What’s good about Reform Judaism?

Just as we were taking our seats in class today, and with little forewarning, my classmates and I read this question as Rabbi Marmur wrote it on the board. The question had been lingering beneath the surface for a while, as of yet unanswered in our class entitled, Why I am a Reform Jew. Our minds were already racing for answers as the question, “What is not good about Reform Judaism?” joined its pair on the whiteboard.

Ask a group of Jews these questions, and you’re sure to open the floodgates to a world of opinions. As a group of rabbinical students those questions at the Reform rabbinical school, and… well, you better have your scuba gear ready.

Our answers were wide, varied, and deep. They reflect the diversity of opinion and belief amongst our class. Deeply personal at times, they are thoughtfully critical of the things we need to work on, and unabashedly praiseful of the things we’re getting right.

What fascinated me the most was not the diversity of opinions shared (as impressive as it was), rather it was those ideas that appeared in both categories, and those that didn’t appear at all. What do we think that Reform Judaism is doing that is both good and bad? What are we doing that is promising, yet also has room for growth and reconsideration? And what aren’t we doing at all?!

Here’s a rundown of the things that appeared in both columns:

  • Choice
  • No Reform halakha
  • Liturgical creativity
  • The wealth of Reform Jews
  • Patrilineal descent
  • Not enough God-talk

And until we were prompted to think a little deeper, little was mentioned of:

  • God
  • Torah
  • Israel

A word first on the God/Torah/Israel triumvirate: I would hazard a guess to say that we didn’t say much about these three things simply because they are part and parcel of all that we do. While there’s a diversity of belief and practice surrounding these three pillars, they remain the central foci of Judaism. It was only after Rabbi Marmur drew our attention to their absence from either of the lists that we started narrowing down our focus and commenting on various aspects of the three. Those may be the topic of a later discussion, but for now, let’s take a look at our good/bad things of Reform Judaism.

By no means was this a scientific study. That said, I believe our answers shine a light on some of the major issues that are being grappled with today among committed Reform Jews. These are things we aren’t content to let hide in dark corners, untouched:

 

CHOICE

One of the first things mentioned by some in the class was the notion that the slogan “choice through knowledge” still bears weight and meaning, and represents an ideal vision of what Reform Judaism can aspire to be. But it also confronts us with the reality of choice through lack of knowledge, which remains a challenge for the knowledgeable leadership, and an impetus for the continued improvement of our educational models.

 

NO REFORM HALAKHA

On the one hand, the lack of a clearly defined set of instructions of what Reform Jews do and don’t do is a continued frustration for many. It makes it hard for us to talk about ourselves objectively and to think about how we interact with and share experiences with the wider Jewish world. And yet, it is a hallmark of the “big-tent” Judaism that we aspire to be, and makes us uniquely suited to reach out and help many unattached Jews find meaningful new Jewish experiences. So how do we hold high the values of personal meaning-making and self-agency, along with the need to have an accessible guide to Reform Jewish practice and belief?

 

LITURGICAL CREATIVITY

How do we balance a desire to have worship that is firmly attached to our textual roots, yet is freshly inspiring and reaches up to the heights of our creative imaginations? How do we bring together authenticity and creativity? How do we help maintain the liturgical innovations that Reform Judaism brought to the Jewish world, yet not become stagnant in our prayerful language?

 

THE WEALTH OF REFORM JEWS

Once, eons ago, Reform Judaism might have believed that Judaism is a private matter of the individual. Now, that idea is as anathema to us as a mechitza. clearly, there is an interplay between religion and the wider world that is of paramount importance. The gross wealth inequalities in North America – and yes, this includes those among Reform Jews – is something that draws our attention. This wealth opens many doors to meaningful experiences (summer camp, higher education, philanthropy, etc.), yet it cannot merely be seen as a private matter. What is the balance between personal and communal responsibility? We need not look further than Rabbi Hillel for the answer…

 

PATRILINEAL DESCENT

A key and central idea of Reform Judaism’s inclusiveness: the way a family observes Judaism at home and educates children is more important than which parent “owns” the right to pass Judaism on to their child. While this was a radical innovation when the Reform Movement introduced it in 1983, it actual has its roots firmly in the tribal affiliation of our biblical ancestors. Without question, championing patrilineal descent has brought tens of thousands of people into the realm of Jewish life, and has enabled countless families to make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives. Can we even begin to imagine how different life would have been for these people in an alternate reality? At the same time, the decision represented a radical divergence in the trajectory of Jewish life, further distinguishing Reform Judaism from other movements. An issue that cuts directly to the core of our being, this isn’t just a question of personal or communal belief or observance – it has to do with how we define ourselves as humans. So how do we take our firm belief in patrilineal descent in one hand, along with our desire to not be isolationists in the landscape of Judaism?

 

NOT ENOUGH GOD-TALK

Once we were prompted to think about more about how God, Torah, and Israel fit within the context of the two guiding questions,  a number of new ideas jumped out, but all were confined to one side or the other – except this one. While Reform Judaism makes room for a diversity of beliefs and conversations on the nature of God, I believe it is equally important for us to push ourselves to think and talk more about God – discovering new ideas and approaches to our relationship with The Most High. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein once shared with me: “It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.”

 

A closing caveat and thought: the ideas above don’t represent any official stance of Reform Judaism, nor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion nor of our instructor, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. Rather, they are the thoughts, ideas, and challenges being confronted, upheld, wrestled with, and championed by this generation of rabbinical students. Like any ideas, they have supporters and they have detractors. There are a multiplicity of opinions on how significant these issues are, and how we should approach them (or if we should at all).

I think, perhaps, that this is my favorite part of Rabbinical School so far – the ability to dive head first into issues of real substance, get dirty, wrestle and play around in the muck; then think about how much I want to shower off, and how much I want to make a part of my skin. It’s not easy – I’m confronted with serious challenges to things I thought I was sure about, and with real questions about the ideas of others. But perhaps this is precisely the idea at the heart of the words of R. Yosey ben Yoezer:

“Make your house a meeting house for the sages; and get sooty in the dust of their feet, and drink with thirst their words.”

(Pirkei Avot 1:4)

 

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2 thoughts on “What’s good about Reform Judaism?

  1. Jesse, do you find your Canadian / Toronto roots affects how you think of patrilineality and an idea of reform halachah? Enjoy your time learning with Rabbi Marmur! Very jealous that you get to study with him on a regular basis!

    • Jordan – funny you should mention that. I most *definitely* believe that my Canadian upbringing has affected how I think of patrilineality. I debated including a note on that in this post, but ultimately decided not to, since I wanted it to be more about the class discussion than my own thoughts.

      This has been the topic of some heated debate here, and I don’t think I fully realized my own perspective until a few days ago. The biggest apparent difference to me is that in America, the discussion on patrlineality amongst Judaism as a whole has basically been won out and is over. Reform Judaism, thanks to its size, has steered the ship in that direction and is going full steam ahead. And rightfully so.

      But in Canada – as you know – the comparatively tiny Reform community does not have the same luxury. Since the Jewish community in Canada is much more familial, I believe there’s a hesitancy to do things that make it more difficult to exist communally. Clearly, this is probably the most significant topic in that regard.

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