Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3
In part two of this article, I addressed Reform Judaism’s openness to change, as long as change serves to enhance our connection to our people, our faith, and our God. Toward the end of that section, I discussed the thoughts of the 20th century Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig, concerning the Reform Jewish approach to the mitzvot; an approach, on a mitzvah-by-mitzvah, person-by-person basis, of continual re-evaluation of their meaning and their value in our lives.
Hand-in-hand with Reform Judaism’s openness to change, and particularly with the “Rosenzweigian” concept of our personally reassessing the role of individual mitzvot in our lives, we encounter another fundamental concept of Reform Judaism – the principle of Personal Autonomy. According to this principle, each Reform Jew is free to choose for him or herself which mitzvot add meaning to their Jewish lives and which do not; which mitzvot they choose to observe and which they wish to set aside. While critics of Reform Judaism claim that Personal Autonomy is just an escape clause permitting Reform Jews to be lazy or negligent in their Jewish observances, actually it calls upon us to be all the more diligent about our spiritual lives; to be engaged in a constant search for those Jewish religious activities which spark and heighten our spiritual awareness.
To better appreciate the importance of Personal Autonomy for the Reform Jew, one needs to understand the Reform approach to revelation and Torah, and particularly in how it differs from that of traditional Judaism.
Simply understood, revelation is communication from God to human beings. While both Reform and traditional Judaism believe in revelation – that God has and does communicate with us – we differ dramatically on the nature of that revelation; the process of that communication. For traditional Judaism, revelation is simple communication from God. When the Torah states that “God spoke,” traditional Judaism literally believes that God spoke; that God communicated in words. Therefore in traditional Judaism, the Torah, which is God’s primary vehicle of revelation to the Jewish people, was given by God to the Jewish people, at Mt. Sinai, word-for-word; that every word found in the Torah is the actual spoken word of God. In the Reform Judaism, revelation is complex communication from God. Unlike traditional Judaism, Reform Judaism does not believe that God’s communications are limited to the narrow span of human language. Human language is too inexact for God. It is easily misunderstood and often important nuances are lost in its transmission. Every human being has at one time or another experienced not being able to find the right words to adequately express their thoughts and feelings. Every human being has at one time or another experienced trying to tell others what is on their mind and in their heart, only to have some walk away from that encounter with an understanding extraordinarily different from their intended communication. Therefore, Reform Judaism believes that God, being God, would resort to a form of communication more precise than mere speech. For lack of a better term, one might say that God communicates telepathically. God implants not just words but also ideas, feelings and images in the mind of those privileged enough to receive revelation. Perhaps this is what is meant when we read in Hebrew scriptures that this prophet or that prophet were “filled with the spirit of God.”
Of course, once a person receives such a revelation, in order for them to share it with others they are faced with the problem of how do they communicate such a complex message? Unlike God, the recipient of the revelation, being a human being, is basically limited to communicating through language. In doing so, what ultimately gets communicated to others is not the totality of the direct communication from God but rather that individual’s interpretation of God’s message. I once had a teacher who compared this process of revelation to the transmission of light. When white light travels through a pane of glass, it comes out on the other side as white light. That is just like the word-for-word concept of revelation held by traditional Judaism. However, when white light travels through a prism, it comes out on the other side, not as white light, but as a spectrum of light – a rainbow if you will. What the prism does is “interpret” the white light into its component colors. That is just like the telepathic concept of revelation held by Reform Judaism. The challenge for the rest of us, according to the Reform understanding of revelation, is to work our way through that interpretation, reconstructing it in such a way as to find at least glimmers of God’s original message; to seek out glimpses of white light within the spectrum. How do we accomplish that? Or more to the point, how do we know when we accomplish that? It is when we feel God’s presence. When we come across something that somehow or other makes us feel more connected to God.
