Reframing Liberal Judaism

By Ben Dreyfus

Published October 21, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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The Union for Reform Judaism convenes early next month in Toronto for its Biennial Convention, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will follow with its biennial in December. These gatherings are opportunities for the two largest denominations in North American Judaism to take stock of the big picture. Looking at the big picture should also involve examining its frame: the ways we think and talk about our Judaism.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has argued that the Republican Party’s ascent over the last three decades was due to the ways in which conservative frames dominated American political discourse. Even when liberal candidates have taken opposing positions, they have defined their positions in terms of the Republican frames (such as “tax relief” or “the war on terror”). It was hard for Democrats to win when they let Republicans establish the terms of the debate.

Similarly, religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

These frames can even infect language intended to be inclusive. When supposedly pluralistic Jewish organizations claim to be open to “Jews of all levels of observance,” they are stipulating a hierarchy of observance in which some forms of Jewish observance are at a higher level and others are at a lower level. Such organizations may be sincere in welcoming everyone, but they are indistinguishable in that respect from Chabad. When the Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah in Israel writes on its Web site about Jews “from Orthodox to secular and everything in between,” it is collapsing all the diversity of Judaism onto a single linear spectrum, where everyone is measured on a scale from 0 to Orthodox. In actuality, the liberal streams of Judaism have distinctive philosophies of their own and are not merely “in between” Orthodox and secular.

So what can be done about this problem? Being careful about our words is necessary but not sufficient; the solution must also be about ideas. It is not enough to take the sentence “Orthodox Judaism is more religious than liberal Judaism” and replace “religious” with a more acceptable synonym. We need to eliminate the idea that Orthodox Judaism is more anything and liberal Judaism is less anything.

The liberal streams of Judaism should articulate visions of Judaism that do not depend on explicit or implicit comparisons to other contemporary movements and offer instead a picture of how we would think about Judaism if we were the only Jews on earth. These visions would provide a path to being a fully actualized religious Jew within each liberal stream, rather than advancing the perception that someone who wants to be “more religious” has to go elsewhere.

Ben Dreyfus blogs at mahrabu.blogspot.com and jewschool.com.


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