Thursday, August 1, 2013

Notes on the conference sessions...with additions

The last post about the conference was all about me; this is all about the different presentations, some of which were very good and some of which were…not.
Mostly I attended sessions on the Soc of Modern Judaism--it's what I do so...  What I found is that there are several groups of people doing this work.  There is a group of people who disagree with each other, but are in serious conversation about the demographic landscape: how many Jews? By what criteria are they defined? What do they do? Where are they located? And what does all this mean for the present and future? The underlying issue—which was not explicitly discussed, but implicit in every single conversation—was political.  Who gets to decide who is a Jew and who is what kind of a Jew?  As I noted earlier, I’ve been told both by a religious and a secular Jew that my Jewish practice is a sham.  While I didn’t say this to either person, my immediate and visceral response is “Who died and made you God?”  But the question of authority is, of course, central—does halakhah, in the person of Orthodox rabbis, decide?  Do I, the autonomous individual, decide?  Does the surrounding culture decide?  Do the academic demographers decide?  In each case, there is a consequence for both individual and contemporary Judaism. And so these decisions are fundamentally about politics and power: the decisions that are made shape and continue to shape distributions of resources. The more I think about this, the more I feel like this area should be made more transparent. Every discussion of demography needs to make this explicit. Having written that...I take it back. It means you have to recognize and state your personal biases, hopes, and political agenda.  I'm not sure I know that for myself and I'm not sure I'm willing to lay those personal biases I do see in myself bare to be attacked (or that's my fear).  Nevertheless--that is what is at stake.
I am a member of the group struggling for a place at the table.  I am a non-halakhic Jew who nevertheless references and respects halakhah.  To those who live by halakhah, this is contradictory, meaningless, a mockery.  While I don't admit it in "rational" and academic discussions, it's personally painful.  I take my Judaism seriously, I wrestle with what it means, how I live it, how I teach it, and why I think it matters to me and to the world (that is, I don't expect everyone to be Jewish, but I think the world would be a poorer place without Judaism. (Every time I write that I feel like I have to write a disclaimer "of course, that could be said for other religions/cultures as well," which is true besides my point.)). So for my practice to be written off by, say, my secular Jewish host--who believes that she is just fine because she made aliyah and raised her kids as Israelis--is...disturbing.  I'm not at all sure why we're writing each other out. Using the classic elephant model--she has the elephant's tail, I have its ear (or pick your favorite body part).  Nobody has the whole elephant by themselves, but if we include everyone, maybe we can draw the whole thing. Anyway that is the debate--and there are those who are seriously engaging in it.
There are another set of people who are engaging in it in a more problematic way and one session I went to exemplified this.  Here, there was a combined argument that was problematic.  First, these two people decided that calling Jews "religious" and "non-religious" privileged "religious."  So, instead, they called Jews "religious" and "secular." The problem is that "secular" has its own baggage and the use of the term has changed over time. So the three people (the third came from an institute that promotes/educates about secular Judaism in the historical sense) were giving a presentation that included secular (meaning non-religious Jewish practices (movies, books, etc.)), secularism (meaning an ideology of the early 20th century that included left-wing ideology, Jewish ethnicity, and speaking Yiddish), and secularization (the movement away from religion entirely).  Each had problems. The fact that "secular" itself is charged (she meant cultural, based on what she presented, by the way) I've mentioned. The second paper tried to do the job, but was really just confusing.  But the third guy was really a problem. Secularization theory is a piece of soc of religion that has a broad literature and is discussed at length in soc of religion.  It begins with the idea that, as we become increasingly "rationalized," religion will fall away and become less important.  Well, that happened in Europe and England pretty much as stated--and nowhere else (did I mention that this speaker was British in origin. Oh yeah).  In the Western world, the US is an outlier, even leaving aside the rise of religion in the late 20th and early 21st century.  So there has been a LOT of work done on reasons why that is the case.  Jews in the US are actually fairly secular relative to the rest of the population.  I have some ideas as to why (Jewish religious model is hard to reconcile w/ American religion, small population, etc.), but Jews are different within the US--which is different.  First of all, this guy's presentation was extremely hard to follow--kind of all over the place.  But then, he defines secularization as anyone to the left of the ultra-Orthodox because they believe in the authority of God over all.  Which really ignores the kind of negotiation between the authority of the individual and the authority of God OR Jewish people that has defined American Judaism since its beginnings.  I raised the question and got a fucking lecture on secularization theory that included the "train" analogy (secularization is a train chugging down the track from religious to secular). Puh-leeze! A. that's wrong. B. do not patronize me. C. Did I mention it's wrong?  Far more complicated and complex.  The reality is that those people who want religion are both more individualistic and more traditional AND liberal religion (and here I have examples of Catholicism and Judaism) is more universal and more traditional. The first speaker said that the internet leads to secularization because it democratizes religion--removes the rabbis from the mix.  HUH?  That is such a simplistic definition of secularization.  So yeah, I don't take these guys seriously.
Addition:  two more things: first, this guy said that you can't tell where people live and what their politics are--everyone is all mixed up.  Um, actually not.  That is part of the problem in the US right now, particularly with regard to politics.  And then someone asked a question about the Reform movement and he gave a garbled description that effectively said that people used to move from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, but now it's not clear what they do.  He did not answer the question and left the impression that Reform is most secularized. It is certainly true that Reform is where those who practice least go, but the movement itself is more complicated--both more traditional AND more universal.  As to the people--not clear what the causal arrow is: do those who are less knowledgeable join because they are intimidated by more stuff?  How about distance?  How about (particularly with intermarried) welcome? There's a whole lotta assumed causality going on... /Addition
Even worse was the ultra-Orthodox woman from London who got up and wanted to argue that Shabbat, as a ritual, improves well-being.  She only used people who were shomer Shabbat (strict observers) and conducted 13 in-depth interviews. She said she stopped after that because "she had reached saturation," meaning the answers were all the same.  She's in psychology, so maybe the rules are different, but I don't think they are that different.  The rules I learned in methods still apply: "Compared to what?"  There so many ways that she didn't compare that it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, across Shabbat practices--the fact that she only looked at people who won't tear toilet paper on Shabbat (yes, she had a slide of an ad for toilet paper sheets guaranteed not to tear) is a problem.  What are the different levels of well-being?  Oh, and by the way, how do you measure well-being?  There are scales--I've seen them--and she didn't use any.  What about well-being simply generated by the weekend itself? Or by other activities?  How much of the well-being of Shabbat is related to Shabbat and how much to being integrated into community?  What about cross-religious practices?  
There's another problem that I'm less sure about--my hostess questioned this.  If the reason that you observe Shabbat is because God said so, then why do you care if it contributes to well-being? Weber has four categories of social action (stuff people do within a social context)

