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Reform Judiasm: 30 Stories
Discussion & Study Guide: I. Being a Reform Jew
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

Introduction

What does it mean to be a Reform Jew today? What are Reform Judaism’s foundational principles and most important contributions to Jewish life?

Consider this excerpt from the Preamble to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1999 Statement of Principles: “The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish People to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, embrace diversity while asserting commonality, affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

Consider what Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie identifies as the five religious principles that distinguish Reform Judaism. In an article, “What Is Reform Judaism?”, he says:

  1. Reform Jews are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day.
  2. Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life.
  3. Reform Jews are committed to social justice.
  4. Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion.
  5. Reform Jews are committed to a true partnership between the rabbinate and the laity.

Consider also what Rabbi Richard N. Levy, author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism (URJ Press) adds to the mix when comparing Reform with other branches of Judaism. “The call for an individual response is unique to Reform Judaism.…We need not fear, if we feel called to do mitzvot similar to those observed by Jews in other movements, that we are betraying Reform. It is the individual nature of the call, not that to which we are called, that marks our response a Reform Jewish one” (emphasis added; see full article).

Consider how Reform Judaism has changed in the last two centuries. In the 19th century, Reform made Judaism more accessible by adding instrumental music; introducing worship in the vernacular; changing the time of services to accommodate men, women, and children equally; and creating Confirmation as a lifecycle event, among other changes. The 20th century brought many other Reform innovations, including publishing the first modern Torah commentary in North America; instituting patrilineal descent—defining a child’s Jewishness through the paternal as well as through the maternal line (when the child is raised as a Jew); ordaining the first woman rabbi in America; introducing a diversity of musical styles within the worship experience; implementing Outreach to intermarried families; publishing a women’s Torah commentary; and empowering an increasingly Jewishly knowledgeable and participatory lay leadership.

And consider what the Reform Judaism magazine respondents cite as very important Reform values: the freedom to grapple with and choose which traditions and observances to adopt as one’s own, the freedom to interpret Torah for oneself, gender equality, living as Jews and as full members of society, not having to reject reason and posit definitive answers to life’s ultimate questions, a respect for a variety of personal Jewish journeys, welcoming converts, reaching out to non-Jews, tikkun olam, innovative liturgy and music.

Overview Questions for Discussion

  1. All of these definitions are grounded in a strong sense of Reform Jewish pride. Do you share this sense of pride of being a Jew or a Reform Jew? Why/why not? How do you express your pride?
  2. Which of these Reform values are most appealing to you? What about to your friends or family? Why?
  3. In what ways do you live by these values? Your family?
  4. What Reform values would you add to the list? Why?
  5. In what ways would you like to live by these values but haven’t yet? What steps might you take?
  6. Which of these attributes are most evident in your congregation? Which are less so? Why?
  7. What contributions would you like to see Reform emphasize in the future?
  8. How can you, along with others in your congregation, help to realize some of these ideals in your synagogue?
  9. For religious school and youth groups: Which of these ideals make the most sense to young people? On which have you acted? How?

Section I Questions for Discussion

The Reform Judaism editors ask: What do you believe are the most significant Reform contributions to Judaism in North America? Most participants’ answers fall within these four categories:

  1. Individual Choice & Commitment: John Planer says: “Reform Judaism asks that I assume personal responsibility for my beliefs, values, and behavior; and I, in turn, refuse to allow any sacred text or religious authority to dictate to me what I shall believe, what rituals I shall perform, or what God expects of me.” Jennifer Warriner values Reform’s “making each of us responsible for our own struggle with God….Each of us has the freedom to study Torah and decide for ourselves whether ‘thou shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ means a cheeseburger is prohibited.”

    Are these important attractions for you? In what ways have you exercised choice as a Reform Jew? Are there areas in Reform Judaism where you’d like more freedom? What do you believe are your responsibilities as a Jew?

  2. Gender Equality: Ellen Morrow says, “I never felt ‘less than’ because I am female.” Joan Pines feels “empowered to lead religious services and assist my new congregation in decision making.” William Berkson also cites gender equality as an important Reform contribution. How does Reform’s emphasis on gender equality affect you?

  3. Being in the World: Lawrence Kaufman values that being a Reform Jew is “compatible with living as a full member of society.” Judy Fisher applauds the fact that “we don’t just talk about social action and social justice—we do it!”

    How easy or difficult is it for you to function as a Reform Jew and as a full member of society? Is engaging in social action an integral part of your Jewish identity?

  4. Outreach: Dana Jennings calls Outreach “the Reform contribution I care most deeply about…. An extended community placed its healing tallit about my broken spirit and gave me the gift of its acceptance.” Reform Jew Ellen Morrow remained with the Movement only because there was “a real shift toward acceptance” of her initially non-Jewish husband and their children. “The acceptance that finally did come also made it easier for my husband to become a Jew by choice 10 years ago; he did not feel pressured and there was no resistance.”

Do you see Outreach as one of the Movement’s most important contributions? How has it affected you, your family, and your congregational family?

 




 


Union for Reform Judaism.