It is in that search to rediscover God’s presence in transmitted/interpreted revelation that the principle of Personal Autonomy becomes essential for us. For each and every Reform Jew has to have the freedom to choose for him or herself where they personally find God; where they personally hear God speaking to them; where they witness the “white light” of God’s presence. In our personal quests to find God’s presence in our lives, each and every individual mitzvah serves as an opportunity to encounter God. As we explore each and every mitzvah sometimes we will find God present within them and sometimes not. There will be those Reform Jews who find God present in certain mitzvot, while other Reform Jews fail to find God there, but find God in other mitzvot instead, and that is perfectly all right. The important thing for each Reform Jew is not observing “the mitzvot” but rather observing the particular mitzvot which somehow or other draw us closer to God, for in the end the most important thing is drawing closer to God.
This principle of Personal Autonomy creates for the possibility of all sorts of permutations and combinations when it comes to mitzvah observance. In part one of this article I shared how I wanted to wear a talit and a kipah for my Bar Mitzvah while my father did not wish me to wear either, and how we ultimately compromised with my wearing the talit but not the kipah. In traditional Judaism, such a compromise would be totally unacceptable. Indeed, if a male was to attempt to bless the Torah without wearing both, it would be scandalous. Yet the choice of wearing neither or both, or one or the other is perfectly in keeping within a Reform Jewish framework precisely because of the principle of Personal Autonomy. Indeed, my Bar Mitzvah experience would echo within my rabbinate. When I began to serve my previous congregation, the chair of the Ritual Committee insisted that a talit and a kipah be available on the bimah, and that anyone who was called to bless the Torah be required to wear them if they were not already wearing their own. I successfully challenged that practice on the grounds that as a Reform congregation, each and every person called to bless the Torah must be permitted the freedom to choose whether or not they wished to wear either, neither, one or the other, and whether they wished to bless the Torah in Hebrew or in English. For when we deny our people such personal choices, we stop being a Reform congregation. It is precisely this freedom of Personal Autonomy that we witness at every Reform worship service where one will see some worshipers – women as well as men – wearing kipot, and others not.
Several years ago, I made a public statement in our community about Reform Judaism and Personal Autonomy which set off a firestorm of controversy, especially among some of the more traditional Jews. I said that within this principle of Personal Autonomy, it would be considered completely appropriate for a Reform Jew to take up the mitzvah of wearing a kipah on a daily basis yet choose not to observe in any manner, shape or form, the laws of Kashrut; the Jewish dietary laws. Therefore such a Jew could conceivably wear a kipah while eating treif (non-kosher) food in public. As difficult as this image is for some Jews to grasp, it truly is a litmus test as to whether or not one is able to accept the Reform principle of Personal Autonomy. It may not be Judaism as some people choose to follow it, but within the Reform Jewish framework, if we truly believe in Personal Autonomy – that every Jew has the freedom and the right to select which mitzvot they will choose to observe, on a mitzvah by mitzvah basis, – then we must permit other Jews to be free to make such choices. Just as other Jews cannot impose their mitzvah priorities upon us, so are we prohibited from imposing our mitzvah priorities upon others.
All of this is not to say that the principle of Personal Autonomy is not without its difficulties and its challenges, for they most certainly do exist.
First among them is the question of whether or not it is truly a matter of anything goes? The answer is no. There are limits to Personal Autonomy. However, those limits are wide, providing as much space for personal freedom as possible. Basically put, those limits are the limits of Judaism itself. There are lines which one can cross which would take them out of the realm of Judaism. The principle of Personal Autonomy does not permit us to cross those lines. So, for example, once cannot accept a belief in Jesus as the Messiah as a matter of Personal Autonomy and remain a Reform Jew. For if one accepts Jesus as the Messiah, by so doing, they have left Judaism and entered Christianity.
Then there is the more challenging difficulty when the principle of Personal Autonomy comes into conflict with communal Jewish living. The principle of Personal Autonomy has the potential of generating tremendous diversity within a Reform synagogue. Yet as a synagogue, there are many things which we are meant to do communally, such as worship. One of the greatest challenges facing Reform synagogues today is how do we respect that diversity yet effectively bridge the gaps it creates so that we can indeed come together as a community? This is no easy task. Yet all things considered, as a Reform Jew I would rather struggle with this challenge than surrender the freedom of personal spiritual search in order to impose some sort of cookie cutter communal Jewish existence. Protecting the principle of Personal Autonomy is worth every effort expended in bridging such gaps.
In the next part, I will discuss how and why Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish theology has altered the very nature of the Jewish worship service.
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