Well, I guess I’m out…

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.

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17 thoughts on “Well, I guess I’m out…

  1. jordynj says:

    I’m not a reform Jew anymore either…As of Wednesday. For slightly different purposes, but not completely separate. I mean I’m still a strong advocate for progressive Judaism, but as for the Union For…I’m out.

    miss you.

  2. Personally, I have developed my own set of parameters of what a reform Jew is (Not quite the same as Rabbi Yoffie).

    I split up mitzvot into two categories: those dealing with G-d, and those dealing with man and the world. Any commandment dictating how I deal with the world and my fellow man (love thy neighbor, do not kidnap; the more obvious ethical commandments) are mandatory. Anything dictating how one expresses them self and interacts with G-d (Kashrut, Prayer, ect.) are to be chosen by the individual.

    However, I think the beauty of Reform Judaism and pluralism is that we can each make our own guidelines, without excluding anyone. Even though someone might not agree or follow my theoretical guidelines doesn’t make them any less or more of a reform Jew (certain heads of the URJ might make note of this).

  3. Your division of mitzvot is actually strongly rooted in our tradition. We have the notion of commandments as being either “Bein adam l’atzmo” (having to deal with one’s own self); “Bein adam l’chavero” (having to deal with one’s interactions with others); or “Bein adam l’Makom” (having to deal with one’s interactions with God).

    The question of which mitzvot are “mandatory” is an entirely different subject of discussion, I believe, but your assertion as to which are obligatory is also strongly rooted in the origins of Reform Judaism.

    At the risk of repeating myself, I do want to emphasize that the notion of commandedness (in many different forms) is entirely within the realm of Reform Judaism. Let’s not forget that.

  4. Rabbi Eric Yoffie says:

    I just read Jesse Pailin’s post and I was stunned. Not by his conclusion. If he, or anyone, as a matter of principle decides that he no longer sees himself as a Reform Jew, and prefers another Jewish path, so be it. I was stunned by the fact that in reaching this conclusion, he twice refers to remarks by me, and in both cases completely twists the meaning of my words. If he chooses to disagree with me, fine. But let it be on the basis of what I actually said.

    His quote from the NY Jewish Week leaves out the sentence where I say that Reform Judaism is “a mitzvah-oriented tradition,” and then goes on to suggest that I oppose the idea of commandedness. But of course, a mitzvah is a command, and when I say that Reform is a “mitzvah-oriented tradition,” it means specifically that Reform is based on commands from God that we, as Reform Jews, take upon ourselves, because we see ourselves as commanded/obligated by God and our tradition.

    Even worse, he quotes me as saying “If you take ALL (of 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.” Except that he leaves out the word ALL, and in this way totally changes the meaning of my comment.

    My point — which I have made many times over the years –was that as Reform Jews, we must look at each Mitzvah to determine whether or not we — or the community of which we are part — are commanded. I have suggested various criteria in my writings to help us make that determination. What separates us as Reform Jews is that we determine commandedness one mitzvah at a time, while Orthodox Jews — and some Conservative Jews — accept the entire halachah as a unit. They affirm that they are commanded by each and every mitzvah, without examining it. For Reform Jews, this is unacceptable, because some of the mitzvot as they appear in the halachah are, by our standards, unethical and inappropriate for modern people. We see these traditions as coming from man/woman and not from God, and therefore not commands at all. To take one example, we reject the idea that one accepts without thinking and examination the restrictions on gay people that exist in the halachah; we refuse to believe that God has commanded us to act in this way, and that the tradition requires us to do this. But a halachik Jew does not have this option; he must accept ALL of the system, and the tradition in its entirety. That, for me, and for most in our movement, is why we are not halachic Jews. Jesse has somehow turned this point into an argument on my part against commandedness and against pluralism.

    One more point. Jesse distorts the clear message of my Reform Judaism column. I was arguing against those who claimed that Reform Judaism is only ritual and study, and who insist that we have no business being involved in ethical questions and matters of social justice. I argued, in response, that we cannot limit Reform Judaism to ritual and study, but that we must both engage in ritual observance and study AND engage in the ethical commandments that call on us to repair the world and act ethically toward our fellow human beings. I made the additional point that ritual and study reinforce this idea because they lead to ethical behavior — indeed, it is impossible in Judaism to make a division between ritual and ethical. It is always both/and, and it is never either/or. At any given moment, my focus when performing a ritual act might be solely on my connection to God–and this is healthy and good. Still, since that same God also commands me to act ethically toward other human beings, there is no point in trying to build a wall between these two dimensions of Jewish observance. (Is a Passover seder a ritual act that connects us to God, or an ethical exhortation that urges us to do good in the world and redeem the oppressed? At any moment for any of us, it might be primarily one or the other, but ultimately it is both.) Somehow, this argument, which I believe is plainly stated, has become in Jesse’s thinking an argument against pluralism, against ritual, and in favor of Judaism as politics.

