Jewish Journal


May 25, 2000

Reform Needs Standards


The Reform rabbis' recent resolution on same-gender officiation affirms two mutually contradictory actions: It supports any Reform rabbi who wishes to perform a same-sex ritual, including, though not so specified, marriage; and it supports any Reform rabbi who refuses to perform same-sex rituals.In an important way, there is nothing new in this resolution. A Reform rabbi could always have performed a same-sex commitment service. Nothing in Reform Judaism would have prevented Reform rabbis from doing so 10, 20, or 50 years ago, because there are no religious standards in Reform Judaism (this is not criticism, it is description). Reform rabbis can do anything they want ritually. So a Reform Jew can celebrate Shabbat on Tuesday. Indeed, for decades many Reform synagogues held Shabbat services on Sundays.

When I asked one Reform rabbi what binds his colleagues to each other and to their denomination, he replied, "Union dues," only partially in jest.Reform Judaism is very important to the Jewish people. It has served as a way back into Judaism for many Jews who would not set foot in a Conservative or Orthodox shul. It is also a wonderful vehicle for experimentation with the tradition, especially the services, and as a result some of the most beautiful services in Jewish life take place in Reform synagogues.But because as a movement Reform has no religious standards, it is entirely understandable why movements based on standards (i.e., Conservative and Orthodox Judaism) would find it theologically difficult, if not impossible, to regard Reform rabbis as necessarily the religious equals of their rabbis.

This same-sex officiation resolution is a good example of Reform's lack of standards. What are Reform Judaism's standards regarding religious same-sex marriage? There are none. They are whatever a Reform rabbi wants them to be. And the same is true about every other Jewish religious issue. The Reform rabbi or temple may have standards, but the Reform movement does not.

Those in the Reform movement who push for having Judaism obliterate any distinction between opposite-sex sexual love and same-sex sexual love regard their position on homosexuality as, more than anything, "progressive." The irony here is that it is not progressive, but regressive. Homosexual behavior was regarded as religiously and morally no different from heterosexual behavior throughout the ancient world. Ancient Egyptian men prayed to copulate with the buttocks of male gods. Ancient Greeks had sex with their wives in order to produce children and with males for pleasure. Nowhere in the ancient world was homosexual behavior regarded negatively. Only the Torah did, listing it as one of the practices of ancient Canaan that Israel must desist from. The elevation of male-female sexual love as the human ideal was the work of the Torah, and it resulted in a profound elevation of the status of women from baby-machine to co-equal of men.

Reform Judaism's primary self-image is as a progressive movement. The truth, however, is it has often been a follower of the spirit of its times, precisely when it most regarded itself as progressive:

  • Reform Judaism thought it was progressive when it dropped kashrut and served shellfish at a banquet of the Hebrew Union College in the late 19th century. Yet it was only imitating the larger gentile world, and today Reform embraces mitzvahs such as kashrut, and many Reform rabbis refrain from eating shellfish.
  • Reform Judaism thought it was progressive when many of its congregations changed Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Yet, it was only imitating the Christians among whom the Reform Jews lived.
  • Reform Judaism thought it was progressive when it fought furiously against establishing Jewish day schools. Today Reform has rescinded this opposition, and there are now Reform Jewish day schools in most major American cities.
  • Reform Judaism thought it was progressive when it alone among Jewish denominations opposed Zionism. Yet it was Zionism that was progressive, and today it is difficult to imagine there being even one anti-Zionist Reform rabbi.
  • Reform Judaism thought it was progressive when it dropped virtually all Jewish religious rituals and Hebrew at its services. Yet, it was only making its services more like those of the Protestants among whom Reform Jews lived. Today, most Reform services have more Hebrew than English, and it is increasingly rare to find a Reform rabbi who does not a wear a yarmulke during services.
  • And now Reform Judaism thinks it is progressive in equating homosexual and heterosexual behavior. Yet, again, it is only imitating the larger world - the liberal secular world in which Reform Jews live.

Having said allthis, the reader might be surprised to learn that I attend a Reformsynagogues almost every Shabbat and deliver the weekly sermon at its minyan. I also love visiting and lecturing in Reform synagogues around North America; I love the services that freedom has enabled many Reform synagogues to produce.

And I love those Reform Jews, rabbinic and lay, who, though free to do nothing, have embraced Judaism with all their heart, all their soul and all their might. It is also critical to add that Jewish life must embrace Jews who are gay. They are as much our brothers and sisters as any heterosexual Jew, and, needless to say, created every bit as much in God's image.

But this latest resolution, an attempt to undo Judaism's awesome contribution to the world - making man-woman monogamous love society's ideal - should make it clear that we need standards-based Jewish denominations. This means that for those Jews who are willing to change talmudic law, but not Torah principles, there is no denomination. Maybe this resolution will be the catalyst for the creation of such a movement - perhaps a Torah-based Reform Judaism.

Movements have started over much lesser issues than the definition of marriage.

Dennis Prager's paper on this subject, "Judaism, Homosexuality, and Civilization," may be obtained through the Web site www.dennisprager.com, or by calling 800-225-8584

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