Fact 1. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans age 18 and older (25 February 2008). Its most unexpected finding? Twenty-eight percent have traded their childhood religion for some other, or no, religion. The figure rises to 44% if you include intra-Protestant-denomination changes. All religious groups show increasing diversity within their own ranks.
Fact 2: The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s “2007 Spiritual Communities Study” found a rise of more than 80 independent minyanim, rabbi-led prayer communities and other alternative spiritual communities across the U.S. and Canada, up from 15 in 2001.
What are we to make of this national religious desire for change? To what degree can we change Reform Judaism without losing its essence? What is its essence?
Meaningful, creative change thrives on the principle of informed choices. During the European Enlightenment in the early 19th century, Jews were invited to leave the ghetto and become part of the larger society. The founders of Reform Judaism—rabbis and lay leaders—looked to Jewish sources to validate changes designed to enable Jews to live in “both worlds”—namely, to embrace both the traditions of their ancestors and the freedom of secular society. The founders avoided change for its own sake, introducing only reforms to Jewish practice that served a sustaining purpose.
To trace the Reform Movement’s evolution, look at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ four “platforms” (statements of principles and beliefs) issued since 1885, each representing sometimes-dramatic departures from previous positions (www.rj.org). European Reform set the process in motion through five conferences and synods between 1844 and 1871 (see bibliography).
Informed change requires that we understand our members’ satisfactions and dissatisfactions, their fulfillments and their dreams. How can we know this? By asking members. Which is what Reform Judaism magazine did when it invited 30 Reform congregants throughout North America to share their opinions and experiences in these important areas of Jewish life:
- I. Being a Reform Jew (study guide p.67)
- II. Belonging to a Congregation & a Movement (p.68)
- III. Celebrating the Jewish Cycle of Life (p.69)
- IV. Encountering God & Wrestling with Faith (p.72)
- V. Choosing Personal & Synagogue Practices (p.74)
- VI. Making a Difference (p.76)
- VII. Reinterpreting Torah (p.77)
- VIII. Leading an Ethical Life (p.79)
- IX. Identifying with Israel (p.81)
- X. Facing the Future (p.83, includes Bibliography)
The participants’ replies are the basis for the “RJ Guide to Reform Judaism: 30 Stories.” In addition, each of the ten magazine sections includes three sidebars: survey data that provide “A Bigger Picture” about the subject; a selection from the CCAR’s 1999 “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism”; and “To Learn More,” additional resources on the section theme.
The respondents do not represent the full range of diversity within our Movement ideologically, geographically, or demographically. Their replies are meant to serve as the beginning of a Movement-wide conversation, a stimulus to engage us all in exploring where we are today as individuals and as a community, and where we might want to be in the future. To that end, follow either or both of these courses of action: group discussions at home or in temple (see below) and posting your perspectives on the new blog at www.rj.org set up to facilitate this Movement-wide conversation.
Using this “Discussion & Study Guide”
For each of the ten topics, this guide offers background/ history, commentary, perspectives of Reform leaders, questions for thought and conversation, trends, and questions to prompt discussion of your own perspectives in light of those shared by the participants. In addition, a full bibliography of resources for further reading appears in the last section of this guide.
This 10-subject division makes it a little easier to concentrate on one theme at a time. However, each theme is really part of a much larger, dynamic whole—Reform Judaism. For example, questions about faith closely relate to how you interpret Torah. Similarly, whether and how you celebrate lifecycle events may depend on or influence your synagogue practices. And so on. Therefore, watch for opportunities to explore larger questions suggested by the guide or that grow out of your conversations with others.
Most discussion topics are for adult and family groups (with an expansive, inclusive definition of family). However, many topics include discussion ideas under the heading, “For religious school and youth group.” The lines are not hard and fast; pick the topics and approaches that meet your learning needs.
Where might the conversations take place?
For Individuals and Families:
- Around the dinner table: dinner, dessert, and discussion
- During Shabbat observance time with your family
- As a lead-in to your havdalah service
- Wherever you gather for a seder, to light the chanukiah, or read the megillah
- In car conversations on trips with friends or family
Then go to the blog at www.rj.org to share your discussion results with others.
- At temple meetings during the week or after services
- In study groups with other members
- In religious school classes
- At youth group gatherings and at camps
- As part of a year-long course about Reform Judaism
- As part of a special congregational Shabbat event
- As part of a new-member-introduction event
- In “A Taste of Judaism” classes
- As part of existing Men of Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism programming
- In synagogue bulletins (ask 5 temple members some of the same questions and print the answers)
- As a dynamic part of your synagogue’s website—have congregants vote and comment on: “In your congregation, what are the most meaningful and dynamic practices?” (Some congregations might offer streaming video clips of members’ responses.)
- As a year-long program that might include:
- One-hour discussions with the rabbi on a “topic a month” after Friday night services at an alternate kiddush location in the synagogue
- Once-monthly discussions with high school students and the synagogue clergy, school director, ritual chairperson, or president
- Six-week adult seminars led by clergy and lay leaders, jointly sponsored by all Reform congregations in your area
- Six sermons during the year, each followed by round-table discussions at the after-services oneg
- Religious school retreat programs, especially Confirmation retreats with clergy
- Programming at your regional youth group conclaves
- Congregational Selichot programming
- Men of Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism special events
- Forming an intergenerational committee to summarize adult, youth, and school discussions and compare the views of the constituent groups; then reporting the results in the synagogue bulletin and posting them on the Movement blog at www.rj.org
- Sessions for your religious school in-service program for teachers
- Library Committee displays of books about Reform history and practices (see Resources below for a starter list)
- Book discussions sponsored by the Library Committee
Go to the blog at www.rj.org to share your synagogue discussions with the rest of the Movement. And let the conversations begin!
Section I. Being a Reform Jew
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:
- Reform Jews are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day.
- Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life.
- Reform Jews are committed to social justice.
- Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion.
- 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
- 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?
- Which of these Reform values are most appealing to you? What about to your friends or family? Why?
- In what ways do you live by these values? Your family?
- What Reform values would you add to the list? Why?
- In what ways would you like to live by these values but haven’t yet? What steps might you take?
- Which of these attributes are most evident in your congregation? Which are less so? Why?
- What contributions would you like to see Reform emphasize in the future?
- How can you, along with others in your congregation, help to realize some of these ideals in your synagogue?
- 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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
Section II. Belonging to a Congregation & a Movement
“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism” (CCAR, 1999) says, “We are committed to strengthening the people Israel by making the synagogue central to Jewish communal life, so that it may elevate the spiritual, intellectual and cultural quality of our lives.”
How did the synagogue achieve such a remarkable and central position in Jewish life?
Exodus 25:8 tells the Israelites, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Tradition says the tabernacle they built in the first year following the exodus traveled with them for the next 39 years. Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple replaced the long-lost portable sanctuary. The Temple’s destruction and Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. called forth a new institution—later called “synagogue”—where God could “dwell” as before. Prayer replaced sacrifices as a way of coming closer to God; rabbis succeeded priests. As author Brian de Breffny explains, the synagogue “grew and developed… as a place where the sacred texts were read…where the people could gather on the Sabbath to hear God’s words and to pray…as a communal centre, not only of the religious, but also of the social, cultural…commercial life of the people. Eventually the synagogue was to become to the community what the home is to the individual.” From its inception, the synagogue was our beit knesset—house of assembly, beit midrash—house of learning, and beit t’fillah—house of prayer.
Why did our ancestors want God to “dwell among them”? The Encyclopaedia Judaica says, “The sanctuary is the embodiment of Israel’s concept of holiness; all the minutiae of the specifications conjoin to illustrate how ‘the holy nation’ and ‘the kingdom of priests’ can serve the One Holy God ‘in the beauty of holiness.’ The Creator of the universe also dwells among men.”
Today, who are the people who dwell within our synagogues? In his article, “Members and Motives: Who Joins American Congregations and Why”, researcher and HUC-JIR professor Dr. Steven Cohen comments: “In Reform congregations, one must be impressed with the notably large number among married couples where at least one spouse was raised outside of Judaism….In 43% of Reform couples, either a husband or wife did not have a Jewish childhood.…The presence of such a large number… undoubtedly presents distinctive challenges—and opportunities—to Reform leadership.”
