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Reforming Reform: 2. The ‘Platform,’ ‘Principles,’ and Cafeteria Judaism



As I wrote in my first post, the question of the reasons for the commandments, ta’amei hamitzvot, has been a central issue in the historical evolution of Judaism from the middle ages till today. In the 19th century, Reform, influenced by the European Age of Reason, took up the idea that if a ritual mitzvah […]

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Reforming Reform: 1. The Debate over Reasons for the Mitzvot



There are three aspects to the intellectual foundations of Reform Judaism. Two are obvious: 1.) our concept of God, and 2.) the practices, both ethical and ritual, that we think are important to perform as Reform Jews. The third is not so obvious, but equally important: the link between God and religious practice. The traditional […]

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Making Prayer Meaningful for Reform Jews



Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of HUC-JIR was the visiting scholar this past Shabbat at Rodef Shalom of Falls Church, Virginia, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations. After Shabbat morning services, he gave a brilliant and fascinating talk on prayer and spirituality. He focused mainly on the changing cultural conditions for prayer, and its changing metaphors […]

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Seven Meanings of Chanukah



by William Berkson For the past few years the question of the meaning of Chanukah has been discussed in the general press. Here are some purported “meanings,” and my take on them. In 2006, conservative movie critic Michael Medved, said that the Maccabees’ victory was a conservative triumph over liberal Greeks, and that the celebration […]

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Tikkun Olam: The Rest of the Story



by William Berkson The new issue of Reform Judaism magazine has an interesting article, Tikkun Olam: The Backstory, on the history of the phrase, now used as a synonym for the pursuit of social justice. The article describes some of the ideas of the great 16th century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, including tikkun olam. And […]

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Godwin’s Law, Halbanat Panim and Health Care



Godwin’s Law is a rule of internet conversations, which says that the longer a discussion thread continues, the higher the probability that someone will mention Hitler or Nazis. A popular variation is that the first person to invoke Hitler or Nazis is considered to have lost the debate. There is a lot of truth in […]

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Teachable Moment



by William Berkson President Obama said he hoped the confrontation between Cambridge policeman James Crowley and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates would prove to be a “teachable moment.” But it’s hard to find any light on what we are supposed to learn. One lesson from our tradition is that when we approach a situation that […]

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Us–Back Then



by William Berkson When trying to understand what is going on in society, I always feel like I’ve come in the middle of the movie. I see what’s happening, but, not knowing what came before, I don’t quite understand what the players’ motivations and viewpoints are. And so I don’t quite understand what is going […]

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The Lubovicher and the Shiite discuss Gaza



By William BerksonOne of the fascinations of the Internet is the opportunity to talk with people having hugely different viewpoints, from all over the world. On the type design forum I frequent, I participated in a discussion of the recent Gaza battle. Included in the discussion were a Lubovicher in Brooklyn, an Israeli in Los […]

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Strengthening Reform: 20. Jewish Ethics and Patriarchy



by William BerksonEcclesiastes was wrong: there is something new under sun. Our world has three crucial differences from the worlds of the Torah and the Talmud: science, democracy, and women’s equality. As I argued in the last post in this series, modern science means that we need to look not only to our sacred texts […]

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Chanukah, a Major Holiday



by William Berkson Over on the touching thread by a former Christian about giving up Christmas for Judaism, someone wrote about Chanukah being “unimportant in Judaism.” Technically, it is true that Chanukah is a “minor holiday,” in the sense that it does not contain a yom tov, a day on which work is forbidden. However, this […]

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Strengthening Reform 19: Reasons for the Ethical Mitzvot



by William BerksonAs I have written earlier, Reform is now in a “great mitzvah muddle,” in which a number of leaders are not clear about the reasons for the mitzvot, and have written of each person deciding what is a mitzvah. This is an inclusive approach, which is fine, but alas directionless. What is missing […]

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Strengthening Reform 18: The Leaky Glass



By William Berkson In response to several of my posts in critique of the current state of Reform theology, fellow RJ blogger Larry Hoffman has said that he views the glass as ‘half full’, as opposed to my ‘half empty’. So while good changes are always welcome, we are in pretty good shape. In particular, […]

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Strengthening Reform 17: Reasons for the Mitzvot



By William BerksonAs I wrote in the last post in this series, because in Reform our sacred texts are no longer regarded as authoritative, the “Reasons for the Mitzvot”, ta’amei hamitzvot, have moved from being incidental to being central. In Reform, the reasons for the mitzvot become standards for interpreting, accepting, rejecting, and modifying the […]

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