Renewing Reform for the 21st Century
Reform Judaism Is Not Judaism Light.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774
I am often asked what Reform Judaism is about. Usually, the conversation involves someone noting that Reform Jews follow fewer ritual traditions or customs and then they may argue something along the lines of “Orthodox Jews follow traditional practices, customs, and commandments. Conservative Jews are supposed to follow most of the commandments and customs and do so with men and women being held equally accountable, but most Conservative Jews actually don’t do most of them most of the time. Meanwhile Reform Jews don’t even know about the traditions they should be keeping!” We are often seen as “Judaism Light,” commandment free, or else as “ethnic Jews,” part of the Jewish community but not religious. Sometimes, Reform Jews may feel this way about their own Judaism.
Tonight, I would like to speak with you about what the reformers of Judaism intended from the start, what Reform Judaism was during the heyday of what is commonly referred to as “Classical Reform,” and what in our modern context Reform Judaism could become.
During the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, many Jews were falling away from Judaism because not only could they not connect philosophically with traditional practices but some of those practices actually turned Jews away. Large numbers of Jews found Jewish services uninspiring or even embarrassing. They were not attending synagogues, were converting away from Judaism, or were losing faith altogether.
Looking at what their Christian neighbors’ churches had gone through, some Jewish community leaders decided that a reformation of Judaism was needed. For these reformers of Judaism, “reform” was a verb, not an adjective. They wanted to restore what they saw as the essential nature of Judaism, just as Protestants during the 19th Century were trying to do within Christian traditions. These reformers wanted to remove from the Judaism of their day what they saw as accumulated “superstition” and “ceremonialism.”
The man who many recognize as the founding father of Reform Judaism, Israel Jacobson, argued in his dedication address for the newly created synagogue in Seesen, July 7, 1810:
Who would dare to deny that our service is sickly because of many useless things, that in part it has degenerated into a thoughtless recitation of prayers and formulae, that it kills devotion more than encourages it, and that it limits our religious principles to that fund of knowledge which for centuries has remained in our treasure houses without increase and without ennoblement.
To put it simply, Judaism had a great deal to offer, but because of the way it was currently being practiced those great things were being ignored or were largely inaccessible to modern Jews. In the early 1840s, as the concept of reforming Judaism spread in Europe, The Society of Friends of Reform, based in Frankfurt, issued a Declaration of Principles.
In it they argued that most of the day to day practices of Judaism in their age were created by people, not commanded by God, and were based upon what those people, and perhaps wrongly, understood in their day and age. These “enlightened” Jews did not see significance in many of the day to day practices that came down to them through the generations and believed some to be impediments to maintenance or development of faith. Some of these included separate seating in worship, maintaining the full spectrum of Kashrut laws, something that could make Jews uncomfortable in the company of Christians, worship services conducted in Hebrew, a language many Jews did not understand, and conducting services without aesthetic beauty that did not inspire.
Instead, they chose to reform Judaism, to restore it to what they considered to be its pure state. These reformers of Judaism saw themselves not as creating “Judaism light,” but as restoring the truth of Judaism to its adherents, purifying Judaism of what rabbis had added to it over many generations.
The reformers believed that Judaism encouraged secular study and the application of secular knowledge to Jewish belief and practice, an idea directly contrary to the practices in some more traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, like the village in Bessarabia where my Great Grandfather lived, where secular studies were strongly discouraged and those who studied them were ostracized.
The founders of what might be called Modern Orthodox Judaism cited Moses Mendelson’s statement in response to the defenders of inquiry. Mendelson stated that, “We are permitted to ponder over the law, to search into its spirit; never the less, our sophistry cannot free us from the strict obedience we owe the law.” To sum that up simply, “We can believe whatever we would like, but we still need to follow the law.”
The reformers pressed their case that it was not a mere willingness to ponder truth that was necessary but primarily a reform of practice. What we believe and what we practice cannot be significantly in conflict. The father of what came to be known as Classical Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Einhorn, spoke of this in his inaugural sermon at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, MD in 1855:
Judaism must be thoroughly Jewish, based upon divine revelation [by which he meant Torah, not Talmud or other rabbinical sources]. In our day we cannot lay too much stress on this point. The more mere ceremonialism loses in significance and observance, the more it is necessary for us to seize upon the essential character of the Jewish faith, upon that which divested even of the whole ceremonial law, would still stand out in sharp contrast to all other faiths...
David Einhorn observed that in his time, many Jews neither believed that the traditional ritual practices of Judaism were important to maintain, nor maintained them. Furthermore, he saw that if Jews felt that this observance of ritual practice was Judaism itself, Jews would fall away from Judaism. Instead of working to promote the significance of observance even where it was in opposition to modern understanding, Einhorn chose to stress what he believed to be “the essential character” of Judaism in an attempt to bring Jewish belief and practice into harmony. In doing so, he created what came to be known as “Classical Reform.”
While stressing believe in a transcendent God, Einhorn delineated what are essentially the basic beliefs of Reform Judaism in all of its forms today:
[We believe] chiefly in man himself…the body as well as the soul; the belief in the original goodness and purity of all created things, especially of those beings, who fashioned in the image of God, are gifted with reason and, with no native bar to a state of holiness, need no other mediation than their own efforts to obtain divine grace and their eternal salvation; the belief in a humanity of which all members possess one and the same natural and spiritual origin, the same native nobility, the same rights, the same laws, the same claims to blessedness.
