Monday, April 22, 2013

Eric Yoffie's Laughable Article About Chabad

Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism (the main organization of Reform Judaism in America), recently wrote an opinion piece in Haaretz in which he was rather critical of Chabad.

Some of it is good points, i.e. Chabad meshichism, support for the Baruch Marzel political element in Israel. Some is essentially sour grapes, i.e. getting annoyed at Chabad's winning over donors affiliated with Reform and Conservative congregations (and presumably reducing their donations to those congregations/causes accordingly). But one part is just really laughable.

When Reform and Conservative leaders protest that celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitvah in a synagogue should require preparation and serious training, including membership and involvement for more than a few months, they are not simply protecting their membership model. They are pointing out that there are limits to feel-good Judaism; even as an outreach method, sweeping away requirements for study and family engagement becomes counterproductive at a certain point.

This is not a new message for Eric Yoffie. From a July 2007 piece originally in the Jerusalem Post

In North America, the issues are very different. Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues routinely require families wanting a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a son or daughter to meet certain requirements. Generally, the child must attend a religious school for at least a year, if not more, and the parents are also asked to commit themselves to study and worship at the congregation. The premise is that in the absence of Torah learning and familial commitment and involvement, the Bar Mitzvah will be without meaning – an event celebrated primarily because of parental guilt or as an excuse for a party.

Why is this so funny? Not because they do nothing to stop the over the top indulge-fest that are the bar mitzvah parties of the typical children in these congregations. Rather, because Reform was originally lukewarm if not somewhat hostile to the bar mitzvah.

Check out some past responsa from the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis, the reform rabbinical organization). From 1913, Kaufmann Kohler (Kohler, who studied to be a rabbi under Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (of all people), is perhaps best known for convening the conference that resulted in the notorious "Pittsburgh Platform" of Reform Judaism, was president of Hebrew Union College from1 903 on) :

Disregarding altogether the false claim of mental maturity of the thirteen-year-old boy for a true realization of life's sacred obligations, I maintain that the Bar Mitzvah rite ought not to be encouraged by any Reform rabbi, as it is a survival of Orientalism like the covering of the head during the service

To be fair, his biggest problem with bar mitzvah was that it had an attitude of neglecting the religious training of girls. And in today's world, where many modern Orthodox Jewish congregations let girls give a d'var Torah after prayers, and Bais Yaakov and even Satmar girls have plenty of (Tanach-based) religious training, perhaps he would not have been so against it, although he does show other concerns, i.e. "the false claim of mental maturity."

Even what seems to be the main opposing view to Kohler, that of David Neumark (Hebrew Union College professor from 1907-1924, ordained by Lehranstalt fuer die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in 1897 in Germany), still said "As to the practical question involved, I am perfectly in accord with the suggestion to abolish Bar Mitzvah ceremony in favor of the Confirmation on Shavuot for boys and girls alike."

They only later began to cater to the demands of the congregants to have a bar mitzvah (Israel Bettan, 1954) (like their Conservative and Orthodox brethren) and even then initially put up a defense against extending it to Bat Mitzvah, not because they were anti-equality, but because Bar/Bat Mitzvah was a bad thing and it should not be expanded.

Yet, despite its feeble basis in the realities of religious living, Bar Mitzvah has retained its old appeal for many parents in some of our Reform congregations. In fact, in many recently organized congregations, it has assumed a position of importance which it had never before attained. It would seem that when the substance eludes our grasp, we tighten our hold on the shell.
Quite different, however, must be our attitude to the proposed Bat Mitzvah ceremony, which goes counter to tradition and for which there is no popular demand. When a new religious practice is urged upon us, of whose value our fathers had no estimate and we have had no convincing demonstration, it is not enough to point to some by-product of possible utility, as we attempt to do in the case of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Unless the new project recommends itself to us by its inherent worth and direct positive purpose, none of its strained qualities shall ever win and hold our active interest.

After acquiescing to some extent, they at least tried to keep tallit and kippa out of the picture.

Similar requests come at times from the parents of a Bar Mitzvah. To please an older member of the family, they would have the boy wear Talit and skull-cap during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

1 comment:

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