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Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

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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 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.