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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775
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Reform Judaism

Q: What is the "platform" of Reform Judaism, and specifically what is it about Reform that makes some other Jews so angry?

A: There have, in fact, been three occasions on which major "platforms" have been published in the name of Reform Judaism: the Pittsburgh Platform, in 1885; the Columbus Platform, in 1937; and most recently, a statement (more descriptive than prescriptive) called Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective, promulgated in 1976. The three make a fascinating study. If you are interested in pursuing this topic in depth, I suggest you read a book called Reform Judaism Today, by Eugene Borowitz. The author was the chair of the committee that developed the Centenary Perspective, and the book is, in essence, an extended commentary on that 2-page platform.

In my opinion, the central dividing point between Reform and Orthodox Judaism is over the question of halacha, that is, Jewish law. The Orthodox believe (in varying degrees and with varying interpretations) that halacha represents an accurate, precise description of what God want us to do. Therefore, the law is binding on us. That's it, plain and simple. No ifs, ands or buts. God is God. We know what God wants. We have to do it. It doesn't matter whether we understand it or not. It doesn't matter whether we like it or not. It doesn't matter whether it gives us a spiritual feeling or not. It doesn't matter whether we feel it enhances our lives or not. God wants it, we have to do it. Period.

The Reform position is much more complicated. First, how do we know what God wants? Reform asserts that every knowledgeable Jew has an equal claim to a personal understanding of what God wants. Therefore, Movement-wide agreement is, in principle, not necessary nor desirable, nor probably even possible. We each (if we are knowledgeable about the tradition, if we confront it seriously and take its claims and its wisdom seriously) have the ability, the freedom, indeed the responsibility to come to a [potentially differing] personal understanding of what God wants us to do.

But if we are free to choose, what, then, is the point of Torah (and halacha)? For me, and I think for many other Reform Jews as well (though in principle it doesn't matter), it is a record of how our people, in widely differing times, places and societal circumstances, experienced God's presence in their lives, and responded. Each aspect of halacha is a possible gateway to experience of the holy, the spiritual. Each aspect worked for some Jews, once upon a time, somewhere in our history. Each, therefore, has the potential to open up holiness for people in our time as well, and for me personally.

However, each does not have equal claim on us, on me. Some (the agricultural laws, for instance) are no longer possible to observe. Others (the sacrificial laws, for instance) come from a social context so foreign to our own that it would be impossible to conceive modern people finding holiness in their revival. Much of the halacha arose in societal settings where distance from the peoples in whose midst we lived was desirable. The "outside" world was dark, dangerous and threatening. That is no longer our situation. We welcome, applaud and are uplifted by much of Western culture. Portions of the halacha whose main purpose seems to be to distance us from our surroundings no longer seem functional.

Yet some parts of the halachic tradition seem perfect correctives to the imbalances of life in modernity. Shabbat, for example, reminds us of the importance of balance as we struggle with time. The various ethical imperatives remind us not to make idols of the self. And so on. In those parts of tradition, we are sometimes blessed to experience a sense of God's closeness. In my personal life, I emphasize those areas. And other areas of halacha, I de-emphasize, or sometimes abandon.

Reform Judaism affirms my right, our right, to make those kinds of choices.
Many Orthodox Jews are offended by our presumption, to give individuals the right to abandon the practice of what, in their opinion, is God's will. And some of them get positively furious when we lead others down those same paths (in their opinion, away from what God wants). And it makes some of them really go bonkers, when we assert that we are making those choices, precisely in the name of Judaism, that is, in the name of getting closer to what we believe will bring us closer to God and to what God calls us to do.

Written by Rabbi Ramie Arian, Wexner Heritage Foundation, New York, NY.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, or any particular congregation or institution.

Q: If Reform Judaism is about making informed choices, how can the average Reform Jew be expected to have enough knowledge to interpret Jewish law without guidance from learned rabbis?

A: Clearly, interpretation needs to be based on knowledge. And yes, obviously, that knowledge is present especially among the learned. That is all true, but it is not enough.

Jewish interpretation, and not only the interpretation, but the very agenda of what is of to be interpreted, requires interaction with the real world. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating interpretations that are book-wise but counterproductive in practice. Judaism's interpretive tradition is profoundly conservative by definition. No teacher is permitted, traditionally, to overturn a ruling by a previous sage, unless he is greater in learning. And that is presumed (by definition) to be nearly impossible, since the earlier teacher was nearer (chronologically) to Sinai, and hence presumed to have a more authoritative tradition.

