From the Rabbi’s Desk August 2018
Rabbi Carla Freedman
Just over 200 years ago, after the beginning of the 19th century, the Reform movement in Judaism began. Its initiators had grown disenchanted with the long services, especially on Shabbat morning, conducted entirely in Hebrew, which they did not understand. They were the beneficiaries of the recent opening of mainstream society to Jews, and feared that their prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy would jeopardize the perception of their loyalty to the secular state of their residence. By mid-century, Reform was a vigorous option to the traditional practices of Judaism, growing rapidly throughout Germany where it began, and continuing that spread in America.
The speedy growth of the movement represented the widespread dissatisfaction of German Jews with the calcified practice they had grown up with, especially in the environment that fostered and nurtured the European enlightenment and the parallel movement within Judaism. But it also raised this question: how do we balance our received tradition and heritage with contemporary values and knowledge?
Borrowing from the practices of their (predominantly Lutheran) Christian neighbours, the Reformers introduced into their services such innovations as: a prayerbook containing both the Hebrew liturgy and vernacular translations; excision from the liturgy of all prayers that would cast doubt on their civil loyalty; a regular sermon, delivered by “clergy”; full equality of women in all ritual life, to be reflected in the liturgy as well; mixed seating at services, etc.
At the same time, scholars were studying the Bible as never before, and openly expressing their skepticism about its origins and authority. This made it easy…or at least easier…for some to abandon the dietary laws, the wearing of tallitot and kippot, and other practices that set Jews apart from others in general society.
Today, we who are so thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream of Western society continue the intellectual struggle that is Reform Judaism. Those of us who grew up with deep attachment to our traditions and beliefs may chafe when the cerebral side of Reform challenges those things we hold dear. Others search for ever more profound ways to achieve spirituality while maintaining intellectual integrity. Some find certain ideas expressed in the Bible abhorrent (mandated killings; women as chattel; inexplicable dietary restrictions, etc.). Others revere the Torah in particular, but decline to follow its teachings.
The critical thing is to engage with our heritage and to continue to address the question posed above: how do we balance our received tradition with our contemporary values and knowledge?
In answer to that question I sometimes think of myself as a neo-Hasid. I understand that to mean: relishing all the learning about Judaism that I can do, using every resource available to me in the 21st century, while joyously living Jewishly as much as I can honestly do.
What is your answer?