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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4 Comments on “Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3”


  1. Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3 « Rabbi Henry Jay Karp's Blog…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. Mats Says:

    The principle of personal autonomy is absolutely ridiculous.

    You claim there are limits and give the example of belief in Jesus as the Messiah which would remove one from Judaism and enter into Christianity. You claim the limit of personal autonomy is if the choice would lead you to “leave Judaism”.

    But if someone chooses not to keep kosher, not to keep shabbat, and not to have any Judaism in their life, is that also a valid choice?

    Reform Judaism basically allows each individual to define Judaism for themselves. It claims that Jews are obligated to study Torah and study the mitzvot and then decide which ones are meaningful. I would like to know firstly how many Reform Jews actually know about this?? (I grew up in the Reform movement in Toronto and I went to the Reform Jewish Day School – The Leo Baeck Day School and we were never once taught this!) and secondly, how many Reform Jews actually do this in reality?

    The idea of personal autonomy is found nowhere in the Torah. Please provide one source anywhere in the Torah or any rabbinic literature whether the Mishna, or Gemara, or the Rambam or anywhere allowing people to choose which mitzvot they want to follow.

    Why stay Jewish at all? If you admit you don’t believe in Relevation in the traditional sense and therefore don’t believe that God provided the Jewish people with the Torah and its laws in order to create a moral and just society to be a Light Unto The Nations, then why still keep one’s Jewish identity at all?

    Do you really believe you are passing on a meaningful Jewish identity to your children and grandchildren “basically Judaism is made up, the Torah was written by random people many years ago but we don’t really have to follow it, so you can do whatever you like, anything goes (except Jesus for some reason) you can even marry non-Jews and they can be paying dues of our congregation…” why not make intermarriage a limit? why is that still judaism, marrying someone not jewish?

    • ravkarp Says:

      Dear Anonymous Critic,

      In response to your criticism of the principle of personal autonomy, I will not go into an explanation of the grounds for the concept since I already stated that in the text of my original post. You claim that personal autonomy is ridiculous. I claim that a belief in the Torah as the “literal” word of God and therefore not open to interpretation is overly simplistic and actually a diminution of God’s abilities to communicate clearly and precisely to those privileged enough to actually receive divine revelation.

      There is a certain irony to be found in the fact that those who claim to hold a literalist understanding of Torah and revelation, and who vigorously denounce the concept of personal autonomy, do in fact themselves exercise personal autonomy but simply refuse to acknowledge it. One need look no further for a clear demonstration of this than to the observance of kashrut – the dietary laws – which you yourself pointed out as not being subject to personal autonomy. In the traditional Jewish world there is “kosher” certification and “glat kosher” certification. There are many different rabbinic heckshers, and there are many among those who observe kashrut who argue over whether or not food rabbinically determined to be “kosher” but not “glat kosher” is actually fit for kosher consumption, and which rabbinic hecksher is legitimate and which is not. There are those who feel that they maintain a “higher” standard of kashrut than do others and therefore refuse to eat in the homes of those who keep kashrut, but not up to their standards. All this amounts to is an exercise in personal autonomy. If there was not a practice of personal autonomy operating here then “kosher” would simply be “kosher” and every traditional Jew would be maintaining the same level of kashrut. After all, it is “geschribben” (written – as in the Torah) and therefore immutable. But that is not the way of the Jewish world. At the end of the day, every Jew, including the most ritually observant and the most fundamental in their approach to Torah applies their own understanding and interpretation to what they believe to be the will of God. They CHOOSE what and how they will practice their Judaism. That, whether or not you wish to admit it, is an exercise in personal autonomy.

      You legitimately ask how many Reform Jews actually know about the teachings and principles of Reform Judaism. The short answer is “more than you think.” However, to be honest, there are many who do not know. Some, because they were, like you, unfortunate enough to attend religious schools which did not do an adequate job in teaching their students about what it means to be a Reform Jew. Others because they choose to remain ignorant and fail to take advantage of the many Jewish educational opportunities offered to them through their synagogues. But you need to be honest here as well. Such challenges are not just Reform Jewish challenges. They are also present in the other approaches to Judaism, including Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Judaism. Sad to say, especially in America, Judaic ignorance is a plague which knows no denominational borders. If this were not so, then we never would have experienced the disgrace of what took place in Postville, Iowa, where precisely those Jews who held the responsibility for maintaining the high levels of kashrut necessary for the most ritually observant Jews in the country appeared to be totally ignorant of all of the teachings of the Torah and the rabbis which addressed the ethical treatment of employees and the commitment to obey the laws of the land. Reform Jews may not be as informed as they should be about Jewish ritual practices, but at least they know to a high degree what God expects of Jews when it comes to the treatment of their fellow human beings, regardless of whether or not those people are Jewish.

      Finally, you asked for any textual source which would justify the principle of personal autonomy. Here is one from the Torah. In DEUTERONOMY 30:19 it states: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life.” CHOOSE. In all that we do, God calls upon us to make choices. God wants us to choose. God wants us to exam the teachings of our faith thoughtfully and make good choices; choices which will have the effects of drawing us closer to God and making of us better people. We call such choosing PERSONAL AUTONOMY.

      I would like to be able to say, “I hope this response answers your questions.” but I know that it will not change your way of thinking. For you really were not asking questions in your comments but rather attempting to present a rebuttal. So we will continue to disagree and simply have to accept the fact that we see matters differently. But, oh, that would mean that there is such a thing as personal autonomy….


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