Rethinking Jewish Civility at the Forward

Over at the Forward, a weekly New York Jewish newspaper that we read sporadically online, one writer named Jay Michaelson, about whom we know very little, has opted to abandon the restraints of civility and to hurl unsubstantiated and unexplained and unprovoked insults at large numbers of committed synagogue-attending Jews and at the rabbis, cantors and other leaders who serve them.

Now sure, Jay has a freedom of speech right to insult whomever he wishes. And the Forward has a freedom of the press right to publish whatever slights that it sees fit.

But rights does not equate with propriety.

The offending op-ed is called, "Rethinking Egalitarianism: Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?"

We found the whole essay offensive and insulting. It offends all those who have striven for egalitarian rights within Judaism and the synagogue. It insults so many sincere Jews who dedicate their lives to making and maintaining synagogues.

By the way, it turns out that the essay is not much about egalitarianism. It's about how little the author and his friends like attending certain synagogues. So we might argue that this opinion piece is a bizarre variation on the practice of Jews berating or hating themselves in public.

Here are a few of Michaelson's most awful expressions and phrases that jumped out at us, things that ought not be said in any polite community discussion of synagogues.
  • (He starts off with a story about a community in the South with) ...a “lame” Conservative synagogue, a “dead” Reform synagogue.
  • (He goes on to observe:) The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.
  • (He makes this general claim:)...if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all.
  • (He says about)...responsive readings ... (they) 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.
  • (He decries)...intoning deeply problematic theological statements in unison with a largely lethargic “audience”?
  • (He asks quasi-rhetorically:) Is it really more inclusive to be patronized by a service aimed at the lowest common denominator?
  • (He pontificates cleverly:) "...egalitarianism should not mean that everyone is equally infantilized."
You do need to read the whole screed to appreciate how it purports to discuss a deeply divisive contemporary issue of liturgical synagogue reform, but under the surface the essay just reeks of an even more divisive triumphal Orthodox-like nastiness.

Bottom line: It does not matter who is Jay Michaelson, who is his "Jewish academic from New York" friend, or what they like or dislike in synagogues that they attend in the North or in the South, in the East or in the West.

No amount of obfuscation can hide that it is 2010 and that all flavors of synagogues need to be 100% egalitarian in every single aspect of their practice.


Roo said...

I have do disagree, Tzvee. I found the essay not particularly well-reasoned, but I can't say I found it uncivil.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

ok, my bar must be set lower than yours

The Rancorous Rebbetzin said...

not sure who you are, but thank you. As the shlichat tzibbur of the shul Mr Michaelson was actually referring to I found his comments, having never set foot in our shul, very offensive. My husband and I are Conservative but consider ourselves very Renewal. We also spent many years at BJ and both lead services there. He spoke without knowing anything about our community based on a friend's statements taht have more to do with conflicts within his marriage than anything lame at our shul. Anyway, Thanks.