Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reform Judaism

Joining NTHC ten years ago was, as I’ve written before, my first serious foray into Reform Judaism. Over the years, and particularly since Rabbi Postrel came to us, I’ve gotten more and more interested in what RJ is, after a lifetime of defining it by what it is not. Recently I’ve discovered that the RJ movement itself began, in a sense, by defining itself by what it is not.

In 1885, a group of fifteen Rabbis met in Pittsburgh to deal with what they saw as a growing threat from the then-new Conservative. The document they produced, called the Pittsburgh Platform, declared that only the Torah’s moral laws were binding on Reform Jews, and that laws regarding diet and dress, for example, were not. There were several subsequent convocations to continue defining RJ, but no substantial change until 1999 when, again in Pittsburgh, North American Reform Rabbis convened to articulate anew the direction of the Reform Movement. At that meeting, they created a new document, the Pittsburgh Principles, that defines RJ in the 21st Century. In that meeting the Rabbis took back much of the tradition discarded in 1999, making the use of Hebrew and a commitment to mitzvot acceptable in RJ.

More than that, though, they placed God, Torah, and the Jewish Community (Klal Yisrael) including the State of Israel, at the foundation of RJ, with individual autonomy and informed choice as its guiding principles. In this column and in several to come over the next few months, I’d like to explore these four areas – first the guiding philosophy of RJ and then the Reform Jew’s tripartite dialogue, with God, with Torah, and with the Jewish People. I will be drawing on a number of sources for this conversation, but my primary one is an excellent book on the subject called A Vision of Holiness by Rabbi Richard N. Levy of Hebrew Union College, published by URJ Press in 2005.

What makes RJ unusual among Western religions is the centrality of individual autonomy and informed choice, and these are also, in my opinion, what makes it misunderstood. In the Western view, indeed in the view of most of the non-Buddhist world, religion is prescriptive – it tells its adherents what to believe and how to live. RJ, on the other hand, says the choices are ours to make and asks only that they be informed choices.

This single element of informed choice gives the lie to the view that RJ is “do it yourself” Judaism, or that RJ makes no demand on its followers. Yes, we are free to make choices, but to call ourselves Reform Jews, these choices need to be based on learning and thinking. One of the most fundamental commandments in the Torah is “na-ase v’nishma” – to act and to listen. RJ reverses the order of these: first we must listen – to God, to Torah, and to the Jewish Community – and then act.

The very act of studying Torah to inform ourselves before we make our choices makes us Jews rather than simply “spiritual” or “non-affiliated” people. The NTHC Board begin each of our meetings with a prayer by the Rabbi to dedicate our work to the study of Torah and a D’var Torah by one of the Trustees, so that the context for all of our deliberations as a Board is Torah.

I know people who consider themselves “cultural Jews” or “culinary Jews,” but I really don’t get it. To be a Jew is to be in a dialogue – in fact, the modern conception of dialogue draws heavily on the work of Jews, particularly Martin Buber and the physicist David Bohm. In a recent book, William Isaacs draws on both Buber and Bohm when he defines dialogue as “a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before.” I believe it is in this sense of the term that the Pittsburgh Principles are framed as dialogues between the Reform Jew and God, Torah, and the Jewish People.

The notion of RJ as a dialogue also resolves, I think, the superficial contradiction between individual autonomy and informed choice. Yes, we have as individuals complete autonomy. Any one of us at any time can invent our own brand of Judaism or declare ourselves not Jews at all. But if to be a Jew is to be in dialogue with God, with the Torah, and with Klal Yisrael, then it behooves us to bring this autonomy to the dialogue, and to have the dialogue inform our choices rather than simply to make up what Judaism is based on our own prejudices or how it was where we were brought up, or how it is convenient for us to have it be. In the coming months I will address these three dialogues in detail.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, ED!