Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reform Judaism

Leading services weekly over a couple of months has been a really interesting experience for me. I’ve never really studied the Torah and commentaries on the Torah in depth, and so for each service I have had to do some studying to get behind the text to what it may have to teach us for life today, particularly for those of us who are not “commandment Jews.”
A Rabbi who visited recently, Oren Postrel, made the distinction in some teaching he did between “Commandment Judaism” and “Reform Judaism.” He made the point, and I think it’s a good one, that the fundamental difference between the two starts with each branch’s view of the Torah. Commandment Judaism holds that the Torah was given as a whole to Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai, and that every word was written by God. Reform Jews believe that the Torah was written over time, inspired by God and written by a variety of people.
Rabbi Postrel made the point that, if you believe as Commandment Jews believe, then it follows that you must obey every commandment in the Torah, if not literally, then as interpreted by the Rabbis, since Commandment Jews also hold that the Talmud is God’s word. Reform Jews’ position is not nearly so clear. Some hold that Reform is “pick and choose” Judaism – follow those injunctions and prohibitions that you like, don’t follow those you don’t. I, for one, reject this view – it’s just too facile for me.
I came to Reform Judaism late in life. I was raised Conservative, in a congregation that was just making the transition from Orthodox to Conservative; my parents were raised Orthodox. In my life I have engaged with both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, with mixed results in terms of my own personal search for spiritual meaning. I have also engaged seriously in the study of Buddhism, less seriously studied Hinduism and could not help but learn about Christianity as one must in this country, though the nuances that separate the various branches of Christianity continue to elude me.
As I’ve engaged with Reform Judaism over the past ten years or so, I’ve become more and more interested in it because it seems to me to demand more engagement and thought, not to say faith, than do the more doctrinaire forms. In my personal development I have come to value inclusiveness very highly in all areas of life – the more of life, the more people and points of view I exclude, the less rich is my intellectual life – and I find RJ, and this congregation in particular to be explicitly inclusive, to the extent that even non-Jews are welcome and part of the community. This fits for me.
Mostly, though, RJ has caused me to really think about God and Torah, outside the bounds of doctrine. This has taken me, particularly lately, to thinking about what might be the fundamental message of the Torah – that which is behind the arcane rules about sacrifices and the stories of people being struck dead, that which is the real essence of being a Jew and maybe of being a human being. In preparing various divrei Torah over the past weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that underneath it all the Torah is teaching us two things: first, that God is One. Not that there is one God - that may have been news in Abraham’s time but not now – but that God is a whole – all of it, everything – that there is nothing outside God and that good and evil are under our control and consist of our choices to turn toward or away from God.
Second to the oneness of God is the admonition to “be holy, for God is holy.” Said another way, to live in imitation of God. For this, the Torah is an instruction manual, but one that is meant to be read metaphorically not literally. The dietary laws, for example, tell us which qualities God means for us to incorporate (e.g., cleanliness, humility, living together in peace) and which God wants us to reject (e.g., predation, isolation, ferocity). The repeated injunctions to remember our slavery in Egypt and the Exodus can be understood to be reminders to treat others with dignity and compassion and to remember that, though we were chosen by God, we have been at the bottom of the social ladder many times in our existence.
So I’ve come to really value and respect Reform Judaism – with its commitments to thinking for oneself, to inclusion, to equality of all genders and orientations, to tikkun olam, and most of all to being able to be Jews without divorcing ourselves from the modern world.

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