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Jewish Journal

The Informed Jew

by Marlene Adler Marks

June 10, 1999 | 8:00 pm

When people ask what kind of Jew I am, I say, "an Informed Jew." Not Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform. I don't like movements, I like learning. Get it, I'm Informed.

Informed Jews like me are changing the landscape of American Judaism, challenging the meager factionalism that has for too long weakened our warring people. Informed Jews get our learning across all boundaries and philosophies. Seek out all kinds of teachers, including Orthodox and Chabad. Spurn Jewish intra-movement rivalries. Want information and wisdom, not doctrine; to find our own levels of ritual comfort; to make up our own minds.

An Informed Jew knows that politics can divide the Jewish people forever; but a great teaching, whoever it comes from, can make your day.

Having said all that, I read the statement of principles passed last month by the governing board of the Reform movement and felt, instinctively, that I had a new home.

The Pittsburgh statement is being read by most commentators as a religious retreat, a historic reversal of liberal Judaism in America. A commentary on the failings of modernity. Orthodox Jews say, I told you so. Rationalists grieve the end of days.

But no. It is anything but a retreat or an end of rationality. The statement, two simple pages constructed as 35 articles of belief, is a fully modern concept and a bold step ahead, toward a Judaism which is fully capable of inspiring contemporary life sorely in need of light. Whatever it means to the Reform community, to the Informed crowd, or those who merely want to know what we stand for, it is a rallying cry.

How can that be? How can a document which encourages Jews to wear the signposts of religious limitations -- the yarmulke and the tallit -- and to keep kosher and honor the Sabbath, to perform the sacred obligations of mitzvot and see themselves as created in the image of God, be anything but a step backward?

The answer is, it depends what you mean by modern.

As many of us learned in college, modern implies the boundless quest for the new, the rational, the scientific and boundariless. Religion, with its rules and catechism, is anything but modern since belief and its attendant rituals are relics of superstition, based on a vengeful God who must be satisfied by sacrifice and service.

But this is anti-spirituality is not modernity, it is its half-brother, nihilism, the death of God and meaning, of hope and joy.

Reform Judaism, like its Reconstructionist brother, is modern to the bone, born in the heady days of post-Enlightenment when European Jews earned their rights to citizenship by limiting their ethnic distinctiveness.

For a long time, Reform's demand for "scientific proof" to justify belief and religious ritual did clear the air. We, especially in America, are the beneficiaries of Reform rationalism, since it broke the back of superstition, without which Jews would remained in ghettos of their choosing, shuddering over minor infractions of the law. Thanks to modern Judaism, our people translated principles of ancient law into tenets of modern American life, including the crucial ideal of political and religious tolerance. And within Judaism itself, the modernists have won the day, breaking down the barriers which had barred women from full participation, and now gaining fuller acceptance for gays, among others, in our congregational communities.

Nevertheless, until it ventured last month to straighten out the equation, by separating superstition from spirit, modernity from modernism, Reform Judaism was losing ground. To read the earlier Reform documents, especially the San Francisco restatement of 1976, is to hear the halting, suppressed, passive voice of the self-doubting modernist afraid to speak clearly about God and faith. Even 25 years ago, nihilists were winning the day.

No movement can be modern, that is, contemporary and relevant, unless it deals with faith. I learned this myself while on a pro-choice picket line more than a decade ago. The Right to Life crowd heckled and taunted us with pamphlets and posters of dead fetuses, but what hurt the most was their citing of lines from the Bible. They quoted chapter and verse of a text I didn't know well enough to debate. Shamed by my ignorance, I went home and searched out text, finding the most cogent and fullest explanation of Judaism's careful understanding of life and death. It's my Bible too, I thought. And it's my God.

Just as Reconstructionism finally found a way back to spirituality far different from that first enunciated by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, so too must Reform Judaism must move on. We must liberate God from the superstitious relic of antiquity, and include intuition, poetry and imagination as gifts of our faith. After all, in all the talk about modernity, one key element was left out of the equation: God, too, is boundless too. A life that is only rational, only skeptical, is limited, bitter and self-contained, too.

The Reform document, shepherded by Rabbi Richard Levy, is a modern understanding of faith without superstition: inclusive, pluralistic and knowing that there are many diverse paths even within Jewish belief. This tolerance is Jewish liberalism at its best.

"We affirm the reality and oneness of God," it adds, "even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence." Such assertions leave room for wonder, for contemplation, as well as for doubt.

The new document is, I venture to say, the finest statement of Jewish liberalism since Rabbi Kaplan first articulated the premise of Reconstructionism at the turn of the century. Even if you've never read a word of Torah, you'll understand every line.


Marlene Adler Marks is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press).

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com. Her book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.

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