Thursday, September 9, 2010

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771: 400 Years of Reform Judaism

A man goes to an Orthodox rabbi and asks if there is a bracha for a brand new BMW. He is very excited to have it, and would like to have it blessed. Does such a bracha exist?

“Of course,” responds the rabbi. “There is a bracha for everything! But first, please tell me, what exactly is a BMW?”

Well, the indignant new car-owner refuses to have his new Beamer blessed by someone who doesn’t appreciate a fine automobile. So he goes to a Conservative rabbi.

“Rabbi,” he asks, “will you please offer a bracha to my new BMW?”

“I’d be honored,” says the Conservative rabbi as he adjusts his yarmulke. “But first, please tell me…what’s a BMW?”

Frustrated, the man storms into a Reform rabbi’s study. He asks the rabbi, “Excuse me, but do you know what a BMW is?”

“Of course!” says the Reform rabbi. “It’s a fine luxury automobile. Boy would I love to drive such a precision instrument of beauty, speed, and agility.”

Thrilled, the man hugs the rabbi and says, “Yes, and I just bought one. Will you please offer a bracha to my new BMW?”

“Of course!” the Reform rabbi replies. “But first, please tell me…what’s a bracha?”

I learned that joke in Israel, working as a bartender for a small café close to HUC in Jerusalem. The owner, Gilad, was a loud, brash Israeli with a penchant for making fun of anything American, and his favorite targets were the Reform rabbis in training who frequented his café, since it was located across the street from Hebrew Union College. Typically Israelis don’t understand Reform Judaism. Really most of the world doesn’t understand it. In the Holy Land, as with most of the world, there are two types of Jewish practice. There’s dati, the religious, Ultra-Orthodox, black-hat-or-sheitle-wearing Jews who keep to their secluded neighborhoods. Then there’s the chiloni, the secular, non-practicing Jewish Israelis who look like a typical American or European. The dati go to synagogue three times a day, celebrate Shabbat and chagim with passionate ferocity, and spend their time in study whenever possible. The chiloni go to synagogue once or twice a year, if at all. They typically celebrate Passover Seder and they might light a menorah on Chanukah, but that’s about as “Jewish” as they get.
In fact, for about 1800 years, those were the only two ways to be Jewish. We either went all in or went for nothing at all. Segregated communities prevented intermingling with gentiles for all but merchants, and most Jews were content with that type of lifestyle. This year marks the 200th anniversary of when that all changed.

In July, 1810, a wealthy Jewish scholar named Israel Jacobson built a synagogue in Seesen, a town in Central Germany. Jacobson had, nine years earlier, established a school for interfaith families, 40 Jewish and 20 Christian. Though Jacobson was passionate about interfaith relations, he also saw the need to educate the young in religious values as soon as possible. So he built his synagogue on school grounds, and called it Jakobstemple. Jakobstemple was the first synagogue to have an organ installed for worship services. Jacobson also distinguished his worship style by praying in both Hebrew and German, allowing women and men to sit together, and not requiring the men to wear head coverings. He also performed the first Jewish Confirmation service, confirming five young Jewish boys in the first year of Jakobstemple’s operation. Many leaders of the Reform movement refer to the founding of Jakobstemple as the beginning of Reform Judaism, and to this year, 2010, as our bicentennial.

1810 was also the birth-year of Abraham Geiger, one of the most influential early reformers of Jewish practice. Geiger was a brilliant scholar and an observant Jew, but he believed that Judaism developed through history from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism, from Rabbinic to Medieval, from Medieval to modern, and so on. He saw this change not as a problem to be dealt with, but a strength that allows Judaism to thrive throughout the ages while remaining relevant to the Jewish people. Each new change was moral progress that reflected the ideals of Jewish life.

