A Reform — And Personal — Paradigm Shift

by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

I last went to the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism twenty years ago. A very large and professional conference, sometimes having as many as four or five thousand people, it is meant for congregational leaders and congregational clergy from the 900 North American Reform synagogues to come together to learn, share best practices, pray together, hear top-notch speakers, and recharge. I haven’t gone because first of all, I wasn’t serving a congregation except for once a year on the High Holy days, and second, I felt a personal distance and even alienation from the heavy use of English in services, the emphasis on social action over religious study, and the lack of “Torah talk” in what I judged to be a religiously weak leadership.
Well, this is not your father’s Reform Judaism anymore, that’s for sure. I walked around the recent Biennial with my jaw dropped much of the time. Services were conducted mostly in Hebrew, and everyone pronounced every word correctly. The music was awe inspiring, soulful tunes which matched the depth of the words they were accompanying. Serious Jews discussed serious topics. There were several minyanim to choose from every morning. Each evening the whole convention came together in deep and heartfelt prayer, and Shabbat was mystical and magical as 5,000 Reform Jews studied Torah with scholars. It was the first time in a long time I felt that Reform Jews were taking themselves seriously, without looking over their shoulders and always wondering what “they” (the Conservative, the Orthodox, whomever) were thinking of “us.” It felt like a paradigm shift.
 However, so many people are unaware of these changes and new models. Reform Judaism has gotten a bad rap, especially in “conservative” Toronto. Accused of being “church-like” and worse by people who may not have stepped foot in a Reform synagogue for years— or ever, for that matter—many people still labour under false assumptions: that Reform regularly celebrated Shabbat on Sunday (only a small handful of Reform temples actually did that in the 1890’s and later that was dropped); that services are all in English (not true at all); that all Reform temples have choirs and organs (not true, though many use musical instruments to enhance their Shabbat services); that anything goes (not true; Reform Judaism has clear standards and expectations). How much do people know about today’s “new” Reform Judaism?
They do know know which shuls they wouldn’t be caught dead in. The problem is Jews who have practiced no Judaism at all since they were children or since their children were children, often say “Well, I guess I’m Reform.” Such “Reform Jews” who practice virtually nothing erroneously believe that all it takes to be a good Reform Jew is to be a good person. I often remind such folks that anyone who is a good person is not necessarily Jewish; and anyone who is Jewish is not necessarily a good person. It’s false to say Reform Judaism has no expectations on you other than being nice and helping old people across the street.  You can do that by being a Boy Scout.

To my mind, a small revolution has occurred in the Reform movement and I witnessed it at the Biennial. There I saw Reform Jews asking the question, “how can we make a spiritually alive Reform Judaism, a Reform Judaism not famous for its lack of structure and standards but known for its high level of commitment and its deep appreciation for people’s religious needs?”

Now I know “post-denominational” and “transdenominational” and “non-denominational” are the slogans of our age. I think we have much to criticize each movement for; and much to hope for in a community that strives to transcend these boundaries. But it’s time to pack away those tired stereotypes (and it wouldn’t hurt if we packed away all our denominational stereotypes) and all those unfounded assumptions (the stuff that often makes us feel like we are mavens but proves us to be ignoramuses). We should try and judge the movements—all of them—by their best adherents, not by their worst, by their paradigm shifts and not by old jokes, hearsay, and information from a decade ago, and be open to the possibility that each of them, with all their weaknesses, has grown and changed, has something to teach us, and something to offer in our complicated Jewish world.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is currently creating a new downtown Toronto Reform congregation from the ground up. This piece was originally posted on her blog, Torah from Toronto.
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14 Responses to “A Reform — And Personal — Paradigm Shift”

  1. avatar

    As a life long Reform Jew, I think the changes you describe are horrible and reflect the destruction of our movement. Services conducted mostly in Hebrew are inaccessible and archaic. These are the kinds of services our movement was founded to reject. We should not become Conservative-lite in some quest to be deemed authentic. The changes you describe are driving people like me out of thee movement.

  2. avatar
    Former Reform Jew Reply January 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    It’s false to say Reform Judaism has no expectations on you other than being nice and helping old people across the street. You can do that by being a Boy Scout.

    YES!!! FINALLY! Someone in the Reform clergy gets it!!!

  3. avatar

    Liturgy that is increasingly incomprehensible does not generate “a spiritually alive Reform Judaism” for me, and I have never understood why Reform Jews should be obsessed with the opinions of other Jews, but I acknowledge that I’m on the losing side of current history.

