Archive for the ‘Kipah’ category

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3

December 3, 2010






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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Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 1

October 21, 2010






Over the past several months, as my congregation has explored the possibility of merger with the other local synagogue – the Tri City Jewish Center – a congregation which used to be affiliated with the Conservative movement but now is not affiliated with any movement, one of the issues which has been discussed, and over which there will yet be a good deal more discussion, has been that of whether or not the resulting congregation should affiliate with a national/international umbrella organization, and if so, which one.  As part of the merger exploration process, the task force in charge of moving the process forward submitted to the two rabbis a series of questions, the rabbinic responses to which would be published, distributed, and discussed.  One of their questions sought our opinions on the issue of whether or not the new congregation should affiliate with any particular movement, and if so, which one and why.  In my response I stated that I favor belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism; the North American organization of Reform synagogues.  In support of that position, I offered all sorts of organizational reasons as to why we should belong to the Reform movement.  However, now I would like to take the opportunity to share my personal reasons for being a Reform Jew and wishing to remain one.

In order to better understand from whence I speak, I need to wax a bit biographical.  Many in my congregation and in the Quad Cities Jewish community assume that I was born and raised a Reform Jew.  Well, that was not the case.  When my mother was a child, her family belonged to a Reform congregation, but her parents were not very involved.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew.  In fact, whenever I conduct our congregation’s B’nei Mitzvah Family Program I tell the participants about my father’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, which took place during a weekday morning minyan, on either a Monday or a Thursday, when Torah is read.  He went to services with his father, was called to bless the Torah, and after services enjoyed a light oneg of sponge cake and schnapps – his first taste of alcohol, other than Shabbat and Passover wine of course – and then went off to school.  As an adult, he had no love of Orthodox Judaism, and wanted no part of it.  This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that in Europe his grandfather was a very important Orthodox educator.  While in my youth I did not understand the source of his anger, today, as an adult, I have to wonder whether or not his animosity toward Orthodox Judaism had something to do with the fact that his beloved Uncle Jack – the son of this renown Orthodox teacher and the man who took primary responsibility for my father and his sisters after their parents died – married outside of the faith, and therefore was rejected by the very same Orthodox Jews who honored the memory of Uncle Jack’s father.  Whatever my father’s reasons, as a result my parents were among the many New York Jews who were unaffiliated.  For them, being Jewish was simply a title, not a life style.  In fact, for a while our family even celebrated Christmas.  We had lights on our house and a tree in our living room, with presents under it on Christmas morning.  If you do not believe me, ask my wife, for she has stored away a photo of young Henry Karp sitting on the lap of a department store Santa and has threatened to reveal it to the world, should I ever become too arrogant or self-righteous about my Jewish identity.

There is a certain irony that it was my mother – this woman who was raised as a minimalist Reform Jew – who was the one who came to feel that there needed to be more to our Jewish life.  So when my sister (who was 6 years older than me) came of religious school age, my mother insisted that we join a synagogue and send her to religious school.  My father acquiesced, but made it clear that he would have nothing to do with it, other than pay the bills.  So my mother enrolled us in the closest synagogue; an Orthodox one.  My mother, who was one of those lovers of organizational involvement, dove into membership in the Sisterhood and support of the school.  But my father, true to his word, never entered the building until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah.  While I had entered the building on several occasions with my mother, I never attended a worship service until that Bat Mitzvah.

Now that Bat Mitzvah was not like the ones we contemporary liberal Jews are used to.  It was a group event, somewhat like our Confirmation services.  It took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time which did not conflict with traditionally scheduled services.  The girls all wore identical dresses.  There was no Torah blessing or reading.  In fact the bulk of the service was in English.  And after it was over, so was our affiliation with that synagogue, my father insisting that I would never be sent to that synagogue for my Jewish education.

It was but a short time later that my parents were approached by some neighbors – Alan & Muriel Billig – who were out recruiting for members for a newly established Reform congregation; Judea Reform Temple (later to be renamed Temple Judea).  With great enthusiasm, the Billigs described how their form of Judaism differed from Orthodoxy.  They must have been successful, for my parents agreed to give it a shot.  The congregation was small.  It met in a loft; a set of rented rooms, on the second floor, over a stationary store, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop, on a busy Bronx commercial street.  Right outside the windows, the elevated subway trains rumbled by constantly.  I remember clearly the first time I entered this synagogue.  Right inside the glass entry door there was a long set of stairs.  No sooner was I through the doors and starting to climb the stairs then I took of my hat – as I had been taught that was the polite thing do when entering a building.  But my father stopped me, saying, “Henry, in a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.”  Soon both he and I would learn differently.  Thus began my life as a Reform Jew.

The members of that synagogue quickly became like family to us.  Both of my parents got deeply involved in its activities while I quickly made friends in the religious school, some of whom I still keep in contact with today.  It seemed like everyone came to Shabbat services.  Of course in those days, all Reform congregations were what we today call classical Reform.  Services were conducted primarily in English, using the old Union Prayer Book.  To listen to the adults speak about our services, it was clear that they loved the fact that they could understand the prayers they were offering and were far more able to participate in reading along.  They also loved the fact that men and women sat together.  As for us children, we sat together too, usually close to the first row, with parents sitting behind us, ever ready to whack us on the back of our heads should we become too talkative.

While at the time, I fully appreciated the warm and wonderful life we had at that synagogue, it would not be until I was older and more comprehending that I came to realize that what made the life of that congregation so wonderful was its spirit of inclusiveness, as well as its refusal to be Judaically judgmental of its members.  It was not only in that particular synagogue, but it was and is inherent in Reform Judaism itself.  All are welcomed, Jews and non-Jewish spouses alike.  Members aren’t judged by how closely they adhere to the particulars of Jewish tradition but rather, they are encouraged to discover for themselves those aspects of the tradition which are particularly meaningful to them, and then they are valued for their efforts in that search, whatever its outcome.  For in Judea Reform Temple in those days, and in Reform Judaism itself, both then and now, there was and is plenty of space for the diversity of individuality when it comes to the practice of Judaism.  So when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to wear both a kipah (yarmulke) and a talit, both of which were never seen in our synagogue.  My father wanted me to wear neither.  Ultimately we compromised, and I wore the talit without the kipah.  And to top it off, my father was allowed to audio tape the service on Shabbat.  Where else but in a Reform synagogue would such choices be allowed?  This was the Reform Judaism of my youth.

In Part 2, I will share with you how the emotional bonds to the Reform Judaism of my youth were only to be strengthened and deepened as I grew to intellectually appreciate the values and principles of the movement.