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Stop the presses! Reform Jews can’t be called “observant”?

October 20, 2011

Joshunda Sanders, the lovely and talented woman who replaced me on the religion beat at the Austin American-Statesman after I left in 2009, has a cool story on a local Jewish country singer. Mollie Hemingway over at my favorite blog Get Religion rightfully praises Joshunda on the piece but nitpicks her use of the term “observant Jew.” She writes:

When we use “observant” to describe Jewish practice, it suggests a strict keeping of the commandments and laws.

Read the entire post to see what I’m talking about, but the takeaway seems to be that Reform Jews may not deserve the title “observant.” Huh?

Now, you can always argue that more detail would be helpful, so I don’t begrudge Mollie wanting to know more about this singer’s congregation (Beth Israel, which is in fact a Reform synagogue), his religious practices, etc. But I think Joshunda told his story well. And let’s not forget that editors have inch-counts and make cuts and lots of stuff just can’t get in the final version of a story. Sometimes that’s a real problem. I don’t think it is here.

I would love to hear thoughts on this from Jews.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2011 3:27 pm

    Hello Eileen

    I don’t see the problem in describing a Reform Jew as “observant” if he/she indeed is so. Furthermore, the Reform Jew might have a different understanding when using the term “observant” than the Orthodox ditto. Not that I believe that they wouldn’t take about the same, more or less at least, but take a Reform Jewess wearing Tzitzit, kippah, Tallit and the like, she would surely understand herself as very observant (or at least observant), whereas an Orthodox Jew wouldn’t see her as observant.

    The “observant” goes according to what one believes he/she needs to “observe.” For example, some Orthodox Jews don’t believe that respecting a non-Jew is something they have to observe. For the more ethical oriented Jews (and here I have to be careful, for what is indeed the right Jewish ethics?), they would say that this Orthodox Jew might be very observant in doing the “Duties of the Limbs,” but not so much the “Duties of the Heart” (to use R. Paquda ibn Bahya’s terminology).

    Whether one agrees or disagrees with what the Reform Movement believes to be right observance, is another matter of discussion, but I don’t see any problem in calling a Reform Jew for observant if he/she indeed is that.

    Shavu’a Tov

    Shmuel Aryeh

    • eeflynn permalink*
      October 22, 2011 4:04 pm

      Thank you for your response and your insight, Shmuel! This makes a lot of sense to me.

      • October 24, 2011 10:25 am

        You are welcome, Eileen.

        And I’m glad that you can learn from me, as well as I am learning from you. Just spent some time reading some of your posts here, and respect for your ability to reflect on things, which others might take for granted, as well as presenting these thoughts in an interesting way.

        After I read your post here, I got inspired to write my own thoughts on “Orthodox” vs. “observant.” You are welcome to give some feedback on it, if you have the time and interest.

        All the best

        Shmuel Aryeh

  2. eeflynn permalink*
    October 24, 2011 12:04 pm

    Thank you, Shmuel! I just visited your illuminating blog and posted a comment. Really enjoyed reading your 25 facts and recent posts. Will add you to my blog roll. Keep up the good work!


  1. Who is an “Orthodox”? | A Jewish Voice

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