  4. avatar

    With all due respect to Rabbi Goldstein, who is clearly a serious and well-meaning individual, I think that any rabbi who is actually made uncomfortable by the use of English in services belongs far away from a Reform setting. You may prefer Hebrew, but if English “alienates” you despite the fact that it is your native language, you are clearly operating under assumptions that are incompatible with even the most traditionalist expressions of Progressive Judaism. Will the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts not be acceptable because they are in the wrong language? I know some venerable scholars of Semitic languages who still like to pray at least partly in English.

    I have to say, some of this post displayed considerable ignorance, and played into all of the worst anti-Reform stereotypes and lashon hara that has been circulating for nearly two centuries that Reform Judaism is “lazy” or “not serious” or “not religious” or, God forbid, “Christianized”. Even the most Radical expression of Classical Reform Judaism, with total cultural assimilation, organ and choir, very little Hebrew, and treyf at Temple functions was a deeply serious, deeply spiritual, and deeply authentic expression of Judaism. While there are always exceptions on both sides, I frankly see more superficiality, more hypocrisy, and less serious religious commitment in the “new” Reform Judaism than what remains of the old minhag. Our Temples (again, with exceptions) are becoming places to re-affirm ethnic and cultural identity with a thin veneer of old-time religion and a splash of modernity. Other congregations are not quite that bad, but have become bastions of non-theistic spirituality clothed in traditional Jewish forms and culture. This all makes me very sad.

  5. avatar
    Frederick Roden, PhD Reply January 9, 2012 at 5:37 am

    I wonder who the audience is for Rabbi Goldstein’s piece. It is filled with anxiety about what constitutes a “serious” Reform Judaism. Rabbi Goldstein refers to Reform Jews looking over their shoulders at what Conservative and Orthodox Jews think of Reform. It seems that the only person looking over a shoulder on that note is Goldstein. Unfortunately in the process she only succeeds in creating the very stereotypes she laments in her conclusion.

    Goldstein’s concern with Reform Jewish authenticity is pervasive in this essay. Rather than acknowledge the broad range of experiences that individuals might find spiritually meaningful, intellectually challenging, and indeed authentically Jewish, she prefers to denigrate “weak religious leadership,” vernacular prayer, whatever liturgical styles she did not find inspiring, and the lack of a particular kind of study. What is perhaps most worrisome about Goldstein’s piece is its narrowness. She is defining in very exclusive terms what authentic Reform Jewish spirituality, prayer, and study must look like. Other forms are equated with the minimalist “Reform by default” model. Goldstein completely misses that other approaches to Reform Judaism besides her neotraditionalism (for want of a better word) would object as strongly as she would to a Reform Judaism that’s based on what you don’t do rather than what you choose to do.

    It’s tragic that Goldstein, in seeking to affirm and celebrate a particular vision of Reform Judaism wishes to do so at the expense and distortion of two centuries of Reform Judaism on whose shoulders she stands. This sort of narrow dismissal of Reform diversity is not the sort of vision we need for the next century.

  6. avatar

    Although I hope it wasn’t her intention, I was actually offended by the tone of her blog. Taking a giant spitball at what has defined Reform Judaism since the beginning in favor of the trendy traditionalism that has swept through the URJ, what made Reform a dynamic, fresh, enlightened movement was cast off in one swoop of the scythe. The temple of which I am a Board member is almost unrecognizable to the Reform I adore – great people, for sure, but the traditional liturgical atmosphere, the kosher kitchen, the tallit, the kippot…if Kaufmann Kohler, Abraham Geiger & Isaac Mayer Wise walked in the room, they’d have no idea where they were. Of course I love our egalitarian principles and the emphasis on social justice – but Reform Judaism has such a rich heritage of music, worship and theology that is now almost entirely forgotten, if not for a rather small number of liberal temples (and the SCRJ). Instead of trying to bridge the gap between the so-called traditionalist and classical camps, the blog was a giant condescending letdown. It made me feel alienated in my own movement, even if that wasn’t her intention…and I want to think it wasn’t.

  7. avatar

    It’s so ironic.

    Those Reform Jews who adhere to classical reform today because it is the 200 year old tradition of the Reform Movement and are saddened by the return to tradition of the neotraditionalist (or whatever term) Reformers, are like Orthodox Jews who are saddened by the Reform movement breaking with the 2,000 year old rabbinic Judaism in favour reform judaism.

    Rabbi Elyse Goldstein and the traditionalists are the real Reform Jews. Reform Judaism, when it originally started, wasnt meant to simply freeze itself in time as classical reform Judaism, but continue to reevaluate the needs of each generation and change based on those needs. The classical reformers who are so opposed to change and so insistent on remaining true to classical reform tradition are no different than orthodox jews retaining what they see as adhering to traditional torah observance unchanged for thousands of years. The only difference classical reform being only 200 years old and that itself breaking with traditional torah observance

    oh the irony….

