9 (more) things to know about Reform Judaism

A recent column entitled “9 Things to know about Reform Jews” reminded me how little so many people actually know about Reform Judaism. Written as a way of highlighting the fact that thousands of Reform Jews are gathering in Orlando for the Biennial, the column offers a few interesting tidbits, but fails to deliver on what really makes Reform Judaism compelling. Reading the article reminded me what a shame it is that there’s such widespread misunderstanding and ignorance when it comes to Reform Judaism. Hopefully this response to the column will help to in some small way advance our collective understanding. Before delving in to my 9 (more) things to know, I want to say that Reform Judaism shares much with every other major denomination of Judaism. Reform Judaism is committed to honoring the Jewish past, securing the Jewish future, and creating a vibrant and compelling Jewish present. However, for those that want to understand some of the unique characteristics of Reform Judaism I humbly submit the following:

              Reform Judaism is committed to the idea of informed choice. All Jews make choices when it comes to Judaism. Any Jew that tells you otherwise isn’t being intellectually honest or truly looking in the mirror. Jewish tradition is too vast and all- encompassing for any person to fulfill every mitzvah and observe every aspect of it at every moment. Whether we admit it or not, embrace it or not, the fact is: all Jews make choices. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (z”l) put it, each of us is walking on “Judaism Street.” Each of us walks, according to our ability, our interest, our need. Each at our own pace. Each to the beat of our own drum. The significant contribution of Reform Judaism when it comes to the fact that all Jews make choices is the idea that our choices should be based on knowledge, on study, and on reflection. We shouldn’t make choices by default or out of convenience. A choice isn’t a choice if it’s based on ignorance or if it’s mindless. Reform Judaism’s emphasis on informed choice places upon each person the imperative to own his/her choices and asks each of us to be able to explain the rationale behind the choices that we make as we walk Judaism Street.

            Reform Judaism affirms personal autonomy without sacrificing a sense of obligation. Though we live in relation to a Commanding Presence, the fact is that even the ancient sages understood that free will is granted. Free will means that, at the end of the day, we are responsible for our actions and our lives. Reform Judaism teaches that it’s a convenient ruse to pretend that Judaism requires us to do certain things and that we have no say in the matter. While Jewish tradition is overflowing with mitzvot that address all aspects of our lives, the existential reality that each of us knows in our hearts is that the only voice that can truly command us is our own. Only on the basis of the free exercise of our will can we choose to live in relation to commandment. To deny the truth of personal autonomy is to minimize the purposefulness with which many of us live out our Jewish obligations.

           Reform Judaism listens to and speaks with the Prophetic Voice. At the heart of the Hebrew Bible are the teachings of the prophets. Built into our sacred scripture is the idea that truth is more important than power. Built into the DNA of the Jewish people is the necessity of social critique wherever hypocrisy and abuse reside. Many people associate Reform Judaism with Tikkun Olam (“mending the world”) but few understand that our commitment to social justice is anchored in our understanding of the role and the teachings of the prophets rather than some vaguely humanistic desire to help those less fortunate. Currently the work of the Religious Action Center and the Israel Religious Action Center is the most compelling example of how the Prophetic Voice speaks through Reform Judaism today.

            The Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion isn’t only the oldest rabbinical seminary in North America, it’s one of the greatest centers of Jewish learning in the world. Though I’m an alum of HUC-JIR and therefore somewhat biased, I think it is fair to say that, when taken together, the faculty of the 4 campuses of HUC-JIR are unparalleled in the depth and breadth of their Judaic knowledge. Though many universities have exceptional Jewish Studies departments, the sheer amount of faculty and diversity of faculty scholarship at HUC-JIR deserves special recognition. The College-Institute is central to the Reform Movement’s ability to deliver on the principle of “informed choice.”