    I admire Jesse’s passion, but I wish that he had read my words more carefully.

    For me, it is now Friday afternoon, and Shabbat is coming. Enough for now. Shabbat Shalom.

  5. Sarah W says:

    So, bottom line, according to the union, Jesse and his fellows (hi) who believe in commandedness can fall within the “accepted range of belief and behavior” that Rabbi Eve refers to in Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s article in The Jewish Week?

    It’s getting a little confusing, what with the movement defending Reform’s claim to pluralism, but also debating whether and where to draw a line. Is there a line, Rabbi Yoffe?

  6. David A.M. Wilensky says:

    I would say that Reform Judaism is quite about comandedness. A Reform Jew is obligated to do that which brings him/her closer to God and/or makes them a better person.

    I would also say that a fuly observant Jew who accepts that he/she has made choices in arriving at full observance is Reform.

  7. Rachel P says:

    Its been a few summers since I’ve worked at Kutz…this article highlights some of the reasons why. I’ve had a few years to be Jewish “on my own,” and its been goo for me. Now I’m at HUC and trying to figure out how to fit my own practice within the context of community. I do think we’re still Reform as long as we choose to self-identify in such a way(no matter how many people can’t fathom the fact) — an I’m super glad to know that I’m not doing this alone.

    Shavua tov.

  8. BZ says:

    David A.M. Wilensky writes:
    I would also say that a fuly observant Jew who accepts that he/she has made choices in arriving at full observance is Reform.

    Who defines “fully observant”?

  9. BZ says:

    Welcome to the blogosphere, Rabbi Yoffie! As I’ve asked on Mah Rabu and Jewschool, what do you mean by “the entire halachah”? Despite Artscroll’s attempts to claim the contrary, halacha is not monolithic or static in any part of the Jewish world. Even in the Orthodox world, different streams follow different versions of halacha, and halacha evolves with time (especially in the haredi world, though it evolves in ways that we wouldn’t like, coming up with new chumrot daily). By talking about “the entire halachah” as if this is a meaningful concept, are we as Reform Jews subscribing to a more static definition of halacha than Orthodox Jews are? Are we leaving ourselves out of the possibility that halacha can evolve and diverge, and treating it as a fixed system with which we are constantly comparing our own practice?

  10. Alexander Ostroff says:

    Man…
    My computer broke halfway through the summer and I wasn’t able to keep up with your musings. Naturlich, I return to find that you’re the talk of the…well, Reform Jewish blog-thing? I need to mull over what you’ve written before I actually comment, but I find the whole situation amusing and yet quite unsurprising.

  11. George 'Getzel' Davis says:

    Jesse, its been a long time and its very good to hear that you are still an engaged Reform Jew.
    I guess your rant left me questioning the boundries of the Reform movement. How pluralistic is the reform movement? who does its borders exclude? Are their Jews whose practices are outside of the realm of the reform movement (niddah laws, shomer negiah, maybe even shomer shabbat as described in the shulachan aruch). What about people’s beliefs? Can someone believe in the literal ressurection of the dead, Jesus as G!d incarnate, or that zionism is evil and still be a reform Jew?
    I am not sure about the answers to these questions and have personally been wandering about in much more transdenominal space for the past few years. I would love to hear more of your insights!

  12. Suzy says:

    Jesse,

    I just found this through a blog jewishfringe.com from a JCSC thing. I’m really proud of you. Not only was it eloquent, but it was correct. Who has the ability to say what Reform Judaism is, within or outside of the URJ. We (or really you) have the ability to start the discussion and move the movement forward instead of being forced to leave the URJ and identify on our own.

    In my opinion it is time for the leadership to start thinking about the questions being posed by the likes of you, me, David S., and others who are both more traditional, Zionist, and want to be engaged. I agree with all your points, and wish that Rav Yoffie would take them as more of a discussion rather than an attack on him or the URJ.

    You are one of the most intelligent people I know. I hope our paths cross again soon and you can teach me one or two of the things you know. Let’s talk again soon.

    Love,
    Suzy

  13. Just went through your pages. I can get boistrous with my lucid colony Sorry, for off top, i wanna tell one joke) What do you call a monster with no neck? The Lost Neck Monster.

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