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:
In addition to demanding more traditional prayer, a small but growing number of campers and young faculty there are wearing yarmulkes or tzitzit, even tefillin along with prayer shawls. One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected. For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes. There are even “rumblings” of interest in making the camp, which is now kosher-style, really kosher, said Kutz Director Rabbi Eve Rudin. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago. Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”
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:
“Do any of us pray in Reform synagogues in New York City aside from small minyanim at Beth Elohim?” the Park Slope Reform synagogue where he works as rabbinic intern. “No. You’re more likely to find us at the independent minyanim” that in recent years have sprouted up around New York City, where the approach to prayer tends to be at once creative and traditional. “We’re looking for things outside the box in which our generation feels comfortable experimenting and expressing our Judaism in ways that haven’t always fit into the established norms of Reform Judaism. At times it is seen as an affront to people who aren’t always ready for it,” Singer said.
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:
But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.
“Maybe it’s a fear that ‘God forbid we become more like the Orthodox.’ It’s not about being Orthodox, but the exact opposite because we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about. It’s seen as a threat, but it shouldn’t be.”
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.