  1. Traditional--because my people have always done it like this.
  2. Affective/Emotion--makes me feel good.
  3. Instrumental: doing x gets me y.
  4. "Value Rational": getting to a goal at all costs because you value the goal. (This can be "ends justify the means," but also doing good because it's the right thing to do.) Ideology, values, ethics fits in here--as would, I think, doing something because God says so.

Obviously, many actions involve more than one category, but this isn't a bad way to think about what we do. For Orthodox Jews, observing Shabbat (or anything else) is because God said so.  When this woman makes the argument that Shabbat increases well-being, she is making an instrumental argument: Observing Shabbat (x) gets you well-being (y).  My hostess says--and I think she is right--that, as an Orthodox Jew, this woman would not make the argument--SHE doesn't observe Shabbat to feel better, but because God says so and if she feels better for doing so, that's just an added benefit.  But I think it is significant that, regardless of her personal behavior, she is attempting to make the instrumental argument. She is hardly alone--all these arguments get made in the liberal Jewish community to other Jews. What distinguishes this is her background.  So...does she simply put her personal reasons for practice in a box when she makes the academic argument.  That too, is a modern thing to do...
One more thing in this very long post: I've been hovering between sociology and Jewish studies as I've done my work.  This conference has confirmed for me that my academic place is in Jewish studies.  I've felt more engaged than at soc conferences. This is the stuff I care about in my soul; in soc, it's like "that's nice; now let's talk about world hunger."  Which is important--damn, there's a ton to research and do something about--but it just doesn't light me on fire in the same way that this does. By the same token, I feel like my voice matters more--I have more to contribute and can make a difference. So...that's decided (unless the ASA changes my mind again.  But that seems unlikely).

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