Notably, in the “RJ Guide to Reform Judaism: 30 Stories,” 20% of the participants are Jews by choice. In 1978, the Union formalized welcoming non-Jewish spouses into congregations and encouraged conversion to Judaism when it created its Outreach Department. Almost three decades later URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie reaffirmed Reform Outreach by emphasizing conversion as a goal: “Most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert.… Alongside the lengthy list of our Outreach successes, this must be counted at least a partial failure. The time has come to reverse course by returning to public conversions and doing the other things that encourage conversions in our synagogues.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
- Do you see your synagogue as the place to get closer to God? How else can you get “close” to God?
- What activities in your synagogue fulfill the synagogue’s three functions—social connections, learning, and prayer? In which functions do you participate?
- What does your congregation do to make strangers feel at home? What can you do to help?
- What does your congregation do—and what do you do—to promote community? How can you help make your synagogue a place of belonging for all?
- What ideas above best exemplify why you belong to your synagogue? How do you explain that belonging to others? What do or would you say to unaffiliated friends to encourage them to be part of the temple community?
- Have you ever encouraged a non-Jewish family member or someone in your congregation to consider conversion to Judaism? If so, how did the person respond?
- What does your congregation do to publicly welcome converts to Judaism?
- For religious school and youth groups:
- What can you tell unaffiliated friends about your program to get them interested?
- Would you like your youth group to be a “portable sanctuary”? What changes would you like to see? How can you make them happen?
Section II Questions for Discussion
Participants responded to three questions, in bold below.
What inspired you to become a Reform Jew or to join/ return to the Jewish people?
1. What’s Your Perspective? Jot down your own answers. If you’re in a group, list 2-3 answers from each person. How do your reasons compare with the respondents’ and with those in your group?
2. Welcoming the Non-Jew: Non-Jewish Dana Jennings’ acceptance as a son-in-law, prompted by the “Reform ethic” of his Jewish fiancée’s family, opened the door to his Jewishness. Do you know anyone with a similar experience? What choices did she or he make, and why?
3. Welcoming the Stranger: Martin Shapiro says his attraction to Reform came through a welcoming Friday night service. What have been your experiences visiting congregations for the first time? How have these experiences influenced your Jewish choices?
4. Congregational Community: In different ways, many respondents describe the profound effect of congregational community. How are you building community in synagogue and home? Could you do more?
5. Prayers Chanted in Hebrew: These attracted Andi Rosenthal. Martin Graffman finds them “empowering” and “exhilarating.” Have you had similar experiences? Would you like more or less Hebrew chanting at services? Why?
6. Teach Your Children Well: Marge Eiseman and Judy Fisher joined the synagogue for the religious school…but stayed on for themselves as much as for the rest of their family. Was religious school a factor in your synagogue selection? What has kept you involved? What would bring you to the synagogue more often?
7. The Times They Are A’Changin’: Dick Israel felt most fulfilled in Reform’s “willing-to-try-change” setting. How important is synagogue change for you? Which changes in your synagogue have you liked/disliked? What synagogue changes would you be willing to work for?
What has belonging to a congregation that is part of the larger Reform Movement meant to you?
The 2 respondents to this question sound the same note: The Union for Reform Judaism has offered invaluable help with planning and program.
1. Review the “Strength in Belonging” sidebar. Which services and programs has your congregation utilized? How has your synagogue experienced that feeling of “Strength in Belonging” to a larger Reform Movement?
2. How might the Union be able to help you now?
How would you envision your ideal synagogue?
1. An Evaluation Opportunity: This open-ended “wish-list” question is an opportunity to evaluate what you have and figure out how to make it even better. How can you make your voice heard in deciding what your congregation ought to be like? For example, might the board poll the membership? (The Union can be very helpful with this. Go to www.urj.org.) Consider putting the question to friends in the congregation and sharing the results with staff members and lay leaders.
2. Pulsing with Life: Steve Arnold and Laurence Kaufman envision a synagogue “pulsing with life 24/7,” with significant participation in worship, study, social action, Israel. Similarly, Marge Eiseman says, “In my vision, everyone is involved somehow in learning, prayer, or social action/gemilut chasadim, because to me Judaism is a religion of doing.” Your congregation is certainly pulsing during religious school and youth hours, and probably for services. Do you share the vision of a 24/7 pulse? What activities would you like to see pulsing with congregational involvement? What might you do to increase the “pulse”?
3. Safe Haven: Judy Fisher seeks a safe haven away from politics and a “crazy world.” Is that a role you wish for your synagogue? If yes, what might you do to bring it about?
4. In God’s Image: Fisher also wishes the synagogue to function in the spirit of “created in God’s image (b’tzelem elohim).” What does this mean to you?
5. The Portable Sanctuary: What elements enable Liz Bossov and her youth group friends to create a “portable sanctuary”? What ideas might this practice inspire?
Section III. Celebrating the Jewish Cycle of Life
We read in Leviticus 23:2 and 23:4, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions….These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time.’” What follows are instructions and calendar dates (related to the cycles of an agricultural calendar) for observing Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The biblical Book of Esther is read as part of the celebration of Purim. Chanukah, a post-biblical holiday, is derived from the apocryphal Books of Maccabees.
Jews have continued to sanctify our historic experience. Among later holiday additions: Lag Ba’Omer (a day of joy and festivity to commemorate the day a plague ended), Tishah B‘Av (a traditional day of mourning the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem), Tu BiSh‘vat (Jewish Arbor Day); and, in modern times, Yom Hashoah (a memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust), Yom Hazikaron (a day in honor of those lost to battle and acts of terror in Israel), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
Today, Judaism’s religious calendar provides many choices to honor and celebrate our history and our lives (see the Union's Holiday resources site for a Jewish calendar, celebration ideas, and age-appropriate resources). Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut says, “Our religion urges us, on our journey from life to death, to give continual expression to our belief in God and to the significance of our membership in the historic people.” And, how we celebrate the cycle of life that is the Jewish calendar tells us a great deal about ourselves as Jews. As author Alexander Guttman explains: “One can learn more about the observance of Judaism through a study of the holy days and their customs than through any other particular aspect of Judaism…‘the catechism of the Jew is his calendar.’”
The Ten Commandments mandate only one holiday: Shabbat (Commandment 4). Shabbat observance that bans work derives from Exodus 31:13-17, which describes the work required to build the Tabernacle (mishkan) in the wilderness. The obligation to observe the 7th day appears 12 times among the Bible’s 55 Shabbat citations. And Sabbath observance takes up an entire 24-chapter tractate (“Shabbat”) in the Babylonian Talmud, Sefer Mo’ed, as well as 175 chapters in the Shulchan Aruch (the 16th-century compilation of Jewish law).
Surrounded by folklore and tradition, Shabbat celebrates the bond between Israel and God, the sanctity of the individual, the holiness of work, and the redemptive promise of freedom. Author Rabbi Solomon Goldman quotes Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginsberg, 1856–1927) as saying, “One can say without exaggeration that more than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.…A Jew who feels a real tie with the life of his people will find it utterly impossible to think of the existence of Israel without the Sabbath….”
When it comes to celebrating Shabbat today, the Reform Movement is at a crossroads. Addressing 5,000+ Reform delegates throughout North America at the 2007 San Diego Biennial convention, URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie stated: “More than a dozen years ago, we began a Movement-wide conversation about worship. Focusing our attention on Friday evening, we set out to create heartfelt, inspiring, and community-building worship services. And we succeeded….Our synagogues are often overflowing, our worship abounding in celebration and song…..Still, we had hoped that some worshipers returning to the synagogue on Friday nights would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer. This has not happened.…With morning worship regularly appropriated by bar and bat mitzvah families, members who come to pray often sit in the back of the sanctuary…The time has come to try new things…. (see Reimagining Shabbat).
Then, reflecting on the Reform Movement’s “readiness to look seriously at the broader question of Shabbat observance,” evidenced by recent Reform surveys that demonstrate “a new openness to the commandment to observe a weekly day of rest,” Rabbi Yoffie charged the entire Reform Movement to reimagine and reapproach Shabbat “with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism….It will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit or an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions. It will mean expanding our understanding of rest…[and] observing Shabbat as a loving community in which we feel commanded without feeling coerced.” He invested congregational leaders to appoint a Shabbat Morning Task Force as well as a Shabbat Chavurah; a new Shabbat blog is enabling every member of a Reform synagogue to be part of this discussion.
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. Which Jewish holidays do you observe? How do you decide which are or are not meaningful to you?
2. If “the catechism of the Jew is his calendar,” what does your calendar reveal about you as a Jew?
3. Does fulfilling the mitzvot of holiday observance bring you closer to the Jewish people? Closer to God?
4. What does the saying “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel” mean to you? Why do you think a holiday celebrated each week ranks higher than those that come once a year?
