Jewish Journal

Why Reform Judaism Does Work

by Susan Esther Barnes

February 12, 2014 | 12:30 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

I’m writing this post in response to a Times of Israel blog post called “Why Reform Judaism doesn’t work, won’t work and how to fix it” by Barak Hullman. It deserves a response because, though it may be heartfelt, it contains serious but common misconceptions about Reform Judaism, as well as some excellent questions.

First, I’d like to address Mr. Hullman’s question, “If the Torah is not from G-d and G-d is not real, then why be Jewish?” I’m so glad he asked.

I’d like to take his question in the reverse order. It is a mistake to assume Reform Jews believe “God is not real.” Perhaps he is confusing Reform with some other movement. Although there are some Reform Jews who do not believe in God, there are many of us who do.

God is mentioned throughout the prayers we say. In fact, at services last Friday at my synagogue, families with a child studying for their b’nai mitzvah read a list of things they believe God is and things they believe God isn’t. Hardly an exercise that would be done by people who don’t believe God is real.

As for the Torah not being from God, I’m afraid the author took this to its illogical extreme. Many in the Reform movement do not believe that the Torah, as written today, was dictated by God, word for word, as it appears now in our Sefer Torah scrolls. However, that does not mean the Torah is not sacred.

Rather, even those of us who believe the words of the Torah may have been written down by various fallible men over a period of time believe the Torah to be an important sacred text. Personally, I believe the scholars who composed the Torah were trying to record what they understood to be the word of God from Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, these scholars had their own biases and agendas, so it’s possible not everything is written down exactly the way God would have written it, had God been the direct author.

Despite the fallibility of those who may have been trying to record God’s intentions, I, and many Reform Jews, believe the Torah includes timeless wisdom, worthy of study, which is relevant to our modern day lives in countless ways. This is one answer to the question, “Why be Jewish?”  –  To learn from these important Jewish texts.

The main answer for me, personally, to the question of “Why be Jewish?” is that Judaism, as it is practiced in the synagogue I attend (as well as other Reform synagogues I have attended), calls me to be closer to God, as well as to be closer to who I truly am. This, for me, is the answer to “Why be Jewish,” as well as to “Why Reform Judaism Works” – it works because it calls us closer to God and to our own true selves, as God created us.

Now, I understand from Mr. Hullman’s blog post that Reform Judaism doesn’t work for him. I understand that, and I’m glad he found a stream of Judaism that works for him. However, he makes the classic mistake of believing that what works for him should work for everyone else, and what doesn’t work for him won’t work for anyone else. Reform Judaism works very well for me, and another form of Judaism works very well for Mr. Hullman. This is the beauty of religious pluralism. When there are enough choices, there is a greater chance that each seeker will be able to find what he or she needs.

Mr. Hullman also makes the mistake of claiming Reform Judaism is not “the real thing.” He says young Jews are hungry for the truth, and I agree. However, Mr. Hullman makes the mistake of claiming that Reform Judaism does not contain the truth and is not “real.”

Again, just because Reform Judaism does not work for Mr. Hullman does not mean that Reform Judaism does not contain and promote deep, real truths rooted in Jewish text, theology and tradition. Quite the contrary.  This is another reason why it works. Many of us find truth here that we have not found elsewhere.

Mr. Hullman’s answer to how to “fix” Reform Judaism is, “Follow Jewish law. Live a life of Torah and commandments. Keep Shabbat according to Jewish law. Keep Kosher.” Ironically, apparently he believes the way to “fix” Reform Judaism is to turn it into Orthodox Judaism. We who are religious Reform Jews know that is the one thing that would kill it faster than any other.

Also ironically, I do live a life of Torah and commandments. I keep Kosher and I keep Shabbat. I just don’t do these things the way the Orthodox do. If being Jewish meant I had to do things the way the Orthodox do, I wouldn’t live a Jewish life at all, nor would the vast majority of the Reform Jews I know. It would be a disaster for American Jewry.

The reason Reform Judaism works is it provides a means to be Jewish to people who, for various reasons, don’t feel comfortable in other Jewish streams. It works because it provides an opportunity for deep, meaningful learning about the Torah, Jewish prayer, Jewish texts, mitzvot, and Jewish traditions. True, not every Reform Jew engages in this deep learning. But those of us who do find it available, rich, and quite worthwhile.

Reform Judaism works very well for me. Other streams of Judaism work very well for others. Isn’t it about time we work together to strengthen the Jewish community as a whole, and stop sniping at each other?

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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