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Friday 26 October 2007

Reform Reflections: Nouns and adjectives - Rabbi Michael Marmur

Reform Reflections: Nouns and adjectives
Posted by Rabbi Michael Marmur
It is told of the great thinker, writer and activist Abraham Joshua
Heschel (who died in 1972), that he was once asked whether he was an
Orthodox Jew, a Conservative Jew, or a Reform Jew. There was some logic
to the question: ordained as a teenager in Warsaw in an Ultra-Orthodox
context, he had gone on to receive rabbinic ordination at the Liberal
Seminary in Berlin, and was associated for most of his career with the
flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. Heschel's reply was
resonant: "I do not regard myself as a noun in search of an adjective."
This outright rejection of adjectival Judaism has not lost its force.
Indeed, in the decades since Heschel's death the limitations of
denominational tags have become more and more apparent. A number of
institutions have cropped up calling themselves trans- or
post-denominational, and you can certainly see their point. After all,
it's the noun which matters a great deal more than any adjective.
Here in Israel, it could be argued that the irrelevance of denominations
is even clearer. Conservative and Reform Judaism has never been very
strong here, and often it is regarded as an import unlikely to reach
anything more than a niche market. I remember my surprise as a High
School teacher in the non-Orthodox sector in Haifa some twenty years
ago, when I was asked to teach about Streams in Judaism. For many of my
colleagues and students, there were no such thing as streams in Judaism
at all – only the desert and the deep blue sea. There has often been a
kind of binary system at play in Israel according to which you were
either One (Orthodox) or Zero (Secular). If you tried to suggest a third
option, you were often met by the three great 'i's - incredulity,
impatience, and indifference.
Who needs adjectives, particularly in Israel? A journalist in Yediot
Aharonot recently launched a stinging attack on what she perceives as a
kind of phony spirituality being offered by Reform in Israel, and in
favor of the good old-fashioned binary system of Jewish identity. Those
Reform Jews trying to have their Jewish cakes and eat them too deserve
to have all baked items removed from their reach. How dare they claim to
be serious about Judaism if they don't profess Orthodox beliefs?
I am a Reform rabbi, and I make other Reform rabbis for a living, so it
may not come as a great surprise that I don't altogether care for the
binary system of Jewish identity. Often, representatives of Reform,
Conservative and other non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have promoted
their claims in terms of rights and liberties: we have a right to be
recognized, we shout, and everyone ought to help us protect those rights.
But two rights don't make a movement, and singing "We Shall Overcome" is
hardly a program. I don't want to argue that Reform Jews should have
their rights defended in Israel, because that goes without saying as far
as I am concerned. (It also goes without saying for our opponents,
because it's something that can never be said.) My argument is
different: I want to suggest that sentences do better with a few adjectives.
The vocabulary of Jewish life in Israel has been impoverished by what I
am calling the binary approach to Jewish identity. The fundamental
problem is not that our rabbis cannot officiate at state-recognized
weddings (they can't), nor that our institutions are starved of state
funding (they are). The main problem is that the attempt to ignore
adjectives has helped create huge divisions.
Increasingly, the sense of the divide within our society is palpable,
and it goes beyond matters of religion and state. If you live within a
rocket's range of the Gaza Strip, your experience of life during the
last year is likely to have been quite different to that of your fellow
citizen a few kilometers away. If you spent last summer north of Hadera,
you were at war: north of that line (with the exception of those who
hosted families or had loved ones involved in the hostilities), you were
on vacation. If your child turns 18 and is prepared to serve in the
Armed Forces, you enter one reality; if that child has decided to sit
that duty out, another reality awaits you
I believe that pluralism offers a chance to address some of the huge
chasms threatening our society. If we offer ways for people of different
temperaments and approaches ways of expressing themselves as Jews, we
help create a richer and more articulate syntax, a more profound
grammar. If we create communal structures which encourage individuals to
engage in society and face up to responsibility, we help hold apathy and
alienation at bay. If we demonstrate the joy and exhilaration of being
part of the Jewish people, we give life to Judaism. And if we reach out
to those who are told that their preferences and interests and beliefs
are no good, we widen the circle of engagement and commitment. If,
however, all we offer is One and Zero, we shouldn't be surprised if they
tire of our mathematics, and get bored with our grammar. Jewish Unity
will not be achieved by pretending there is Jewish Uniformity.
The case for religious pluralism in Israel is not about rights. It's
about the prospects for Israeli society at 60 to face the formidable
challenges in the economic, geo-political and cultural spheres, and to
prevail. In order for that to happen, we will need to find compelling
contemporary reasons for us and our children to take the risks and make
the sacrifices. Just telling folks they can only be One or Zero is not
going to work.
How will Jewish denominations look in Israel (or elsewhere) ten years
from now? I don't know. Will the adjectives in Hebrew be identical to
their counterparts in English. Almost certainly not. It's exciting to
speculate about how new coalitions may be formed, and new expressions
come to the fore. Rather than pretend we just need nouns in our grammar,
I'm in favor of denominational adjectives. Maybe they can help us get to
the verbs – to do, to care, to study, to mobilize, to reach out, to
argue, to accept, to celebrate.
So I'm with Heschel – I don't see myself as a noun in search of an
adjective. But I don't think the grammar we are using today is equal to
the task. The fact that more and more Israelis are despairing of the
Binary System and looking for new ways to express themselves suggests
that it may be too early to remove all adjectives from the dictionary.
It's the adjectives which may help Israel find her lost vocabulary.


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