In 1825 Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina brought other liberal synagogues to form the “Reformed Society of Israelites.” These reformers were influenced heavily by the Haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Europe—and their practices combined the aesthetics of the Seesen Jakobstemple with some of Abraham Geiger’s liberal theology. Add to that the idea of religious freedom in America and you get what we today refer to as “Classical Reform.” Men and women sat together and listened to the organ play hymns as they admired the church-like architecture painted with frescoes and adorned with stained glass and intricate chandeliers. They did not participate as much in worship as they did attend worship, like going to a concert. The cantors chanted beautiful melodies and the rabbis preached from on high. This kind of worship was inspiring to American Jews, especially the German immigrants who were looking for a universalistic approach to religion. They wanted Jewish practice that consisted of prayers almost entirely in the English language, and sermons — generally half an hour or more every week — intended to teach and edify. They were cultural rather than “religious” Jews.

In 1846 a rabbi named Isaac Mayer Wise came to the United States to work in Albany at Temple Beth Emet, where his radical ideas were not as welcomed as he had hoped. He was dismissed after four years, and made his way to the Holy City—Cincinnati, OH. There he became the rabbi for Kehilah Kedoshah B’nai Yeshurun, which would become known as Wise Temple. Throughout his tenure in Cincinnati, he established three major institutions that have since become the pillars of the Reform movement. In 1873, 34 Reform congregations formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations under Rabbi Wise’s leadership. (This became the Union for Reform Judaism in 2003.) Two years later they established a seminary for Reform rabbis called Hebrew Union College, and in 1889 he helped found the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional union of the Reform rabbinate.

With these pillars in place the Reform movement over the last 200 years has become the most popular and powerful movement in North America, with over 900 congregations representing over 1.5 million Jews. We have declared our beliefs through four Platforms—four declarations of the principals of Reform Judaism. In 1885 the first platform declared the Mosaic laws that “regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress…entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state,” meaning Jewish people could look like, eat like, and live with other people, Jew or Gentile. It also rejected the concept of a return to Zion and especially that of a Messianic return to “Palestine.” It acknowledged the validity of its “sister faiths,” Christianity and Islam, and elevated social action over Rabbinic Law.

Throughout the years the platforms changed, and by 1999 the movement divided its platform into three core values: God, Torah, and Israel. These three headings became and remain the themes of Reform Jewish practice, and the three things on which it stands. We also believe in the importance of Educated Choice, learning Jewish custom, law, and tradition so well that we are able to make choices about how to incorporate Judaism into our lives. We might choose to keep kosher or not, to wear a kippah or not, to celebrate Shabbat in a myriad of different ways…or not. Once an Educated Choice has been made, Personal Autonomy is respected.

In the Forward, Michael A. Meyer recently looked into the development of Reform Judaism over the past 200 years. He writes:
For the most part, Reform Judaism, 200 years after its symbolic origins, is a
quite different entity. In some respects it has become more radical than its
earlier historical manifestations, with its complete religious equality for
women and GLBT—Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender—Jews; its embrace of
patrilineal descent; and its greater willingness to include within the Reform
community non-Jews who are committed to raising their children as Jews. Yet in
most respects it is far more traditional than in its Classical days. We
use more Hebrew in our worship services, we have re-instated B’nai Mitzvah and
sometimes even Pidyon Haben, and we embrace Israel as our homeland, even if we
have never been there.


Reform Judaism demands connecting with Halacha, Jewish law, but it does not demand its authority. As Mordecai Kaplan put it, Halacha has a vote but not a veto. What makes Reform Judaism applicable and connected to Jewish life is its insistence that we look at Jewish practice in light of modernity—that we harmonize the dati with the chiloni that is within each of us.
One of the challenges to creating this harmony is that we have learned to demand logic in our daily practices. Logic and religion do not always jive, and it is up to our teachers—rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders, to explain rite and ritual. We need these explanations to be logical, without the hocus-pocus that satisfied the religiosity of our ancestors.

