Reform Judaism Reclaiming Once-Rejected Traditions

This post is a pick-up of material I prepared for the URJ’s on-line Eilu discussion in September 2007.  I’ll also post the follow-ups.  You can see the other side of the discussion, as supplied by Ben Dreyfus, by going to the Eilu archives.

 Reform Jews are reclaiming Jewish traditions rejected by prior generations. How do you understand and relate to this perception?

That Reform Judaism is becoming more “traditional” is not only a perception, it’s a manifest reality.  What we need to examine is why it’s happening, what traditions are being reclaimed, and is it good for the Jews.    

Yes, it’s good for the Jews.  Rabbi Alan Bregman z”l used to remind us that Judaism has always changed to meet the needs of the Jews of a given time and place.  My teacher Rabbi Frederick Schwartz (who brought Chicago’s Temple Sholom from its Classic roots into the mainstream) contrasts the mission of nineteenth-century Reform — teaching Jews how to be Americans – with today’s mission, teaching Americans how to be Jews. 

Reclaiming traditions, like all the programs, practices and principles of Reform Judaism, is market-driven.  Our congregations are populated by .Jews (like me) who grew up in other traditions, joined a Reform congregation for convenience, expecting some, though  not all, of the stuff we were accustomed to in our prior religious incarnations. 

This willingness to be seen “doing Jewish” is facilitated by the successful integration and acceptance of Jews into the general society, and by a zeitgeist that not only accepts the non-rational, but actively encourages the mystical, the symbolic, the spiritual.  We are comfortable today with metaphor and poetry and no longer worry that outsiders will take it/us literally.

No, this does not mean, as the ignorant aver, that “we’re becoming Orthodox.”  It means that we’re still reforming our Judaism, in terms of ideology (what we think), worship (what and how we pray), and lifestyle (what we do outside the synagogue).    

Few members of Reform congregations give a moment’s thought to the ideological position of their rabbis or of the movement, much less their own; but the changes in ideology underlie those in worship and practice.  The coming of the Messianic Age is not an expectation, particularism and Zionism are taken for granted, but our historic universalism and commitment to social action remain central.    

The most visible reclamation of tradition is in the synagogue.  More bnai mitzvah, more Hebrew, more two day Rosh Hashanahs, more marching with the Torah scroll, more body language punctuating our praying – bowing, bending the knee, rising on our tiptoes for Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. 

 I save the most obvious (and most personal) for last – the kipa and tallit.  Some twenty years ago, at the Atlanta Biennial, so many men and women, scores if not hundreds, were wearing tallitot at Shabbat services, including His and Hers matched sets, that my wife asked, “Is this a religious statement or a fashion statement?”  When I first affiliated Reform, not wearing a kipa and tallit was a big adjustment – but not nearly as momentous as deciding earlier this year to put them back on.  My impetus came during Shabbat services in Jerusalem at the World Union for Progressive Judaism assembly, where I felt not so much underdressed as out of step, and decided that I needed a tallit not to connect to God, but to connect to world Jewry.    

How we lead our daily lives is probably where the return to tradition has had the least impact.  I doubt that kashrut observance, whether in our homes or when we eat out, has changed appreciably, except among our clergy – although more temples probably observe some degree of kashrut.  As a community, we are probably no more Sabbath observant than in the past, nor no less.  Leaving aside intermarried families, we probably have fewer Christmas trees and “Chanukah bushes” than was once the case in Reform circles.  But essentially, the reclaiming of tradition is something that happens at the temple, not in the daily lives of members. 

We were once at a dinner party where the other six couples all belonged to Conservative congregations, and someone made a disparaging remark about our Reform “minimalism.”   I retorted that we might be the only Reform Jews in the group, but we were also the only ones who went to shul every shabbos.  We understand our Reform privilege to reclaim that to which we relate, and to relate to a community that is similarly tradition-minded.  Ken yirbu – may this only increase.


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