Posted tagged ‘Franz Rosenzweig’

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3

December 3, 2010






In part two of this article, I addressed Reform Judaism’s openness to change, as long as change serves to enhance our connection to our people, our faith, and our God.  Toward the end of that section, I discussed the thoughts of the 20th century Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig, concerning the Reform Jewish approach to the mitzvot; an approach, on a mitzvah-by-mitzvah, person-by-person basis, of continual re-evaluation of their meaning and their value in our lives.

Hand-in-hand with Reform Judaism’s openness to change, and particularly with the “Rosenzweigian” concept of our personally reassessing the role of individual mitzvot in our lives, we encounter another fundamental concept of Reform Judaism – the principle of Personal Autonomy.  According to this principle, each Reform Jew is free to choose for him or herself which mitzvot add meaning to their Jewish lives and which do not; which mitzvot they choose to observe and which they wish to set aside.  While critics of Reform Judaism claim that Personal Autonomy is just an escape clause permitting Reform Jews to be lazy or negligent in their Jewish observances, actually it calls upon us to be all the more diligent about our spiritual lives; to be engaged in a constant search for those Jewish religious activities which spark and heighten our spiritual awareness.

To better appreciate the importance of Personal Autonomy for the Reform Jew, one needs to understand the Reform approach to revelation and Torah, and particularly in how it differs from that of traditional Judaism.

Simply understood, revelation is communication from God to human beings.  While both Reform and traditional Judaism believe in revelation – that God has and does communicate with us – we differ dramatically on the nature of that revelation; the process of that communication.  For traditional Judaism, revelation is simple communication from God.  When the Torah states that “God spoke,” traditional Judaism literally believes that God spoke; that God communicated in words.  Therefore in traditional Judaism, the Torah, which is God’s primary vehicle of revelation to the Jewish people, was given by God to the Jewish people, at Mt. Sinai, word-for-word; that every word found in the Torah is the actual spoken word of God.   In the Reform Judaism, revelation is complex communication from God.  Unlike traditional Judaism, Reform Judaism does not believe that God’s communications are limited to the narrow span of human language.  Human language is too inexact for God.  It is easily misunderstood and often important nuances are lost in its transmission.  Every human being has at one time or another experienced not being able to find the right words to adequately express their thoughts and feelings.  Every human being has at one time or another experienced trying to tell others what is on their mind and in their heart, only to have some walk away from that encounter with an understanding extraordinarily different from their intended communication.  Therefore, Reform Judaism believes that God, being God, would resort to a form of communication more precise than mere speech.  For lack of a better term, one might say that God communicates telepathically.  God implants not just words but also ideas, feelings and images in the mind of those privileged enough to receive revelation.  Perhaps this is what is meant when we read in Hebrew scriptures that this prophet or that prophet were “filled with the spirit of God.”

Of course, once a person receives such a revelation, in order for them to share it with others they are faced with the problem of how do they communicate such a complex message?  Unlike God, the recipient of the revelation, being a human being, is basically limited to communicating through language.  In doing so, what ultimately gets communicated to others is not the totality of the direct communication from God but rather that individual’s interpretation of God’s message.  I once had a teacher who compared this process of revelation to the transmission of light.  When white light travels through a pane of glass, it comes out on the other side as white light.  That is just like the word-for-word concept of revelation held by traditional Judaism.  However, when white light travels through a prism, it comes out on the other side, not as white light, but as a spectrum of light – a rainbow if you will.  What the prism does is “interpret” the white light into its component colors.  That is just like the telepathic concept of revelation held by Reform Judaism.  The challenge for the rest of us, according to the Reform understanding of revelation, is to work our way through that interpretation, reconstructing it in such a way as to find at least glimmers of God’s original message; to seek out glimpses of white light within the spectrum.  How do we accomplish that?  Or more to the point, how do we know when we accomplish that?  It is when we feel God’s presence.  When we come across something that somehow or other makes us feel more connected to God.

