Reform Judaism – a brief introduction
The founders of Reform Judaism in Germany over two centuries ago never anticipated a Jewish population as thoroughly integrated into secular society as most American Jews are today. Nor could they have imagined a Jewish community where only a few hours a week were devoted to Jewish education. They believed, optimistically, that the new opportunities in secular education, open for the first time to Jews in a post-emancipation society, would be added to Jewish learning and used to increase one’s knowledge of the history and evolution of Jewish tradition – not replace it.
REFORM JUDAISM: DIGGING DEEPER
People often ask me to recommend a book that will explain Reform Judaism There are many fine books documenting the history, philosophy, and practice of Reform Judaism. The problem in suggesting only one is that – as it is often said about Jews in general – if you have two Jews, you’ll find three opinions. Instead, then, let me share my personally philosophy of Reform Judaism.
One of the difficulties in citing “the” Reform position on any question is the fundamental commitment to personal autonomy. Autonomy does not mean doing anything one wants. It refers specifically to the location of authority within our branch of Judaism. Reform Judaism has not, as yet, accepted any similar central body of deliberation, nor do most Reform rabbis take upon themselves any Jewish legal authority over their congregants. We may have wishes, hopes, or strong feelings about “shoulds” and so on, but the Reform rabbi is primarily supposed to educate his or her congregation so that the individual congregants can make informed, responsible decisions for themselves.
This was a radically innovative philosophy in the late 18th century in Germany, when Reform Judaism first appeared on the scene (shortly before orthodoxy which arose as a reaction to this “dangerous” form of Judaism, and long before Conservative Judaism, which evolved only at the turn of the 20th century in the United States). But it was a philosophy that worked, in the early years, because the vast majority of Reform Jews were thoroughly educated in traditional Judaism, and were, by and large, religiously observant. They were in a position to make their own responsible decisions on how best to practice Judaism in their own homes and lives.
REFORM JUDAISM VS. ORTHODOX JUDAISM VS. CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM
The essence of Reform Judaism is perhaps easiest to explain by comparing the seat of authority in Reform Judaism and that found in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism grants authority to the properly ordained rabbi. That authority is handed down from one generation of orthodox rabbis to the next. Two orthodox rabbis may differ (though rarely dramatically) from each other on points of law or observance. Both can be right at the same time for their community. If you are a member of an orthodox community, you accept the judgment of your rabbi – or the rabbinic authority he accepts. The Reform commitment to personal autonomy does not mean doing anything one wants. It refers specifically to the location of authority within our branch of Judaism.
Reform Judaism has not, as yet, accepted any similar central body of deliberation, nor do most Reform rabbis take upon themselves any Jewish legal authority over their congregants. We may have wishes, hopes, or strong feelings about “shoulds” and so on, but the Reform rabbi is primarily supposed to educate his or her congregation so that the individual congregants can make informed, responsible decisions for themselves..
The Conservative movement (and by the way, I capitalize Conservative but not orthodox because the Conservative movement is, in fact, a single movement while there are many different orthodox communities and groups) found that granting each individual Jew authority over his or her Jewish decisions resulted too often in uninformed, ineffective decisions. Instead, the Conservative movement created a body of legal authorities –The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – comprised of rabbis and scholars – to deliberate, as a group on the practices and observances that should be considered obligatory, or are permitted, by the movement as a whole.
In many cases, the CJLS has come up with decisions that are operative for the entire movement. On some more controversial issues, the CJLS has granted individual rabbis the right to make their own decisions for their communities as the “mara d’atra” or “authority of that location” mirroring the general orthodox approach. A Conservative Jew is expected, theoretically, to follow the guidelines of the CJLS and his or her synagogue’s rabbi.
A Reform Jew could behave exactly the same way as an orthodox Jew. The individual may choose to adopt all of the same traditions, customs and practices. The difference should be that the Reform Jew has investigated each and every practice and adopted it because it expresses a positive moral value for him or her.
Practically speaking, few Reform Jews adopt an extensive range of traditional observances because many of those practices are designed explicitly to distinguish Jews from non-Jews, and one of the most sacred values for Reform Jews is the equal sanctity of all peoples. Most Reform Jews believe that integrating fully into secular society is an important part of being a “good” Jew.
When faced with having to make a choice between observing a particular Jewish ritual and embracing a universal ethical value, the ethical value should take precedence (e.g. driving on the Sabbath to spend time with friends or family, or participating in a social justice event, etc.).
At Riverdale Temple, this is the underlying philosophy that guides us in all levels of Jewish education —from pre-school to adult.