With this understanding, Einhorn became one of the leading abolitionists, railing against slavery and oppression of minorities. This understanding permeates the prayer book, Olat Tamid, the Eternal Sacrifice, authored by Einhorn, which eventually formed the basis for The Union Prayer Book used by American Reform Jewish congregations starting in the 1870s and for well over a century. With this understanding, Reform Jews stood and continue to stand at the forefront of efforts to advance human and civil rights today. This is the understanding that undergirds our pursuit of equal treatment of and respect for people of all faiths, all races, and of every ethnicity and sexual orientation. This is David Einhorn’s legacy.
We as a religious tradition believe—putting Eihorn’s words more simply—that:
· There is one God who is eternal, invisible, and incorporeal, meaning that God does not take human form or any physical form.
· We know about God through creation, meaning through making observations about the universe as we know it.
· People have an eternal soul.
· People are inherently good and pure. Born without sin, we start life with a clean slate. There is no original sin in Judaism.
· People are created in the image of God, making all people holy by nature.
· People are endowed with reason and therefore should put it to use. Blind faith is not inherent to Judaism. Scientific inquiry is essential.
· People need no mediator or mediation in their interaction with God, they may relate to God directly in their seeking, to use Einhorn’s words, “divine grace and eternal salvation.”
· People are all created from the same natural and spiritual origin, meaning that no one is inherently superior or inferior by incident of birth.
· Rights and laws should apply to all people equally. By this Einhorn meant civil laws, not just religious laws.
· People are all equally blessed in God’s eyes.
This brings me to my final question. What could Reform Judaism be?
Einhorn and the other reformers understood a requirement to act—to practice what we preach. If we believe that people are all created in the image of God, that all are of equal origin as human beings, that all are equally blessed in God’s eyes and that all laws should apply to all people equally, we need, as Einhorn did, to oppose the enslavement of any human beings. Einhorn was an outspoken abolitionist who had to flee Baltimore for his personal safety because his position on the issue was unpopular there. Those continuing David Einhorn’s legacy champion the causes of the oppressed, of minorities, and of the disadvantaged generally.
Another leading reformer, Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, who was among the leading reformers in Germany during the middle of the 19th Century and was the rabbi of the Berlin congregation stated that:
It is the Messianic task of Israel [meaning “the Jewish people”] to make the pure knowledge of God and the pure law of morality of Judaism the common possession and blessing of all the peoples of the earth. We do not expect of the nations that, by accepting these teachings, they would give up their historic characteristics in order to accept those of our people; and, similarly, we shall not permit the Jewish people to give up its innate holy powers and sentiments so that it might be assimilated amongst the nations.
The Reformers in the United States changed the wording slightly, eventually proclaiming that “the Mission of Israel” was to be “a light unto the nations.” We are to guide the world through the darkness toward the light, toward the truth, as we understand it to be.
Over the years, we have lost the concept of “mission.” In fact, we have even lost the understanding that the advocacy that progressive Jews do for the poor, the stranger, for minorities of all sorts within our communities and for human rights around the world comes not from outside of our religious tradition but is the very basis of it. It is virtually unknown that much of the advancement in relation to those issues over the past two hundred years is the result of advocacy done by Jews precisely because of the moral and ethical imperatives put forth by Rabbi David Einhorn and others from the early 19th Century until today.
Many among us state that we do these things because it is what good people do. I have to tell you that there are vastly more good people in the world than there are people doing these things. When acting as David Einhorn wished for us to act becomes normative for good people, the Messianic Age will already be upon us.
Let us say that we remember the stranger, the orphan, the poor—because it is what we believe Jews should do and hope that others will join us in doing so. Let us say that we believe in equality of all human beings because that is what Judaism teaches and we hope that others will come to agree with us. We need to be proud Jews. We have a tremendous amount of which to be proud.
In my view, over the past decades, the Classical Reform tradition has been treated unfairly both by adherents and critics alike. By focusing on the use of Hebrew prayers and the reintroduction of traditional modes of worship or opposing them, the foundation of Classical Reform has been obscured. For Classical Reform Jews, the rituals were mere adornments on a body of compassion and activism on behalf of the Jewish people and all peoples. The true focus of Classical Reform Judaism was on what we should be doing when we go about our lives beyond the synagogue’s walls.
Today, we have fallen into the very trap described by Einhorn. We allowed ceremonialism to become our Judaism and then we devalued ceremonialism. That is not Reform Judaism.
This building has words written not just above the ark, reminding us of the Ten Commandments, but it has words written on the outside in foot high letters including “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” They were not put there as a mere decoration. They were there as a declaration of intent. These words were the beating heart of Classical Reform Judaism which encouraged outreach and action.
The reformers of the 19th Century believed that whatever we read in our prayer books, whatever songs we sang, were to remind us of our sacred obligation, to strengthen us in our mission. Judaism at its heart was to them not about rituals like tefillin or purity practices like keeping Kosher, it was about increasing Shalom in the world, bettering lives for Jews and others. It is more than Edmond Flegg said in his poem, “I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering, the Jew weeps.” Reform Judaism truly demands, “When there are tears and suffering, the Jew dries the tears and works to end the suffering.” While Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who will be our guest on September 16th and 17th, and the many who work with the RAC over the course of the year exemplify this directive within our movement, we cannot abdicate our personal responsibility to act.
This new year, think Reform Jewishly. Think about why you do what you do and what you can do to help make this world a better place. When we sing Oseh Shalom and ask God to bring peace, wholeness, and completion into our lives and more broadly throughout our world, believe that it is each of us, individually, upon whom the task falls. We must do the work whether it is through activism, medicine, teaching, lending a helping hand, feeding the hungry, offering a hug in comfort or a joke to bring forth a smile.
Reform Judaism is not “Judaism light,” it is “Jewish Action Heavy.” Our mission is literally to perfect the world. May our prayers during this High Holiday season inspire us to compassion and action.