16 December 2009

Though He Tarries, I Won't Wait

For the last year or so, a small group of people across a few generations have been studying Maimonides "Book of Love," the medieval rabbi/philosopher's work on the laws of prayer and Jewish ritual. We meet on Saturday mornings, before services, for about an hour each week and in the course of that time we manage to work our way through at least one and at most three paragraphs of text. There are people in the class who grew up Reform; there are people in the class who grew up Conservative; there are people in the class who grew up Orthodox; and there are people in the class who grew up as members of another faith altogether. Most of the 12-15 regular participants are members of CBE, which for nearly 150 years, has identified as a Reform synagogue. I lead the class and I was trained at HUC, the Reform movement's rabbinical school. We use the "tools" of Reform in applying them to the class: men and women participate equally; homophobes are frowned upon; and we try, to the best of our ability and literacy, to think historically and critically. As far as I'm concerned, no one can mess with our Reform bona fides.

Having said that, Reform is not really on the agenda. Maimonides is. And so is prayer. And ritual. And this makes for a much richer discussion, far less limited than one particular movement lens about what a sage of Judaism has to teach about the reality of the human encounter with the Divine, how it is assimilated into one's attempts to come near to God and how it is that one can develop one's own practice of remaining close. We do grapple with Reform, in particular the early Reformers propensity to remove from ritual those practices which they deemed "primitive" or "anti-rational." Sometimes that has been one of the more enjoyable aspects of the learning--applying the critical-historical lens of Reform to Reform--and seeing where it all comes out.

This is not new. It's been going on in the Reform movement for nearly 90 years. No sooner did the first Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 get written before responses were already being formulated to react to, if not undo, some of its supposed advances. By 1937, in Columbus, Ohio, another platform was written--most famously to restore the timeless relationship of the Jewish people to our historic homeland in the Land of Israel. Zionism and anti-Semitism alone had demanded this addition to an increasingly dire situation in Europe; and, as Eugene Borowitz and Michael Meyer pointed out in rabbinic school, Columbus represented the beginning of a shift from a German-based Reform movement to one with increasing numbers of its leaders coming from Eastern Europe, where a more "traditional" hold on Judaism was practiced.

Put another way, fifty years after Pittsburgh in 1885 the movement shifted, based on historical corrections and contemporary demands; and such a shift took place again 40 years later in San Francisco and then again in Pittsburgh in 1999. Each step along the way has led, over the course of the century, to a more nuanced, tradition-centered focus, and a de-emphasis on the principle of "removing" those traditions leaders have found "not in keeping with Reform" and an emphasis on embracing practice and ritual with an historical and critical perspective. In the Reform movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s, this was rather un-romantically referred to as "making an educated choice," which unfortunately quickly shifted to "choosing" or "doing whatever you want" until it devolved in the last 15 years to its worst manifestation, when you occasionally hear someone say, "oh, I don't do anything--I'm Reform."

At the core of the issue for me is that I chose a school for rabbinic training that would see Judaism as an inherently evolving tradition; that would treat women and men equally; that would ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis; and that would always apply the critical-historical lens to our studies. Ergo: Reform.

But in my day-to-day work; in my ongoing encounter with Jews from all walks of life; and in my own practice (kashrut in the home, tefilin in morning prayer, for example)--I simply do my best as a Jew to represent the tradition to those who are seeking its wisdom. I don't ask myself, "What does Reform have to say about this or that?" I don't find that question to be particularly useful on most occasions, except for those that I've already delineated.

I occasionally hear from the edges of the synagogue I serve, "Oh, he's not really a Reform rabbi." Or, "Oh, he's trying to make Beth Elohim a Conservative synagogue." Nope. Nothing of the sort. I'm actually quite happy as a Reform rabbi serving a Reform synagogue.

These are often reactions without dialogue, where labels drive the conversation more than the substance of encounter, which is the point of the Maimonides class on Saturday mornings. With all due respect to the greatest minds of Reform theology in the 19th century, the Rambam has a leg up by several centuries of wisdom and practice and that, simply put, is a far richer set of texts with which to contend.

As a kid, I found myself occasionally at a Reform and a Conservative shul with my grandparents and for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. In Madison, I gravitated toward more traditional expressions because that's where the action was at Hillel. At Hebrew University, the Israeli encounter with Judaism obviously didn't follow the American model of denominational breakdown at all. So by the time I got to HUC, I was already a kind of hybrid, liberal, non-orthodox Jew. And I'm a dime a dozen. And in our digitized, hyper-unique-ified world of be what you want to be as long as you or anyone else can pay attention, it's only getting more atomized. Which, again, as far as I'm concerned, is all the more reason to rely on the Sages and not the 19th century ideological movements for guidance.

The JTA recently ran a story about a "Classical Reform Revival," which, when you read it, doesn't really come off as a revival as much as a reaction to a fait accompli--Reform Judaism, however defined, is not sitting still. And if there's anything we learn from critical-historical thinking, that's the nature of Evolution. It keeps on evolving and doesn't wait. Ideologically speaking, that's good.

Not unlike Zionism and other utopian visions of the late 19th century, Classical Reform delivered for its time and then necessarily gave way to other forces that picked up the torch and carried the light in new directions. With the exception of Chabad Messianism and the Settler Movement in Israel, the Jewish people today are decidedly non-ideological. We've stopped waiting for THE solution and are merely focused on what our enduring Tradition has to teach us about living better lives and making our world a better, and more peaceful place. Non-ideologically speaking, that's good.

6 comments:

M. said...

"… my own practice (kashrut in the home, tefilin in morning prayer, for example)…"

"I occasionally hear …, 'Oh, he's not really a Reform rabbi.' Or, 'Oh, he's trying to make Beth Elohim a Conservative synagogue.'"


This reflects one of my greatest frustrations with contemporary consumer culture as applied to institutions of religion:

Those are exactly the comments one would hear from people who expect the leading figures of their institution to serve them up a finished model of personal practice, to show them what to do, rather than to be modeling for them a thoughtful process for seeking one's own appropriate personal practice.

Andy Bachman said...

You're right, M. Consumer culture is its own god we struggle with. May we prevail!

Larry Kaufman said...

I disagree with M's assessment that the person who challenges the Reformness of a congregation or its rabbi is seeking a finished model of what to do. He or she is reacting to a model that has changed while the criticizer has stood still in an environment that s/he didn't understand in the first place.

This is not Classical Reform speaking -- it is ignorant Reformed. And you might as well ignore it, because they're not going to change.

Andy Bachman said...

Larry--thanks for writing. I kind of admit I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about so if you'd clarify, I'd appreciate it.

Israel Drazin said...

I think that this is great. You may be interested in my three books on Maimonides where I explain how the great sage addressed various questions. The books are sold on Amazon. I would be happy to answer or discuss any questions.
Israel Drazin
iddrazin@comcast.net

BZ said...

In the Reform movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s, this was rather un-romantically referred to as "making an educated choice," which unfortunately quickly shifted to "choosing" or "doing whatever you want" until it devolved in the last 15 years to its worst manifestation, when you occasionally hear someone say, "oh, I don't do anything--I'm Reform."

I feel like "I don't do anything--I'm Reform" is older than "educated choice", not an extension/evolution/devolution of it.