Category Archives: Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism at 200

Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Rabbi Kenneth Milhander

 Magen David

Rabbis Levy, Samuel, and Kosiner were “progressive” Reform rabbis and were talking one day about the recent advances made by their synagogues.  Rabbi Levy said, “We’re very modern – we allow cell phones to be used during services – we even have recharging points all over the synagogue.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Samuel, “we’ve installed a snack bar at the back of the synagogue for those who feel hungry or thirsty during services – we serve falafel in pita and hot salt beef with latkes and new green cucumbers.”

“That’s nothing to what we do, my friends,” said Rabbi Kosiner.  “We close our synagogue for the Jewish holidays.”

Okay, so we all know some jokes about Reform Jews or Reform rabbis, which usually focus on a lack of belief or observance, or a lack of Jewish knowledge, or a disregard for Jewish tradition.  These stereotypical jokes are often funny and as is true with most stereotypes, they have some minute element of truth to them, but overall, I think we sometimes get a bad rap.

Reform Jews and Reform Judaism are well ingrained into the fabric of American Jewish life, and our long history bespeaks of our incredible accomplishments, especially in the area of civil rights and advancement for women, gays and lesbians, and all minorities.  It is Reform synagogues that still stand in small towns across this nation and it is Reform Jews more often than not in those small towns and big cities alike that echo the Torah’s call for justice, righteousness, and peace.

This past summer marked the two hundredth anniversary of the official beginning of Reform Judaism in Germany.  On July 17, 1810, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, the then-president of the Jewish Consistory in the Kingdom of Westphalia, dedicated a small temple building erected adjacent to his educational gymnasium in Sessan.  Back in those days, they built the school building first, and the temple second!  It shows you where their priorities truly were.  Jacobson’s little temple is considered the first house of Reform Jewish worship because it introduced what was then considered pioneering liturgical changes: prayers and sermons in the vernacular, accompaniment by choir and organ, and mixed-gender seating.  On that day, before an audience of Jews and non-Jews, Jacobson spoke these words: “On all sides, enlightenment opens up new areas for development.  Why should we Jews alone remain behind?”  And ever since that day, not only have we not remained behind, we have been far out in the lead with respect to new areas of development that continued enlightenment has opened up.

Now, I have always held the radical idea that Reform Judaism did not begin with Jacobson in Sessen.  It did not begin with the philosophical foundations proposed by Mendelsohn a generation before Jacobson.  It did not begin with Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jew whose heretical-for-his-time views of modern biblical criticism, using Euclidean methods to demonstrate a metaphysical concept of the universe with ethical implications, led to his excommunication in 1656.  No, from my point of view, Reform Judaism began with Judaism itself.  Yes, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and later, the rabbis, were all good Reform Jews.  Where do I get such a crazy notion?

In true rabbinic fashion, I have to answer that question with a question:  What is it that Reform Judaism seeks to do?  If you understand Reform Judaism as the attempt to apply Judaism to the world in which we live, then that is what Jews have always sought to do.  That is until it really happened a few hundred years ago, when there was then a backlash against modernity, against enlightenment, against progress, and against the outside world.  That backlash ultimately became what today we call Orthodoxy – that is, Orthodox Judaism as a movement along the lines of the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Now I know my Orthodox colleagues, at least those who recognize me as a rabbi, would vehemently disagree with my assertions, and perhaps my theories are way off base.  But since I am not trying to defend a PhD thesis or sell any books, I reserve the right to have my own opinions just as I give that right to others.  So, let me provide just one historical example of what I consider to be Reform ideas and principles at work long before Jacobson and his little temple introduced what was then revolutionary liturgical changes.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Hillel, the first-century scholar of the Second Temple period.  Along with teaching a non-Jew the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel is credited with many other familiar teachings, most notably among them: Im ein ani li, mi li / If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Uch’sheani le’atzmi mah ani / If I am only for myself, what am I?  V’im lo achshav eimatai / And if not now, when?  The following story is told about the famous Rabbi Hillel, known as Judaism’s model human being:

Every day, Hillel used to work and earn one tropiak, half of which he gave to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning, the other half he spent for his food and that of his family.  One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter.  He climbed to the building’s roof and went over to the skylight to hear the word of the living God from the mouths of the great scholars, Sh’mayah and Avtalyon.  It was Friday evening, in the winter, and snow fell upon him from heaven.  When the dawn rose, Sh’mayah said to Avtalyon: “Brother Avtalyon, on every day this house is light and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day?”  They looked up and saw a man’s figure in the window.  They went up and found him covered by four feet of snow.  They removed him, bathed and anointed him – acts not normally permitted on the Sabbath – and placed him opposite the fire, and they said: “This man deserves that the Sabbath be violated on his behalf.”  Within a few years, Hillel was Sh’mayah and Avtalyon’s successor, and acknowledged as the greatest scholar of his generation.

However, Rabbi Hillel’s greatest legacy is a revolutionary reform he instituted.  In order to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of debtors, the Torah commands that all personal loans must be forgiven every seventh year.  Unfortunately, the result of this utopian law was that it hurt the very class it intended to help.  Imagine today if mortgages, auto and business loans, and all personal debts were forgiven every seven years.  I, for one, would love it.  But the banks would stop lending money, especially near the end of the seven-year cycle.  And that is exactly what happened in Hillel’s time as well.  Hillel realized that the Torah’s own legislation was destroying the Torah’s ethic of helping the poor and for providing for a stable economy.  So, Hillel in essence did what we Reform Jews do today.  He found a way of applying Torah to the world in which he found himself, given all its realities and complexities.  Hillel found a way around the biblical law by instituting a procedure that became known as the Prosbul.  He noted that the Torah only cancelled personal debts, but not debts due in a court in the seventh year.  So, he created a legal fiction whereby the lender only had to note before the court that he was going to collect his debt.  Having made such a legal declaration, the debt was simply transferred automatically from the lender to the court.  The Torah’s law was upheld along with the ethic of helping the poor.  The Talmud even later praised Hillel and his Prosbul procedure, saying that it was mipnei tikkun olam / for the betterment of the world.  Many later Jewish principles were also based on this idea, that tikkun olam sometimes takes precedence over tradition.

