Archive for the ‘Role of Jewish Tradition in Reform Judaism’ category

Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

Advertisements

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 6

January 20, 2011






Going hand-in-hand with the intermarriage issue are questions relating to the role of the non-Jewish spouse in the synagogue and the status of children of intermarriages.

In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who at that time was the President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (U.A.H.C. – the congregational organization of Reform Judaism, now called the Union for Reform Judaism – U.R.J.) offered a radical proposal to our movement.  He called it “Outreach.”  He proposed that rather than close the doors of our synagogues to interfaith couples, we should open them with a warm welcome.  He believed that if we made special efforts to help interfaith couples feel comfortable in our synagogues then we would stand a far better chance of holding onto them and their children for a brighter Jewish future.  In this he was proven right as these families flocked to our synagogues and their children filled our religious schools and camps.  The  movement developed educational programs for these couples which, for the first time, provided such families with the tools to seriously and positively address the challenges of what it means to be an interfaith family.  In fact, the efforts of the Outreach program were so successful that the movement found itself needing to address a new question – What should be the role of the non-Jewish partner in synagogue life?  This was a radical departure considering the fact that outside of Reform Judaism it was taken for granted that non-Jewish partners had no role in synagogue life.

Still there was the question of the status of children born of an intermarriage.  On this issue as well, Reform Judaism had a history of being inclusive.  According to traditional standards, a Jew by birth is one who is born of a Jewish mother.  However, in the reality of intermarriage, sometimes it is the mother who is Jewish; sometimes the father.  According to the standards of traditional Judaism, if the mother is not Jewish, then the children are not Jewish unless that child goes through a process of conversion.  For quite some time, the leaders of Reform Judaism saw such a double standard as unfair.  Back in 1947, the C.C.A.R. attempted to address this inequity by passing a resolution stating that children of an intermarriage where the mother is not Jewish would not be required to go through a conversion process or ceremony; that a typical religious school education would replace a conversion process and that a Confirmation service would replace a conversion ceremony.  What was started in 1947 was completed in 1983 when the C.C.A.R. passed a resolution on what it called “Patrilineal Descent.”  According to this resolution, a child with one Jewish parent – whether it be the father or the mother – was considered to be born a Jew if the parents raised that child exclusively as a Jew.  Not surprisingly, the passage of this resolution was thoroughly denounced by both the Conservative and Orthodox movements.  Indeed, to this day, Conservative congregations are not permitted to recognize patrilineal descent nor are they permitted to engage the services of rabbis who do recognize it.  When the Reform rabbis passed this resolution – and I was one of those who voted for it – we knew that it would severely damage our relationship with the Conservative and the Orthodox, yet we chose to take that risk because we believed that it was the just and humane thing to do.

While today, American society is deeply divided over sexual orientation issues, such as same-sex marriage, Reform Judaism has once again proven itself to be a leader in caring and inclusivity.  Back in 1977, our movement took a formal stand supporting the rights of homosexuals to equal protection under the law.  In 1987, the U.A.H.C., meeting in Chicago for one of its biennial conventions, passed a number of resolutions calling upon its member congregations to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into membership and permit them to share equally in all aspects of congregational life, including worship and leadership; to develop educational programs which would promote a greater understanding and respect for gays and lesbians; and to employ people on their staff without regard for sexual orientation.  How well I remember sitting with my congregation’s delegates at that plenary session, voting for these resolutions and being proud of the fact that our movement was willing to take such a principled stand on such a controversial issue.  Three years later, in 1990, the C.C.A.R. approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.  Ten years after that, in 2000, it would be the first rabbinic organization to formally support rabbinic officiation at same-sex marriage ceremonies.  Since the Supreme Court of Iowa legalized same-sex marriage it has been my privilege to officiate at one such ceremony, and my cantor-wife’s, privilege to officiate at two of them.