Narrow interpretation in that way is profoundly maladaptive in eras of radical social and historical change in the world. Great turning points in history have required courageous, mold-breaking leadership, which was not afraid to interpret the tradition in radically new ways. Such was the generation, for example, of Yohanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh (who enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple).

The 20th century has brought multiple prescedent-shattering crises to the Jewish world. Political emancipation, large-scale confrontation with modernity, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel: any one of these alone would have been an earth-shaking crisis for world Jewry. To claim, as some of my ultra-Orthodox colleagues do, that the Holocaust happened because Reform Jews in Germany in the 1930's were not sufficiently punctilious in repairing their mezuzot, is insulting, obviously inadequate as an explanation for the historical reality of the Holocaust, and patently a mis-interpretation of the situation. Yet this interpretation comes out of halachically observant, learned sages, and is taught in the name of Torah and truth to thousands of disciples in the Yeshiva world.

Is this a more reasonable, more reliable method of interpretation than what I claim?
So-called "Torah-true" interpretation puts high on the agenda of today's discussion such pressing issues as whether lettuce or broccoli can ever be truly kosher, given that it is nearly impossible to wash all the microscopic insect matter out of them. So-called "Torah-true" interpretation carefully follows the letter of the law, while sometimes completely missing its spirit. Such interpretation, for instance, allows the creation of kosher for Passover bagel mix, cake mix, pizza, even burritos: Is this truly is the "bread of affliction" that our ancestors ate in Egypt?

I aver that interpretation requires knowledge, learning. I aver that no one has the right blindly to "do whatever they want" Jewishly without a solid basis in understanding the tradition. I acknowledge the value of Torah, as it has traditionally been interpreted, as a guiding voice in determining a correct interpretation for today.

Yet Torah (as traditionally interpreted) needs to be in dialogue with modernity (that is, with the modernity of whatever age it is), in order to make sense of "what God wants us to do". And there are many sensitive persons who are able to perceive God's voice in the world in diverse ways. And I (and other rabbis like me) don't have a monopoly on truth.

Written by Rabbi Ramie Arian, Wexner Heritage Foundation, New York, NY.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, or any particular congregation or institution.

Q: Is there such a thing as Reform Judaism outside North America? What are European Jews? Reform? Orthodox?

A: Yes, there certainly is Reform Judaism outside North America. Reform Judaism is actually a product of the European Enlightenment of the late 18th and the 19th century. This was the time when the walls of the ghettos were broken down and the Jews slowly entered the society around them as citizens with "full" civil rights. There were Jews who chose not to do so, but to stay in self-created new ghettos with invisible walls; these are the ultra-orthodox Jews of today who do not mix with society more than absolutely necessary.

Reform came to America halfway during the 19th century, brought by European immigrants. By the end of the century, Reform broke up into two parts, when the Conservative movement was founded. If you are interested, look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut's two sourcebooks "The Rise of Reform Judaism" which deals with the European background, and "The Growth of Reform Judaism" which deals with the American continuation, both published by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Another excellent book is Michael Meyer's "Response to Modernity."

Today, Reform exists in Great Britain where it is organized in two movements, the Reform Movement which is slightly more traditional, which arose out of the British Sefardi community in 1840, and the Liberal movement which is more like American Reform, which arose out the the Ashkenazi community in 1905. Almost the opposite development from the the US, interestingly enough.

Further there are Reform communities in Holland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Czechia, and strong movements are now growing all over the Former Soviet Union and in Germany. You also find Reform in all centers in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and in South America like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Curaçao, Aruba. These communities are joined together in the World Union for Progressive Judaism with its headquarters in Jerusalem, and in Arzenu (ARZA International), which is the Zionist political arm of the Movement, representing it in the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. You can find all the countries listed on the WUPJ Website, with links to many of the communities' own homepages.

Reform also has a number of communities in Israel, where the growth of the Movement is made very difficult by the political system, where by it is hampered in most ways of performing the functions of most congregations and excluded from all government funding which in Israel normally pays for all rabbis and buildings and other expenses. Any Arza representative in your neighbourhood can tell you more, or look at the IRAC Website.

You should know that the Reform communities outside the US tend to be more traditional in several respects than is the American movement. This is partly due to the fact that the Conservative movement has very few constituents outside the Americas, for historical reasons. The Reform communities elsewhere therefore caters to a broader spectrum of Liberal views. When in Holland, for example, Conservative Jews tend to find themselves more "at home" than American Reform Jews.

Written by Rabbi David Lilienthal, Amsterdam, Holland, 2001


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