Why I Am A Reform Rabbi

Conceived by the radical thought of Moses Mendelsohn striving to bring an ancient tradition into the new world of the Enlightenment, and birthed in America in the mid-nineteenth century by the pragmatic Isaac Mayer Wise and the brilliant intellectual, David Einhorn, Reform Judaism is my first religion. At five years old, I experienced Sinai at Central Synagogue in Rockville Centre. The larger-than-life man in a black robe who handed me my consecration Torah was none other than Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn.

My parents believed that he spoke the truth. They had rejected the medieval, mysterious, and seemingly meaningless Judaism of their grandparents, and in their search for a way to be Jewish that didn’t offend their aesthetics or their ethics, they had found a teacher in the then young visionary who would be a primary force in post-war American Reform Judaism. My parents’ passion for a moral, non-ritualistic Judaism was so strong that I assumed that kashrut had ended when the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e.

When my parents became Reform Jews, they fit into a generation who found traditional Judaism irrelevant, embarrassing, and oppressive. Reform Judaism gave them a Judaism of which they could be proud. Here was a tradition that made sense, and guided not by law but by history. Of all denominations, Reform Judaism may be the one that has most kept Judaism alive. Michael Meyer writes, “There is no decisive event or individual by which one can mark the onset of the Reform movement. Its beginnings lie in the gradual rise of sentiment favoring proposals for doctrinal or practical religious reform prompted by increasing exposure to the world outside the ghetto whose values and demands, gradually internalized and accepted, are perceived to conflict with the inherited tradition.” Since its modest beginnings, Reform Judaism has opened its doors wide enough to include many like my parents. “Through the agency of Wissenschaft des Judentums, ” David Ellenson writes, “Liberal Jews could and did claim that Jewish faith and practice were the result of historical development.”

It is this idea of evolution that most defines the strength of the movement. When Adam and Eve lived in Gan Eden, they were given no choice: they were not to eat of a certain tree that would teach them more than human beings needed to know. When the first earthlings did indeed choose to disobey, they were punished. Reform Judaism has an exalted evolved image of human beings who are capable of choice. We’ve come a long way from the garden! Perhaps we’ve grown and so has God.

Reform Jews may choose their rituals and beliefs, and the model applies to the rabbinate as well. Within the bounds of encouragement and discouragement, we are allowed to decide whether, for example, to celebrate one or two days of Rosh Hashanah, to keep kashrut, or to sanctify a same sex marriage, Choice, however, depends upon knowing enough to practice the art of distinction. When the early reformers did away with traditional rituals such as kashrut, circumcision, and Shabbat on Saturday, and with traditional beliefs such as the coming of a messiah, the restoration of the Temple and sacrifices, and angelology, they were experimenting with the ingredients necessary to maintain Jewish civilization, to use Kaplan’s definition of Judaism. The title of Wise’s siddur, Minhag Amerika, was a response to a new Jewish experience. In this prayer book, written in the holy language of Hebrew as well as English, we find a a traditional order of service with all the seemingly archaic parts removed.

Jews often decide what is objectionable not only by their own compass but by the non-Jewish world. Since Exodus, when the people rose up against Moses by challenging him with what the world will think of a God who takes a people out of a country only to kill them in the desert, we have tried to give our neighbors nothing negative to say about us. Initially, the reformers articulated a Judaism more compatible with European Christians, at least aesthetically. Robes, organs, and sermons in the vernacular were a few innovations. Later, traditional, non-rational belief would be challenged.

My parents still had need for a Judaism that was acceptable in the eyes of their co-religionists, yet my generation has been fortunate to live in a time that has allowed greater freedom of religious expression. We have been beneficiaries of little anti-semitism in America and we have different identity needs as Jews.

By the time of the Columbus Platform in 1937, with Nazism menacing, Reform Judaism characteristically shifted its doctrine to match the moment. The earlier Platform is suffused with universalism and rationalism; the word “Torah” does not appear. The Columbus Platform devotes a third of its document to religious practice and it speaks of a “providential God.” The experiment begun in the 19th century was being modified, improving itself by being responsive to its followers. An eternal community, Israel may still live because of its great capacity to keep the big picture and to widen its path. Most Reform congregations today are more traditional and ethnic in orientation than were their counterparts a generation ago.

After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis taught us how to find other paths to God. Prayer, study, and good deeds substituted for animal sacrifices. We have always been an evolving people, and the journey has taught us that change is the essence of life, because life is dynamic.

Now Reform Judaism once again recognizes the need to expand the vision of modern Judaism. When our great -great grandparents threw their tefillin and prayer shawls away, they knew what they were doing. When I served my first Reform congregation, I saw that my balebatim didn’t have a clue as to what to do with the neatly folded tallitot sitting next to the prayer books–they only had Friday night services.

The answer to what to do with prayer shawls is where I see Reform Judaism moving. The newest Pittsburgh Platform has been praised by both by Orthodox leaders as well as those who are more classically Reform. How amazing! Yet really what this is about is education. Our people cannot make intelligent choices in practice and belief if they don’t know more of the tradition. Whether a congregant wears a tallit is less important than whether he or she learns its meaning and is invited to try it. Understanding the potential power of certain rituals depends upon a rabbinate willing to experiment with the many Jewish possibilities for transcendence and transformation in a time when so many are yearning for this.

The speed with which a movement responds is a mark of its strength. Fifteen years ago I entered the rabbinical program at HUC in Jerusalem. One student davened with tefillin and a handful elected to learn how to leyn Torah. While many of us questioned the photograph on the cover of the winter issue (1999) of Reform Judaism of the president of CCAR laying tefillin, nevertheless it offered a new choice for some within the movement. The wish for more ceremony, practice, and Jewish community has been heard by the leaders of the Reform movement. Temple Emmanuel is alive and well in Manhattan and so are the congregations of Rodef Sholom, Stephen Wise, both in New York, and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. All represent the full circle of what Reform Judaism is offering Jews at the close of the millennium.

The future of Judaism will ultimately depend how inclusive it can be, and how well it can transmit its tradition. As Reform Judaism continues to move in strengthening the education of its people and in maintaining its unique commitment to change when necessary, it will easily meet the challenge of fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Reform Judaism is essential for Jewish life and it is the movement that will best carry Judaism forward. By meeting people where they are, rather than where we think they should be, we make Judaism welcoming, compelling, and helpful to individuals navigating life’s journey. In the tradition of Reform Judaism, its rabbis gather Jews to become a community who demonstrate their love of God by serving each other and the world God created. This movement of gradual and radical change that has been most responsive to a post-Holocaust, increasingly egalitarian, pluralistic world, is the one that I want to serve as a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.