While it is true that other movements and independent synagogues have subsequently adopted some, or even many, of Reform Judaism’s revolutionary stands on personal status issues, still for me, and for so many other Reform Jews, it is a point of enormous pride that it has been our movement that has served as the trailblazer on these issues.  Others may imitate us, especially after we have proved successful in our choices, but it has been Reform Judaism which has led the way and will continue to lead the way in welcoming into our fold those who have been unjustly excluded, both by society at large and by the Jewish world in particular.  We have done this, and will continue to do this, because while we look to Jewish tradition for guidance, we look to our hearts to lead us along the path of righteousness.

In part 7, I will reflect upon Reform Judaism’s long and illustrious commitment to Tikkun Olam, social justice.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 5

December 29, 2010






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.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 4

December 17, 2010






One of the things that I really love about Reform Judaism is its ongoing willingness to reassess the tenets of our faith in its quest to keep our Judaism contemporary and meaningful, and then that it has the courage to act upon such reassessments even if it means displacing major chunks of Jewish traditional thinking and practice.

Nowhere is this openness and courage more clearly demonstrated than in the Reform Jewish approach to worship. There are those who claim that Reform Judaism has played fast and loose with the Jewish prayer book and ritual practices, but such claims are based far more on an ignorance of Reform ideology and a blind attachment to traditional forms than on any serious attempt to understand why our movement has done what it has done.  The truth of the matter is that every change in worship which Reform Judaism has instituted has been the product of long and serious consideration, with open, frank, and sometimes heated discussion, by the spiritual leaders of our movement.  Reform rabbis, then and now, have never frivolously instituted worship change but neither have they been afraid to do so if they believed that such change would enhance Jewish worship.

There are many changes which we introduced into our worship, of which traditional Judaism has been highly critical.  Let us look as some of them, with an eye to understanding why Reform Judaism embraced such changes, even if it meant breaking with the practices of our co-religionists.

The use of the vernacular in the worship service:  Many consider the decision by the early leaders of our movement to include the use of the vernacular (local spoken language) in our worship as a frontal assault upon Jewish prayer.  They claim that for Jewish prayer to be authentic, it must be offered either exclusively or primarily in Hebrew.  The early Reformers saw this matter quite differently.  From their perspective, in order for prayer to be truly authentic, then those offering prayer must understand what it is that they are saying to God.  For the early Reformers, especially here in the United States, while they appreciated the historical and cultural importance of Hebrew, they felt strongly that to offer prayer in a language that we do not understand was little more than gibberish.  Therefore while they maintained a certain amount of Hebrew in the service, the overwhelming majority of the prayers, especially in early American Reform worship, were offered in such a way that the worshipers could appreciate not just the act of praying but the theological messages of the prayers as well.  Contrary to the opinion of traditional Jews, this decision was very much in keeping with the practices of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  For the traditional prayer book does not contain – as some would contend – exclusively Hebrew prayers.  In it there are also Aramaic prayers, such as the various forms of the Kaddish.  Indeed, a goodly portion of the Passover Haggadah is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.  Aramaic, to the early rabbis was like English to us.  It was the language they spoke on the street.  Indeed, it was the language in which they wrote the Babylonian Talmud.  Whenever one comes across an Aramaic prayer, the very fact that it is in Aramaic clearly announces that the ancient rabbis felt it important that the people understood its meaning.

Over the years, the role of Hebrew in Reform Jewish worship has been a matter of great debate and has changed dramatically from its place in the early American Reform prayer books.  How much Hebrew is too little or too much is an ongoing discussion in many Reform synagogues.  Those who have advocated for greater amounts of Hebrew have done so because of the spiritual attachment it can provide us to the generations, past and present, of Jewish brothers and sisters, across the planet, who likewise prayed and pray in this language.  After all, Hebrew is the language of the Torah.  Far more than Yiddish or Ladino, it is the Jewish language.  So there continues to be a struggle to find a balance between our emotional/spiritual attachment to Hebrew with our intellectual need to pray with knowledge as well as feeling.  Our most recent prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH, attempts to address this issue by presenting all its prayers in Hebrew and in a more or less accurate English translation.  It then goes on to speak to those who enjoy variety in worship by offering English thematic prayer alternatives.  Recognizing that many of our people simply do not have Hebrew reading skills, it also offers the Hebrew prayers in transliteration in hopes of raising those people’s comfort level with the Hebrew.  While some larger congregations with larger staffs and larger facilities have turned to such solutions as multiple concurrent services to meet the various worship tastes, smaller congregations such as the one I serve will need to continue to seek that elusive happy medium.

