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?