A Message From Rabbi Hronsky & Rabbi Emeritus Kaufman
A Message From Rabbi Hronsky & Rabbi Emeritus Kaufman
Let’s start at the beginning.
For 3500 years, religious Jews had only one option….today’s Orthodox Judaism.
Then, in 1783, Moses Mendelson did something cutting edge. He said that in Germany, so many Jews did not know Hebrew and, therefore, knew nothing of the Hebrew Bible.
Mendelson proceeded to translate the Bible into German. Nothing new about Bible translations, but this one was targeted for the Jewish community of Germany.
And of course, the Orthodox considered it blasphemy and condemned such an endeavor.
But, this was the beginning of the process that gave birth to Reform Judaism.
The Reform movement officially began not with a rabbi, but with a German businessman named Israel Jacobson, who, with his own money, founded a boarding school in 1801 near Hanover, Germany.
He held Shabbat services with prayers and songs in German. He introduced the choir and the organ. Guest rabbis were invited to deliver the weekly sermon in German or Yiddish. He changed Bar Mitzvah, which had been an official ceremony for boys since medieval times, from a singular experience at age 13 to a group Bar Mitzvah at age 16 and called it confirmation. All this was revolutionary but a logical outgrowth of the period of Enlightenment that prompted changes in so many other religious and political institutions.
Moses Mendelson and Israel Jacobson wanted to be free of the constraints of the Orthodox and sought to update and make relevant, Jewish religious life. They wanted Judaism to fit into the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
But, the early reform Jews who followed after did not create a nurturing Judaism. They seized their newly acquired freedom to pronounce certain Jewish behaviors and beliefs as wrong. Reform Jews don’t keep Kosher. Reform Jews don’t wear side curls. Reform Jews don’t put yarmulkes on their heads. Reform Jews don’t sing and pray in Hebrew if they don’t understand. Reform Jews don’t believe in Messianism and the afterlife of the soul and of the need to enter the Zionist movement to work towards the establishment of a State of Israel. Reform Jews do adapt to the land in which they live; this was the mandate of Reform Judaism–acculturate.
The Orthodox say: here is Judaism, and here you are…not you need to fit into the Jewish pattern. The early Reform Jewish leaders, instead of preserving freedom of choice, proceeded to create an Orthodox Reform, declaring a host of prohibited behaviors.
They goofed. In seeking change, they forced Jews back into another religious straight-jacket. And in America, up until the 1940’s and 1950’s, with periodic adjustments made at major Reform conventions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, Columbus, this has been the straight-jacket, the restricting garb of Reform Judaism.
Yet how monumental have been the changes over the past 60 years.
In the 40’s and 50’s, we shared the desire of the German Jewish community to fit in, to be integrated into American culture. At the same time, we stuck together socially, and we were more private about our faith and our practice. It is said of American Jews in the 50’s that when we stood in line at the cashier in the market and were talking to a friend about Jewish things, we would lower our voices when referring to Jews or Jewish things. We were painfully self conscious. As a ten-year- old, I remember getting looks from people while standing in line at the old Studio City Theater (now Bookstar) when my friends and I would talk about Jewish stuff. None of my friends ever wore a Jewish star or mezuzah. I was Bar Mitzvah here at Temple Beth Hillel in 1957. It was not as prevalent a ceremony then as now, if fact though Rabbi Bauman officiated, he, like most of his colleagues at the time, were not happy about Bar or Bat Mitzvah, preferring still the Israel Jacobson model of confirming your faith at the more mature age of 16. Thus, at Temple Beth Hillel, Rabbi Bauman would officiate at no Bar Mitzvah unless the 13-year-old agreed in writing and before the ark at the end of the Bar Mitzvah that he would stay in religious school until 12th grade confirmation.
In the 1950’s, Reform synagogues sought to elevate such American holidays as Thanksgiving, Labor Day and July 4th by including some synagogue observance or liturgy. Today, we still have a Thanksgiving service, but it is an interfaith activity, whereas at Temple Beth Hillel in the 50’s, there was a special prayer book for the service here on Thursday morning, which was a Jewish religious Thanksgiving Day service.
Israel was born in 1948 yet Reform Judaism, really only flourishing in America and still wanting to be accepted as pure American, especially since McCarthy, demurred from fully participating in the efforts to sustain the fledgling Jewish state. Many quietly feared dual loyalty accusations.