Revisiting the belief in a personal messiah: One of the major elements of traditional Jewish theology which Reform Judaism decided to discard was the belief in the coming of a personal messiah.  They discarded this belief, not because they wished to abandon the Jewish desire for the ultimate perfection of the world, but rather because of the bitter lessons of our history.  All too often in the past, individuals arose who claimed the mantle of the messiah, or for whom others claimed it in their name.  In each case, no good ever came of such messianic aspirations.  Too often, as a result, the suffering of the Jews increased rather than was relieved.

Rather than cling to this troublesome belief in the coming of a personal messiah, the early Reformers replaced it with a belief in the coming of a messianic age.  According to Reform teaching, no one individual will come to bring about the ultimate perfection of the world but rather a time will come when each and every one of us will participate in the realization of that dream.  For each and every individual carries a piece of the messiah within them.  We pray for the day when we will all recognize our messianic potential and our messianic responsibilities.  When that day arrives, it will be the onset of the messianic age; a time when we will all work together as one family of the children of God to fulfill God’s will and bring universal justice and healing to our planet.

This shift from a belief in a personal messiah to a belief in a messianic age had a profound effect upon the very nature of Reform Jewish prayer.  The traditional worship service dedicates a significant portion of its prayers to theological matters related to the coming of the personal messiah; all of which were rejected by Reform Judaism along with its rejection of the idea of personal messiah itself.  These related theological issues include the in-gathering of all Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the re-institution of the sacrificial cult, overseen by the priests and the Levites, and the physical resurrection of the Jewish dead, who will then themselves rejoin the Jewish people in Israel.  For Reform Judaism, the messianic age is viewed as a time of profound universal healing, and not as a time for a return to Jewish life as it was two millennia ago.  While traditional Jews view (or at least pray for) the return to the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrificial rite as part of the Jewish future, Reform Jews consign the Temple and the sacrifices to the Jewish past.  For Reform Jews the synagogue has replaced the Temple as the center of Jewish worship – and that is why so many Reform synagogues include the word Temple in their names – and prayer has replaced animal and agricultural sacrifices.  Simply put, we do not want to go back there and we therefore consider it hypocritical to pray to go back there.  As far as the physical resurrection of the dead is concerned, we believe that when the body dies, our physical existence is over.  It is our soul which lives on, and will continue to live on eternally with God.  The body will not live again, neither by the efforts of a personal messiah nor as a result of the spirit of a messianic age.

The re-introduction of instrumental music into our worship:  For the first 2,000 years of Jewish history instrumental music played an integral role in Jewish worship.  The Torah and the rest of Hebrew scriptures are replete with such musical images – Miriam dancing with her timbrel at the Red Sea; David singing the Psalms while accompanying himself on his harp; the variety of musical instruments that accompanied worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 c.e. the rabbis decreed that Jews would no longer include instrumental music in their worship as a sign of mourning for the Temple’s loss.  However, when the Temple will be rebuilt, such music will return to our worship.  Since Reform Judaism rejects the traditional aspirations to rebuild the Temple and revert to the sacrificial cult, it also has set aside the prohibition of instrumental music during worship.  In re-introducing instrumental music to our services, it was only logical that the early Reformers turned to the worship of their Christian neighbors as a model to emulate.  This is how the organ found its way into Reform synagogues.  Today, the organ has either been joined or replaced by several other instruments such as the guitar, piano, and drums.  In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s our movement started to experience what might be considered a worship music revolution.  This revolution came out of our camps.  It was in many ways a product of the growing popularity in American society of folk and folk rock music.  The song leaders of our camps were playing their guitars and creating a vibrant new musical expression of Jewish spirituality which moved us to a whole other level beyond the traditional tunes of the synagogue and the “churchy” anthems which had taken hold of Reform Jewish worship.  This revolution is still going on with new lively modern Jewish liturgical music constantly being produced.  It is no wonder that when Jewish communities invite the creators of these new sounds to perform in concert and in worship, almost invariably these performers are Reform Jews and alumni of our camps.

