From where, you may ask, does Reform get the authority to make changes in personal and synagogue practices? From our tradition! In fact, Judaism and Jewish life have been changing since the days of Abraham and Sarah.
Consider the Jews’ changing relationship with the Temple and, later, the synagogue. Starting with the escape from Egypt until the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 C.E., sacrificial offerings mediated by the priesthood in the mishkan and Temple comprised Israelite worship. In 586 B.C.E., Babylon destroyed the First Temple and sent most of the Jews into exile. Overwhelmed and mourning “by the rivers of Babylon” (Psalm 137), these exiles searched for a way to keep their attachment to God alive in the absence of the Temple, priests, and sacrifices. Their solutions to the needs of their time—solutions needed also after Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.—shape Jewish life today: synagogues replaced the Temple, prayers replaced sacrifices, and rabbis arose as spiritual teachers. (See Milgram 2 in the Bibliography for more on pre- and post-exilic Judaism.)
Consider too: While Torah is the basic source for Jewish belief and practice, starting some 2,000 years ago, the rabbis began debating its words, yielding new ideas and interpretations in the Talmud and commentaries. And a more modern source, the Responsa literature (Sh’eilot Ut’shuvot) that started in the 7th century C.E., collected questions addressed to rabbinic authorities and their replies. The Responsa process continues to this day; you can read Reform Responsa online.
Scroll to the Responsa index to appreciate the astounding variety of questions Reform Jews ask. For example, did your synagogue sponsor a secular New Year’s Eve party? Would it have one if December 31 falls on Shabbat? The CCAR Responsum says yes to the first question: it’s in keeping with the synagogue’s function as a House of Assembly. As for a party on Shabbat, yes, but: “as long as the sacred day’s spirit prevails”—perhaps with a more elaborate oneg Shabbat or an appropriate discussion after services.
Today, Reform Judaism’s openness to change and emphasis on individual autonomy means that the Movement may bring back ideas and practices it discarded earlier; may bring back Jewish ideas that Jews were once discouraged to practice, such as Kabbalah; may institute profound changes in our liturgy, as evidenced in the new Mishkan T’filah; and much more.
For centuries, Jews discouraged the studying of Kabbalah, especially among younger people who were not well-versed in talmudic studies, because these mystical texts raise soul-searching and sometimes soul-wrenching questions about life’s ultimate purpose and our deepest relationship to God. In Fall 2007, however, an issue of the Reform rabbinic journal, the CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, focused on Kabbalah.
The evolution of our liturgy is profound and far-reaching—and long-lived. When prayer first replaced sacrifice, public prayer was brief; most of it was individual and silent. As public prayer gradually replaced private prayer, the prayers became longer, incorporating biblical references and adding poetic embellishments. When prayers were committed to writing about 1,500 years ago, the liturgy became more dramatic and varied—as well as more chaotic and mystical—and the service became largely disorganized and uncontrolled. “Only the critique of [Moses] Mendelssohn’s circle [early 19th century] and the Reform Movement,” author Ismar Elbogen wrote, “brought about an effort to elevate and refine worship in the synagogue.”
Reform has been leading the way for change in worship style and content ever since.
In 2006, the CCAR created its newest prayer book, Mishkan T’filah—A Reform Siddur. Whereas previous Reform prayer books were written by a small group of rabbis, explains Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of HUC-JIR, “we began with an extensive survey of our congregations….Then an editorial committee consisting of lay leaders, rabbis, cantors, and liturgists discussed every issue in detail, while field-testing each siddur draft at Union for Reform Judaism biennials and CCAR conventions and in nearly 300 congregations throughout North America. We also received hundreds of additional comments from lay people, rabbis, and cantors—and we listened to every suggestion…. Each stage of the process factored in issues of gender, age, theology, generation, academic expertise, and style—the intangible issue of how people like to pray….On any double-page spread, individual voices on the left-hand page personalize the experience, while the traditional text on the right-hand page creates a community of worshipers...[The result is] less a text than a pretext for a worship experience where the act of prayer matters more than the fixed words it uses.”
Mishkan T’filah also brings back prayers long abandoned by Reform, as, for example, restoring two paragraphs to the Shema. But, true to the idea of informed change, the prayer book does not restore a 3rd paragraph which “links Divine reward and punishment to human merit and sin…something Reform Jews reject.” See the Mishkan T'filah website.
The CCAR explains: “Reform Judaism is willing to adapt itself to the needs of each generation.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
- What’s your opinion about December 31/new year celebrations in the synagogue on Shabbat?
- What question(s) would you wish to ask of the CCAR Responsa Committee?
- Do you see the wearing of more kippot and tallitot in synagogue as being fundamentally Reform in nature?
