In the Land of the Blind, Minhag is King

Inside Leadership

In the Land of the Blind, Minhag is King

We count Reform Judaism as the most inclusive and transitional movement in our world, and for good reason. Stagnation just isn’t our thing.

The Union for Reform Judaism stands at the forefront of issues of social justice and civil liberties. Reform synagogues around the world open their doors to interfaith couples, same-sex couples, and all who wish to feel the warmth of hospitality. My heart continuously bursts with pride when I speak of our movement, of the work of the Religious Action Center, and the resolutions by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The movement trusts synagogues to be open, and provides autonomy for the day to day life therein.

The openness and autonomy promoted at synagogues around the world, however, has another side: the danger of the absence of consistency. Our synagogues are filled with multi-generational Jews, some growing up in Classical Reform Judaism, others fully immersed in Jewish camping, and many who don’t fit any trend or movement. These Jews define Judaism differently based on the Judaism they grew up with or the Judaism they encounter at their synagogues.

But this diversity in Jewish understanding often leads to ambiguous policy rooted in personal experience and upbringing rather than Jewish law or tradition. When faced with important Jewish questions – such as “Where do we stand on kashrut? On shomer Shabbos?” – one Reform synagogue my give you one answer and another Reform synagogue a different answer.

The abuse of minhag in our synagogues is the culprit.

Minhag, which means “custom,” originally referred to the practice by Jews “about which the law was unclear, perhaps where certain details were the subject of debate by the legal authorities,” writes Louis Jacobs in The Jewish Religion: A Companion). Minhag, however, has become much more than that.

In the Rhineland during the Middle Ages, practices began to emerge that held no basis in halachah. Though the rabbis tried hard to fight against these “folk customs,” many found their way into Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch (1563), and thus became engrained in Jewish life.

When we fast forward to 2016, we see that minhag stands equal with halachah in our synagogues, but the interpretation has lost its original meaning.

Reform Judaism does take firm stands on certain issues, such as how we practice kashrut (kosher) law, how we make Shabbat meaningful, and how we daven (pray), but outdated practices or, sometimes, practice rooted in the individual views of a past rabbi or lay leader are stamped as congregational minhag. Ask the average congregation, “Do we allow money to change hands on Shabbat?” or “Do we allow meat and cheese in our kitchen?” and most will give you differing answers – but more importantly, few will be able to tell you why they give these answers. Too often, it is explained simply as, “This is our minhag.”

In doing so, we misinterpret what minhag truly means. Minhag was not created to overrule what is clearly stated by a movement, nor to give congregations the autonomy to ignore halachah because of emotional connection or their own comfortability.

Reform Judaism does draw lines in the sand, but congregations have begun, in many cases, to jump over them. While I believe that individual Jews can make “informed choices” about how they wish to practice their Judaism, ignoring aspects of halachah to fit their assimilated needs, institutions – such as synagogues – ought to be held to a higher standard.

The rabbis and sages debated tireless on how we should interpret the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, and today, the Central Conference of American Rabbis does the same by issuing responsa to help educate lay Jews. I find it disturbing, though, to see congregations use minhag as the placeholder for choosing to do what they are comfortable with, what they have grown up with, what they have always done. By doing so, congregations do a disservice to the intellectual depth of our rabbinic works. This leaves modern rabbis powerless, and baseless in their teachings of where we truly stand on an issue.

I have often remarked that it should be more difficult to be a Reform Jew, rather than easier. We should not only know the halachah but understand why and how we have interpreted it to respond to modernity. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” misshapes the meaning of minhag; rather, that phrase isolates and blinds a congregation to the progress of the ever-changing movement of which it is a part.

Let us put minhag back into the place in which it originated – as a custom, not as binding law. Let us do better in educating our congregants on the history of what we do and teach that “informed choice” must not ignore the “informed” aspect.

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Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the rabbi of Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, he served congregations small and large in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey

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