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Anti-Reductionism: A Critique of The Liberal American Jewish Community

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For those of you who frequently read my writing you understand that I am never hesitant to criticize Orthodox Judaism. Given that my entry into the Jewish blogging world was sparked by my initial disenchantment with Orthodox Judaism, it is easy to understand why my writing is often permeated with critiques of Orthodoxy.
But when we take a look at the flip side of the coin, the other side can hardly get off scot free. I’m talking about my new community, that of liberal (aka non-Orthodox) American Judaism.
The true beauty and value of Judaism comes from what makes Judaism uniquely Judaism. It can simply be no other way. And while this tautology may sound obvious, I often feel like the liberal American Jewish community is continuously trying to reduce Judaism to something other than Judaism.
There are a couple of different ways that this is done.
For instance, many Jewish communal leaders will only speak about Judaism in its capacity to create strong tight-knit communities. However, this Durkheimian view of Judaism holds true when applied to almost any group devoted to a unique cause. Nearly every political group or sports team shares a similar sense of group cohesion and comradery. This is not unique to Judaism.
Others will try and reduce Judaism to liberal ideology and progressive politics under the guise of the elusive notion of Jewish values. Now it is true that Judaism did bring certain universal values and ideas into the ancient world, but Judaism is much more than the idea that all humans are created in the image of God and that Tikun Olam, or social justice, is a good thing.
A last group tries to reduce Judaism to a 15 year period in the middle of the 20th century. For this group, all of Jewish education begins at the holocaust and ends with the state of Israel. Just think about how much funding from the liberal American Jewish community goes directly towards either the holocaust or Israel, with no care for any other period or ideas within Jewish history. Interestingly enough (and I did fact check this claim), Judaism did exist before the 1930’s for some 3000+ years.
Now of course all of these separate parts of Judaism are immensely important and I cannot imagine any Jewish curriculum that doesn’t touch on all these issues in length. But when Judaism is reduced to something else it becomes exact that - something else.
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, spent much of his life trying to mitigate this exact problem. Kaplan envisioned a form of Judaism where the civilizational aspects of Judaism including (but not limited to) the intellectual tradition, rituals, folklore, and liturgy of Judaism would remain central, even after the archaic theology became unbelievable.
Tragically, Reconstructionist Judaism has turned out to be a failed experiment, viewed, by the few people who have even heard of it, as a highly watered down and largely irrelevant form of Judaism. While Kaplan is one of my personal favorite Jewish thinkers, I would sadly have to agree with this claim.
One of the fundamental realities within our universe, first observed by Aristotle and more recently brought into the public sphere by the Gestalt school of psychology, is that the whole is greater (and can become something totally different ) than the sum of its parts.
This is true from sociology to physics, and everything in between. For instance, a single water molecule isn’t wet or even considered a liquid, making wetness ipso-facto irreducible. Groups of individuals interacting creates something called a society, with different properties then any one of the single units. And billions of neuronal impulses in our brains come together to form human consciousness in a way that seems fundamentally incomprehensible.
So too with Judaism.
The different parts of Judaism fuse together to form something much greater than any one idea, text, ritual, or lesson from our history, and this means that in order to learn about and subsequently teach Judaism, one must learn every part of it.
This means that to be an effective Jewish educator one must spend years learning the halachic system, even if that individual has no intention of ever following its teachings. It means that one must read the great debates of Jewish theology, even if one is an avowed agnostic.
It means that one must study the parts of our tradition that may not correlate so well with the idea that Judaism can be reduced to social justice. Learn about the supposed Canaanite genocide in the book of Joshua or the laws pertaining to the treatment of homosexuals or immodest women. And then learn about how later Jewish thinkers spent their entire intellectual lives trying to understand the inherent good within these myths and laws in light of their belief in an omnibenevolent God.
Once one plunges into the holistic picture of Judaism, they will quickly realize that it is impossible to reduce and jettison. Judaism isn’t just certain ideas, social benefits, a set of rituals, certain beliefs or any other single thing.
It is simply Judaism. And if the liberal American Jewish community wishes to retain their Jewish label, they must start to teach and live it.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Postings on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.

  As no movement in Judaism completely follows all the "revealed" mitzvot (commandments), what right      does any voice have in specifying which ones to follow? See answers from Reform, Conservative, and    Orthodox Rabbis HERE. 


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