Reform Jews like to divide themselves into camps, the most prominent being “traditional” versus “classical.” Having grown up in a Reform congregation where the worship services were primarily in Hebrew, virtually all of the men wore kippot, and we observed two days of the major festivals, I identify more with the former. Yet I do not believe that the line between the two is as sharp as some would have us believe.
Classical Reform values such as universal ethics and intellectual rigor remain an integral part of who we are as a Reform Movement. Unapologetically cerebral, resting on a foundation of rationalism, Classical Reform attaches importance to thoughtful, well-prepared preaching, and expects rabbis to deliver the “message of Israel” with clarity and oratorical skill.
Classical Reform also graces our congregations with an enduring aesthetic sensibility. As Rabbi David Posner of Congregation Emanu-El in New York City has pointed out, the defining characteristic of Reform Judaism in the 19th century was not the absence of head coverings but wonderful music: powerful and awe-inspiring pieces for choir and organ scored by some of Europe’s greatest composers or their students, many of whom were Jews. In that era, the new sound represented a radical break from customary synagogue music. Few of our synagogues still make use of organs and choirs in the Classical Reform style, but from time to time I hear the majesty of the great Classical Reform hymns, and I am filled with praise for those who care so deeply about the dignity of our worship.
We live in an era in which both rabbinic preaching and liturgical music are much less formal than they once were. Far more emphasis is also given to ritual practice and Jewish peoplehood—trends I have endorsed. Nonetheless, Classical Reform Jews bring a great deal to the Reform mix. Our commitment to reason and to ethics is the fruit of their efforts. Their devotion to beauty and decorum in Reform prayer still guides us, even if it is resisted by some and expressed differently by others. The Pittsburgh Platform—the defining statement of Classical Reform principles—is as relevant today as when it was issued in 1885.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Reform Judaism in Germany, a good time to offer words of appreciation for the vibrant and revolutionary Judaism our Reform founders brought into being. As we celebrate this important milestone, let us all pay tribute to Classical Reform Judaism’s enduring influence.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism
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