When I was a teenager I went to services at an Orthodox shul with my uncle. He wanted to show me what “real Judaism” looked like, and encouraged me to ask questions throughout the service. I didn’t have too many questions. Except for being entirely in Hebrew, it was pretty much the same as the services I went to throughout my years at Jewish summer camp. They did all the same prayers, just fast and garbled. Then they got to the point where an elderly gentleman walked up to the bimah, stretched out his arms, spread his fingers like Mr. Spock, and began chanting, “YivarechechAW Adonoy viyish’merechAW….” He was reciting the three-fold benediction, the same blessing we offer to B’nai Mitzvah in our ark. Before he began to speak, my uncle told me to cover my eyes, as did every other person in the room.
This was new to me. “Why do we close our eyes?” I asked my uncle.

“Because,” he explained, “that man is a Cohen, and when a Cohen does this prayer, the Shechina—God’s presence—comes down to that very spot. If you look once, you’ll go blind, and if you look a second time, you’ll die.”

“Ok,” I said, “but how can you look twice if you’re already blind?”

He looked at me and exclaimed, “Oy are you a Reform Jew!”

His statement was an expression of his exasperation. It was also right on the money. As a Reform Jew I question, and I need solid answers to my questions, or at least an honest “I don’t know.” Reform Jews need meaningful rituals, created jointly by our clergy and members of our community—people who are educated in the worship experience and who understand its spiritual value. We need harmony between our Jewish practice and our modern lives. One cannot conflict with the other, and hopefully one can even enhance the other.

I believe that over the next 200 years we will continue to hold to these values.

Chances are in 200 years there will once again be two movements of Judaism, each of them split into grades of expression and intensity. There will be Orthodoxy, the branches of Judaism that continue to adhere to the words of Torah and Talmud, seldom veering to the right or the left. Like today, they will wear similar clothing, have similar views, and apply no thought to the practice of their religion, even the aspects that do not make sense. They will simply follow the rules, and do as their rabbis tell them.

The other movement will be Liberalism. Its main branch will probably be what was the Reform movement, which will maintain its strength as a movement because of our union. But there will be other, smaller branches like Humanists and the Chavurah movement. Liberal Judaism will encompass the branches of Judaism that require its congregants to think, to determine what aspects of Judaism are meaningful to them and make educated choices about their practices.

People often express their worry about the shrinking of synagogue partnership, the lack of people’s need to belong to a community. I believe this need will ebb and flow over the next two centuries. As our community’s needs change, the role of the synagogue will have to change with it. Our synagogues will move, grow, and shrink, and our buildings will be expanded or become obsolete. Jewish Community Centers will likely grow as places where Jewish people gather to pray, study, and celebrate. We will also use our homes to invite Jewish gatherings, as well as mountain tops, ocean cruises, desert treks, and forest hikes.

Over the next 50 to 100 years I imagine a steady decline of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, with their congregations shifting either to Modern Orthodoxy or joining the Reform movement. It will get to the point where the Conservative leadership will approach the Union for Reform Judaism and ask for a merge. The resources of the Reform movement will be combined with Conservative membership—actually, by then they’ll probably call it partnership. New platforms will be produced by the dual leadership of the movements. The 8th Platform of the Reform Movement will be the 1st Platform of the new movement, and the conference will be held in Jerusalem, to emphasize the holiness of the undertaking. We will change the name of the Union for Reform Judaism, calling it the Liberal Jewish Union, a name inclusive enough for the Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews to feel comfortable and similar enough for Reform Jews to still feel at home.

The Jerusalem Platform will be published in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Amharic, Spanish, and French, but every version will have Hebrew text to emphasize the importance of the Holy Language. It will be simultaneously edited by the rabbis in attendance, thanks to the holographic text-editing functions on their cell phones. Meanwhile, the platform will be viewed via live-Tweet on gigantic screens in the conference center at the King David Hotel. It will still lay out the importance of God, Torah, and Israel.

We will still believe in one God, but there will be no common definition as to what God is. We will acknowledge that 2 Jews can have more than 3 opinions on any topic, including God. “Ethical Monotheism” will be liberal Judaism’s two-word theology. We will hold morality above ritual, and social action over the supernatural.

We will continue to respect Torah as a divinely inspired but not divinely authored literary work. It will continue to reflect our desire to reach for God and holiness. We will not consider its laws binding, but we will consider its laws. We will understand that it is a document intended to teach us about ourselves and the best version of ourselves we can be.

