Jewish Journal

Reform’s Reforms

Changes Tilting Movement Toward Traditional

by Micha Odenheimer

Posted on May. 19, 2005 at 8:00 pm

Anyone looking as Melissa Simon, wearing a denim skirt and sweater, walks by on a Jerusalem street would automatically assume that she is one of the hundreds of young Orthodox women who have come to the Holy City to study Torah.

They would be half right. Simon is in Jerusalem this year to study Torah. But she is doing it under the auspices of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). In four years, after completing her studies at one of the college's U.S. campuses, she will graduate as an ordained Reform rabbi.

For Simon, who speaks with the passionate self-confidence of a born teacher -- tempered by a tendency to blush at her own displays of eloquence -- dressing like a yeshiva girl is a "subversive" practice, a double-edged sword aimed at undermining the preconceptions of both Reform and Orthodox Jews.

Simon actively campaigns for homosexual rights and abortion rights, and she is an ardent feminist. Yet, she said, "I decided several years ago, while in college, to reclaim tzeniut, modesty, in dress and attitude, as a practice and value for the Reform movement. I found it made me think about Judaism every time I got dressed. That's a key part of the whole thing -- to enlarge the picture of what being Jewish is about."

Simon, who observes Shabbat and kashrut and is deeply interested in other areas of halacha (Jewish law) that have been long neglected by Reform, is part of a growing trend that has transformed the movement's avant garde and is redefining what it means to be a Reform Jew.

Although some of her classmates in Israel for the year in rabbinical school still do not wear skullcaps, even while praying, and lament the hardship of living in a city where it is "difficult to find good shellfish," others wear skullcaps and even tzitzit even when they are not praying, and "are in heaven" because Jerusalem's multitude of kosher restaurants means they can finally eat out whenever they feel like it.

The movement as a whole has become welcoming and tolerant of halachic observance, reversing a 150-year history in which Reform defined itself, in part, by its rejection of traditional practices.

"Fifteen years ago," said Rabbi Rachel Sabath, one of the first HUC-JIR students to raise the flag of Reform's return to halacha, "I was told that I would have a hard time getting a job in the Reform movement, because I refused to do things like take the youth group to an amusement park on Saturday afternoon."

"But now I am embraced, hired and asked to speak in Reform congregations about my path as an observant, yet Reform Jew," she continued. "They'll go out of their way to accommodate me -- I'm told, 'We'll do it on Sunday,' or 'We'll come to you.'"

A new openness to "the whole array of mitzvot," in the words of the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement, drafted by Reform rabbinic leaders as a deliberate repudiation of the movement's historic -- and notorious -- 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, has become part of the movement's official doctrine. Some Reform leaders see this sea change as a form of repentance or teshuva.

Searching for the secret formula

In the past, said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who served as president of HUC-JIR until 2001, Reform saw its task as radically transforming the Torah. The new task, he said, is changing the Jew.

"Our starting point is that the Reform Jew of the beginning of the 21st century needs to be transformed," Zimmerman writes in an essay called, "Transforming the Reform Jew." "Transform means to question and challenge the times in which we live.... Transform means to accept Torah (in the broadest sense, in all its aspects) as the starting point of the encounter, to accept teshuva as the primary category for Jews in our time."

This tilt toward more traditional observance is only one aspect of the changes sweeping through the Reform movement as it renegotiates its relationship to modernity, to tradition and to Jewish peoplehood -- all the while relentlessly searching for the secret formula or strategy that might stay the floodwaters of assimilation threatening much of its constituency.

Yet Orthodox ideologues would do well, for the moment, to quell triumphal cries in seeing Reform's religious ferment. For what is emerging from the Reform movement is something more subtle, complex and paradoxical than some form of Orthodox lite: a more self-confident and religiously alive form of liberal Judaism, closer to tradition, yet as subversive of our stereotypical assumptions about Jewish reality as the figure of future rabbi Simon campaigning for homosexual rights and looking for all the world like a modern Orthodox yeshiva girl.

To understood how far Reform has come, it is important to remember where it began. From its inception in Germany in the early decades of the 19th century, Reform's embrace of modernity was nearly total. Rituals or beliefs that Reform leaders found irrational -- and believed would impede Jewish acceptance in non-Jewish society -- were excised wholesale from the Reform repertoire, as a matter of principle.

By 1883, the Reform movement in the United States had flamboyantly rejected the laws of kashrut. A dinner held in honor of the first graduating class of HUC featured flagrantly nonkosher delicacies, and was recorded in the annals of history as the treif banquet.

The Pittsburgh Platform also rejected the notion of Jewish peoplehood; the Jews had once been a nation, it argued, but were now something more exalted -- individuals united by a religion whose pure essence could be summed up in two words: ethical monotheism.

Replacing the commandments and Jewish peoplehood was a powerful belief in science and progress, as well as in a God who ruled over a world evolving inexorably toward rationality and goodness. Perhaps most audaciously, the Reform movement believed that modernity contained the seeds of messianic fulfillment -- the first flowering of the redemption.

"We recognize, in the modern era," says the Pittsburgh Platform, "the approaching of the realization of Israel's great messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men."