While there are those who claim that the traditional form of the worship service is sacrosanct and inviolate, Reform Judaism has had the courage to say that we will not pray for that in which we do not believe, and when we pray, our prayers will be joyful.  In order for the soul to be fully engaged in the act of prayer, our prayers must come from and be true to both our heart and our mind.

In part 5, I will consider how Reform Judaism has struggled with determining issues of personal status and how it has demonstrated both the compassion to be inclusive and the courage to break with both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on these issues purely on the grounds of principle.

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.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 2

November 4, 2010






In part one of this article, I shared how my family came to Reform Judaism and why.  As I stated there, the Reform Jewish experiences of my childhood created strong emotional bonds to the movement, and even more importantly, to Judaism itself, for my family and for me.  My early attachment to Reform Judaism was born out of a sense of community; a sense of extended family.  Of course, there were ideological aspects which appealed greatly to my parents, but as far as I was concerned, I had yet to reach the stage of personal development in which I could appreciate ideas.  For me it was all about belonging to a caring group with which I held something very important in common – being Jewish.

That being said, still it was during those childhood years that I did begin to awaken to issues of Reform Jewish ideology.  Indeed, I can pinpoint the very beginning of my ideological odyssey.  It was when my grandmother – my mother’s mother – died.  Grandma Marie Frank was the only grandparent I knew.  She lived with us.  I was about 9 years old when she died.  My mother’s devotion for her was absolute.  So it was not surprising that my mother chose to say Kaddish for her every Shabbat for 11 months, as prescribed by Jewish custom.  In those days, Reform Judaism followed the traditional practice of having only the mourners rise and recite the Kaddish with the rabbi.  Well, my mother was no Hebrew scholar.  She struggled with the transliteration.  There were many Friday evening services when she was the only mourner present.  Yet she stood there, week in and week out, before the assembled congregation, struggling to get out the words of this prayer.  Though empathy is not a typical trait of 9 year old boys, I clearly remember feeling for my mother’s embarrassment.  It was during that 11 month period that the student rabbi who served our small congregation instituted the practice of having the entire congregation rise and recite Kaddish along with the mourners.  While our congregation most likely was not the first Reform congregation to institute this change, I strongly suspect that we were one of the earlier ones to do so.

Openness to change.  This was the first Reform Jewish idea that grabbed my mind as well as my heart.  While Jewish tradition dictates that only mourners can recite the Mourners’ Kaddish, still it was in our small Reform congregation, with our young Reform rabbi-in-training, that it was decided that tradition could be set aside for the sake of the well being of the individual Jew.  That a practice was ordained by tradition did not necessarily mean that it was set in stone for time immemorial.  Practices could change, if changing the practice served to enhance the Jewish experience of the people.  I know that my mother was not the only Reform Jew standing alone in front of a congregation on Shabbat, struggling to read the Kaddish aloud.  In fact, I am pretty certain that she was not the only Jew – Reform, Orthodox, or Conservative – faced with that embarrassing situation.  But it took Reform Judaism, with its openness to change, to take the position of knowing what tradition dictates but deciding to set aside tradition in the name of compassion.  That a Reform congregation was willing to change its practices because it was more concerned about my mother’s embarrassment than it was about the rigors of Jewish tradition touched me then and still touches me today.

