Capitalized for Emphasis: What IS “Reform Judaism” ?

I have been wondering lately – to myself, in person to others, and in writing online – whether or not Reform Judaism is ultimately undefinable. Friend and fellow ‘Reform Intellectual‘ David Wilensky has been attempting of late to come to a conclusive definition of RJ and its various incarnations on his blog. It was while commenting there a few months ago that I really starting thinking it may be inherently impossible to define Reform Judaism.

I should note that I mean “define” in the existential, phenomenological sense. We can all certainly accept that Reform Jews and Reform Judaism exist and exhibit attributes that are (in most cases) distinct from other forms of Judaism and other Jews. But that’s not a definitive definition. It’s just descriptive. What I’d really like to know is what is the essence of Reform Judaism? (italicized for emphasis). In this case, I would argue, Essence should precede Existence.

We’re quite good at describing Reform Judaism, but we’re not so good at defining it. If you check out the “What is Reform Judaism” page at http://www.reformjudaism.org, as good a place as any to start, you’ll ultimately find a nice set of descriptions, but no definitive statement.

This evening, David asks in a blog post, “What does it mean for something to be a ‘Reform principle’?”

But where he asks this, I want to counter and first ask “What is ‘Reform’?”

Before getting into the implications of what it means to be Reform, or what it means to be a “Reform principle,” I just want to define the verb itself. Again – what is Reform?

If at the end of the day the religious validity of autonomy reigns supreme for Reform Judaism, then ultimately the only entity that can define Reform Judaism is each Reform Jew by him or herself, for him or herself. Perhaps, then, we should ultimately start speaking of Reform Judaisms (plural intended).

And now we’re back at existence preceding essence.

The question is open: are there any essential, definitive things we can say about Reform Judaism outside of the theological authority of autonomy?

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10 thoughts on “Capitalized for Emphasis: What IS “Reform Judaism” ?

    • It’s possible that autonomy is not only the most essential, but the only essential thing about RJ. If that’s the case, then I stand by my supposition that RJ is undefineable.

      But I think there’s a need to define RJ for many reasons. Just a few off the top of my head:

      1. I suppose it’s the philosopher in me, but I struggle with the value of being a part of a movement if I can’t define it.

      2. Can we even then call RJ a movement, if there’s no collective definition? Doesn’t a movement imply a sense of common collective identity?

      3. In the next two decades, when the movement and its organizations need to reassert their relevance to our generation, how will they do it without definitive language? Even now, it’s clear that the URJ and Reform Judaism aren’t the only places to go to find a Judaism based on gender egalitarianism, equality of homosexuals, and a role for intermarried families (the three main distinguishing factors of RJ highlighted at “What is Reform Judaism?”)

      Will we find a new niche market to sustain us, or should we look inwards to our core and find out who we are?

      • “It’s possible that autonomy is not only the most essential, but the only essential thing about RJ. If that’s the case, then I stand by my supposition that RJ is undefineable.”

        That doesn’t prove it’s undefinable! That merely confirms that the definition will include autonomy is a major, if not its only component!

      • I believe it does prove it’s undefinable as a whole. Let me allude to politics as a comparison:

        Suppose the platform of a political party includes the policy that members of the party can make any policy decisions they want on their own, and that those decisions are legitimate representations of the party as a whole.

        Wouldn’t that party’s platform ultimately be undefinable? Wouldn’t it eventually be unable to exist as a viable political option?

        A specific example: The Canadian Liberal Party maintains a policy to unconditionally support Canada’s commitments to the Kyoto Protocol. While there are undoubtedly those in the party that have made an educated choice not to personally support this policy, that choice is not a valid representation of the Liberal Party’s , nor could it be included in the “definition” (i.e. Platform) of the Liberal Party.

        I think this maps out pretty well onto the current discussion.

  1. Can we even then call RJ a movement, if there’s no collective definition? Doesn’t a movement imply a sense of common collective identity?

    Debates over how to “define” something are often actually power struggles over deeper, political issues; competing definitions can privilege different interpretations, which can, in turn, move organizations or movements in different directions with important ramifications for its members. You show me two people arguing over “Who is a Jew?” and I’ll show you two people with a lot to gain – or lose – depending on which way that question gets answered.

    So when it comes to defining RJ, my first question to you would be, Why is it so important to define the RJ movement? What is gained by saying, RJ is “about” A, B and C, and not about D, E, F, etc.? Is it not possible that, in essence (!), RJ is about explicitly not defining what it is? That the act of drawing lines via definitions is precisely the thing that divides and alienates rather than unites? (Of course this in itself is a kind of definition, but I think it’s different than what you’re talking about.)

    It seems to me that, in clear distinction with Conservative and Orthodox Judaisms, RJ isn’t in the business of saying who is or isn’t “one of the gang.”

    And I guess I kind of like it that way…

    • rogueregime and Jesse, you both seem fairly disinterested in seeking out a definition. For me, I don’t know that I’ll ever arrive at a satisfactory definition, but I think I’ll figure a lot out by trying.

      • David,

        Although this might sound contradictory, I absolutely believe the elicudation of your Reform Jews-Judaism-Movement-Intellectual Community taxonomy is a valuable and worthwhile enterprise. At the same time, though, I think exploring the relationships between these different — but overlapping — speheres is different than precisely defining them.

        To take an example, you have defined Reform Jews as “Jews who subscribe in whole or in part to what we have defined as Reform Judaism,” which you understand to be “an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.” So what would you make of someone who self-identifies as a Reform Jew but claims to not “subscribe in whole or in part ” to your definition of Reform Judaism. Is this person not a Reform Jew? The “in whole or in part” thing is problematic too: How small can the “part” be before it makes no sense to call someone a Reform Jew? Are Modern Orthodox “Reform Jews” insofar as they might “in part” subscribe to an “ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief?” How big does that “part” have to be to make 0ne Reform? How small to make one Orthodox?

      • I’m not at all disinterested. In fact, I’m writing a post now about why we must find a definition, and find it soon.

        But I’m also confronting what I perceive as a reality that such a definition will be impossible if it rests on the laurels of autonomy.

  2. rr, I agree that an exploration of the relationships between the four entities I’ve attempted to define is the most interesting part. That’s probably why so much of my initial definitions were made vague.

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