- Do you agree, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman says, that the “act of prayer matters more than the fixed words”?
- What do you believe about “Divine reward and punishment”?
Section V Questions for Discussion
Are there any Jewish practices you struggle with today?
1. Kashrut: Leviticus chapter 9, verses 1-23, sets out the rules for which animals may be eaten: land animals that chew their cud and have split hooves; sea animals with fins and scales; and insects with jointed hind legs, like locusts and crickets; birds unless specifically prohibited, such as scavengers and birds of prey. A general prohibition against blood (Leviticus 18:13-14) led to shechitah—ritual slaughtering—and meat-preparation practices to remove the blood. The law not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19) gave rise to separating meat from dairy and using separate dishes for each. Which kashrut rules do you follow? Explain.
Barbara Shuman and Ellen Morrow have gone through many stages in their search for meaningful kashrut observance. Shuman started out by keeping pork and ham out of the home, but eating it elsewhere. Do you follow the same eating practices eating out as at home?
After a long struggle, Shuman became a vegetarian rather than being bound to foods certified kosher by Orthodox authorities; Morrow has considered becoming a vegetarian as a way of observing of kashrut, but hasn’t done so. Discuss with family: Does vegetarianism qualify as kashrut? Why/why not?
Morrow gave up searching for kashrut when she gave up the idea of a personal God. Does her reason enter your thinking when you consider kashrut? Why?
2. Praying & Eating: Ellen Morrow wants to pray before eating, but the goal eludes her. Why do you think that’s so? What practices do you wish to keep, but haven’t yet? What holds you back?
Do you pray before you eat (the prayer before eating—motzi—thanks God for providing food) and/or after you eat (the birkkat hamazon prayer thanks God for multiple blessings)? Does the answer change if you’re alone or with family? How do others in your household feel about pausing to pray?
What other prayers might be appropriate before or after meals?
3. Practice & Rewards: Religious practices come easily to Jennifer Warriner because they “contain inherent rewards.” Read her full response closely. What does she mean by “reward”? Do you think it’s OK to be observant for the reasons she gives? What about being religiously observant for the sake of reward? The Talmud teaches not to serve the Master in order to get a reward (Pirkei Avot 1:3).
Families: Discuss your Jewish practices in your home and away. Why do you do these? What do you “get” out of each one? Which make you feel closer to Judaism or the Jewish People?
For religious school and youth groups: Debate—“You should carry out Jewish practices just because you are a Jew and for no other reasons.” Offer 18 examples of Jewish things to do.
How do you feel about Reform synagogue worship as it’s practiced today?
1. Return to Tradition: Laurence Kaufman watched kippah and tallit “return” to his synagogue and resisted wearing them. What do you think of his reasons—and then the reason for his change in attitude? Discuss.
Ellen Morrow thinks these traditional practices are getting too much attention and that makes her feel “unspoken pressure.” Do you wear a kippah and/or tallit for prayer? Or a kippah at other times? Why? How do you feel when those around you are wearing ritual garments? Explain.
2. Changing the Synagogue: Marge Eiseman struggles to make her synagogue accelerate change. When Judy Fisher realized her spiritual needs weren’t being met, and “it was up to me to remedy the problem… I began learning to chant Torah and got involved at our regular Saturday morning lay-led minyan where we take turns leading the service, chanting or reading Torah, and giving the d’var Torah.” What are your unmet needs? Do you put up with things you really want changed? Why? How can you go about getting changes made?
3. Changing the Service: Joan Pines likes such changes as “more Hebrew, more congregational involvement, less formality, more personal concern, and participatory…music.” Is this the direction you/your study group members prefer? Does the new Mishkan T’filah come closer to your needs?
At the same time, Pines does not want to “read Jews [who don’t want these changes] out of the Movement.” How can one congregation satisfy the needs of all of its disparate groups? For this reason, many congregations now offer alternative services. Does yours? If not, would you recommend doing so?
4. God & Prayer: Martin Graffman avoids religious services because, in his opinion, the prayers “express an infantile view of God,” offering undeserved praise and inappropriately asking for favors. Barbara Shuman cannot pray to a supernatural, intervening God; she prefers “praying with God” and rejoices over Mishkan T’filah’s “range of theologies” that help her “find my own voice and my own experience with God.”
With your family or discussion group, thumb through a Reform siddur. Do you agree with Graffman’s take on the prayers? Shuman’s? What kinds of prayers do you find meaningful? How does Judaism’s variety of ideas about God help you find your own voice in worship?
For religious school and youth groups: What’s the problem when opposing sides, such as sports teams, both ask God for victory? Compose an appropriate prayer for both teams to use that expresses your Jewish ideals.