So I am often asked, “What does it mean to be a traditional Reform synagogue?”
Oy. Who knows!
It is often confused with a synagogue that has a Classical Reform orientation. Because that was an earlier prominent orientation of Reform Judaism, some think that is what is “traditional.” As much as I admire Classical Reform, that is not where I daven.
I believe in a pluralistic, open tent perspective of Judaism. I connect to that orientation through the Reform Jewish movement. And while I am open to and enjoy many different perspectives on prayer and ritual, I do ultimately believe that we have certain obligations as a people in covenant with God and the Jewish People. That is challenge these days — especially as our society tells us that we can do almost anything we want and it ought to be tolerated.
One of the things I often note is that American Jews — a fiercly independent bunch (a good thing) — often mistranslate the term “mitzvah.” It has become known to mean a “good deed” or “an act of virtue.” But traditionally it is understood as a “commandment.” How did it come to be that the understanding of mitzvah — something that was God wants us to do — was transformed into doing something nice for somebody else? Well, that is certainly something that God wants us to do. However, there are other things that God expects of us that do go beyond volunteering, ,things like learning Torah, exploring our texts, celebrating Shabbat, just to name a few. Without ever doing any research, my gut tells me that having mitzvah translated as “good deed” was because America’s Jews don’t like being told what to do! (Not even by God.)
You see, I believe that being independent and ambitious can be wonderful things. But we need something to keep us grounded. That is where Jewish tradition and observance come in. The world isn’t all about us. We are often caught up with pursuing success, but what about pursuing significance? That is where I depend on our rituals. To remind us, gently (sometimes not so gently), that there is more out there than just me…and I have to contract a little bit to make room for others.
These traditions that we have inherited, they do have boundaries — “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” As our American Jewish community becomes more and more integrated, we tend to remove some of these boundaries. We might consider them as too exclusive or out of date. Sometimes, that is true. That is a big part of my choosing Reform Judaism. I am a Reform Jew not for Judaism to be convenient, but to have the opportunity to consider, explore, and challenge our teachings in light of what we know and experience today.
Nevertheless, I do recognize that there are responsiblities I have as a Jew. These ideas come from God, and they come from my community. The idea of mitzvah as a sacred Jewish obligation is still compelling to me and I want it to be compelling to others. It isn’t necessarily one particular mitzvah that I hope people would connect to…but the idea of being connected to observance that links us to our people, to our heritage, and to God. And since there are mitzvot that are incumbent upon me to perform (not just the ethical, but also the ritual), then I need to figure out how to engage them in authentic, meaningful ways. Naturally, that doesn’t happen because I simply want it to…. It is like a baby learning to walk. It takes time doing it — living it — until it might make sense and become a natural feeling.
With all of that said, I do believe in boundaries — in expectations. I have never believed that Reform Judaism is a version of “Judaism lite.” It has never been defined by what I don’t do. For me, I have agreed to be obligated to participate in a journey with my people towards a meaningful life with God leading the way. So while I believe in having boundaries, I think where they are located are going to be different in different communities. I am ok with that. But…these boundaries were never meant to be barriers to Jewish life and they ought not be barriers to entrance into the Jewish community. At first glance, it might be easy to see them this way. But for Judaism to be more than a reflection of the practices of a particular ethnic group, then we need to carve out a little space to protect and cherish the ideas and ideals we have inherited and reclaimed in our age.
I wonder what do other people think about the boundaries of Judaism. Are we just past all of that?
Do we think that they are good, but I just don’t want to be bound ot them?
How do we feel about shifting them?
Can boundaries preserve what seems to be a shrinking population of Jews?
Oh, one last thing. Since you went this far, I thought I would share what I consider to be a very thoughtful statement. It is the most recent platform from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization) and is referred to as our “Statement of Principles” (1999). All of the past platforms are listed here, but I think every Reform Jew should spend a little time unpacking this statement: http://ccarnet.org/documentsandpositions/platforms/
I look forward to seeing what you think…