Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Are There So Few Non-Orthodox Jewish Blogs?

Why are there so few bloggers writing about Judaism and Jewishness from a perspective comparable to mine? Is it because too few non-Orthodox Jews care enough about Judaism to write about the topic, or is it because too few of them know enough about Judaism to do so?

(I couldn’t find a good photo of a guy in a kippa at a computer)

Rogueregime, a blogger on Jewish concerns from a Reform perspective, asks in a recent post, “Is anyone else like me out there?
I have found lots of great frum (i.e., religious) and off-the derech (i.e., by former "observant" Jews) blogs out there, and I have even come across some right-wing sites that at the very least are giving me some food for thought. [. . .]

But I'm not finding other blogs written by people like me:  Liberal, Reform Jews searching for a meaningful, authentic connection with the nitty-gritty of our faith.
Now I do not know how specifically Rogueregime intended the words “Liberal” and “Reform.” (Did he mean “Liberal” with a capital L or a small one? If the latter, did he mean liberal in religion or in politics?) Speaking for myself, I would be satisfied to find some blogs in which Jews who are not presently or formerly Orthodox—understood to include the whole range from Modern Orthodox to Ultra-Orthodox—address Jewish concerns. I don’t care whether they are Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist or Liberal or Renewal or “other” (which would include “unaffiliated”). I would just like to be able to read some thoughtful blog writing about what it means to be Jewish from perspectives that are like mine to the extent of being completely outside of Orthodoxy. I have found Rogueregime’s blog and now the two that he cites in his post (The Reform Shuckle and Mah Rabu). There may be others out there, but, given how hard they have been to find, they cannot exist in the same profusion as Orthodox blogs. Why is that?

The first explanation that came to my mind when I asked myself this question was that there are not many non-Orthodox Jews who find being Jewish to be a topic of sufficient interest for a blog. But I think that a more plausible answer—and it is in some ways an even sadder one—is that there is simply not enough knowledge of Judaism among the non-Orthodox for many of them to blog about Jewish concerns, at least in any very interesting way. I may be overgeneralizing from a narrow experience, but it seems to me that the great majority of non-Orthodox Jews—Jews like me—have at best a smattering of second- and third-hand knowledge of the historical sources of Jewish law and doctrine. Many have not even that. Since most of us do not know Hebrew, let alone Aramaic (which I only recently learned to be the primary language of the Talmud: how ignorant is that? I also ask my non-Orthodox Jewish reader: did you know that?), we don't even have a vocabulary in which to express the pertinent concepts. At least, that is the impression that I get from reading Orthodox blogs, in which Hebrew words and phrases that I never knew are scattered like slang in the conversation of teenagers. (I have recently learned that this mode of expression is called Yeshivish.)

Now it is, of course, a celebrated fact about Jewish tradition that if you want to know what “the Jewish view” on X is, where X is a non-trivial topic, you are asking an essentially unanswerable question. There is no single Jewish view on any topic of significance: what there is is two thousand years of rabbinical disputation. What you have to learn is not what “the Jewish view” is, but how the argument has gone. The trouble is that if you grow up outside of strict Jewish observance, then that tradition is not likely to seem of anything but academic interest to you.

In writing even this much, I have run the risk of talking beyond my knowledge; so I am reluctant to take the topic much further. (Whatever shame there is in knowing that one is ignorant, it is less than the shame of learning that one has talked ignorantly, i.e., made statements with a presumption of knowledge when in fact one did not know what one was talking about.) From this point, I will try only to relate it to my own particular predicament.

I am willing to grant that there may be a form of belief in God that is not superstition. What I cannot conceive to be other than superstition is the attribution of particular events in history to God’s will, particular texts to his authorship (or “inspiration”—a bit of verbal evasion that either means essentially the same thing as authorship or means essentially nothing), or particular laws and observances to his authority. (For two thousand years our rabbis have inveighed against superstition: but it seems to me that in practice what they mean is just superstitions other than their own.)

Now from this point of view, it is difficult to conceive of a rationale for observing halakhah or bringing up one’s children within it. And among Jews who grow up and live without such observance, few are likely to feel much incentive to study the tradition of rabbinical literature and thought. But without study of that tradition, Jews really do not know what Judaism is. In my view, that means that they do not really know what they are. If they do not care about their ignorance, and either abandon Judaism or fail to pass it on to the next generation, they may be throwing away something of immeasurable value. I cannot say that I know that there is something of immeasurable value in Judaism; but I also do not know that there is not. For this reason, I am not willing to throw Judaism away.

So the sum of the matter is this: On the one hand, I cannot understand Judaism otherwise than as being founded on certain beliefs that I find to be inherently superstitious. On the other hand, there may be something of immeasurable value in Judaism. I cannot be in favor of throwing out something that, for all I know, may be of immeasurable value. I also cannot be in favor of superstition. I don’t know where to stand. My only consoling thought is that the Jews of the world—secular or religious, liberal or strict, skeptical or superstitious (but I don’t mean these three pairs of terms as equivalents!)—will go their various ways regardless of what I think or say.

