligent, coherent defense of Reform Judaism as the Jewish identity for America, it’s a weak brew. And for anyone like myself interested in how we balance or negotiate between the conflicting demands of an inherited or chosen tradition with transcendent claims and the facts of modernity, his article provides little to chew on.

Finally, one further critique, perhaps related to the overall lack of content I see in his article: his use of straw men to show that those who are more traditional in their orientation than is he are simplistic is itself simplistic. He seems to think that Orthodox Jews need to be told that

Scripture was not dictated word for word by a supernatural being from outer space. Its theology does not promise pie in the sky when you die.

But surely Judaism’s generally apophatic character–or its desire to see the divine as wholly other–precludes having to say this? It seems vaguely insulting, as if Neusner briefly channeled Richard Dawkins, who himself seems to have almost no understanding of any form of theology, Jewish or other, cataphatic or apophatic. Surely Neusner can find more substantive grounds for choosing the Reform path than such straw men? It seems like a gratuitious comment, at least to me.

Postscript: For those who want to follow up, some of the comments to Neusner’s article are interesting. I’d recommend skimming them.

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