Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 5
While there are many things I love about being a Reform Jew, few make me prouder of our movement than its inspiring history of caring and sensitivity when it comes to issues of personal Jewish status. It is here that our Reform leaders, both past and present, have demonstrated the courage to break with traditional Jewish perspectives in favor of opening their arms and hearts to others who were defined by the rest of the Jewish world as outsiders or unacceptable.
From the very earliest days of our movement, Reform Judaism has engaged in the sensitive yet important process of examining and altering age old Jewish standards when it comes to these issues. Right out of the gate, our earliest Reform rabbis made significant changes in the status of women within the synagogue. Until the advent of Reform Judaism, and still today in Orthodox settings, women were and are literally set apart from men during worship. They were and are viewed as a distraction to “true” worshipers, and as those who, while they were permitted to worship, were not expected or required to do so. In the traditional morning liturgy there is even a prayer thanking God “for not making me a woman.” Early Reform Judaism was quick to address this inequity. It did so first by eliminating separate seating and permitting men and women to sit together. This change dates back to the 1850’s and is attributed to none other than the father of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. In fact, Rabbi Wise was a major proponent of equality for women within Judaism. He even admitted women to the Hebrew Union College though none completed the course of study for ordination until 1973 when the Hebrew Union College ordained Sally Priesand as the very first woman rabbi. The investiture of women as cantors was soon to follow, with the first woman cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, being invested by the Hebrew Union College in 1975. Along with the elimination of mixed seating, very early on in the history of our movement women were given the honor of blessing the Torah; something that they were not permitted to do in Conservative Judaism until the late 1970’s and are still not permitted to do in Orthodox Judaism. I remember very well that while I was serving the Reform congregation of Lincoln, Nebraska (1977-1982), our neighbors in the Conservative congregation were embroiled in the debate as to whether or not to permit their women to bless the Torah on Shabbat. I remember too how I simply shook my head in disbelief when they finally resolved to permit the women to do so one Shabbat a month. It always fascinated me how much Conservative Judaism struggled with such women’s issues as blessing the Torah, rabbinic ordination and cantorial investiture whereas for Reform Judaism, these were simply a matter of doing the right thing and eliminating a previous injustice. But here, once again, we see the power and the benefit of Reform Judaism’s willingness not to follow Jewish tradition blindly but rather to judge issues on their own merits.
While the status of women was one of the earliest personal status issues tackled by Reform Judaism, it was far from the last. Compared to those issues which would follow, it may very well have been one of its least challenging. So many of the issues which followed offered challenges which had the potential of shattering the fragile bonds which bound our movement to the other theological approaches to Judaism. Yet in spite of those risks, our movement chose to grapple with these issues and, in the end, continued to follow the dictates of conscience rather than conformity.
One of the thorniest of these issues was that of intermarriage. The longstanding opposition of our people to interfaith marriage is legend. It was not that long ago that it was truly common for parents of those who married out of the faith to completely disassociate themselves from their children. Images, such as that in the Neil Diamond movie, “The Jazz Singer,” in which a Jewish parent literally went into mourning, as if their child were dead, were more fact than fantasy. When I was ordained, in 1975, the intermarriage rate was reported as beings around 20%, and that was considered a significant crisis in the Jewish community. In fact, in my personal library, I have a book entitled HOW TO STOP AN INTERMARRIAGE. Today, that rate stands at about 54%. Whether or not to officiate at intermarriages; this was one of those issues over which the membership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (C.C.A.R.) was deeply divided. On the one hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who join with our Conservative and Orthodox colleagues who feel that intermarriage is the undoing of the Jewish people. They are convinced that the majority of such marriages will result in the Jewish partner abandoning our people and faith, and even if the Jewish partner does not, the children will. On the other hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who feel that you cannot swim against the tide; that by officiating at such marriages, under specific conditions which they set, even without the benefit of conversion for the non-Jewish partner, the family, feeling welcomed by the officiating rabbi, may very well be saved for Judaism. This tension in the Reform rabbinate was accurately reflected in a resolution on intermarriage which the C.C.A.R. passed in 1973. While this resolution stated the opposition of the Reform rabbinate to intermarriage, it also affirmed each Reform rabbi’s right to follow the dictates of conscience on this matter. According to a recent survey of Reform rabbis, today approximately 48% of them do so officiate.
In part 6, I will continue these reflections on personal Jewish status issues, focusing on Reform Judaism’s approaches to Outreach to intermarried families, the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue, the Jewish status of children born of intermarriages, and the treatment of those Jews with a same sex sexual orientation.
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