Isaac Meyer Wise, the leader of U.S. Reform Judaism during the last decades of the 19th century, believed that, purified of its primitive elements and distilled into its essence, Judaism would, within decades, become the religion of all humankind. Zionism was despised as a small-minded, nationalistic throwback.

According to Rabbi David Ellenson, current HUC-JIR president and a passionate Zionist, when Rabbi Kaufman Kohler became president of HUC at the beginning of the 20th century, "he fired every Zionist faculty member, and gave speeches to the students saying they could choose between the pure God of universal progress and love or the godless nationalists."

Movement Is Virtually Unrecognizable.

The movement began to change its attitude toward Zionism in its 1937 Columbus Platform. But in its religious beliefs and practices, Reform remained, for many decades, largely static -- Protestant in its aesthetic and style of worship. Services were mostly in English, and a professional cantor accompanied by a choir and organ sang the liturgy, while the worshipers remained seated and passive.

Friday night worship was scheduled for after dinner, not at the traditional sunset hour. Congregants had little knowledge of Jewish sources. Even the rabbis, though eloquent and knowledgeable when it came to U.S. politics and Western culture, were not necessarily Judaic scholars.

"There are two kinds of Reform rabbis," one prominent mid-20th century Reform leader once quipped. "Those who believe in ethical monotheism, and those who know Hebrew."

But now, five years into the 21st century, the Reform movement -- or at least some of it -- has changed to such an extent as to be virtually unrecognizable.

Bill Berk, a soft-spoken, engaging man in his mid-50s, is the rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, a Reform Temple that many in the movement say they look to as a model. The prayers, which are sung enthusiastically by the entire congregation, rather than by the cantor and choir, are in Hebrew. The services are scheduled for 6:15 p.m., approximating the sunset onset of Shabbat, as is traditional.

Berk said that new worshipers who grew up with classical Reform are often dumbfounded when they walk into his Friday night services.

"They absolutely don't believe that it's Reform," he noted.

What has catalyzed the changes that are redefining Reform, transforming it from the quintessentially modern religion it was into a new, postmodern era?

The answer is multifaceted, with theological notions and sociological conditions fitting into each other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Ellenson, who was appointed president of HUC-JIR in 2001, is one of the two or three most powerful leaders of Reform today, and is one of the finest minds studying the puzzle. He is also emblematic of the shifting face of the movement today.

Ellenson was born and raised in an Orthodox family, and although he broke away from halachic observance as a teenager, he is "obsessed" with his field of scholarly research: the impact of modernity on Orthodox ideology and halacha.

Ellenson is a student of Jacob Katz, the towering historian of the Jewish encounter with modernity who died in 1998. Until the modern period, Katz taught, Jews were part of a religious community with a separate political status in the societies they inhabited. Within their communities, the rabbis had the authority to impose communal norms.

Emancipation gave individual Jews rights as citizens, dissolving the rabbi's coercive power. Orthodoxy, Reform and Conservative Jewry all grew out of the vacuum of power that was created, as they vied for individual hearts and minds. Reform embraced modernity and its freedom wholeheartedly, while Orthodoxy attempted to preserve the authority of halacha in the face of political change.

For several generations, Reform continued to benefit from the glue that kept Jews together even in the absence of religious tradition: remnants of tribal loyalties, the ongoing threat of anti-Semitism and lingering discomfort over Jewish identity in a Christian society, all of which made intermarriage rare. However, in recent years, the glue has melted away.

"The issue today," said Ellenson, a warm, genial man with a trim beard, "is what to do when you have a fifth- and sixth-generation American Jewish community that is totally acculturated, when Jews can be officers in companies like DuPont, or presidents of Ivy League universities?"

As Rabbi Naama Kelman, associate dean of HUC-JIR in Israel put it, speaking of U.S. Jews, "We no longer have to keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses."

Yet, as Reform Judaism has learned to its surprise, modernity cuts both ways. "What you see," Ellenson said, "is that modernity destroys tradition, but, at the same time, it makes people seek tradition, so that what you have in America today are trends that move in opposite directions."

In the often cold and impersonal contemporary society, Judaism has vast reservoirs of meaning to offer. Ellenson said he is open to "the full range of how Jewish spirituality is expressed in our times" -- and that definitely includes halacha.

"Halacha is the idiomatic way in which Judaism spoke and continues to speak," he continued. "If you want to talk about the possibility of creating meaning, you have to look at halachic sources."

But openness to halacha does not mean a return to Orthodox notions of commitment. A recent, influential study of the post-modern Jewish self called, "The Inner Jew," written by Israeli sociologist Steven Cohen and Stanford historian Arnold Eisen, paints a portrait of the contemporary U.S. Jew as still connected to Judaism, but on his or her own terms.

"Personal meaning," the study concludes, has become "the arbiter of their Jewish involvement. Jews are focused on the self and its fulfillment, rather than directed outward to the group. With the valorization of tradition, the absolute commitment to pluralism and the continuing assumption of individual autonomy, [Jews] feel free to borrow selectively, and perhaps only temporarily, from traditional Jewish religious and cultural sources."

