Posted tagged ‘Beginnings of Reform Judaism’

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.

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