by Lawrence J. Epstein
I believe that the Reform Movement should adopt a binding system of moral mitzvot. Currently, individual members of the Movement decide for themselves which mitzvot to follow. A binding system of moral mitzvot would obligate Reform Jews to follow certain moral commandments independent of their personal views. Such an obligatory system would separate moral mitzvot from ritual ones, which are seen as customs or folkways of particular times rather than divine obligations.
An obligatory system of moral mitzvot is true to the central ideas of Reform Judaism. It is derived from the basic founding ideas of the Movement. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, Reform Judaism’s original statement of principles, is the assertion that “we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.” Therefore accepting moral mitzvot as binding is not a radical departure but embedded in the Movement’s very birth.
There are many benefits for the Reform Movement should it choose to adopt a required system of moral mitzvot:
- Constructing such a system would enable Reform Jews to focus on what is so morally crucial that it should be obligatory.
- Constructive activities will lead to increased study to discuss the value of particular obligations.
- Such an obligatory system deepens the meaning of Jewish activities and separates them further from non-Jewish activities.
- Such a system strengthens the bonds to Jewish tradition without accepting traditional halachah.
- It also underscores the Reform Movement’s argument that it is not sectarian and has not separated itself too much from tradition.
- Adopting a system of moral mitzvot clarifies the crucial distinction between religion and fundamentalism.
- It also increases international unity in the Movement by offering a more precise definition of its character.
- Seeing the moral mitzvot as obligatory gives the spiritual and ethical a more tangible and prominent place in the lives of the Movement’s members.
- In turn, this system may help shield members from isolation and guide them to resist inappropriate temptations.
- Finally, such a system can provide an organizing principle and prism through which to re-examine all of Jewish theology and structure a modern Jewish world view.
There are disadvantages, too, the greatest of which is that adopting a system of mandatory mitzvot by definition means the voluntary surrender of some personal autonomy or freedom for Reform Jews. But by choosing to join a faith community, Reform Jews already surrender some individual autonomy. For example, most do not have multiple denominational affiliations, so they choose to give up being called Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated. This choice carries some specific theological restrictions. We can’t, for example, accept Jesus as the messiah and authentically be termed Reform Jews. The question, then, is not whether some individual autonomy should be surrendered, but rather how much? In what circumstances? For what benefits?
Would a required system cause current members to leave in greater numbers than such a system will attract new members to join? This issue arises every time a Reform leader releases a statement since there is some risk that members might be offended. That possibility doesn’t and shouldn’t stop the Movement from taking stands and discussing new ideas. Therefore, a discussion of moral mitzvot will, in and of itself, not pose any unique dangers. Additionally, most Reform Jews already believe in Jewish moral ideas or they wouldn’t identify as Reform Jews. They follow the rules they personally believe to be important. Seeing others follow them adds to their sense of being part of a community.
Having a required system of moral mitzvot may make it easier for traditional but unaffiliated Jews to join the Reform Movement because such a system is analogous to the halachah they are used to following, which might, in turn, increase membership. As long as there are no sanctions beyond the call of personal conscience punishing or expelling members who don’t observe the Movement’s obligatory mitzvot—and there is no suggestion that such sanctions should be employed—it is difficult to imagine any significant numbers of departing members.
There is a related problem, however. Will a required system alienate those in the Reform Movement who don’t adhere to the moral mitzvot by making a distinction within the Movement of those who follow the mitzvot and those who don’t? This is an area worth exploring as this idea is considered.
We should be aware of all of these problems but also realize they can be overcome, and that the benefits of creating a mandatory system of moral mitzvot will enhance our Movement.
Lawrence J. Epstein is a member of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, NY.