OK. Just so we are clear…I am not a Reformed Jew.
As a religious orientation or an expression of conviction, “reformed” doesn’t really work for me. And while we are at it, neither does “really Reform.” That might even be worse!
The term “reform” means: to put or change into an improved form or condition. If it was a Reformed Judaism, then whatever changes or modifications to our community were already done and we have nothing new to learn. We would just keep doing what we have been doing.
Well, that isn’t what I signed up for.
Reform Judaism is — for me — a beautiful, principled, provocative Jewish orientation that has driven a movement to do amazing, inspiring things. Once upon a time, I thought the early reformers (before there was a Reform Jewish movement) were simply assimilationists. I bought into the idea that they just wanted to be accepted by their Christian neighbors and that all they wanted to do was to find an easy route and blend in. I frowned upon those early Classical Reform Jews.
As I learned more about these movers and shakers in Judaism, I realized that I was so wrong. While I don’t subscribe to a Classical Reform orientation — the perspectives of rational Jewish thought, an ultimate universalism, its emphasis on piety, among other things — I do believe that these Jewish revolutionaries set the stage for the creative and innovative expressions of Judaism that we have today. They deliberated at great length, using Jewish sources to bring about new opinions on how to live righteous Jewish lives. While they might have gone in directions too far to the left for me in the year 2011, I am grateful for their courage to say that the reform of Judaism was necessary to remain relevant and compelling to the majority of Jews (as it has always been).
And here’s another thing (since you have read this far…): Reform Judaism isn’t “Judaism lite.” When folks talk about “really Reform,” it implies that they don’t observe anything. Reform is not a synonym for non-observant; it is not a term to imply illiteracy. Reform Judaism is not a haven for convenience, although for some it has been just that. We must stop implying that Reform is the same as doing less or even doing nothing. It does not reflect ourselves accurately and it fuels the fires of division amongst our people.
Sure, there are folks who are members of Reform synagogues who may not be so well equipped to explain aspects of Jewish tradition or Reform Jewish positions. Others are highly engaged in Jewish life. The essence, though, of this branch of Judaism has always been about making principled decisions about Jewish life in an effort to walk in God’s ways that are consistent with modern ways of thinking.
Here are a few things that I find so compelling within the Reform movement:
- its unfailing commitment to women’s equality and egalitarianism.
- the idea that Revelation (the idea that God has a message for the Jewish people which, traditionally was “revealed” at Sinai and given to the generations that followed) is ongoing. It wasn’t given only at Sinai. God’s Truth has been revealed and shared in every generation since Sinai.
- prayer is a dynamic experience. It adapts/reforms to the realities of the times and the truths we discover in every generation to bring meaning into our lives.
- it stands on the shoulders of our ancestors who have adapted to new situations to make our Tradition relevant and compelling.
- its unwavering commitment to social justice and repairing a broken world.
- it speaks to my soul – Reform Jews strive to find the delicate balance between contemporary society and longstanding tradition.
- its devotion to Zionism and a pluralistic, democratic Jewish State of Israel.
- it is OK to say out loud that there is a human hand in the authorship of Torah, and simultaneously believe that God is present in it (don’t worry…there is a future blog post on this one topic).
I can go on and on.
The reform of Judaism has never stopped and it never will. Our innovations, balanced with commitment to tradition, lead to paths where many find what they seek — meaning, spiritual fulfillment, ethical guidance, comfort, a connection to community and People, and yes…a relationship with the Kadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One of Blessing).
So yes, you can be religious, observant, and still be a Reform Jew. We don’t have to compare ourselves to someone else’s standard. We don’t have to compare ourselves to our more traditional sisters and brothers. I subscribe to a “Torah – true” Judaism. Finding truth in Torah is not reserved only for Orthodoxy. I am happy to accept the paradox that we find Truth on different paths, nevertheless, we are one people who serve one God.
So if you consider yourself a Reform Jew, say it proudly. Our movement has accomplished a lot. Many have benefited (not only Reform Jews!). But there is so much more to do.
With all that said…more than identifying as Reform, I identify as a Jew. Period. Labels have the power to confuse us of what is important. The “Reform” describes the path of Judaism I choose. But essentially, we are Jews forever connected with one another. God didn’t give a different Torah to Conservative Jews and another to Reconstructionist Jews, etc. God gave the Jewish People the Torah. The difference is how we engage it.
For the curious learner, a few recent things to note:
- Check out my favorite blogs and organizations for some of the resources in Reform Judaism. (They are on this blog’s home page.)
- Dr. David Ellenon, “Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island,” The Forward, March 25, 2011.
- Rabbi Richard Levy, A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism, URJ Press.
- Platforms adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the most recent one is, “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999).
- Rabbi Leon Morris, “Reform Judaism Must Move Beyond ‘Personal Choice,’” May 19, 2011.