Who’s in Charge Here?

I’m continually intrigued by the need for Reform Jews to search for a source of authority. Rabbis, God, Books… whatever it may be, it appears to me that there is an increasing realization that there needs to be an ultimate source of authority for why we do what we do. While still clinging to autonomous choice, I think people want to feel validated in their religious and theological choices. Perhaps it’s just human. So we look at Halachah. We envision a unique “Reform” Halachah*. We strive to find something that tells us “yes, we’re right!” But we also still hold on to the value of autonomy.

Are we holding in our hands two mutually inconsistent things? In one hand we hold our own personal choices, and in the other hand we hold what we believe to be God’s words… sometimes they are not consistent. And yet we try and hold them up together as a sign that what we’re doing is the right thing.

For the early reformers, the ultimate source of authority was Ethics, Reason and logic. In keeping with enlightenment values, if their theological and practical choices could stand up to the “immutable” laws of morality, reason, and logic, then all was fine and good and the were “right”.

And now… in 2008… we’ve evolved and grown up and realized that reason and logic aren’t necessarily all they were held up to be. Reform Judaism has re-embraced many rituals and beliefs that were once renounced on the grounds of their illogicality. Not everything has to be rooted in logic and prophetic ethics anymore. But we still strive for a source of authority — and more often then not, I find that we look back at pre-Haskalah traditions and texts for a source of authority. Unfortunately (and I admit I may be completely wrong here), I’m not so sure that we can reconcile our desire for autonomy and informed choice with our desire for a an authoritative validation that isn’t just about reason, ethics, and logic.

Do they need to be reconciled? Yes… I think they do. But I’m not sure how.

*On the idea of Reform Halachah: I don’t think that in the we’re anywhere near ready to start talking about the notion of “Reform Halachah” – and I mean that historically — I don’t think we’ve “evolved” (for lack of a better term) enough yet. Certainly there’s room for halachah in the traditional sense within Reform Judaism, and also in a Reform context. But I’m fairly certain that we can’t speak of such a thing as a strict Reform Halachah.


  1. David says:

    I hate to come across as smug, so, if I do, know that that’s not my intention.

    In my first year of rabbinical school (round 1) I was asked the following question in regards to an argument that I had made, basically along all the lines of your thoughts above. So now I turn it to you.

    How is what you describe any different than much of the Conservative Movement’s theology? Isn’t the theological underpinning of Reform the fact that autonomy does negate the need for textual authority within the tradition.

    On the other hand, you sound a lot like R. Washofsky, which ain’t too bad a thing. On the other hand, that can be a very lonely soap box on which to stand. Trust me.

    On the other hand, I’ve already written too much. That is all.

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