After years of being questioned by various family members, friends, and confused strangers as to whether or not I really was a Reform Jew (apparently believing that washing your hands before eating is a thoroughly un-Reform concept), the answer is in folks.
It has been decided that I am, in fact, not a Reform Jew.
Yes, the confusion is over, and thankfully so. Interestingly, the one who made the life-altering decision is none other than Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of our movement. I am simultaneously honoured and flabbergasted that he takes such an interested in my personal beliefs. This life-altering information was disclosed to me in a fascinating article in The Jewish Week written by Debra Nussbaum Cohen. In it, Rabbi Yoffie makes the following assertion:
There are limits to what Reform Judaism can encompass… If you take [Jewish Law] upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”
Well. I’m glad he spelled it out so clearly. So much for theological pluralism.
While the article itself is quite thought-provoking, and will most certainly be the topic of a future blog post, Rabbi Yoffie’s assertion remains front and centre for the time-being. In all seriousness, I am angered and somewhat frightened by this revelation.
Such an exclusionary statement is not only antithetical to the so called pluralistic values of Reform Judaism, it is also contradictory in and of itself. To be sure, every act and belief that we take upon ourselves has some element of choice in it. I am not forced to believe that there are certain things that God requests of us, nor am I forced to perform any acts. Even for those of us who believe in aspects of Divine commandedness, choice is still central. Moreover, Reform Judaism’s principles of inclusiveness and pluralism teach me that not everybody understands God and Judaism in the same way that I do. So while I may believe that God commands certain things, I also understand that other Jews do not experience commandments in the same way.
It seems to me that Rabbi Yoffie’s statement is thoroughly un-Reform itself. And that troubles me. Certainly, the notion of commandedness is not foreign to Reform Judaism. Rabbi Gunther Plaut has the following to say about it:
Mitzvah is an indigenous part of Judaism; there can be no Judaism without mitzvah. And there can be no Shabbat observance without definable and therefore observable מצוות עשה (positive mitzvot) and מצוות לא תעשה (negative mitzvot).”
~The Sabbath in the Reform Movement (1965)
My chief concern is not the notion of a Judaism devoid of elements of Divine command (although I strongly disagree with such a supposition). What troubles me the most is the notion of a Judaism that doesn’t even allow for the possibility of the opposite. We’re Reform Jews, aren’t we? We value religious pluralism, don’t we? We stand for diversity of thought and practice, don’t we?
This is not an isolated issue, either. In the current edition of Reform Judaism (the magazine), Yoffie writes the following:
… a certain number of our congregational leaders… [urged] the Union to focus on spirituality, not politics. It is more important, they said, that we Reform Jews concentrate on Jewish education, worship, and Outreach than on issues of public policy.
I understand this argument, but I cannot agree. Reform Judaism came into being as a protest against those who insisted on limiting Judaism to matters of ritual and study… For Reform Jews, worship and study must always lead to active engagement with the world.”
Always? Praying to God must always lead to political action? Nu? Isn’t that a very limiting statement itself? Doesn’t that limit Judaism to matters of politics? Why can’t it be both? Why can’t worship and study be for some a way to communicate with God, for some a way to engage with our rich history, and for others a way to change the world? PEOPLE! This is what we claim Reform Judaism to be. It’s what we tell others that we are. We know that in action, it’s not always the case, but at least pluralism had a home on paper for a while. It seems now that even on paper we’re become less pluralistic.
This orthodoxy of Reform continues to trouble me. It is so frighteningly contradictory, and it shakes me to the bones. Make no mistake, I am a Reform Jew, and I will continue to be one. But I will not box myself into a definition of Reform Judaism that excludes others.