Ellenson sees the significance of halacha and Torah learning in their capacity to produce a web of meaning and memory that can sustain Jewish identity.

"Too many people think in binary categories of forbidden and permitted," he said. "We would do better to think in categories of meaning."

Although he is apologetic about it -- "I don't know whether it's an emotional or an intellectual problem" -- Ellenson admitted that he is not personally interested in theology and is agnostic about most ultimate questions.

But for other Reform Jews, like Rabbi Rachel Sabath and Rabbi Leon Morris, head of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York City, observance does emerge from ultimate concerns. With the messianic hope Reform placed in modernity shattered by the Holocaust, Sabath said, "there is a need and a place for the commanding voice of God outside of human capacity and anything that could stem from reason."

Rate of Intermarriage Has Skyrocketed

Sabath and Morris are both students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the preeminent Reform theologian, who argued for the spiritual necessity of an ongoing inner struggle, in which the transcendent voice of God is filtered through our own autonomous ethical sensibility.

"What I would like to turn on its head," Morris said, "is that the burden of proof is on the tradition itself -- Reform Jews have the right to reject a specific tradition after studying and wrestling with it, and finding it ethically untenable, but the default position is that I have to observe this, it has come down this way, these commandments have a claim on me as a Jew."

The place where the future of the Reform movement will really be decided is in its version of the trenches -- in the congregations scattered across America that serve the movement's more than 1 million members. American Jewry, and the Reform movement in particular, were traumatized in 1990 when a population survey showed that the rate of intermarriage had skyrocketed over the last 30 years from about 6 percent to more than 50 percent. In the past, Reform's desire to keep and expand its constituency of highly assimilated Jews -- unofficial estimates say 30 percent of Reform congregants are intermarried -- has meant a hesitancy to make demands in terms of knowledge or practice.

But in an era of spiritual search, many Reform rabbis have begun to realize that a call for greater commitment and involvement may have a far wider appeal than they once thought. Berk of Temple Chai, where hundreds of Jews pack Shabbat services and participate in often-intensive ongoing programs, believes that demanding higher levels of commitment has helped create a more vibrant community.

"You have to have a sense of the mitzvah as something coming from the outside, so that you don't get yanked away by each passing breeze of the modern world," Berk explained. "Living in modernity there are a lot of wounds -- unbridled competition, the impact of media, the whole underside of capitalism. If you can be part of a real community, you can survive the shallow side of America."

In a sermon delivered a year ago, Rabbi Janet Marder, currently president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform's rabbinic organization, expressed the critique of Reform's past, which has caused a return to more traditional forms of ritual and prayer.

"Speaking to God in polite paragraphs of good English prose, or figuring God out of the equation altogether and making worship a purely cerebral act of self-evaluation -- these are not activities compelling enough to make many people today opt for Friday night worship rather than a good dinner and a movie," Marder said.

In her address, she spoke about Eileen, a congregant who had recently lost her husband and then discovered that she was ill with Parkinson's disease.

"Reducing Judaism to an arid core of reasoned principles or generic moral virtues that we share with good people of all faiths, stripping it of its color and vitality and emotional force -- these are not enough for Eileen, whose world is collapsing around her," Marder said. "If we have nothing of significance to offer a woman like her, who craves an experience of spiritual sustenance and meaning, then we have nothing of real value to offer the world."

This story is reprinted with permission from Ha'aretz. For the full version of the original article, please visit www.haaretzdaily.com.

Micah Citrin, 30, the son and husband of rabbis. Future job: assistant rabbi, Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, Calif.

"It seems that where the Reform movement today is a healthy and mature place, comfortable with being a movement driven by progressivism and rationality, but able to hold the rational and the spiritual together."

Brett Krichiver, 32. Future job: assistant rabbi, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles.

"I want our kids to grow up with a sense of ownership over their tradition, that they understand the tradition and they have a sense of what it can mean for them personally, and that they also feel free to experiment and challenge the tradition, to explore it."

Leonard Zukrow, 54. Career: Jewish educator. Future job: Still weighing options

"Reform is a verb, in the sense that Reform is always changing. What it was, and what it is and what it will be is always in development. Our lay leadership and lay community are becoming more comfortable speaking a 'Jewish' language, becoming more familiar with sources, more adept at talking about Torah in ways that are significant, meaningful, comprehensive."

Adam Schaffer, 31. Future job: rabbi-in-residence, Heschel Day School, Northridge.

"Keeping ritual is something that should make people mindful, not mindless, [increasing] our sense of awareness of holiness, of the presence of great things, of God in the world."

Darah Lerner, 45, midcareer businesswoman who changed direction. Future job: the only Reform rabbi in Bangor, Maine.

"Judaism provides a place to turn when we're trying to figure out how to behave in a whole slew of circumstances. We can speak to issues in business, in people's personal lives, and we can engage our politicians and hold them to standards, [by] which they understand that there are religious values that are not conservative."

Joel Fleekop, 26, the youngest graduate. Future job: assistant rabbi, Shir Chadash, in Los Gatos, outside of San Jose..

"Some people have their primary connection through text study, and others have it through worship and others through social action programming. There is a plurality of ways to find meaning in Judaism."

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