5. Recent Reform surveys demonstrate “a new openness to the commandment to observe a weekly day of rest.” Do you share this openness? Explain.
6. In your synagogue, is Shabbat morning worship regularly “appropriated” by bar and bat mitzvah families? What do you think would be the best solution?
Section III Questions for Discussion
Participants responded to three questions—about holiday, lifecycle, and Shabbat celebrations—in bold below.
What has been your most meaningful Jewish holiday experience?
1. Investing Holidays with Meaning: John Planer says, “The holidays bear no inherent meaning…It is we who endow them with meaning.” Do you agree? What do you learn about Judaism when you celebrate the holidays? In what ways do you or might you give meaning to the Jewish holidays this year?
2. Choosing Holiday Practices: Planer believes that agricultural festivals such as Sukkot and Shavuot are outmoded. Do you agree? Do you observe them? If not, why? If yes, how do you make your celebrations relevant to 21st-century life?
In contrast, Planer asserts that Tishah B’Av, commemorating tearful events in Jewish history, should receive greater emphasis, “not so much because of the destruction of the Temple—heaven forbid we should ever return to sacrificial rituals!—but rather because we would do well to contemplate sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred), especially in preparation for Elul and the High Holy Days.” Do you think we should place greater emphasis on commemorating the tragic events in Jewish history? What about when we teach our youth?
3. Celebrating Life: Jennifer Warriner says that “Jewish holidays remind us to celebrate life, even if the circumstances are not what we would have wanted them to be.” Do you share her perspective? What can you do at home to make Pesach, Purim, Chanukah, and other holiday celebrations more meaningful?
What has been your most meaningful lifecycle experience?
1. Conversion and B’nai Mitzvah: For the participants, the most popular lifecycle experiences are conversion and, overwhelmingly, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Why do you think these were selected over marriage, circumcision, naming a child, burial, etc.?
After her son’s conversion to Judaism, Jennifer Warriner focused on handing the Jewish teachings to her son, her future. Why do we recite v’shinantam l’vanecha—teach these diligently to your children? How can we best engage the next generation? Is there more you could be doing to make this happen—if not for your children/grandchildren, then for others?
2. Jewish Learning: John Planer recalls how he celebrated the Jubilee of his bar mitzvah by chanting Torah and Haftarah and preparing a critical study of Genesis chapter 37. “In the 50 years since my bar mitzvah I’ve learned and come to appreciate the importance and logic of the ta-amei hamikra (Masoretic cantillation signs), the Torah and Haftarah trope, the structures and meanings underlying the Hebrew texts, the glorious tradition of biblical study, and the beauty of our liturgy. My bar mitzvah was a rite of passage, the Jubilee a rededication of the soul.” For Barbara Holender “the crowning event of my adult life was my bat mitzvah at age 70. Our cantor, David Goldstein, taught me trope. I learned to chant.” Abby Shepard-Smith’s high point was watching her daughter inscribe a letter on a Torah scroll.
Is Jewish learning as engaging for you as it is for these participants? Why/why not? What do you enjoy learning about? What kinds of Jewish learning might you seek out to recharge your Jewish spirit?
How do you observe/enjoy Shabbat these days?
1. Your Shabbat Rituals: Read the respondents’ replies aloud with friends or family. Which ideals or practices most coincide with yours? How so? Do any of the responses prompt a rethinking of your own practices?
2. Real Life Dilemmas: Many of the respondents struggle with how to make Shabbat meaningful to them as modern Jews. The issues of work, family, and children often get in the way. Still, nearly all try to make Shabbat special. Some read, think, listen to music, see friends and family, walk, or knit. Some focus on life’s blessings. Some prepare for and celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat at home. Some attend a Shabbat service. Some study Torah. Some engage in tikkun olam.
Describe your household on a typical Shabbat. Does everyone in the family agree about the family Shabbat practice? Is everyone satisfied with the choices you’ve collectively made? How do you reconcile differences?
3. Avoiding Work: Many respondents avoid working or thinking about working, shun the computer, avoid chores, and spend Shabbat differently than other days.
Do you avoid “work” on Shabbat? If yes, what kinds? Why? What do you think of Judy Fisher’s practice of not reading or responding to emails as a means to avoid thinking about work?
4. Creating Shabbat Community: The absence of a sharing Reform community makes Shabbat observance difficult for many respondents, as does the considerable variation in what Reform Jews want in a service, from traditional ritual to an informal minyan to a sacred space that becomes “an island in the week.”
Do these challenges describe you and your congregation? Explain. If there are problems, what solutions, if any, has the synagogue tried? What might be tried?
What might you do—at home as well as in synagogue—to provide a Shabbat community for others?
5. A Labor of Love: Martin L. Shapiro speaks of Shabbat as “labor of love.” Does this idea resonate with you? What “labors” might you consider undertaking to enhance your Shabbat experience?
Section IV. Encountering God & Wrestling with Faith
While Judaism considers trust in God a paramount religious virtue (see Genesis 15:6, Isaiah 7:9, Samuel 22:29-36, Psalm 31, and Job 2:9), the Bible does not contain a single commandment insisting that we believe in God.
There are two reasons. First, Judaism is not interested in professions of faith; its primary emphasis is on how we act: “Not study is the chief thing but action” (Pirkei Avot 1:17). Thus, from a Jewish perspective, the most significant question is not “What are we expected to believe?” but “What are we expected to do?” And so, even a Jew who’s not sure God exists is required to behave in accordance with Jewish ethical teachings.
Second, Judaism’s early emphasis—in the Bible and in the teachings of our ancient rabbis—is on honoring our covenant with God rather than speculating about the nature of God. Consider our first Hebrew ancestor, Abraham (originally known as Abram). Author Bruce Feiler explains: “‘Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him’…joining the covenant with his feet, not his words…He doesn’t believe in God; he believes God. He doesn’t ask for proof; he provides the proof.”
Still, even within the traditional framework of belief that “deed trumps creed,” Jewish philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many others have wondered about God—and shaped the ideas of countless Jews. (For exploration of different God philosophies see the Bibliography.) Today, the latest Reform rabbinic platform acknowledges the diversity of God beliefs among Reform Jews: “We affirm the reality and oneness of God even as we differ in our understanding of the Divine presence” (“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism,” CCAR, 1999).
How can we get close to God? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob felt close enough to “hear” God and to speak to God. In the times of the Temple our ancestors brought sacrifices to the altar; the Hebrew word for those sacrifices is korban, from the root that means “near or close.” In modern times, we turn to prayer. Rabbi Milton Steinberg said, “Prayer is the bridge between man and God…Only in prayer does one establish a soul to soul interchange with him.” Tzedakah, study, and tikkun olam can bring us close as well.
Perhaps the most visceral modern struggle with faith is when one reaches out to God with all one’s heart and soul and feels bereft of a recognized response. Here, Dr. Reuven Firestone of the HUC-JIR/LA faculty encourages us to follow the teachings of the biblical prophets in developing patience and nurturing hope within: “The great biblical prophets, known for their extraordinary sensitivity to life’s trials and sufferings, teach not only the uncompromising need for social justice and compassion, but also the need for patience and hope in God.… [Listen to the prophet] Micah: ‘Yet I will look to Adonai, I will wait for the God who saves me’ [7:7]….Learning to have patience in God helps us to find the fortitude to deliver ourselves and our fellows from the evils that seem to be an inherent part of real life” ("Patience," The Chronicle, #60/2002).
It also helps to understand what we can “expect” of prayer to God. Gates of Prayer (CCAR Press) offers one explanation: “Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. How does Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief guide your actions?
2. Do you believe in God?
3. When do you feel closest to God? Would you agree that prayer is the only way to get that close?
4. Does the prophet Micah’s call for “patience in God” speak to you? What might this virtue teach us about human interaction?
5. Read the above passage from Gates of Prayer aloud with others. Do you agree that prayer cannot achieve the kinds of physical results mentioned? What about prayer affecting soul, heart, and will?
6. How can you join the covenant with your feet?
Section IV Questions for Discussion
Participants responded to three questions (in bold below).
Do you believe in God?
1. Belief with Doubt: Many respondents first rejected God, and later formed a relationship with God—even when doubt remains about what God is like and how God “works.” Is it possible for you, too, to form a relationship with God even when doubt remains? Synagogue groups: explore how doubt might contribute to religious awareness.
