Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.
This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.
I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.
But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:
1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.
2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.
3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.
How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.
I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.
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This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.