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  1. I think blogs in general are hard to find. They're gaining popularity, I think. Give it a few years.

  2. But there are loads of Orthodox blogs. I find it hard to believe that non-Orthodox Jews are just less eager to get on the Web than Orthodox. I think they're blogging all right but that few of them are writing about Judaism.

  3. Some other non-Orthodox Jewish blogs include:
    Jewschool (a group blog, where some writers are Orthodox but most are not)
    The Jew and the Carrot (ditto)
    Divinity is in the Details
    Water Over Rocks
    D'yo Ilu Yamey
    Velveteen Rabbi

  4. I, too, admire the extensive knowledge about Judaism that comes from learning in an Orthodox yeshiva. But I would rather that my kids had a broader focus. It could be more illuminating to the question of "what Judaism is" to study, e.g., how Shabbos rules evolved over time, than to learn all the categories and subcategories of forbidden work. Especially if the yeshiva assumes that a tiny subset of rabbis have defined "real" Judaism.

    As for blogs, I don't know if these are exactly in the vein you're thinking of, but I like these, in addition to Jewschool:

    Fiftypercenters.com: "a blog written by and for individuals engaging with Judaism in non-traditional ways." Writers are mostly in "mixed" families but they grapple with some of the same questions you mention.

    OurJewishCommunity.org: "Online synagogue" experiment by the rabbis of a humanistic congregation. Not really a blog, but an effort to practice Judaism nontheistically (along with many other humanistic congregations).

    Thanks for being out there.

  5. BZ, thank you for the links. Of the blogs that you list, "Divinity Is in the Details" is the one that looks most interesting to me, though unfortunately the writer only posts a few entries per year. Next I would put "Water Over Rocks," which certainly does not suffer from any scarcity of posts. Poetry blogs ("Velveteen Rabbi" and to some extent "D'yo Ilu Yamey") and blogs about food ("The Jew and the Carrot") and other quotidian concerns ("Jewschool") are not so interesting to me. I can't make head or tails of "D'yo Ilu Yamey," while "Velveteen Rabbi" has such an overloaded front page that it causes my browser to freeze.

    tcs3600, thanks also for the links. "Fifty Percenters" could prove interesting, even though I am not part of its ostensible target audience. I will have to do some exploring of "Our Jewish Community." As you say, it is not a blog, though there is a blog in it by one of the rabbis called Baum's Blog.

    I certainly would not take the yeshiva as a model of education for Jews of all kinds. I agree that it would be worthwhile for Jewish young people to learn about the historical development of Jewish practices, as you suggest. But if my own experience of Reform Jewish education was at all representative then it would be nearly as difficult to teach such topics to Reform youngsters as it would be to teach them the minutiae of the Talmud. Though I was industrious and well-behaved in my weekday secular school, I and my classmates in religious school were rebellious, inattentive, and virtually unteachable. I think that the underlying cause was simply that Jewish observance played so little role in our everyday lives that any study of it or of the thinking on which it was based literally bored us silly. I imagine that things have changed since then (I have no children), but I would be surprised if this fundamental problem were not still with us.

  6. There are also a lot of bloggers who occasionally discuss issues related to Jewishness or Judaism but are not focusing on that (myself for example). If one isn't frum, then Judaism is likely not going to be the overriding thing that controls your day to day life. So it shouldn't be surprising that the non-frum or less frum Jews blog about other things. (This is essentially an expanded version of your first explanation).

  7. You might be interested in www.judaismandscience.com.

  8. I think you've hit upon the central difficulty for many of us non-orthodox Jews: we suspect that there is something immeasurably valuable in Judaism and in particular in the halakhah, but we cannot bring ourselves to return to the orthodox beliefs without which observance of the halakhah seems groundless. I believe that for those of us in this situation, the beginning of a solution may lie in studying Maimonides' bold argument (in the Guide of the Perplexed, III.25ff.) that all of the mitzvot or commandments (the details of the halakhah) have reasons, most of which are knowable. Otherwise stated, the halakhah is useful or beneficial in a way that is humanly intelligible. When we modern Jews combine Maimonides' rationalistic approach with the fact that the traditional halakhah is also our own (for "one's own" has a natural claim to one's attention and respect), we are already at least half-way toward reconsidering our non-observance of halakhah. Furthermore, we cannot know in advance that halakhah must mean halakhah as interpreted by the majority of orthodox Jews. There may be justification for re-interpreting certain aspects of halakhah, without, however, abandoning the whole halakhic tradition (which is, to exaggerate slightly, what Reform Judaism has chosen to do).