2. Evolving Ideas of God: The Bible presents dramatically changing ideas about God—from anthropomorphism (Eden) to a disembodied voice (burning bush), to a presence in fire and smoke (Sinai) to a still, small voice (Elijah), among others. Similarly, Dawn Mollenkopf, Art Grand, Steve Arnold, and other respondents say their understandings of God have evolved. Pamela Rollins once believed that God is responsible for everything; so when personal tragedy struck, her belief shattered. Have your understandings of God evolved as well? What struggles influenced your beliefs? Bring friends together at home or in the synagogue to share experiences and conclusions. How can your congregation help doubters? Post ideas on the blog at www.rj.org.
For family: How do different family members define God?
3. Sources of Belief: Rollins rediscovered God when she realized that belief does not depend on rational thought. John Planer calls this a “leap of faith.” Have you ever made a leap of faith? Explain.
Dick Israel’s belief in God grows out of his understanding that creation was no accident. Do you accept his argument? How does it differ from “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design”?
Do you believe God hears our prayers?
1. Prayer Expectations: Ellen Morrow and Barbara Shuman pray to God for strength, support, and consolation. Do you?
Do you believe God hears our prayers? What do you expect from prayer? How do you react if your prayers go unanswered? Might “patience in God” help get through any disappointment you might experience with prayer?
Martin Graffman and Dick Israel believe that prayer should move people, not God, to act. They do not expect God to alter nature’s laws or to intervene in response to prayer. Do you agree? If change of circumstance is not the purpose of prayer, what is? For what do you pray?
2. Prayer—A Wider Purpose: Ellen Morrow feels strengthened and supported during communal worship, even when the “results” aren’t evident. Does praying with others in the synagogue have a purpose beyond fulfilling personal needs?
3. Prayer & Gratitude: In ancient Israel gratitude was expressed through sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1). Dick Israel expresses gratitude through prayer. Do you thank God when you pray? If not, for what might you offer thanks?
When do you most experience or feel closest to God?
1. Your Perspective: When do you feel closest to God? Which of the two responses—Barbara Shuman’s or Steve Arnold’s—comes closest to your answer?
Do you believe that, as the CCAR “Statement of Principles” says, “the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail”?
1. Partnership with God: Martin Graffman says that being God’s partner requires him to recognize evil and take responsibility to fight it. What does it mean to you to “partner with God”? Have you ever experienced such a relationship? What about when you do “small acts of kindness”?
For schools and youth groups: What simple, everyday acts can you do that constitute your being God’s partner?
2. God as Motivator: Barbara Holender speaks of God as the motivator to creativity and action. Has God/can God help you find your way to creative ideas and deeds? How? Discuss with friends and family the different paths to creativity.
Section V. Choosing Personal & Synagogue Practices
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.
Section IV. Making a Difference
“We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.” -“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism,” CCAR, 1999
Why are Jews obligated to ameliorate society’s evils? Because it’s a tradition based on Torah, embedded in the conscience-provoking words of the Hebrew prophets; it’s an expression of our commitment to chayim (life); it’s an acknowledgement of the profound meaning of b’tzalmo (God’s image in each person); and it’s a fulfillment of our partnership with God. Consider, for example:
Leviticus 19:18: “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Exodus 22:20–21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan.”
Deuteronomy 15:11: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”
Amos 5:15: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”
The Talmud—Shabbat 54b: “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household (from committing a sin) and does not is accountable for the sins of his household;…with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.”
And much more.
The task our ancestors accepted—to honor the Covenant by creating a just society in the Land of the Covenant—has now been transferred to us. By extension, we must create a just society wherever we live. It’s not easy, as authors Albert Vorspan and Rabbi David Saperstein explain in Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time (URJ Press): “While Jewish law, halachah , was not envisioned as applicable to a non-Jewish society (Jewish law is a contract between God and the Jewish people), many of its values, as well as those found in the aggadah (the nonlegal component of the tradition), are applicable to all people for all time….Our tradition, therefore, has not dictated specific answers but rather provided values to be applied to life….Indifference to the problems that confront society is the unforgivable Jewish sin….We are Jews and thus we are mandated to dirty our hands in the gritty task of building a better world.”
How does this work in practice? What’s the best way for us to build a better world together?
For years, Reform congregations have focused tikkun olam (repair of the world) efforts on traditional social action models—collecting food on the High Holidays participating in synagogue-wide Mitzvah Days, and more. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, DC, continues to help with these and other social action initiatives. Visit www.rac.org for news, advocacy ideas, publications, action alerts, congregational tools, and more—including Do’s and Don’ts: Guidelines for Religious Non-Profits, Election 2008 Edition.
More recently, 40+ Reform congregations are engaged in a radical rethinking of social action. Rather than helping a smaller group of people, they are working to address the systemic causes of social justice issues, aiming to make fundamental and lasting changes. They first determine the key issues of concern within their own communities and then partner with other Jewish and non-Jewish congregations to take political action that addresses these issues head-on. To learn more about the “Just Congregations” initiative visit the website.
Overview Questions for Discussion
- Do you feel commanded as a Jew? If yes, who or what is commanding you?
- Is it possible to love others as yourself? What does this mean to you?
- Do you feel compelled to create a just society?
- What is the best way to build a better world?
- What do you think about the new social action emphasis on addressing systemic causes of injustice?
Section VI Questions for Discussion
Is social action central to your identity as a Reform Jew?
1. Social Action & Personal Identity: Judaism’s emphasis on social action led Mike Sims to become a Jew. Martin Graffman believes that doing-the-right-thing is an eternal “conversation between God and the Jews.” Judy Fisher calls social action “a moral imperative,” Jennifer Warriner a “moral obligation.” Ellen Morrow feels she’s “commanded.” In contrast, Barbara Shuman acknowledges that social action is not central to her identity: “I do not deny the obligation of Jews to repair our broken world; I myself am just not called to do this politically.”
What does social action mean for you? Whose perspective most closely matches your own, and why? What does it lead you to do? Have your ideas and actions changed over time?
2. The Jewish Roots of Social Activism: Marzy Bauer grew up in a highly social-activist family, but Judaism was not part of her childhood. Now, the experiences of her youth “have morphed into a Jewish context.” Like Bauer at first, many Jews (and non-Jews) do good things without knowledge of a Jewish connection. Why, then, is it important to know about Jewish ideas like tikkun olam and b’tzelem Elohim (God’s image in each person)? What’s added to social activism when a Jew knows its Jewish dimension and impetus?
Consider the Jewish teachings cited by Liz Cohen, Marjorie Green, and Kathy Ruiz Goldenkranz. Which ones speak most to you, your family, and/or your synagogue?
3. Taking the Action: While some of the social action initiatives participants discuss are large-scale efforts involving a great many people, others are smaller scale, such as the Young family’s connection with children’s convalescent hospitals and Dawn Mollenkopf’s project to bring dignity and acceptance to all religious views in her college and wider community. What social justice projects have you undertaken? What more can you do to improve your community?
4. Teachings on Teamwork: Kathy Ruiz Goldenkranz comments on the story of Moses and Jethro in Parashat Jethro to emphasize that we must “empower others to share in the workload—it’s through teamwork that we create a just society.” Liz Cohen agrees that “there is great power in connection and shared values, and it is our task to find and build on that with others.” Many of Cohen’s co-workers say they’re involved because “Liz asked me.” Abbey Shepard-Smith’s rabbi inspired her to greater social activism.
In what ways do you engage in acts of tikkun olam with others? Why did you get involved? How can you involve others?
How does your congregational leadership promote tikkun olam? What can you do to increase participation?
For religious school and youth groups: When did you become interested in social action? What role did your family play? Develop teams to work on projects in your community. What are the Jewish reasons for your suggested project(s)? Discuss ways to involve your friends.
5. Interfaith Action/Just Congregations: Marjorie B. Green says, “Although feeding the hungry is an act of lovingkindness and makes the mitzvah doer feel good, it doesn’t make the hunger vanish. That’s why our temple is taking the first steps toward congregation-based community organizing.” Would you/your study group like to see your congregation institute a similar “Just Congregations” program? What interfaith social action programs can you currently join?
For religious school and youth groups: Why might it be a good idea to join forces with young people in area churches for joint social action projects? Contact them to explore the possibilities.
6. Social Action—The Next Generation: Fisher, Bauer, and Goldenkranz learned about social activism as children. What are you doing to move your children—or children in your extended families—in that direction?
