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I feel alienated from modern "Reform" Judaism. Why has Reform Judaism changed?


Rabbi Goldwasser

Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser

Question: I feel alienated from modern "Reform" Judaism. Why has Reform Judaism changed?

It seems to me that "Reform" Judaism is moving toward Orthodoxy. My father was a lay rabbi for 50 years. I loved Judaism then, felt blessed to have been born a Jew, and took pride in the ethical ideas which were then at the core of Reform Judaism. Now, I feel completely alienated from what is called "Reform Judaism."

Answer: You are not alone among Reform Jews who feel alienated (to different degrees) by the changes in the Reform Movement. There is no question that the Reform Judaism of today is quite different from that of a generation ago, but I disagree with those who say that Reform Judaism has become more "traditional" or "more orthodox."

I often tell the story of a "Classical Reform" Jew who walks into the Friday night service at a more "modern" Reform congregation. He sees a woman wearing a kippah and tallit reading from the Torah and hears the cantor singing a blessing for healing in Hebrew and English. The "Classical Reform" Jew shakes his head sadly and says, "Look how traditional they are!"

Clearly, what is "traditional" to one person is "innovative" to another.

At its core, I would argue, Reform Judaism is the same as it has ever been. Reform Judaism is committed to ethical social action as central to its prophetic vision. It is committed to full equality of the sexes in its ritual and governance. It is committed to the concept of autonomy -- all Jews are able to make their own informed choices about how they will observe Jewish tradition. I don't like the terms "Classical" and "Modern" to describe different flavors of Reform Judaism; we are all along a single spectrum of practice within a movement that stands for specific values.

The authority to interpret Jewish texts is in no way limited to "rabbis and scholars," as you have stated. Reform Judaism asks every Jew to know enough about Jewish ideas and tradition to make their own Jewish choices.

The name of our movement is "Reform," and that implies a constant process of adaptation within our unchanging principles. Here are the major areas of change, as I see them, that Reform Judaism has experienced over the last thirty years:

1) RE-ADOPTION OF TRADITIONAL PRACTICES. Did you ever think you'd see Reform Jews embracing the practice of immersing in a mikveh, putting on tallit, or marking the end of Shabbat with havdalah blessings? Those rituals were proudly rejected by the Reform Movement of the 19th century. Yet, in a single generation, Reform Jews have re-examined and re-adopted these and other rituals. In doing so, however, contemporary Reform Jews have not "reverted" or "become more traditional." In each of these cases, Reform Jews have adopted ancient rituals to fulfill a contemporary spiritual need. In doing so, they often have given rituals new meanings and new applications. For example, the cleansing waters of the mikveh are now used by some Reform Jews to mark the end of cancer treatment, a divorce, or other life experiences from which they seek to be spiritually purified.

2) GREATER PARTICIPATION AND INTIMACY IN WORSHIP. Most contemporary Reform congregations have moved away from the aesthetic of elevation and grandeur and toward an aesthetic of intimacy, community and participation. Today in a Reform congregation you are likely to see a rabbi or cantor with a guitar inviting the congregation to sing along to folk music settings of the prayers.

3) EMPHASIS ON HEBREW. Hebrew was never absent from Reform Jewish practice. Every Reform prayerbook published, going back to the 19th century, has included Hebrew. However, there has been a notable increase in the use of Hebrew in recent decades. The increased use of Hebrew can be seen as a response to the increased importance of the state of Israel to American Jews. It is also a recognition of the fact that Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer and thought.

The encouragement of aliyah, emigration to Israel, was not part of mainstream Reform Judaism in the pre-state era. However, Zionism and encouragement of aliyah is not a recent innovation either. In the Reform Movement's Centenary Perspective of 1976, the Reform Movement stated, "We encourage aliyah for those who wish to find maximum personal fulfillment in the cause of Zion."

You voice objection to the term "diaspora" for Jews living outside the land of Israel. Today, most Reform Jews understand the Jewish concept of "galut" ("exile") as a religious, not a political, concept. It is a statement of emotional and spiritual connection to the land of Israel, not of disconnection from the nations in which we reside.

While not all Jews should move to Israel, Israel remains the only place in the world where Jewish values and social customs are the norm of the society. It is the only place in the world where public policies are discussed in the context of Jewish tradition, where even non-religious children dress up in costumes on Purim, and the stores are closed on Shabbat. Israel is unique as a home for the Jewish people.

I hope that some of these comments may be helpful to you in reconciling some of your feelings of alienation from Reform Judaism. Even if they are not, though, I would add that we are a diverse movement. If you have found the expression of Reform Judaism alienating in one congregation, you may feel more at home in another.

Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser

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