           Reform Judaism has many “haters.” It’s important to know that lots of Jews act as if Reform Judaism is a dirty word. They blame many (sometimes all) of the woes facing the Jewish people squarely on the shoulders of Reform Judaism. What’s sad and unfortunate is that most of these detractors have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. They’re simple spouting dogma. And they’re slowly (or quickly) untangling the threads of Jewish unity that are already frayed in today’s world. There’s plenty to critique within Reform Judaism, and healthy debate is a good thing. But look at any “comment section” on a Jewish topic and eventually the conversation will trend toward the deligitimization of Reform Judaism. Any serious student of Judaism should be able to offer a nuanced and thoughtful assessment of Reform Judaism rather than simply casting stones.

           Reform Judaism is committed to ritual and liturgical innovation. The prayers and rituals that have been handed down to us by our ancestors are, for the most part, a beautiful inheritance. That the spiritual and religious sensibilities of Jews who lived thousands of years ago still speak so authentically today is a testament to the greatness of our sages. But I don’t think the rabbis who wrote those words ever thought that they had the final say in the matter. From a spiritual and religious point of view it doesn’t make sense to assume that a new prayer, new ritual, or new approach to a ritual is anything other than healthy. Similarly, the prayers and traditions left to us by our ancestors should be subject to the editorial hand of us, the inheritors. Assuming of course that we honor their words and their ideas whenever possible. By taking a healthily progressive approach to ritual and liturgy Reform Judaism is simply carrying on the spiritual and religious desire to give voice to the soul.

         Reform Judaism is about building, not destroying. Among the many outdated misunderstandings of Reform Judaism is the idea that Reform Judaism is about tearing down and doing away with large parts of Jewish life. Folks point to the general lack of rigorous Kashrut, the fact that many Reform Jews aren’t able to understand Hebrew, and things like this as proof. They also mistakenly think that Reform Judaism is anti- Zionist. It’s true that in an earlier era (like more than 100 years ago) Reform Judaism challenged the relevance of certain ancient ritual practices. Ritual practices were generally deemed less important (and sometimes not important at all) while ethical and intellectual precepts were elevated. This critical evaluation makes sense given the historical and sociological contexts in which Reform Judaism emerged. But for the last 50-60 years at least, Reform Judaism has come home to many of these ritual practices. That’s because Reform Jews have found new ways of relating to and finding meaning in these rituals. No aspect of Judaism is foreign to the Reform Jew assuming he or she is able to find meaning and purpose in it. Reform Jews who say, “I don’t do _____ because I’m a Reform Jew” aren’t good ambassadors of Reform Judaism. Better are those who can explain what they do and don’t do based on their understanding of Jewish tradition and how they choose to live their lives. Reform Judaism isn’t a reason, it’s an approach.

         Reform Judaism is a big tent. Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed guests into their tent, so too does Reform Judaism. In a sometimes alienating, cold, judgmental or impersonal world, welcoming people into our faith community isn’t merely a nicety, it is a spiritual and religious obligation. The beauty of the big tent approach that Reform Judaism is striving to actualize is that it has the potential to enrich and elevate the experience for all involved. One way of measuring the depth and resilience of any expression of Judaism is how that expression responds to the challenge and opportunity of diversity. If Reform Judaism is able to deliver on the stated goal of celebrating diversity, learning from diversity, and blessing diversity, then the movement will surely thrive and flourish beyond what it currently is and be an even greater source of meaning to those of us that identify as Reform Jews.

Reform Judaism is about the “Thou Shalt.” Simply stated, Reform Judaism, like all good Judaism, is based on a fairly simple notion: Thou Shalt. Rather than simply cruising through life without ever stopping to consider one’s personal power, responsibility, potential, and ability, Reform Judaism affirms the most basic of all Jewish ideas– that we are not fully human unless we are a mensch. “Thou Shalt” means that there is a Commanding Presence that calls out to each of us and that the measure of our days resides in our desire to respond and in the content of our actions. This is an idea that I learned from Leo Baeck’s great book, This People Israel and that I think captures the essence of Reform Judaism and the essence of Judaism more generally, from Abraham to today.

