Reform Judaism: Preserving the Past – Facing Tomorrow

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day 5760, September 20,1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Today is Yom Kippur, so I have a confession: I enjoy reading the comics in the daily newspaper. One of my favorites is Zits, the saga of a fifteen-year-old boy named Jeremy and his parents. Like most teenagers’ parents, Jeremy’s folks are not cool. Recently, Jeremy’s dad lamented that the funny pages had really gone downhill since the demise of Calvin and Hobbes. “Get over it,” Jeremy tells him. “That was five years ago. I was ten years old.”

That comic strip illustrates an important phenomenon: Some people accept change more readily than others. Such was the case earlier this summer, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a new statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. Many of us responded like Jeremy’s father. We worried that our beloved Reform Judaism would be lost. We feared that the faith we had embraced throughout our lives would be changed beyond all recognition. Others, like Jeremy, happily asserted that the Principles appropriately reflect a positive evolution within Reform Judaism, one that has been well underway for more than a decade.

Being a rabbi, I am, by definition, at least as uncool as Jeremy’s father. My reaction to the Principles was, and remains, quite negative. However, in order to examine the situation rationally, let us look back to the roots of Reform Judaism, then fast forward to 1999. Did Reform Judaism, at its inception, embrace the tradition from which it sprang, or was it a radical departure from all that had come before? Do the Principles of 1999 undermine more than a century of Reform Jewish progress; or do they, as their supporters paradoxically claim, lead us into the future through a return to our Jewish heritage? And how do these trends in our Reform Movement affect us here at Temple Beth-El? How shall we grow, change, and embrace tradition in the years ahead?

The birth of Reform Judaism was indeed radical. Never before had a group of rabbis specifically and unapologetically rejected specific commandments of the Torah. The early Reform rabbis declared the kosher laws to be obsolete. Many banned the wearing of traditional Jewish ritual garb, including yarmulkes. The very idea that Jewish men and women should worship side by side was previously unknown.

On the other hand, the spirit of reform, of changing with the times, followed well-grounded precedents of Jewish history. Our ancient Talmudic rabbis, two thousand years ago adapted Judaism to fit their new situation of living in Diaspora. The great Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Priests could no longer receive sacrifices. To be sure, the sages saw themselves as interpreting the Torah, rather than changing or rejecting it. And yet, they revolutionized the worship of our God. They replaced animal sacrifices with prayer, the offerings of our lips.

Viewing the advent of Reform Judaism, our comic strip teenager Jeremy might argue that Judaism had always undergone changes. The idea of adapting Judaism to meet the exigencies of the day was already almost two millennia old. However, a skeptic like Jeremy’s dad would insist that the Judaism he had known throughout his life, and for many generations before him, was, for all practical purposes, the way things had always been. True tradition was being discarded.

Both would be correct. Our Reform founders did radically alter Judaism. So did the ancient rabbis. Our sages saved Torah and the worship of our God from almost certain extinction. Throughout the ancient world, whenever a great center of sacrificial worship was destroyed, the gods who had been worshiped there were soon forgotten. Only because those early rabbis revolutionized Jewish worship did our people continue to worship God. Only because our sages interpreted God’s word anew did our ancestors study Torah. Only because those first rabbis were willing to face the future did our Jewish people remain alive and united.

Similarly, the first Reform rabbis in Europe observed that Jews would and did leave Judaism in massive numbers if our Jewish faith could not be adapted to meet the modern circumstances of life outside the ghetto. Offered only the traditional Judaism that had been observed for centuries, with its medieval forms and strictly enforced ritual commands, most Jews would have continued to abandon the covenant. Thousands of Jews would soon have chosen Christianity, a faith that did not demand that they eschew the modern world. Instead, with Reform Judaism, our people continued the covenant. With a new spirit, they kept reading Torah. With modern ways, the worship of our God survived. In short, Reform saved Jews for Judaism.

Both the ancient Rabbis and the early Reformers adapted the format of Jewish practice to face the future. At the same time, they preserved the essential core of Jewish tradition: the strength of the Jewish people, the study and observance of Torah, and the sacred service of God.

Two years ago, Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles became the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international organization of the Reform rabbinate. He quickly called on his colleagues to reject the founding philosophy of Reform Judaism, and to adopt new Principles for our movement. He and his supporters accused our Reform forebears of wantonly rejecting Jewish tradition. They ridiculed Classical Reform worship, saying that it is no longer meaningful. He urged us to embrace rituals quite foreign to most Reform Jews, to lay tefillin for worship and to make our homes and stomachs kosher. He de-emphasized the concept that the individual must exercise autonomy in deciding which rituals to practice and which to avoid.

At one and the same time, Rabbi Levy seemed to be asking us to resurrect the traditions of Judaism and to renounce our Reform heritage.