  8. avatar

    Neil, it’s a mistake to think that an approach to Judaism inspired by the “classical” Reformers is frozen in time. Rather, “making it new” is the hallmark of the modern, and classical Reform is quintessentially modern.

    The disagreement seems to be what is needed in “making it new” at this particular historical moment. It is the spirit, not the letter, of a classical Reform approach that makes it authentically “Reform”; the same could be said for the approach you defend, *only if* it is truly inspired by “making it new.” But too often a neotraditionalist approach is bound by its own claims of the past, denying the variety of experience that qualifies as Jewish. And that past can be the stuff of mythology more than history.

    When contemporary Reform Jews lament the divergence from the classical heritage, that’s a call for freedom, diversity, and breadth, not static stagnation. The goal is an originality to truly “make it new” rather than collapse into obligatory “traditions” of the past — whether 19th century CE or 9th century BCE.

  9. avatar

    Reform Judaism is, of course, inherently open to modification of its practices, and I do not deny the authority of the Reform leadership and its most liturgically active membership to make whatever alterations they wish. I am alienated by the direction of these changes, especially the return to a more incomprehensible liturgy and the increasing emphasis on Jewish nationalism, neither of which has any religious meaning for me. I respect Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, but I have no respect for the unfortunate impulse in some Reform Jews to worry about the Orthodox and Conservative opinion of Reform.

  10. avatar

    To the extent that some temples within the Reform movement are leaning towards more traditional Judaism, they do so because that is what the members are seeking.

    No one is forced to join a temple or synagogue. How many new members find classical Reform appealing? How many young Jewish couples want that approach? Ultimately, what the dues-paying members want, is what one will find in various houses of worship.

    The most salient point that Rabbi Goldstein makes is that a temple / synagogue is not a social club. If the emphasis is on social justice and charity, then temple is no different than rotary club. (and rotary club is MUCH cheaper).

    Reform Temples can’t compete with other organizations in the areas of general “do-gooderness”. The only thing that will attract Jews to Jewish worship is, frankly, Judaism.

  11. avatar

    However, Rabbi Goldstein has no more right to cast negative vibes towards the Reform Judaism I love (organs, choirs, use of English, Enlightenment-based reason, sermons) than I do towards a Reform that, but for the egalitarian aspects (and liberal politics of many members), resembles Conservative Judaism.

  12. avatar

    I am just going to remind Former Reform Jew that even though on the surface neo-traditional expressions of Progressive Judaism appear to be leaning towards orthoprax “mitzvot”, Classical Reform was, in many ways, closer to Orthodoxy in terms of a sense of obligation, commitment, and relatively traditional God-concept. Some of the laity ended up being lazy and apathetic, but whatever people retained from their religious education, they took very seriously. Now, many of the things that people are learning and “taking seriously” are surface-level practices rather than deep, spiritual commitments. Theologies and explanations for practices are too fuzzy, and occasionally evasive or anti-intellectual.

    Even as we move towards a “commanding” sort of obligation, almost in a halakhic vein, we are paradoxically resembling more and more the “anything goes” spirituality of Unitarian Universalism. I find that most Jews-in-the-pews either don’t have the faintest idea WHAT they believe about anything, or emphatically DON’T believe in the concepts that might make their practices make more sense. There is major cognitive dissonance there.

    There is a school of thought, now popular, which suggests that eventually deep spirituality will follow when one practices seemingly mechanical rituals–that “keva” will eventually plant the seeds of “kavanah”. I cannot say that this claim is completely false, but I think it would work better the other way around.

    Let’s commit ourselves to ethics, spirituality, and genuine piety, and then express all of that with rituals (traditional or not) that truly embody the principles. Or, if we are going to follow the principle that regular, disciplined observance of “keva” will teach us something deeper, then we ought to make sure we UNDERSTAND the keva. There is a Latin saying popular in Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian circles that is relevant here: “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi”. It basically means, “as we pray, so we believe, and as we believe, so we live”. Maybe if we craft a “keva” that is rooted in tradition while maintaining our Progressive integrity, and then pray it mainly in the vernacular, we will internalize and live out the principles contained therein. Obviously, that is only one of the many purposes of prayer, but it’s an important one that can be lost when people pray in a language they’re not completely fluent in. Even a translation on the facing page doesn’t always cut it–there is something VERY powerful about being able to understand and intend every syllable as you utter it. I get goosebumps and shivers every time I’m with a community that uses UPB or UPB-style liturgy and people around me are reading with emotion. Our voices merge, and I can almost feel my soul being reshaped in greater consonance with God’s Will.

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