Change ‘R Us

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Frustrated raconteurs like myself eagerly seize opportunities to tell a treasured story. I am, therefore, much indebted to Shawn Landres for his comments to Toby Katz’s post. They have given me all the excuse I need.

Shawn (whose own blog is very much to be admired for its wonderful work at intergroup harmony) repeats a charge that has been made so often that it is hard to imagine our readers not instinctively yawning before reading our de rigueur refutations. Orthodoxy, he says, is not the unchanging, ‘Ol Faithful, Rock of Gibraltar of unswerving stasis. Some have already responded to him, and I wonder whether it is worthwhile rehashing material that has been aired so many times before.

There is always room for a story, though. The year was 1983. The President of University of Judaism (which just happens to be the Conservative school at which Shawn works) sent a letter to the community on official stationery, warning of a new problem facing the community.

Baalei Teshuva.

Yes, you heard correctly. David Lieber could not find much to be proud of in those who returned to fuller Jewish observance. He did find much to be concerned about, although some twenty years later it is still difficult to understand what he wanted the community at large to do about his concerns. Promote intermarriage as an alternative to the “fundamentalist approach to religion…certainty of ideology and …highly structured routine” these benighted souls had embraced? Having disparaged their motivation (“alcohol and drugs have lost their ability to satisfy and what better course is there to follow than to turn to religion for guidance?”) and trashed their course of study (“[they are] taught that is possible to gain all knowledge from the study of ancient texts”), perhaps he felt it wise to warn of the impending disaster (“with the intensity of religious practice…often comes narrowness and even fanaticism. The result is a depreciation of the human mind”).

The letter backfired. Many of the critics came from the ranks of the Conservative movement, rabbis and laymen alike. They saw it as a mean-spirited exercise in making bad wine from sour grapes. It also set off a battle in the popular press, which quickly became a debate between Orthodox and Conservative proponents. The issue that Shawn raised – whether Orthodoxy changes or not – became a front-burner question.

None of the rabbis or academicians rushing to the aid of Orthodoxy argued as persuasively as a group of Chabad women in Orange County, writing in one of the Jewish papers. (We had three, back then.) They provided a moshul, a parable, that people still remember.

A tree is remarkably resilient. Facing the strength and fury of a gale, the tree bends, and therefore doesn’t snap. Surely, it is flexible. But just because it can bend, does not mean it can pick itself up and walk twenty paces.

Orthodoxy changes. What makes it different from the heterodox movements is that there are definite limits and boundaries to that change. There are rules that make the degree of change predictable. The rules themselves may show a small amount of wiggle room between different Orthodox approaches, but they bunch up pretty closely on a continuum of possibility. These rules are accessible to the average student. They are complex, but not mystifying. They give us a pretty good idea as to whether Orthodox Jews ten years from now will be driving on Shabbat. Anyone want to guess when the Conservative movement will embrace gay marriage?

As Ruvain Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan once put it, “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

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6 Responses

  1. Reb Yudel says:

    Just for the record: Mr. Zimmerman’s name is Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham v’Rachel Riva.

  2. Sholom Simon says:

    Shawn Landres: maybe it wasn’t you who made the criticism, but every O Jew who engages in multi-denominational dialogue has experienced this double-barrelled criticism: Orthodoxy is criticized for being too rigid; and also that Orthodoxy is criticized for hypocritically asserting that C and R change too much while ignoring their own changes. I think that’s what the writer meant by “Seems we’re darned if we do, and darned if we don’t.”

  3. Intriguingly, Shira Schmidt has turned my evidence-backed observation into a criticism, writing,

    Now we are criticized for changing too much (rightward shift). Seems we’re darned if we do, and darned if we don’t.

    An observation that a movement has shifted to the right (or to the left, for that matter) is not per se a charge or a criticism. It is an observation. It always is interesting to me to see people bristle when such observations are made and react against perceived criticisms that aren’t coming from the observer (but may be coming from elsewhere).

  4. Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein, for your kind words about my blog. That said, I need to write three short sentences about my own affiliation, because Rabbi Adlerstein made the connection explicit. I try in my own blog to avoid implying “guilt (or innocent) by association,” as I fear Rabbi Adlerstein has done in his response by citing an incident that took place twenty-one years ago in connection to my post.

    For what it’s worth, I tow my own intellectual & ideological line, not that of any employer. My affiliation to the UJ is of the non-stipendiary variety, via its Sigi Ziering Institute; I am not a UJ faculty member this year, though I have been in the past, as a lecturer in the non-sectarian undergraduate program. In any event, the UJ teaching staff includes all streams of Jewish thought–orthodox, Conservative, Reform, renewal, etc. (I would write more about this, but I don’t want anyone to think that I “protest too much.”)

  5. David says:

    I know that it was a rhetorical question but I give the Conservative movement 5 to 10 years maximum before they accept gay marriage. Oddly enough, they will probably do that before they officially accept patralineal descent. I give that another 15 to 20 years.

  1. January 19, 2005

    […] s found before, but in smaller numbers – not unlike the colors of Biston betularia. 2. R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein used a different analogy: A tree is remarkably resil […]