Section VII. Reinterpreting Torah
“Torah” has two basic meanings. One is the Five Books of Moses, the foundation of sacred Jewish literature. A second, more expansive definition applies to Jewish learning in general. Thus when Reform Jews talk about Torah study, they are usually referring to a wide range of Jewish texts, including Tanach (the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings); Talmud; Responsa literature; and the works of Jewish sages, commentators, and scholars from all periods of Jewish history, including our own.
Jews are exhorted to study Torah.
Pirkei Avot, chapter 6, begins, “He who occupies himself in the study of the Torah for its own sake (lishmah) merits many things; and still more, the whole world is worthwhile for his sake.”
The Talmud teaches that Torah becomes an elixir of life if studied for its own sake, but a deadly poison if not for its own sake—which, Maimonides says, means that searching for the truth should be its own reward.
In 1999, our Reform rabbinic body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, declared: “We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to mitzvot, the means by which we make our lives holy” (“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism”).
More recently, on November 8, 2003 (13 Cheshvan 5764), at the Union’s Biennial, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie proclaimed: “Torah study is the motor that drives Jewish life. While some of us have committed ourselves to regular study, many others have not yet done so. But who among us is so busy that she cannot spend ten minutes a day in the study of a Jewish text? Such a commitment would enable us to meet our Jewish obligation to make Jewish study a fixed occurrence.” To facilitate that commitment, he announced the Union’s "10 Minutes of Torah" program: a free daily email (now) on “Reform Voices of Torah” (Monday), “Mishnah Day” (Tuesday), “Israel Connections” (Wednesday), “Lessons from Our Tradition” (Thursday), and “Jewish World and Social Action” (Friday).
After thousands of people had signed up for “10 Minutes of Torah,” the Union added the interactive Torah discussion, "Eilu V'eilu," a point/counterpoint dialogue between 2 scholars that encourages the participation of individual Reform Jews.
Whether we are searching for truths or reaching for the sacred, Torah study is the authentic, time-honored path.
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. What does Torah mean to you?
2. Do you agree with Rabbi Eric Yoffie that “Torah is the motor that drives Jewish life”?
3. Do you feel commanded to study Torah? Is it a mitzvah? Explain.
4. Do you agree that Torah lishmah, study for its own sake, is praiseworthy—but poisonous if done for any other purpose?
Section VII Questions for Discussion
Do you believe the Bible was written by God?
1. Your Perspective: What do you believe about the authorship of the Bible? When do you turn to the Bible? Families: How do your individual reasons differ?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss why people have been studying the Torah for thousands of years. List 5 reasons Jews—including you, parents, synagogue members—continue to engage in Bible study.
2. God-Inspired: Steve Arnold says the Bible is a “product of the human mind” but inspired by God. Discuss with your group: Do you agree with Arnold that God “inspired” the biblical writers? How can you tell when you’re inspired by God?
3. A Human Document: While Jennifer Warriner also believes the Bible’s human authors received inspiration, it was not from God but “by their notion of God and their desire to be God-like.” Do you agree with her? Leviticus 19:2, says, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Is this what being God-like means to you? How can you be like God?
4. Humans Make Torah Sacred: Laurence Kaufman believes that we humans make the Bible sacred, not God. Do you agree? In what ways have our ancestors made the Bible sacred? How can we do so today?
5. Teaching Holiness: Arnold says the Bible is “holy” (kadosh in Hebrew) because it teaches us how to “live ‘holy’ lives.” Do you, your family, or your group members live holy lives? Discuss what a holy life is/would be like.
6. Biblical Role Models: John Planer says the Bible speaks to him “of complex human beings…seeking God and meaning” and offers “models to emulate and to shun.” Does this idea give you sufficient motivation to turn to the Bible? Explain.
7. Biblical Principles: Dawn Mollenkopf reads the Bible for its “social, historical, and spiritual content,” letting “its principles, rather than specific words, guide my life. Such an approach is more challenging than orthodoxy because it forces me to constantly have to reevaluate how a principle might apply to a given situation as I gain new perspectives from my life’s experiences.” How do you derive meaning from the Bible? Do you find Mollenkopf’s approach helpful? Why/why not? Do you share her view that this approach is more challenging than orthodoxy?
8. Keeping Us Together: Kaufman says, “Torah is what binds the Jewish people through both time and space, making me responsible for maintaining continuity with the past, assuring continuity into the future, and assuring the welfare of Jews wherever in the world they may be.” Do you agree? What else besides Torah keeps us together?
How do you reconcile teachings or exhortations in Torah that may be inconsistent with your beliefs today?
1. The Torah as Morality Stories: Steve Arnold believes that rather than convey literal truth, the Torah is a “set of stories illustrating moral and ethical principles,” some of which have modern application, although “much does not.” Read his examples aloud with the family or in a study group. What do you think of his distinction between the broad principle and the specific application? Compare Arnold’s position with Mollenkopf’s, above. How do you feel about Arnold’s continued financial support of Israel, in order to be “true to my intention to live a life governed by Torah,” despite his reservations about the Orthodox establishment there? How do your tzedakah practices illuminate your choices in this context?
2. Reject and Cherish: A Matter of Choice: Jennifer Warriner, Barbara Shuman, and Barbara Holender ignore Torah teachings that make no sense to them even though the rules might have made sense long ago. Holender says Reform Judaism “rejects the unacceptable” while “retaining and cherishing the source.” Who makes the decisions for Reform Judaism? On what basis can you decide what’s unacceptable? Why cherish the source nonetheless?
Warriner rejects biblical ideas about women, children, slavery, and homosexuals. Joan Pines rejects “certain biblical theological concepts, such as the Torah teaching that suffering is a result of sin.” What biblical ideas do you believe are obsolete?
Shuman prefers to study Jewish literatures other than the Bible. Would you eliminate Bible from your Jewish studies? If yes, what would you study instead? Explain.
3. Seek the Deeper Message: Explaining that he turns to Torah for God’s messages, for history, and for insights into human behavior, John Planer says, “We learn from Torah that beneath seemingly random events may well lay an order, logic, and justice that we cannot fully perceive. For example, Joseph’s arrogance and mistreatment leads to the salvation of his family (as well as the Egyptian populace) during the famine. Thus the meaning of our lives may become evident only in retrospect, or viewed from a vantage far beyond our own.” Does Planer’s perspective resonate with you? Explain.
Discuss—with family and in a study group—5 other reasons for reading Torah.
Section VIII. Leading an Ethical Life
The search for ethical—moral—behavior requires us to assess everything we do to make sure not to interfere with “bringing Torah into the world.” To do otherwise denies Torah’s mandates; our relationship to God; and God’s blueprint for a just, humane, compassionate society based on the rule of law. As author Rabbi Walter S. Wurzberger puts it, “ Halakhah represents not merely ‘the Way of God’…it also functions as a way to God…to a life dedicated to responding to Him through obedience to His commandments and imitation of His ways….The verse ‘Thou shalt walk in His ways’ (Deuteronomy 28:9) challenges us to cultivate an ‘ethics of responsibility.’ More is required than mere compliance with the explicit rules prescribed by Halakhah . We are commanded to engage in a never-ending quest for moral perfection, which transcends the requirements of an ‘ethics of obedience.’”
God’s demand for right living set ancient Israel apart from the other nations. Wurzberger notes, “Jewish monotheism represents a radically different approach to religion…not primarily in the substitution of the belief in one God for…polytheism. What was even more revolutionary…was, as against the pagan emphasis upon divine power, the attribution of moral perfection to God.”
What makes this Jewish position a “higher ethical mandate”?
Psalm 8:5-6 says that humans are “little less than the divine (or, the angels).” The tradition also says we are imperfect: although we are given a soul—God’s “breath of life”—we are also formed from the “dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7). We call our inherent opposing forces the good inclinations ( yetzer tov ) and the evil inclinations ( yetzer hara ). As Rabbi Jack Stern says, “The ‘good instinct’ [is the capacity] to rise above our own animal selves and to set limits and to tame our own primal urges….[This] constitutes the basis of the ethical dimension of human experience.”