That is in essence, ironically, the tradition that I believe Israel Jacobson and the early Reformers in Germany were following.  They were responding to the new realities and complexities of the world in which they found themselves.  And today, we are the inheritors of that tradition, a set of ideals that once seemed ominously revolutionary but have become eminently conventional convictions.  Such erstwhile radical assertions are today the bedrock and foundation of Reform Judaism, pioneering values that the vast majority of modern Jews now embrace, regardless of their denominational affiliation.  There are many, of course, but let me name just four.

First, the early Reformers insisted that the modern Jewish prayer service must include more than mere rote recitation of meaningless words.  They adapted and changed the Jewish prayer service to include meaning, inspiration, comprehensibility, and personal relevance.  Now two hundred years later, these ideals have become so widely accepted that we are prone to forget that these values were once frighteningly unconventional propositions.  But they are not unheard of in Jewish tradition.  Even the rabbis in the Talmud taught that one must not pray in a fixed manner alone.  The Jewish worshipper must also have what they called kavannah or intentionality in addition to keva or rote recitation.  Today, that Talmudic notion has been expanded to include new prayers, new ways of praying, new interpretations of traditional prayers, and perhaps most importantly, the use of music and in Reform congregations, musical instruments to inspire and uplift the Jewish soul.  Our new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, is designed to guide the worshipper on a personal prayer journey while at the same time making the ancient Hebrew words accessible to those who cannot read them so they can fully participate in the communal prayer experience at the same time.  Even in Conservative and Orthodox congregations, there is a concerted effort to make the worshipper feel welcome and included and to use texts that are what today we call user-friendly.

Second, contemporary Jews of all stripes embrace modern science.  This was not always the case.  Not long ago, modern science and religion were seen as incompatible systems of thought.  But the early Reformers were among the first and staunchest advocates of what was once a controversial contention.  Today, no matter what one’s level of piety, few if any argue that one’s religious life requires the abandonment of free scholarly inquiry.  Some Jewish communities in America and throughout the world may shun certain symbols of modern life, but the basic notion that science and religion are in conflict with each other has long been decided in the Jewish world.  And that is due in no small measure to the actions of the early Reformers who embraced Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the scientific study of Judaism, insisting that the tools of modern scholarship actually render Judaism more compelling and intriguing to present day Jews.  Almost no one today challenges that assertion.  As an ancient people, we have one foot firmly and solidly planted in our history, our tradition, our sacred values, teachings, and ethics.  But as Jews living where and when we do, given the incredible changes and challenges of the past 300 years or so, we have the other foot just as firmly and solidly planted in reality, modernity, and science.  How we balance and how much weight we put on each of those two feet is a matter of degree, personal preference, community standards, one’s upbringing, and a host of other factors.

Third, the Reform Movement has relentlessly promoted and pursued the value of religious equality, not just internally but externally as well.  Among the very first generation of reformers back in Germany, there were already those who recognized that without the full and equal participation of women, the synagogue would never achieve a truly vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it took at least another 150 years to achieve full and equal participation on the bima and in many leadership positions, but today women rabbis, cantors, synagogue and organizational leaders are not the exception or oddity they once were.

We have continued to expand the tent of Reform Judaism by welcoming the children of Jewish fathers, non-Jewish spouses, non-Jews interested in conversion, gays and lesbians, those with mental and physical limitations, and so many others once placed at the periphery of society and Judaism itself.  We have reinterpreted many ancient rituals and introduced new ones to address life events not considered by traditional Judaism.  We have also espoused loud and clear, perhaps louder and clearer than anyone else, the notion of religious equality not just for ourselves but for all of God’s children.  If you look at the make-up of interfaith groups throughout the nation, more often than not, it is Reform Jews who participate and who take up the mantle of leadership.  Equality is not just a sound bite or a nice catch-phrase we put on a bumper sticker.  Equality is the bedrock upon which we live our lives, and despite it once being a revolutionary idea, it is today widely accepted as the norm.

Finally, and to that point, Reform’s early thinkers insisted that Judaism’s distinctive ideals, teachings, and religious precepts exist not only for the benefit of the Jewish people, but also to promote the betterment of all humankind.  We have always sought to balance the notions of particularism and universalism.  While at the same time having to care for the well being of Jews throughout the world, we have used our traditions and teachings to inspire others raise the banner of hope, to light the way forward for all God’s children, and to work towards the fulfillment of the essential messages of the Torah, the prophets, and our Sages.  The idea that we – a mere two percent of this country, and an even smaller one-third of one percent of the world’s population – that we have something to offer the entire world is a remarkable assertion, but one that must be fulfilled.  We have been and will continue to be champions of justice and righteousness in this world as we have been for the past two hundred and two thousand years.   For the next two hundred and two thousand years, I know that, whatever the makeup of the Jewish community, there will always be Jews who uphold and fight for our essential principles, who take the words of Torah to heart and seek advancement, progress, healing, and betterment not just for themselves, but for all of God’s creation.  I also know that there will always be plenty of jokes about Reform Jews and Reform rabbis.  May they continue to be funny, but may we also continue to confront the issues and challenges we face with honesty, dignity, sincerity, a sense of history, and an embrace of modernity.