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Managing Reform Judaism For Decline

The hole in the Jewish soul can't be filled by better management (FabrikaSimf/Shutterstock)

Speaking of the decline of liberal religion, this e-mail came in from a reader, reporting on travails within liberal Judaism:

I read with great interest your account of MacIntyre’s talk at Notre Dame. One of the concepts that is so crucial to understanding our current predicament is incommensurability, which he discussed, and which almost literally prevents us from understanding people we disagree with.

As it happens, my wife works in Reform Jewish education. The synagogue has been hearing from parents who complain that their kids lack for Jewish tradition and culture in the home. She and the temple’s leaders came up with a new plan to draw families closer to Judaism, to teach them more about Jewish practices, and so forth. To make it easier for them to form their kids in Jewish homes.

You can probably guess what has happened in this age of secularization: the plan flopped. None of the families have any interest in actually doing the work to make Judaism prominent in the home. My wife can barely get them to attend, let alone do the activities. They all let their kids run around during service, despite explicit and repeated requests from my wife to sit together as a family. Anytime they are asked to contribute or attend something, they complain about busy schedules of soccer practice, music lessons, and the like. In theory they all want a solid Jewish culture at home; in practice they are willing to do none of the work required to have it.

In any event, my wife spoke with a close friend of ours about the struggle. What followed was a great example of incommensurability. Our friend, who has two degrees from a business school, said the obvious answer was to write “a new strategic plan” complete with “deliverables and desired outcomes” and to “hire an MBA consultant.” But, my wife protested, the problem is cultural, not strategic. They already did a strategic plan, in fact, and all the families said they wanted this. It’s the culture of secularism that’s stopping them from reinforcing it at home; they don’t even believe in the things they want to pass down.

Culture doesn’t matter, our friend insisted. This is just a technical problem to be solved. I chimed in that culture didn’t just matter but was possibly the only thing that mattered in this case, and that no amount of technical fixes could overcome people reluctant to “shore up the imperium.” Nonsense, our friend insisted: we have access to facts, and we know what has to be done—this is just a problem to be managed.

I remarked to my wife afterward that our friend and I may as well have been speaking different languages. I went back to After Virtue, which figured prominently in my doctoral dissertation, and found the sections where MacIntyre talks about the rise of “managerialism” in modernity and the benchmark of “effectiveness” as the ruling force of all things. (This won’t be news to anyone in academia dealing with the scourge of “assessment” in all realms of life.) From the second edition, p. 77:

“The claim that the manager makes to effectiveness rests of course on the further claim to possess a stock of knowledge by means of which organizations and social structures can be molded. Such knowledge would have to include a set of factual law-like generalizations which would enable the manager to predict that, if an event or state of affairs of a certain type were to occur or to be brought about, some other event or state of affairs of some specific kind would result. For only such law-like generalizations could yield those particular causal explanations and predictions by means of which the manager could mold, influence and control the social environment… There are thus two parts to the manager’s claim of justified authority. One concerns the existence of a domain of morally neutral fact about which the manager is to be expert. The other concerns the law-like generalizations… The manager’s claim to moral neutrality, which is itself an important part of the way the manager presents himself and functions in the social and moral world, is thus parallel to the claims of moral neutrality made by many physical scientists.”

You might roll your eyes at our managerial friend’s statements (I certainly did) but this attitude is everywhere. You can’t find an administrator at my college who isn’t committed to this basic way of thinking with every fiber of their being. Assessment? Diversity? Of course they are objective goods, these people say, and they speak of them as “law-like generalizations” and in morally neutral terms. But as MacIntyre notes, nothing is morally neutral. Liberalism is not neutral. Management theory, so cartoonishly parroted by our friend, is not neutral. Every action we take, every course we emphasize, reveals what we value. But try getting someone schooled in technocratic thinking—which is to say, virtually every member of the cultural elite—to agree with or understand that. I do not have much hope that we will be able to understand each other anytime soon.

The reader added, in a subsequent e-mail:

The main problem, and my wife agrees with this, is that no one seems sure what “Reform Judaism” is anymore. It seems like something closer to a social club for bourgeois liberals than it does a religion. If anyone is looking for a great example of what Christianity is trending toward, they need look no further than Reform Judaism.

As Rabbi Albert King once put it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

I think the basic plan that most people in this country — Christian and Jewish alike — have towards the future of their faith can be summed up as Managing For Decline™. Hey, I do it too! As I’ve written, I believe that we small-o orthodox Christians have to recognize the immense challenges ahead for us, and adjust our strategy accordingly. That’s not the same thing as continuing to do the same thing, expecting different results. In the case of the reader’s synagogue, it sounds like the management of the temple really was trying to do something different and meaningful, but the parents themselves didn’t want to have to put in any work or sacrifice for the sake of their children’s Jewish education.

This is fairly common in Christian circles. Parents who value Sunday morning soccer over church, then wonder why their kids lose their faith later on.

Anyway, the reader was making a much more sophisticated point about the technocratic approach to life. Please don’t miss it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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