Kippot, Tzitzit, Tefillin, Shuckling — Who Do These Reform Teens Think They Are?

Debra Nussbaum Cohen (one of my favorite religion reporters) has a fascinating article in the latest issue of The New York Jewish Week about young Reform Jews turning toward tradition.

Reporting from the Reform movement’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., she writes:

The more traditional kids also seem to blanch when the camp tries to hold more nontraditional prayer sessions, such as a jazz service that is described as having been “botched.”

Accommodating this turn toward tradition has, of course, involved a delicate balancing act for Reform Judaism, since the movement was originally built, as its very name suggests, on the rejection of many of these Jewish traditions, which had been considered irrational or out of step with the times.

The article also helps resolve a mystery that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Here in New York, I feel like I occasionally meet 20-somethings who are enthusiastic about Reform Judaism. And yet I can’t think of anyone I know who worships in Reform synagogues. I have an impression of urban Reform synagogues (okay, actually more of a prejudice, since I have only attended Reform services here a few times) as places without much to offer young Jews.

In the article, a 24-year-old Reform rabbinical student, David Singer, who describes himself as one of the more traditional people in his class, confesses:

Singer takes pains to differentiate his religious observance — which includes always wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit, keeping kosher and refraining from spending money and riding on the Sabbath — from Orthodoxy.

The article notes:

Singer says:

This is a significant point. Personal autonomy is important. The current state of Orthodoxy serves as real-world proof of that. Even Modern Orthodoxy, if we are to believe one of the movement’s leading lights, is increasingly sliding into “cultic” behavior and “has surrendered in almost every area of responsibility to the more right-wing group.”

But the history of the Reform movement, I think, also demonstrates the limits of autonomy as an overarching Jewish value. As the Jewish Week article notes, while young Reform rabbis turn toward tradition, some of their older colleagues “proudly eat shrimp and bacon.” Now, there’s certainly nothing so terrible about choosing to eat treyf (bacon is delicious, I know from considerable past experience). But should doing so be a point of Jewish pride?

Personal autonomy means being able to make choices about observance — and nonobservance. But being Jewish means wrestling with a tradition, a difficult and challenging tradition, one that we did not necessarily choose and certainly one that was not tailor-made for our personal preferences or contemporary convenience. And so autonomy, in a Jewish context, shouldn’t be understood as license to simply ignore or blithely strip away the parts of our tradition that are inconvenient (as the Reform movement’s rationalizing forefathers did as they wrote much of Judaism’s ritual and halachic richness out of their tradition). Even when we choose not to observe traditions, aren’t we still obligated to grapple with them?

So two-and-a-half cheers for autonomy! I’m glad young Reform Jews feel free to make their own choices and, yes, to innovate. But I hope they’re also aware that Judaism, in its very essence, involves limits on personal autonomy — that it is something which makes demands on each of us. The Jewish tradition is more than just a smorgasbord of religious options from which we pick and choose; it is also, as the Orthodox rightly note, a yoke.

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