How do we find wholeness? In Reform Judaism Summer 1999, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin says, ”We must first make peace with that dark side, with what Carl Jung called ‘the shadow.’ We must understand it, know it, even embrace it. As our sages said, without the yetzer hara , the world could not exist. The disgruntled royal author of the Book of Ecclesiastes muses: ‘And I saw that all labor, and every skill in work, comes from a man’s envy of his neighbor.’ And we read in Midrash ( Bereshit Rabbah 9:7): ‘Without the evil inclination, no one would father a child, build a house, or make a career.’…The question is not how do we reach moral perfection. The question is: How do we take the conflicting urges within us and make of them a ladder that can lift us up to something higher?…When we wrestle with our dark sides, we come home to ourselves. This is the Jewish path to virtue.”
Judaism regards improving character as the goal of life, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says. “As the Midrash teaches, ‘The Torah’s commandments were not given to humankind for any purpose other than to refine people’” ( Genesis Rabbah 44:1). In Reform Judaism Spring 2006, Rabbi Telushkin recommends 13 paths toward becoming a person of goodness:
- Do good deeds often.
- Cultivate the friendship of people who are both good and wise.
- Avoid people with bad character and unkind disposition.
- Live up to the reputation to which you aspire.
- See every act you do as one of great significance.
- If you offer personal prayers to God for your own well-being and success, pray for others before you pray for yourself.
- Cultivate and develop your moral strengths.
- Keep a daily “character journal” focusing exclusively on the area in which you wish to improve yourself.
- When trying to correct a bad trait, temporarily embrace the opposite extreme.
- Avoid even sins that seem minor, because, as a rabbinic maxim teaches, “One sin will lead to another” ( Pirkei Avot 4:2).
- When confronted with a situation that leaves you uncertain as to whether you are taking the right action, ask yourself one question: “What is motivating me to act in this way, my yetzer tov or my yetzer hara ?”
- Look at your life from the future. Strive to leave a legacy of goodness.
- Emulate God. Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21), so should we clothe those who lack adequate clothing; just as God visited Abraham when he was weak (Genesis 18:1), so should we visit the sick.
Still, when it comes to character, says Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the URJ Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, “perfection is neither an expectation nor a goal in Jewish tradition….Maimonides taught that a tzaddik , a righteous person, is someone whose merits exceed his or her demands, someone who makes the world measurably better….Even when we err, Talmud informs us, good can result: ‘Out of doing good for an ulterior motive, a person will eventually do good for its own sake’” (BT Pesachim 50b).
A less known but authentic Jewish path toward holiness emerged in the form of the Mussar movement founded in 19th-century Lithuania by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810–1883). Mussar, at its core a method of drawing oneself closer to God, focuses on the inner soul traits (such as patience, trust, truthfulness, humility) called middot that are “in our own personal spiritual curriculum—those that need some improvement if we are to be embodiments of the virtues Jewish tradition has set for us,” says Alan Morinis, founding director of The Mussar Institute. There are 3 stages of practice: 1) learning about the traits in one’s inner world that are at varying degrees of balance and wholeness; 2) making behavioral changes; 3) aiming to transform the impulse itself and thereby reach our highest spiritual potential. Today, an estimated 2 dozen Reform congregations and hundreds of Reform Jews are practicing Mussar.
How do we apply ethical Jewish principles to weighty issues like end-of-life decisions and stem cell research? “The key is to get specific…to apply an ethical ingredient that deserves to be factored into the final decision,” says Rabbi Jack Stern. Take, for example, the resolution on “Compassionate and Comfort Care Decisions at the End of Life” passed at the 1995 Union for Reform Judaism’s Atlanta Biennial: “There are those who, nearing the end of life’s journey, would choose [not] to live…those who cannot be cured of their disease but whose future promises nothing but pain and suffering. While acknowledging that many would choose not to endure such a life, most such choices do not need to be made when adequate palliative care and support can be provided. Guided by the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh , we must strive toward an achievable goal, to provide a quality of life that is at least tolerable…Our effort must ensure that only rarely will that choice be beyond human strength. We assert that most of the tragic choices to end life can be avoided through the combined efforts of caring doctors, clergy, providers, family, and community” (see resolution).
And on the question of stem cell research, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, observes that its “opponents maintain that stem cell research as well as cloning are always ‘morally wrong’ because such research and cloning—in their opinion—diminish respect for human life by reducing human life ‘to a mere commodity.’” On the other hand, “Jewish religious tradition teaches that God sanctions medical science and applauds…efforts to ameliorate the physical condition…to manipulate the natural order for human ends…Jewish religious tradition applauds this as a good” (see article).
To guide discussion in the biomedical arena, the Union for Reform Judaism has prepared 14 Bio-Ethics Study Guides, relating Reform Judaism to key issues in emerging medical technology, from organ donation and cloning to genetic testing and the spiritual challenges of living with chronic illness.
Overview Questions for Discussion
- What’s the purpose of “ethical mandates”? How does fulfilling them bring Torah into the world?
- How can you know whether an intended action represents the highest ethical position?
- What does “imitation of God’s ways” mean to you? How can you do it?
- What qualities would you identify as your yetzer hara ? Your yetzer tov ? What helps you overcome your yetzer hara ? What lessons above might you apply to your own life?
- Which of Rabbi Telushkin’s 13 steps do you practice? Which are most challenging? What might you work on?
- In making ethical decisions, does it help to know that Judaism doesn’t expect human beings to achieve moral perfection? What other ways does our tradition acknowledge human imperfection?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter that “ethical conduct based on Torah values is the essential goal of the Jewish people”? Explain.
- What is your position on stem cell research? Physician-assisted suicide? Cloning? What Jewish-based “ethical ingredients” do you apply in deriving your positions?
Section VIII Questions for Discussion
Are ethics central to your identity? Do you believe being a Reform Jew has made you a more ethical person?
1. Reform Judaism as a Source of Ethics: For Mike Sims, ethics and Reform are “inextricably bound.” Abbey Shepard-Smith’s ethics were shaped by At Camp Kee Tov (a Union-published religious school textbook by Helen Fine) because it helped her “put herself in the other person’s shoes.” Laurence Kaufman believes Reform Judaism does not make him more ethical but has given him resources to support “what I probably would have done anyway.” John Planer is guided by “compassionate altruism,” which he understands to be life’s purpose.
Does the source of your ethics matter? Do you believe being a Reform Jew, or being a Jew for that matter, has made you a more ethical person? Explain. Can you call yourself a Reform Jew without striving to live an ethical life?
How is “putting oneself in the other person’s shoes” a Jewish principle?
What do you believe is life’s purpose? What do you do about that commitment?
2. The Mussar Path: In her quest to become a better person, Barbara K. Shuman studies Mussar, a biblical term for “moral instruction,“ to help her balance traits such as humility, generosity, and trust. What traits would you say might be out of balance in your life? Does the Mussar path appeal to you?
3. Judaism & Values: Finding that “the critical dimension of values was overlooked” by psychology and philosophy, William Berkson turned to Jewish texts, where he found “all of the Jewish values and attitudes that I had always treasured.” He says the values he encountered—like chesed (kindness), rachamim (compassion), tzedek (justice) promote strong relationships. In what ways might each of these values “increase the sanctity of daily life?” Do you practice them? What might you do to bring them into your daily life?
4. Avoiding Misdeeds: Dawn Mollenkopf tries especially hard to behave appropriately because she considers herself an exemplar of Judaism in her community. She tries not to act hastily, to guard her tongue, to avoid hurting others. Do you regard yourself as an exemplar of Judaism in your community? What are other reasons for acting ethically regardless of where you live? Isaiah, 42:5 teaches, “I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” Discuss 6 acts that will help you bring light to others.
Sims evokes the Enron collapse (a failure of business ethics) to demonstrate how “small misdeeds” can eventually lead to great calamities. Have you seen this happen in your own life or in the lives of friends or relatives? What went wrong? How can you guard against committing “minor” infractions?
Mollenkopf, Marzy Bauer, and Steve Arnold find it’s not always easy to do the right thing. Bauer talks of trying to find balance, Mollenkopf of teshuvah (repentance, or turning in a new direction). Arnold fights his habit of making excuses for his failings. What small misdeeds do you find hardest to avoid? What do you do when you’ve had an ethical lapse?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 things to avoid and 6 to do to make yourself a better person.
5. Forgiveness: Judy Fisher wants to treat others as she would like them to treat her. Her biggest problem is “forgiving myself and forgiving others.” Leviticus 19:18 teaches, “Love your fellow as yourself.” Some take the Hebrew to read, “as if he is yourself.” How does the teaching help you forgive those who wrong you—and forgive yourself—as a step in teshuvah?
How have Jewish ethical teachings and actions informed and enriched your life?
What Jewish ethical teachings do you think are important and should be passed on?