Israel as a nation will always be a special place to liberal Jews. They will even have a party in the Knesset, the State of Israel’s Parliament, and this party will be as influential as the Shas and other Orthodox parties are today. This influence will create significant changes in Jewish practice in Israel as well. For example, the Kotel, the Western Wall, will have a section for men and women to pray together, and a place where they can remain separate if they so desire.
But Israel can also refer to the Jewish community, and Israel as kehilah kedosha, a holy community, will be heralded as the true expression of liberal Judaism, and we will understand that if any people is oppressed, no people can be chosen.

Educated choice will remain one of the principals of Liberal Judaism, and Liberal Jews will engage in deep, serious discussion with their rabbis before making decisions that affect their lives. Religious schools and day schools will require a parent track where children are granted huge scholarships when their parents engage in parallel learning. All people will be allowed to enter the doors of Liberal synagogues, and partnership will be granted to anyone who wishes to practice Judaism with a liberal bent. GLBT Jews, Interfaith families, and Jews of every color and walk of life will be welcome within the liberal synagogues’ walls. Nobody will care if the person next to them believes differently than they do. In fact, they would think it strange if they did. People’s differences would be lauded, and their uniqueness would be a source of learning for the whole community.

Perhaps this seems like a strange, fantastic, impossible view of the world in 200 years. Maybe none of this vision will come true, but I would guess that at least some of it will come to fruition. The future is mysterious, and none of us will be here to determine if anything I have said this evening will come to pass. Many challenges await the Jewish people. The strong pull of our jobs and non-religious commitments provide us with many “reasons” to simply step away from Judaism and live only in the secular world. If we give in to this pull, there will be no Judaism in 200 years. If we resist it by clinging to the Jewish values we hold dear, our community will maintain its spiritual connection to each other and to God.

Judaism for our grandchildren’s grandchildren will only survive the complexities of the future if our community moves with them, accepting their differences of opinion and belief as expressions of the divine within them—a reflection of the divine within each of us.

In order to make our synagogue a place that will provide for various loyalties, we must begin to prepare right now. We must maintain a serious, engaged commitment to this amazing Jewish community in 5771, so that it will last to 5971 and beyond. We must open our minds to Jewish learning, open our arms toward people who are different from us, and open our homes to our Jewish neighbors, whether or not they believe or behave like we do.

May we, as a community, not only survive but thrive for the next 200 years and beyond. May we create Jewish practice in our homes and here at Sinai that reflect our Reform values and keep our children connected to the Jewish community.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

3 comments:

classicalreformharpsichordist said...

With all due respect, it seems that you have a poor understanding of what Classical Reform was (and is). While it is true that the Services were much less participatory and much more "contemplative" in nature that Modern Reform Services, I would say that Classical Reform Jews "back in the day" were MORE religious, and LESS cultural than today's Reform Jews. If anything, Classical Reform insisted on actual theistic belief more than we do today in the Movement, and rejected "traditional" Jewish cultural practices in favor of assimilation. Today's Reform Jews, by contrast, are far more likely to have non-traditional conceptualizations of God, and far more likely to be "cultural" Jews. You seem to be a little mixed up on that. Also, I did not appreciate the way you phrased your description of Classical Reform Jews sitting in the Temple "admiring the architecture", and I REALLY did not appreciate your comparing CR services to a concert. The music is for contemplation, and I assure you that the experience is quite religious and beautiful--certainly more profound that attending a concert. These "hymns" you describe are not played by the organist for the people to listen to, they're SUNG by the choir and congregation. That sounds like participatory worship to me. I am very much disturbed at how ignorant modern Reform clergy can be as to the nature of Classical Reform.

Nice Jewish Boy said...

don't have to agree with every jot and tittle to find it inspiring... thanks for posting! will subscribe... todah

Nice Jewish Boy said...

don't have to agree with every jot and tittle to find it inspiring... thanks for posting! will subscribe... todah