osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,
osewalrus
osewalrus

Interesting news from the Reform Movement

My thanks to kmelion for the link.
http://www.frumsource.com/news_detail.asp?news_id=1828&deal_id=&simcha_id=#comments

The article discusses a trend around a concern in the Reform movement: how can Reform Judaism offer men spirituality and spiritually fulfilling lives without (in the opinion of many) retreating from the drive for gender equality which drove the initial reforms.

Part of the question of course is the nature of gender equality and the problem of ownership of ritual and community ritual. Leaving aside a personal grain of Cassandra-ish schadenfruede (I have long questioned ritual reform with what I felt was an imperfect understanding of the underlying ritual), I will observe that the problems in the Reform movement are in fact broadly shared. A bit of speculation below.

Update: This NY Times Article from February 2006 indicates that the article linked to above is not the sole source that this is a matter of concern within the Reform movement, although it does not substantiate how widespread the issue is.


All religions, and indeed all aspects of society once we get past the basics of human survival, have a problem of satisfying people and keeping them engaged. Otherwise, in a society with choices, they move on. But even beyond that, societies that do not provide a sufficient number of their members with basic satisfaction at some level become dysfunctional. Consider the U.S. in the 1950s and into the 1960s, in which we created the clash between the ideal of an open society based on principles of equality and merit conflicting with severe stratification by race and gender, reenforced by mass media, but in fact foreign even to the experiences of the previous 25 years of economic upheaval and war. After approximately 20 years from the end of WWII and the beginning of the "normalcy" of the post WWII period, we saw another set of violent economic and social upheavals.

The problems described in the article for the Reform movement (and I have no idea how widespread they are based on this one article, supporting evidence from anywhere would be nice) are merely one aspect of a broader confusion within our society as a whole. Social and gender roles have become more fluid now than at any time in the history of humanity. Indeed, it is now possible to change one's gender (once), and there is a broad movement in society to eliminate any prejudice or social stigma to making such a choice. College graduation has become both more common (prior to WWII, less than a quarter of Americans graduated from college. Now more than 50% do so) and more equal by race and gender.

And with this freedom to define oneself comes the enormous uncertainty that comes with freedom. But worse than that. For many who have driven change, the ideologies and struggles that drove that change persist and continue to drive behavior long after reality has altered. I have written in the past (and so have others) on the issues arising in the women's movement and the enormous disconnect between politically active women of one generation and the next. While I have focused primarily on the problem of movement governance (and the need for older leaders to step aside for a new generation), the problem goes deeper. And we see a possible manifestation of it in the article linked to above.

I like to phrase the problem this way: Does social reform need an enemy? And herein lies the problem for the Reform movement and its drive to eglitarianism. The issue traditionally has not been merely to create new ritual and new opportunities that are spiritually fulfilling for women as women. It is also driven to eliminate the perceived sexism and the imbalance of power toward men.

My favorite example of this is the discussion that ensues every year about the Passover seder and its supposed emphasis on Moses and no place for Miriam. This is supposedly solved by creating a "Women's Seder" that seeks to remedy this by emphasizing the role of women. That;s fine, except that there is no role of Moses in the traditional seder. Moses is mentioned exactly once, and then in passing only as part of a sentence from the Torah quoted as a prooftext. Indeed, central to the idea of the traditional seder is the elimination of all intermediaries, male or female, between the celebrant and God.

Mind you, there is still plenty that can be changed, if that is one's desire, to make this point better. Translating the arba banim as "four children" rather than "four sons", including relevant texts and stories of female sages or heroes to offset the named Rabbis in the text. But by creating an enemy to root out and an artificial narrative to be displaced, the proponents of such "Women's Seders" have transformed the narrative from one form of exclusion to another.

This must, inevitably, create a social response. The same forces that drove alienation in women in one generation are equally capable of driving alienation in men in the next. But there are still a large number of women (and men) who feel much the same way about things they did 20 years ago. And why not? Women who grow up struggling against sexism implicit and implicit feel differently about the world than women who didn't. A young woman of 18 coming out of today's Reform movement is not going to feel that changes are tenuous or even feel personally invested in them. By contrast, a woman of 50 who grew up in the Reform movement is far more likely to feel that efforts to change things are a reversion to a different and worse time -- and that claims that men are feeling alienated or powerless or uninspired are simply the same criticisms that were used to resist change 30 years ago.

It is worth stressing again that all branches of Judaism (and the western world generally) are in a constant state of challenge and reexamination of fundamental principles. It is the problem of grappling with the modern world. The effort of some to shut out the modern world entirely, or to return to "traditional" practices (often an unintentional parody of the historic reality owing more to the needs of the people of today than the historic record) is a similar issue of wrestling.

But the question remains - can you have a reaction without an enemy? Can individuals come together as groups that draw distinctions (such as gender) in a way that is self-affirming and non-threatening? For 40 years now, we have distrusted exclusive gatherings of white males because they have traditionally been loci of economic and social power. The all male social club as a place for the elite to do business, for example. But as power and choice in society become more fluid, the roles served by all male or all female institutions take on different roles. The challenge of our times is how well we can capture the positive and the necessary without re-enforcing the negative.
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