1. A Good Name, A Good Heart: John Planer suggests two teachings from Pirkei Avot : Strive to merit a good name, and have a good heart. Author R. Travers Herford, commenting on the phrase “good name,” says, “Crowns of Torah, priesthood and royalty are conferred on you, but a good name is the tribute paid to personal worth and upright character…it alone is indispensable.” On “good heart,” he says, “unselfish love in thought, feeling and act…it includes all the others.” Do you have a good name? Do you know others who do? How will you recognize such people? How can you acquire a good name? Discuss similar questions for “good heart.”
2. An Ethical Will: Judy Fisher and Laurence Kaufman want to convey their teachings in ethical wills. According to author Israel Abrahams, “writing testamentary directions for the religious and secular guidance of children …reflect the phases of Jewish experience and the literary and moral reactions to it through many centuries,“ but “the Jewish code of morality remains essentially the same throughout…a most effective vindication of the Jewish character.”
Judy Fisher’s ethical will includes family, Judaism, and community. Laurence Kaufman wants his children to do good without expecting reward, respond when called to action, and maintain ties to the community.
Guided by Reform Judaism ’s Focus on Ethical Wills, Winter 1998 (for a copy, email email@example.com), compose an ethical will that discusses the values most important to your life which you’d like to pass on to your children, nieces, nephews, etc. Invite family members to react, add, change. Are Fisher’s and Kaufman’s teachings among those you would wish to pass on?
Section IX. Identifying With Israel
Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism, and other early Zionist leaders like Israel Zangwill had one passion: to save the world’s Jews by giving them a homeland—and it didn’t matter where. They seriously considered a British offer of territory in Kenya, East Africa. As Weisbord notes, a commission even explored the territory in 1905 and “the British government was bombarded with applications for land.” But that same year, the Seventh Zionist Congress rejected “either as an end or as a means all colonizing activity outside Palestine and its adjacent lands.” “The rest is history,” a history we celebrate in 2008 as Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Why did the “African Zion” proponents lose the day, despite Zangwill’s claim that “a flourishing community of Jews on a fertile territory of eighteen thousand square miles would be nearer to Palestine than all the Zionist societies of the world ‘talking endlessly’”?
They lost because of the special relationship Jews have always had to the land, described to Abraham in Genesis 13:14 and reinforced through the Canaan settlements of the Children of Jacob/Israel, the exploits of the Judges, the soaring messages of the Prophets, the United Monarchy of Saul and David, Solomon’s House of God on a Jerusalem hilltop, years of exile that only strengthened our ancestors’ attachment to the Promised Land, the return to Zion and a new Temple. Rome may have destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., but not the Jewish attachment to the land or the dream of restoration that lived on in legend and daily prayer. As the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it, a nation that remembers both its land and its vintage when it has neither land nor vintage will soon reclaim both.
Herzl’s publication of Old-New Land in 1902 refired the dream, which came to fruition 60 years ago in 1948 after Israel’s War of Independence.
Early Reform leaders rejected the Zionist idea because they believed it went against the stateless, Messianic, utopian society they envisioned for the world. The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine...nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But in 1943 the CCAR declared that it “discerns no essential incompatibility between Reform Judaism and Zionism,” and Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War fostered a fusion of Reform and Zionism. Nine years later, a new CCAR platform, “A Centenary Perspective,” stated: “We have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security, and defining its Jewish character.”
The Central Conference went even further in its 1999 “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism”: “We are committed to the State of Israel and rejoice in its accomplishments. We...encourage aliyah, immigration to Israel.”
In recent decades, Reform Jews have been in the forefront of support for Israel, despite the fact that Reform demands for Jewish religious pluralism in the Jewish state are not being met. When compared with our Orthodox and Conservative counterparts, however, Reform Jews are on the whole less passionate about Zionism, writes Prof. Michael A. Meyer in Reform Judaism, Summer 2005. “We visit Israel less often than our Conservative and Orthodox counterparts; our religious lives as Reform Jews are less linked to Zion” (source: National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001). Meyer believes that “The time has come...for those of us who care about Israel to consider a new approach to Zionism that will reverse the growing apathy and restore our Zionist energies.”
What might that approach look like? Meyer poses (and occasionally answers) questions such as: Do we favor an all-Jewish state or a state of all its citizens, Jewish and Arab alike? Do we favor a complete separation of religion and state, which would prohibit any state interference in matters of individual religious freedom? Where should Israel’s Jewishness reside? How are we to consider the holiness of the land?
Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, an American Reform Jew who made aliyah, says he “see[s] Israel as the demonstration site for Jewish values. For years we Jews had to explain away why we couldn’t fulfill all the requirements of our tradition—we were not in control of our own destiny, we were living under others’ laws.... Now we have no more excuses....we have to face the question of how we live out Jewish values when we have sovereignty, independence, and power.”
On the occasion of Israel at 60, the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), directed by its Institute for Reform Zionism, published a 2-page “Open Conversation about Reform Zionism” written in large part by Rabbi Peter Knobel, in the Spring 2008 Reform Judaism, as a means to encourage Reform Jews to add their voices to this “sacred debate.” Some key points: “Reform Zionism is inseparable from Reform Judaism”; “The rebirth of Israel is a modern miracle”; “Aliyah is a mitzvah, the highest expression of our ideal...This in no way diminishes the need for, or role of, the Diaspora.” Read more and add your comments.
What can we—as individuals and congregations—do to further Reform Zionism today? Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of ARZA, offers these 10 ideas; for help in realizing them visit www.arza.org or call 212-650-4280.
1. Sponsor a congregational Israel day, week, or year.
2. Establish an Israel or ARZA Committee.
3. Create a congregational trip to Israel.
4. Build the next generation of Israel supporters—send teens in your community to Israel.
5. Join ARZA.
6. Enhance Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
7. Bring a Reform Israeli to your community.
8. Deepen your knowledge of Israel and Hebrew.
9. Fund an Israel project.
10. Move to Israel.
In addition, ARZA, in partnership with Hadassah, has created "One Heart, Two Homes: Israel and the Sacred Identity of American Jews," an adult education program that addresses “Why should I, an American Reform Jew, have a relationship with Israel?”
Reflecting on the question of homeland, the curriculum says, “The Torah presents settling in the Land of Israel and setting up a model Jewish society there as the overall enterprise of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). It could not conceive of a time when Jews would willingly live outside the Land of Israel. Exile from the land is the punishment prescribed by the Torah for the sins of idolatry and abandonment of God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 4:25-27; 11:8-9). Yet most of the Jews who had been exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) chose to remain there even when the Persians gave them permission to return, just as most American Jews have decided to remain in America even though we could choose to live in the State of Israel. Clearly the meanings of terms such as ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ have continued to change from generation to generation.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. How close do you feel to Israel?
2. What made Disraeli so confident that the Jews would some day reclaim their historic homeland?
3. Do you favor an all-Jewish state or a state of Israel for all its citizens? Why?
4. Do you favor a complete separation of religion and state in Israel? Where should Israel’s Jewishness reside?
5. What do the terms “Promised Land,” “Homeland,” and “Holy Land” mean to you as a Jew living in North America?
6. Is Israel holy to you? Explain.
7. Do you agree that Israel is the “demonstration site for Jewish values”? What Jewish values does Israel demonstrate? What values might Israel be failing to uphold?
8. Why does the CCAR’s “Statement of Principles” refer to a vision of full civil, human, and religious rights?
9. Do you agree with the IRZ platform that “Reform Zionism is inseparable from Reform Judaism”?
10. Is aliyah a “mitzvah, the highest expression of our ideal”?
Section IX Question for Discussion
Is the State of Israel important to you and your Jewish identity?
1. Israel = Salvation?: Steve Arnold believes Israel is very important because it is “the final refuge of all Jews.” Jennifer Warriner’s “love of Israel embodies the 2,000-year Jewish hope for a homeland.” Why does Israel merit the term “our homeland”? And why, then, do most Jews not live there?
2. Israel & Jewish Identity: Ellen Morrow says, “Making Israel central to Jewish identity is dangerous.... If, God forbid, Israel were to cease to exist, given its current centrality, what would happen to Jewish identity?” Do you agree?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 reasons Israel has a special place in Jewish hearts.
3. Israel as Home: Dawn Mollenkopf felt herself on familiar soil on her very first visit to Israel—a “sense of being ‘at home.’” Jennifer Warriner sees Israel as its “people and places,” feels “a knot of love and respect” in her chest, and wonders about the welfare of her Israeli friends. Judy Fisher’s family has been to Israel often “to feel that sense of love and connection and being ‘part of something.’” What are your feelings when you think about or visit Israel? What aspects of Israel have been most important to you? How is it that millions of Jews around the world consider Israel their home?