Much truth can be found in Rabbi Levy’s arguments. Reform Judaism has never been fixed or monolithic, but has evolved significantly over the course of more than a century. Many Reform Jews are choosing new rituals, many of them previously associated with Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. Growing numbers within our movement are not moved by Classical Reform worship, by a stately choir with organ accompaniment, but prefer a more participatory, less formal style of congregational prayer.

Sadly, though, Rabbi Levy failed to appreciate that many of us revere our Reform heritage. We are proud that our movement’s founders faced the future, changed with the times, and preserved the core of our Jewish faith. We cherish individual autonomy as a hallmark of Reform Judaism. We urgently believe that Reform Judaism requires that each of us possesses the right and responsibility, after serious Jewish study, to embrace rituals that move our unique spirits, and to eschew those that do not. We can appreciate, respect, and even endorse greater respect for Jewish tradition within our Reform movement. The forms of Reform Jewish practice may indeed change. However, the central values of our beloved Reform movement must be preserved.

Here at Temple Beth-El, we shall continue to protect the traditions of Reform Judaism. We will always worship God reverently, with beautiful words, majestic music and soaring spirits. We shall respect the rights of the individual congregant who wishes to worship with or without a head covering. We are grateful for the variety in our Temple, including Jews who have adopted some form of dietary practice based on the kosher laws, and many more who have not. We will not be swayed by those who insist that we abandon Classical Reform worship, or that we adhere to it strictly and exclusively. We shall always face the future, never afraid to change our style, in our eternal quest to bring Judaism to life for a new generation. At the same time, we shall preserve our Temple traditions, the core heritage of Judaism and the central values of our Reform movement.

Our worship on High Holy Day mornings articulates our position perfectly. We offer two services, and two different modes of worship. Here in the Barshop Auditorium, we emphasize participation; we are a bit less formal; we offer a few more prayers in Hebrew; we include rituals not previously associated with Reform Judaism, including the hakafah Torah procession and raising the scroll high after it is read. And yet, our two morning services are much more alike than they are different. We pray with decorum. Our music is magnificent, complete with instrumental accompaniment. Individuals here and in the Sanctuary pray with or without a head covering. Most importantly, we are the same congregation; we read from the same Torah; we worship the same God. Here at our Alternate Service, and in the Temple Sanctuary, we are both preserving tradition and facing the future.

In just a few weeks time, on October 8, as soon as our fall holidays are complete, we shall introduce a second service every single Friday night, at 6:00 P.M. Our 8:00 P.M. Sanctuary service will maintain its accustomed pattern, so uniquely inspirational to many Temple members. The early Sabbath worship will be more like this service. Volunteer singers will lead participatory music, accompanied on the piano. A Temple Rabbi will conduct each service. We will use a bit more Hebrew; we may even chant a few prayers, as we have here. We will be a bit less ceremonial; no robes for the rabbi. We shall read from the Torah with commentary, but there will be no formal sermon, so that the service may conclude before 7:00 P.M., in time for all to enjoy a more relaxed Shabbat dinner after worship. Both services will constitute Reform Jewish worship, for both will be inspiring to this generation of Temple members and into the future. Most importantly, every worship service at Temple Beth-El will preserve the time-honored core traditions of Judaism, of our congregation, and of our Reform Movement.

If we are successful, our development as a Reform congregation will follow the model we established when we changed our Atzeret-Simchat Torah service a few years ago. We added something new, an element that could only be contemplated within liberal Judaism, as we roll the Torah in the Temple aisles, across the outstretched arms of little boys and girls, with wide eyes watching the entire Torah pass before them. We added something traditional, which had not previously been done in most Reform Temples, dancing with the Torah scrolls in the street. However, we did so with a uniquely Reform flair, for only a liberal synagogue could dance and sing to the sounds of instrumental music, with both men and women holding Torah scrolls. Most importantly, we maintained our Reform heritage, by continuing to uphold Consecration as the centerpiece of our Atzeret-Simchat Torah service. Consecration is an invention of American Reform Judaism, a sacred ceremony to mark the season when young children commence their formal Jewish education and receive their miniature Torah scrolls.

At Temple Beth-El, we also have our own unique tradition at Atzeret-Simchat Torah, a Rite of Three Generations, in which a selected Temple family passes a Torah scroll from grandparents to parents to child, the youngest being a member of our Confirmation class. The symbolism is palpable. The Torah represents the core of our heritage, absolutely unchanged as it has passed from one generation to the next, for over three thousand years. And yet, the hands change. Each new generation embraces the Torah as its own before transmitting it to the future. Each generation faces the present and prepares for tomorrow, nurturing the evolution that keeps Judaism alive. So may we preserve our sacred tradition, into the future, forever.