The 1960’s were tumultuous for America and a watershed for American Reform Jews: the civil rights movement, the Six Day War and Vietnam. As America let it all hang out, it was time for Reform Jews to do the same. So many flower children were Jewish, so many of those who marched with Martin Luther King were Jewish, so many who, quietly conscientiously objected or vociferously objected to Americas tragic involvement in Vietnam were Jewish. Theologian Eugene Borowitz states that American Reform Jews “…were no longer infatuated with the model of the American melting pot.” Instead, Borowitz describes their relationship as “creative alienation.” He writes: “Creative alienation implies sufficient withdrawal from our society to judge it critically, but also the will and flexibility to keep finding and trying ways of correcting it. Jewishness offers a unique means of maintaining such creative alienation.” I would add that Reform Judaism was and remains the perfect vehicle for creative alienation with enough distance to criticize, enough prophetic ethical zeal to speak truth to power and enough care to remain loyal American citizens.
And, with the 1967 Six Day War, the Reform movement finally woke up to Israel. Reform religious schools began teaching the Sepharic Hebrew of Israel …Shalom, Adonai, Yitgadal, vyitchagash… and discarding the Eastern Eurpopean Ashkenazi Hebrew of Shoilem, Adonoy, Yisgadal, Vyischadash. We went from one hour of week for Hebrew school to five hours a week. The Reform movement separated itself from the American melting pot and grew secure enough to become a willing and significant supporter of Israel. ARZA, the association of Reform Zionists of America, was founded and Reform Jews were now fully “out of the closet.” And then we began to see the 250 year old discarded traditions reintroduced into Reform households and synagogues.
By the 1970’s, we were so confident (and growing in numbers, just behind Conservative Judaism in sheer numbers) that we boldly, publicly declared what Reform rabbis had been quietly believing and acting upon for 250 years: Acceptance as Jewish those children raised by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. If born to a Jewish mother is matrilineal descent (established during our 4000-year-old history only 2000 years ago), born to a Jewish father and raised a Jew is called patrilineal descent. The Orthodox and Conservative movements declared we had caused an irreparable schism among our movements.
Our public patrilineal descent declaration led to an outreach to interfaith couples. Then it led to an even bolder public declaration in 1975 by the national rabbinic and lay leaders: If you are an unchurched Christian and you are interested in pursuing Jewish life, please call your local rabbi. Yes, we were soliciting converts. We had been doing it for centuries, but the events of history silenced our outreaching voices. Since then, the Reform movement has welcomed tens of thousands of wonderful Jews by choice who have enriched and reinforced the sometimes frayed fabric of Reform Jewish life. Now we are not aggressive missionaries for Judaism, just active and proud.
Then the 1980’s. Though our tradition had intoned for two millennia that man is not complete without a woman, this never translated fully into the leadership of Reform Jewish life. Yes, Rabbi Sally Preisand was the first ordained woman rabbi in America from any movement in 1972, but the inclusion of women in the reform rabbiniate did not pick up speed until the 1980’s. With that came the continued restoration of discarded traditions and the infusion of a more caring and compassionate approach in synagogue life. I believe male rabbis were now complete. Better yet, the Reform movement became even more creative and energized. To paraphrase a trite but true proverb: Behind, or more appropriately, next to every successful male Reform rabbi is a successful female Reform rabbi. I need not convince Temple Beth Hillel of this fact…witness the wonderful influence of Rabbi Sarah. With pride, we Reform Jews can point to the facts: over half of the new rabbis being ordained are women.
In the 1980’s, we Reform Jews continued to exercise publicly our collective conscience as Israel’s hold on the occupied territories continued to bring pain…for all sides. Reform rabbis founded an organization called Brayra, meaning “choice.” Its platform: American Reform Jews should be loyal to Israel, but it need not be a blind loyalty. It is okay to constructively criticize Israel, and Brayra pushed in a very public way the agenda that Israel must negotiate with the Palestinians. Reaction from other Jews was strong, even from some Reform rabbis. As a member of Brayra, I signed my name to an open letter to the prime minister of Israel, pushing for negotiations and pushing for land for peace. Two days after the letter appeared, a hastily gathered group of rabbis from all movements declared in the media the Brayra letter was signed by a rag-tag collection of “undistinguished” rabbis and should be ignored. Our group proudly constructed buttons simply saying “undistinguished.” The Reform movement had come of age…we were able to disagree in public.
