Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Saying Kaddish for Reform and Conservative Jews?

Over the weekend, before Tuvia and I schlepped into Monsey, we were in Livingston, New Jersey, visiting with Tuvia's family for his stepmother's Adult Bat Mitzvah ceremony at a Reform synagogue. The event and Shabbos are already several days removed, and there are often things I intend on writing about but never get to because they become history rather than necessarily present memory. However, on one of my listservs this morning, someone sent out a kind of disturbing article from The Jerusalem Post: Non-Orthodox Judaism disappearing. The headline isn't exactly disturbing or surprising, but rather something in the text caught my eye as upsetting (especially in light of my weekend at a Reform shul).
"With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements," said Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
I've been aware for a long time that the Conservative Movement is hurting, losing individuals to the Orthodox end or the Reform end at a fairly steady rate. But the Reform Movement? It's been growing at an exponential rate, it seems, as converts typically come into Judaism through Reform and because most of those who associate with Reform Judaism also associate themselves as Secular Jews, and that's a large portion of the population. Lamm, however, attributes to the loss of Reform for a different reason.
"Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture," Lamm said.
I found this a little upsetting. Maybe more so than the idea of having to say Kaddish for the movements. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm also one of those holdovers who says that all newspapers aren't going to die. Some will persist, because we trust what we can hold in our hands in front of us -- technology is uncertain, unreliable, and not forever. But the idea that the Reform Movement was never in the picture is concerning. It is clear that Lamm assumes that Judaism is religious Judaism, observant Judaism, traditional Judaism. He acknowledges Reform Judaism only to the point that it exists, but beyond that, it has no authority or legitimacy and deserves no attention. It's a disturbing sentiment for such a powerful man.

I was uplifted by his sentiments at the end of the article, though, regarding how he views those of the Gay-Lesbian population. But he does make that horrible generalization that homosexuals are proselytizers of their lifestyle. I'm guessing he has a problem with flamboyantly open and loud gays? Seriously? What a narrow-minded outlook! But he does say, "Everyone should be made to feel comfortable ... I would never exclude a person because his wife does not cover hair or because he does not adhere to the laws of Shabbat or because he is a homosexual."

Enter: Glimmer of hope for someone.

But the reason this article has me a little put-off is because, although I'm about a million light years away from the Reform Movement in observance and ideologies, but because I also was in that Movement not that long ago, I see the positives it provides. Yes, they have an acoustic guitar and tambourine and piano that made my ears ring and my face turn into a scowl with irritation (reminds me of church camp, seriously), and yes they send kids to the door after services with tzedakah boxes (this was the most disturbing and shocking thing at the shul this past Shabbos), but people were there, if only for the simchas. Yes, the rabbi was taking notes on the bima on Saturday morning for his sermon (writing on Shabbos?!), and yes there were men not wearing kippot and women wearing clothing akin to string bikinis. But it's how those Jews do their Judaism and I applaud them for having some devotion to Shabbat, lifecycle events, and to their family having some knowledge of their Judaism. It isn't how I would ever choose to do my Judaism, and I can't even say that I approve of how Reform Judaism rolls. But it's how I came to Judaism, and I can understand the lens many of those people are viewing Judaism through. Sometimes it needs to be easy and accessible, but that's also the path people start upon that can lead them to Orthodox Judaism and more.

At any rate, I think it's a little early to say kaddish for the Reform and Conservative Movements, and I think it would be very, very wrong to do so. I do think, however, that Orthodox Jews need to be prepared to welcome and bring people into Orthodoxy from the Conservative Movement if need be. It isn't us versus them and we shouldn't mourn their movements, because that means we're morning the loss of thousands of Jews within those movements. Even the most secular Jews call out for a connection at some point, and we need to be prepared when that time comes.