Posted tagged ‘Classical Reform Judaism’

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

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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.

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 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.

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.