As I learned more about Reform Judaism in religious school, I came to understand that the change in the reading of the Mourners’ Kaddish which accommodated my mother was not a singular event but actually a reflection of a greater Reform Jewish philosophy.  In fact it was a reflection of one of Reform Judaism’s foundational principles; that Reform Judaism is an approach to Judaism which embraces the possibility of change, if that change serves to keep Judaism vital, vibrant, meaningful, and relevant in the ever changing world in which we live.

Our movement was born at a time when our people were being liberated from the ghettos of Western Europe.  While in the ghettos, our people lived in a totally Jewish environment which was entirely structured around Jewish laws and practices.  However, outside of the ghettos, our people found themselves living in a secular society, side-by-side with non-Jewish neighbors.  The traditional Judaism of the ghettos did not mesh well with this new life style.  In fact, it hardly meshed at all.  As a result, massive numbers of Jews were leaving Judaism, converting to Christianity, so that they could better fit in with Western European society.  It was out of this crisis that Reform Judaism was born.  Our founders saw it as their mission to re-frame Judaism – to change it – in such a way that Jews would no longer feel that they needed to leave Judaism in order to live along side of their non-Jewish neighbors.  Essential to this process of re-framing was establishing the very principle of change itself; that change was not only possible within Judaism but imperative, that is if Judaism was going to be able to survive.

So it was that in religious school I learned such lessons as “In Reform Judaism, tradition has a vote but not a veto.”  In other words, when determining our personal and communal Jewish practices, while we should take a serious look at what Jewish tradition instructs, at the end of the day, we need to choose for ourselves what is most meaningful to us.

I also learned the very important lesson that “We are REFORM Jews, NOT ‘reformed’ Jews,” as many of the uninitiated, and many within our own ranks, mistakenly called and still call us.  If we were “reformed” Jews, that would mean that we once were Jews but we have since seen the error of our way and have “reformed,” and therefore are Jews no longer.  However, we are REFORM Jews, which means that as Jews we are constantly open to reforming – changing – our approaches to Judaism.  For Reform Jews, “reform” is a dynamic.  As one author put it, “Reform is a Verb.”  Nor does it mean, as some mistakenly assume, that we can only embrace change in one direction – away from tradition.  While it is true that in the early days of Reform Judaism, especially American Reform Judaism, our commitment to change was synonymous with a commitment to setting aside Jewish traditional practices in favor of ones that were more in keeping with the practices of our non-Jewish neighbors, still our movement has always viewed the possibility of change as multi-directional.  We have always been open to moving back toward tradition as well as away from it.

One of the great theologians of early 20th century Reform Judaism was the German thinker, Franz Rosenzweig.  When it came to the mitzvot, Rosenzweig taught that as Reform Jews we should never say, “I do not perform such-&-such a mitzvah,” but rather we should say that “I do not now, or yet, perform such-&-such a mitzvah.”  For in Rosenzweig’s vision of Reform Judaism, mitzvot are fluid.  They come and they go.  Since the purpose of the mitzvot are to provide us with meaningful opportunities to put our Jewish faith into action, therefore it is only the mitzvot in which we find meaning that we should perform. However, we should recognize the very real possibility that some of the mitzvot we find meaningful today, we may not find meaningful tomorrow, and that if that be the case, it is perfectly permissible for us to set them aside.  On the other hand, there also may be mitzvot which we do not find meaningful today but may possibly find meaningful tomorrow, and if that be the case, then it is perfectly permissible for us to take up those mitzvot.  Personally, ever since I first studied Rosenzweig, I have resonated with his approach to the mitzvot, adopting it as my own.   It is all about Reform Judaism giving us permission to change our practices in our search to keep our Judaism as a living influence in our lives.

In Part 3 I will continue to explore more of the various principles and practices of Reform Judaism which are particularly meaningful to me, such as our commitment to the principle of personal autonomy.