Monday, November 01, 2010

Rethinking Egalitarianism

Is egalitarianism the utopian panacea that its advocates make it out to be? Not according to Jay Michaelson who addressed this issue in a Forward article.

I think he’s got it exactly right. I truly believe that the pursuit of egalitarianism in many cases sacrifices the essence of one’s religious experience for an ideal that is at best secondary to one’s spirituality -and at worst detrimental to it.

The goal of egalitarianism as most people know is to empower women by equalizing the religious experience with that of men. The method of choice in all Jewish denominations including Orthodoxy (albeit only among the far left) in recent years is in granting traditionally male roles to women.

Thus you have even Orthodox women being quasi-ordained and seminaries that will produce female quasi-rabbis. And we are even beginning to see Orthodox female cantors in certain circumstances. But in Orthodoxy this is really the fringe. Most Orthodox Shuls are quite traditional and do not have any of these innovations.

Conservative and Reform on the other hand are way ahead of even the most left wing of modern Orthodoxy. If one wants true egalitarianism one must choose one of the non Orthodox movements. Even the most ardent Orthodox feminist has to concede that complete religious equality between the sexes is impossible in an Orthodox setting.

Mr. Michaelson points out that egalitarianism does not begin and end with women’s issues. In its search for inclusiveness for - not only women but all Jews – much of traditional Davening has been reduced or eliminated in order for Jews with limited backgrounds to better understand and participate. Innovations that have been substituted - says Michaelson - are all B-O-R-I-N-G!

This is not a trivial matter. I believe he is absolutely right about this. It is no accident that the Conservative movement where these kinds of innovations are commonplace is rapidly shrinking. Attendance is down in so many of their synagogues that they are being forced to consolidate with each other. As time passes and there is even more attrition, those consolidated shuls will further consolidate. Let’s face it. Although this is not the only reason the Conservative movement is shrinking - the way some of these Shuls operate is so boring that it will put anyone to sleep. And that doesn’t help. Here is how Mr. Michaelson puts it:

Besides gender separation, another supposed inegalitarianism of Orthodox congregations is that if you’re not already familiar with the traditional liturgy, you’re likely to be lost. Conservative and Reform congregations announce page numbers. They sprinkle in English readings. And they tend to sing a lot slower. This, we are told, makes services more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

Or does it? Yes, they make what’s offered accessible. But often, what’s offered isn’t worth accessing in the first place. I know that for many people, responsive readings are a pleasant way to think happy thoughts in the synagogue. Indeed, most rabbis I know (from all denominations) find that these readings suck the wind — the ruach — right out of the service. They kill momentum, and because they tend to be laden with theological talk that almost no one believes, they tend to alienate the less committed as much as include them.

Think about it — which is more inclusive: energetically singing words you don’t really understand, in an environment in which people are participating actively, or intoning deeply problematic theological statements in unison with a largely lethargic “audience”?

The paradox is that in attempting to make a Shul more meaningful to all they end up making their services as boring as can be. Ruach – spiritual fervor – is just about eliminated.

Michaelson suggests that instead of making so many changes in the traditional service, they should leave it alone. Educating members to learn how to participate in traditional services is a far better option. I would have to agree. The changes innovated by heterodoxy clearly are chasing people away.

It is no small wonder that Michaelson’s opening anecdote about a Jewish Academic who with his wife were lifelong egalitarians happened. Upon relocating from New York to a small town in the South he searched for a Shul among all three denominations:

He described them as a “lame” Conservative synagogue, a “dead” Reform synagogue and a Modern Orthodox congregation in the suburbs...

…my friend and his wife… chose the Orthodox synagogue. Perhaps surprisingly, she was more comfortable there than he was. Yes, my friend’s wife said, she resented being excluded from participation in ritual, but at least at the Orthodox synagogue, she had access to some meaningful prayer experience. The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.

It’s true that for some – as Michaelson points out - these new innovations are meaningful. But I wonder just how many people that is true for? How many really enjoy these dumbed-down services and how many are in these Shuls out of egalitarian principles - whether they really enjoy it or not?

Education is the answer. The above anecdote and shrinking numbers in Heterodox Synagogues is a clear indicator that dumbing down Davening is not the answer. Education is. The best form of that is Jewish education starting from day one in the home and continuing in religious elementary schools through high school… and beyond. Adult education is the answer for those who missed out.

Those who have received this type of education will be far more involved and the kind of participatory experience that Orthodox Shuls provide. And although it isn’t the only reason Orthodox Shuls are thriving, I can’t help but believe that this is a major component of it.

I know that there are people who will retort that their experience with new innovations has been a positive one. But I wonder how common that experience is. And I wonder if at least in some cases they aren’t deluding themselves because of their belief in the egalitarian ideal.

None of this is really meant to refute egalitarianism in Judaism (which I have attempted to do in other posts). The point here is: Yotza Scahro B’Hefseida. Isn’t it just possible whatever one gains by adopting universal (and not just feminist) egalitarian modalities will be lost in the numbers who are bored to tears with the resultant product and leave Judaism entirely?

Definitely something to think about.