It is in that search to rediscover God’s presence in transmitted/interpreted revelation that the principle of Personal Autonomy becomes essential for us.  For each and every Reform Jew has to have the freedom to choose for him or herself where they personally find God; where they personally hear God speaking to them; where they witness the “white light” of God’s presence.  In our personal quests to find God’s presence in our lives, each and every individual mitzvah serves as an opportunity to encounter God.  As we explore each and every mitzvah sometimes we will find God present within them and sometimes not.  There will be those Reform Jews who find God present in certain mitzvot, while other Reform Jews fail to find God there, but find God in other mitzvot instead, and that is perfectly all right.  The important thing for each Reform Jew is not observing “the mitzvot” but rather observing the particular mitzvot which somehow or other draw us closer to God, for in the end the most important thing is drawing closer to God.

This principle of Personal Autonomy creates for the possibility of all sorts of permutations and combinations when it comes to mitzvah observance.  In part one of this article I shared how I wanted to wear a talit and a kipah for my Bar Mitzvah while my father did not wish me to wear either, and how we ultimately compromised with my wearing the talit but not the kipah.  In traditional Judaism, such a compromise would be totally unacceptable.  Indeed, if a male was to attempt to bless the Torah without wearing both, it would be scandalous.  Yet the choice of wearing neither or both, or one or the other is perfectly in keeping within a Reform Jewish framework precisely because of the principle of Personal Autonomy.  Indeed, my Bar Mitzvah experience would echo within my rabbinate.  When I began to serve my previous congregation, the chair of the Ritual Committee insisted that a talit and a kipah be available on the bimah, and that anyone who was called to bless the Torah be required to wear them if they were not already wearing their own.  I successfully challenged that practice on the grounds that as a Reform congregation, each and every person called to bless the Torah must be permitted the freedom to choose whether or not they wished to wear either, neither, one or the other, and whether they wished to bless the Torah in Hebrew or in English.  For when we deny our people such personal choices, we stop being a Reform congregation.  It is precisely this freedom of Personal Autonomy that we witness at every Reform worship service where one will see some worshipers – women as well as men – wearing kipot, and others not.

Several years ago, I made a public statement in our community about Reform Judaism and Personal Autonomy which set off a firestorm of controversy, especially among some of the more traditional Jews.  I said that within this principle of Personal Autonomy, it would be considered completely appropriate for a Reform Jew to take up the mitzvah of wearing a kipah on a daily basis yet choose not to observe in any manner, shape or form, the laws of Kashrut; the Jewish dietary laws.  Therefore such a Jew could conceivably wear a kipah while eating treif (non-kosher) food in public.  As difficult as this image is for some Jews to grasp, it truly is a litmus test as to whether or not one is able to accept the Reform principle of Personal Autonomy.  It may not be Judaism as some people choose to follow it, but within the Reform Jewish framework, if we truly believe in Personal Autonomy – that every Jew has the freedom and the right to select which mitzvot they will choose to observe, on a mitzvah by mitzvah basis, – then we must permit other Jews to be free to make such choices.  Just as other Jews cannot impose their mitzvah priorities upon us, so are we prohibited from imposing our mitzvah priorities upon others.

All of this is not to say that the principle of Personal Autonomy is not without its difficulties and its challenges, for they most certainly do exist.

First among them is the question of whether or not it is truly a matter of anything goes?  The answer is no.  There are limits to Personal Autonomy.  However, those limits are wide, providing as much space for personal freedom as possible.  Basically put, those limits are the limits of Judaism itself.  There are lines which one can cross which would take them out of the realm of Judaism.  The principle of Personal Autonomy does not permit us to cross those lines.  So, for example, once cannot accept a belief in Jesus as the Messiah as a matter of Personal Autonomy and remain a Reform Jew.  For if one accepts Jesus as the Messiah, by so doing, they have left Judaism and entered Christianity.

Then there is the more challenging difficulty when the principle of Personal Autonomy comes into conflict with communal Jewish living.  The principle of Personal Autonomy has the potential of generating tremendous diversity within a Reform synagogue.  Yet as a synagogue, there are many things which we are meant to do communally, such as worship.  One of the greatest challenges facing Reform synagogues today is how do we respect that diversity yet effectively bridge the gaps it creates so that we can indeed come together as a community?  This is no easy task.  Yet all things considered, as a Reform Jew I would rather struggle with this challenge than surrender the freedom of personal spiritual search in order to impose some sort of cookie cutter communal Jewish existence.  Protecting the principle of Personal Autonomy is worth every effort expended in bridging such gaps.

In the next part, I will discuss how and why Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish theology has altered the very nature of the Jewish worship service.

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Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 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.