So there you have it, my somewhat lengthy addendum to the column I mentioned at the beginning. In the unlikely event that you feel compelled to comment, let’s keep it civil! We’re all working toward the same goals.

Shavuot- Dynamism, Flexibility, Vision

“The dynamic is much more characteristic of this people than the static, the flexible conception more than the exact organization, the vision more than the system.”
Leo Baeck, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence
1957 German Stamp Commemorating Leo Baeck

   As Shavuot approaches I find myself reading from Leo Baeck’s profoundly moving, This People Israel. Written before and during the Shoah (in some cases on scraps of paper and from within Theresienstadt), This People Israel is a book that warrants close study. Let’s briefly unpack the above quotation…
   Dynamic/Static: From Sinai until today Judaism has remained a living tradition. Its authority derives from the fact of its ongoing relevance in the modern world. As times change, Judaism changes. Though much of Jewish tradition is “static”, Judaism’s interaction with our changing world is meant to be dynamic. While Judaism is undeniably a “tradition” and therefore craves a certain measure of consistency and continuity, the excitement and potential of Judaism emerge only in the context of dynamism.
   Flexible Concept/Exact Organization: Judaism isn’t a bureaucracy. It isn’t a rigid, impersonal, series of considerations. Judaism is flexible, or at least it’s supposed to be. It should be tolerant of humanness, of mistakes, of failures, of weaknesses of will, of lapses. It should also be tolerant of people who don’t always make the best choices and those who deviate from the letter of the law. Being flexible is different from being weak, shallow, or lacking a spine. Flexibility means the recognition that there’s a gap between perfection and human aspiration, with the later being, in many ways, more beautiful. Judaism is flexible and resilient, rather than rigid and brittle. Flexibility and resilience are important features of Judaism both throughout history and today.
   Vision/System: As someone who is fundamentally skeptical of all “isms” I love the idea that Judaism is a “vision” and not a “system.” Sure, Judaism attempts to describe and systematize the world, but “vision” is the guiding principle rather than “system.” When I think of “system” I think of a self-contained, self-organized, self-aware structure. Systems crave stability and strive to be comprehensive and all-encompassing. Things that threaten a system or undermine its integrity are often marginalized or even excluded from the system, as they threaten the status quo and established order. “Vision” is able to absorb and incorporate difference and divergent thinking. Vision is enriched by the marketplace of ideas and through the critiques and challenges of iconoclasts and varied perspectives. Rather than attempting to harmonize and incorporate, vision engages ideas, gleans from them, and transforms itself. I am interested in the Judaism of vision and in celebrating visions of Judaism. The prophets didn’t experience “systems” they experienced and prophesied “visions.” So too may we in our own day.

In honor of Shavuot– Leo Baeck on the meaning of Hokhmah

From Rabbi Leo Baeck, This People Israel, “The Revelation”

“Wisdom: Hokhmah and Sophia”

“The Hebrew word hokhmah is basically untranslatable; it was a word that received a completely new content from the spirit of this people. The first of the translations, the Greek, could only convey it through its word sophia, wisdom. But our word hokhmah reaches further and deeper. It speaks of that which is the power in the world and of that which human power shall be. As it bears upon the world, hokhmah, is the creative, artistic principle of the personal which has entered into him to give him the ability to see himself, which forms and fashions him so that he may become what he should be. Hokhmah expresses the final connection between that which continues its enduring influence in a world of constant flux and that which is constantly to influence onward-moving man. World and man as well as idea and reality, metaphysical and ethical, are united here. In the world, hokhmah is therefore that which gives it totality, which makes it the cosmos. In man, it is that which makes him a personality, that in which his creative traits find themselves united. Thus his drive for knowledge which turns toward everything, his breadth of feeling opening itself to all, and his moral readiness which accepts every task become one. Knowledge, feeling and desire, understanding, experience and action, in a sense, spirit and soul, are a totality in hokhmah. Man, coming into his own, the actualization of the total man, the fulfillment of God’s likeness is represented in it.”