In the 1980’s, with success of our outreach to the unchurched community, we also realized we needed to focus on “in-reach,” to be a welcoming place for Jews who were unwelcome in other Jewish arenas: the disaffected, those with learning disabilities, the disabled, interfaith families as well as gay and lesbian families. This was Reform movement’s version of “no Jew left behind.” And there is an inclusiveness in Reform Jewish life that is unique among all other religious Jewish expressions. There should always be a safe home for every Jew, and Reform Jewish synagogues in America are that home. God bless creative alienation. It gives us the perspective on our society that fosters such wonderful inclusive, healing acts of care and concern.
And the outreach in the 1990’s of Reform congregations to the hundreds of thousands of Former Soviet Jews is testimony that God has survived 70 years of threatened annihilation by communism. God also survived a Reform movement overly focused on social action. Even kids growing up at Temple Beth Hillel, we barely talked about God and spirituality. And so, with the realization that no matter how hard we try, we cannot melt in; with the spiritual touch that women rabbis brought to us; and with the inclusion of a whole generation of Russian Jews, hungering to talk about God out loud; we witnessed the full return of “God talk” to the Reform movement.
Yes, it all began with Mendelson in 1789, but we never fully realized our potential until these past 60 years.
Today, the Reform movement is the largest segment of any Jewish religious movement. Just last year, we also provided the largest voting contingent to the World Zionist Congress, an Israel focused gathering.
We have come a long way, and I am so proud of who we have become. So what of the next 60 years? Am I as hopeful and excited about them for our movement as I am about Temple Beth Hillel?
Yes, but I do have my fears.
Dr. David Ellenson, the head of Hebrew Union College and a modern Jewish history scholar, notes there are “twin trends operating today… a great deal of public pride and activity coupled with a comparable apathy.”
I witnessed a small piece of that public pride this summer when returning with a group of 80 teen campers from a social action trip to San Francisco. After a full day of lobbying and petition-signing for immigrants rights, we stopped at Fresh Choice restaurant in Santa Rosa for dinner, having reserved a section for the kids. Since it was a buffet, we all began to eat at separate times, but we ended up finishing about the same time. Unorchestrated, the kids began to sing in loud proud voices Raboti n’varech, yhee shem adonai mvorach may atah vad olam. This is the birkat hamazon the traditional blessing after the meal. I can’t tell you what the hundreds of other people in the restaurant were thinking, but I thought look how far we’ve come, the pride, the confidence, the traditions. I would have never done this when I was 16.
But, I fear for the apathy…so many disinterested, so many who don’t even care, so many not here.
I fear that our active social awakening of the 60’s and 70’s has become a quieting of our prophetic voice in the 90’s. 9/11 and the politics of Iraq have muzzled us, and this cannot continue.
I fear for losing the word “God” amidst all of the metaphors, new agisms, creative euphemisms and mystical attributions for God. I know in English we say Adonai, but I prefer “HEAR O ISRAEL, GOD IS OUR GOD, AND GOD IS ONE.” God is a good word that enables each of us to relate to God in our own way.
And I fear that the important fundamental operating dynamic of Reform Judaism-freedom of choice of custom and ceremony without judgment – may slowly be going out of vogue. Here is Judaism. Here are you Reform Judaism should seek to integrate the two, with an abiding respect for both the tradition and the individual. I love seeing the return to discarded customs and ceremonies I just do not want it at the expense of individual freedom.
I began on Rosh Hashana celebrating the proper noun…Temple Beth Hillel.
I’ll send us into our next 60 years as a synagogue and as a movement with a verb. Reform Judaism. Judaism is the proper noun. What is Reform? I know you’ll say it is an adjective, and you are right. But Leonard Fine, brilliant Jewish thinker and leader, once said that Reform is not an adjective, it is a verb. Adjectives are passive Verbs are active and connote movement and change.
Reform Judaism – ever-changing, loving tradition, yet generously responsive to the individual.
Over the next 60 years may Reform Judaism be two things:
One: A blessing for all of Jewish life, for Israel, for America, for our synagogues, for ourselves, and most importantly, for our children
And two: May Reform Judaism always, we pray, always be creatively alienated.