4. Jewish Comfort Zone: In Israel, Judy Fisher wears her Magen David necklace proudly. At home, she often tucks it under her shirt because Israel’s “the only place I feel fully comfortable being Jewish.” Do you/might you experience greater Jewish comfort in Israel than where you live?
5. Israel Fulfills Zionism: Steve Arnold “was a Zionist before I was a Jew.” Laurence Kaufman sees “Zionism and the centrality of Israel as integral to Jewish life. Those who want to classify Judaism as only a religion are in denial.” Do you agree that all Jews are Zionists? Would you call yourself a Zionist?
6. Considering Aliyah: Kaufman also believes that Israel must become a “residence of choice rather than a refuge for Diaspora Jews” to fulfill its mission “as the cultural nexus and spiritual center for the Jewish people.” Barbara Holender “wanted desperately to make aliyah” as a teenager in 1947; her parents forbade it. Do you agree with Kaufman’s concept of Israel’s mission? Have you considered aliyah (literally, going up) to Israel, either permanently or for the short term? What are your arguments for and against?
7. Israel Is Not Perfect: While Judy Fisher feels at home in Israel, she also notes, “I don’t always like the political decisions Israel makes. But Israel is a sovereign country and they are her decisions to make.” Ellen Morrow criticizes Israel’s discrimination against Reform and Conservative Judaism. How do you reconcile your support of Israel with particular Israeli policies/practices you may find objectionable? Do you agree that “they are [Israel’s] decisions to make”? What is an appropriate role for Jews outside Israel with respect to influencing Israel’s decisions?
8. Israel Requires Our Support & Defense: Kaufman asserts: “Diaspora Jews have an obligation to support and defend Israel.” How do you support the Jewish state? Is such support a Jewish obligation, personally and collectively?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 things you can do to support Israel.
Section X. Facing the Future
Reform Judaism has always honored the past while anticipating the future. It emerged in Europe at the turn of the 19th century—some say as a protest movement, others say as a response to social and political changes. In any event, it proceeded from dissatisfaction with the status quo and set Judaism on a new course.
What was later to become the Reform Movement began in, of all places, a Jewish school in Seesen, Germany. Israel Jacobson (who founded the school in 1801) had the temerity to accept girls and the audacity to seat them in the same room as the boys! His ideas about curriculum were perhaps even more radical: schooling included religious studies, math, science, and the German language—a seminal break with the then traditional yeshiva education. Further shocking tradition-minded Jews, he even opened up the classroom to non-Jewish children.
That a new religious movement began in a school was one thing. That it began with laymen, rather than rabbis, was another. But the changes in the school’s prayer-place were the ones that set the course for what would become Reform Judaism some 40 years later. Jacobson created a worship service which followed Western models of decorum, was far briefer than the traditional Jewish service, contained prayers translated into German, featured a mixed male-female choir, was embellished by organ accompaniment, and allowed men and women to sit together—altogether new ways of thinking about the Jewish religion.
Reform has been changing ever since.
Then and now, the practical challenges remain the same: to identify the essence of Judaism and to preserve its beliefs and practices in ways that accommodate new and changing realities.
We continue to do this to this day, individually as Reform Jews and collectively as a Movement.
How can Reform congregations, in particular, forge paths to change? In The Chronicle (download PDF) HUC-JIR, Los Angeles faculty member Dr. Isa Aron writes of 4 capacities that, she says, are the cornerstones to congregational self-renewal:
- Thinking back and thinking ahead: being both reflective and proactive
- Enabling leaders to follow, and followers to lead: practicing collaborative leadership
- Seeing both the forest and the trees: creating community among diverse individuals
- Honoring the past while anticipating the future: balancing tradition and change.
Seventeen years ago, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler wrote: “The deepening of literacy and spiritual vision within our movement should produce a more powerful tie among us, an increased sense of kinship with the Judaic past, and a great excitement regarding our future. As our prayers become more unified and our religious dialogue intensifies, I believe that our evolutionary form of Judaism shall surpass a grasping Orthodoxy in its claim to ‘authenticity.’”
We welcome your participation in this ongoing religious conversation about the future of our Movement so that we will continue to go from strength to strength.
Overview Questions for Discussion
- How does Reform’s past shape its future?
- What might be the advantages of creating a “self-renewing congregation”? How close does your congregation come to Isa Aron’s description? Where might it fall short? What might be done to help?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Alexander Schindler that Reform is an “evolutionary form of Judaism”?
- Do you think that Reform Judaism is, or should be, in competition with other expressions of Judaism, such as the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Movements?
- What can we do as a Movement to strengthen Reform Judaism?
- What can you do—as part of a congregation and as an individual—to strengthen Reform Judaism and help secure its future?
Section X Question for Discussion
As you look to the future, what do you believe are the most significant challenges we face, as a Movement and as North American Jews?
1. Jewish Survival: Joan Pines sees a need for more innovation, spiritual seeking, creativity, and community in order to combat pressures to assimilate. Ellen Morrow worries that most members of her extended family are married out of the faith; even her children, raised in her actively Jewish home, observe Judaism only when they return home. Steve Arnold believes “maintaining relevance” is a significant challenge. Barbara K. Shuman’s children are “not interested in the inherited institutions of their parents”; she wants Reform “to experiment with different models.”
Reform congregations are trying different approaches here—for example, drop-in coffee centers, parenting groups, or other parent-centered programs that increase the chances that they will remain involved in temple life as their children grow older. To learn from the successful experiences of Reform synagogues, visit the Union's Membership website.
Discuss ways your congregation is responding—or should be responding-–to these challenges. How is your synagogue trying to attract and hold members who do not respond to more established forms of worship and study? What other experiments would you encourage your congregation to inaugurate?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 ways Judaism is attractive to you and 6 changes that might make it more attractive.
2. Build Community: Dawn Mollenkopf expresses concern about the separations among diverse groups of Jews and looks “to solidify that sense of belonging in a way that makes all Jews feel that being Jewish is meaningful.” Dana Jennings wants all Jews to “set aside their petty grievances…and simply embrace their brothers and sisters in Jewishness.” How would you assess the sense of community in your congregation? What barriers might exist? What actions might succeed in bringing diverse groups of Jews closer together?
3. More Action: Martin Shapiro wants to see more social action, study, and community building in synagogue, and less “bending our knees and bowing,” “dressing and undressing Torahs.” Do you belief ritual in Jewish life interferes with or supports social action? What can you do to increase your congregation’s emphasis on action without diminishing the role of ritual?
4. The Cost of Being Jewish: Elise Silverfield points to the high cost of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, fueled by “what’s expected,” and wonders whether her “son can have a sense of Jewish community…without the expensive price tag.” Laurence Kaufman worries about the “heavy expenses” of Jewish education, camp, synagogue affiliation, and more; he wants Judaism “to be affordable.” Martin Shapiro thinks the congregational dues structure effectively drives people away from membership. What is your congregation doing to welcome membership among those not able to meet the dues scale? Is that an important goal? How can a congregation balance “below scale” membership with “meeting the budget?” What’s the alternative? How might you help reduce expectations for lavish bar/bat mitzvah celebrations?
For religious school and youth groups: Do you support lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties? Explain.
5. Modernize Jewish Texts: Steve Arnold wants to emphasize how Torah holds modern lessons to attract Jews “who want to maintain their Jewish identity without the religion part.” Is this is a good idea? Explain.
William Berkson proposes that Reform synagogues everywhere study and discuss Torah and Talmud, synthesizing Jewish values and the insights of modern psychology to create a “New Talmud” that focuses on personal ethics and promotes harmonious relationships. Do you believe Jews have everything we need from existing texts? Is it time for the Reform Movement to create a “New Talmud”? If yes, what do you think of Berkson’s vision for it? What’s yours?
6. Imagine the Future: In your opinion, what are the most important challenges we face as modern Jews today? Does Reform Judaism need “reforming”? Does Judaism need further reforming? If so, in what ways? How can you be part of the process?
Families: Discuss the most important challenges that
you face as Jews and what steps can be taken to meet these challenges.
Congregations/families/youth groups: Stretch your imagination. What is your vision for the Jewish people in your time? What is your vision for future Jewish generations? What role can you play in realizing these dreams?