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Classical Reform Judaism ― A Personal View

Rabbi Wolfgang Hamburger
Winter 2002

About sixty years ago, the American Council for Judaism was founded by persons who wanted to affirm a cherished principle in order to repudiate a rising idea. The cherished principle was the certainty that Judaism was a religion and that its followers, whether strictly orthodox or extremely liberal, constituted a community of believers who, their different thoughts, customs, and way of life notwithstanding, extended acts of helpfulness and kindness to each other. The rising idea, troubling the sensibility of a number of Jewish persons, was not new but became infused with a spirit of importance and urgency. It was the Zionist idea according to which Jews constituted not merely a religious group like Methodists or Lutherans but rather a people with a national past and a national hope focused on Palestine, the ancient land of the Bible. But Zion­ism, prior to the Second World War, did not arouse much interest among Jews in this country to which they themselves or their parents or grandparents had come as the modern promised land of freedom and opportunity. They had no intention to heed the call of Zionism and move on to the land of its aspiration, although they were willing to give financial support to the small and struggling community of fellow-Jews in that distant country.  

American Zionism  

That was basically the nature of American Zionism until the Second World War when German troops were able to march from Libya along the North African coast toward the delta of the Nile. The Suez Canal, life line of the British Empire, was threatened. In case of a German success, it was feared that Palestine, then a British protectorate with more than half a million Jewish inhabitants, might attract the attention of the German High Command. The fate of the Jews would have been sealed like that of those who had been citizens of European countries overrun by the Germans.  

In view of that possibility with its grave consequences for another Jewish community, the Zionist movement in this country effect­ed a drastic change from its old philanthropic purpose to a new political aim, namely to assist the Palestinian Jews with their defense should the fear of a German advance into Palestine become a fact. The obligation was determined by a new Zionist leadership of that time, and a goodly number of worried Jews accepted that obliga­tion with the consequence that political activism replaced voluntary charitableness. In retrospect, this course of events was unfortunate in that it furthered the secularization and politicalization of Ju­daism and weakened its religious reason for existence.  

Fundamental Change  

This situation of fundamental change in the orientation of the Jewish community inspired the founding of the American Council for Judaism. Its initiators were committed and prominent Jews who want­ed to preserve the religious pillars of the Jewish community which was their spiritual home. They moved from thought to deed by pub­lishing, through the Council, material for religious schools in line with their idea of Judaism as a purely religious entity. They even established a few congregations where a need for them existed.  

The activities of the Council, however, declined in numbers and scope as the opposition to its principle of Judaism as a religion and nothing else grew and hardened. The conclusion of the Second World War revealed the unfathomable tragedy which the Germans had inflicted upon the Jews across Europe. The survivors, a small fraction of the pre-war Jewish population, needed new homes where they could begin a new life without being reminded of their inde­scribable experiences during the war. It was at this point that Palestine, though still a British Protectorate, became attractive to Jewish survivors in Europe. This fact changed the atmosphere and orientation of the communities in this country in that Jewish philanthropy was turned into a financial obligation to assist those who wanted to begin a new life beyond Europe’s shores or settle in Palestine.  

State of Israel  

When the State of Israel came into being in 1948, many Jews were exhilarated because they thought that their Judaism had finally received a palpable expression with which they could identify. The new state was in urgent need of political and financial support so that the Zionist movement, by virtue of the new tasks, enjoyed a considerable extension of support and influence. The enthusiasm was so strong that doubters and dissenters grew careful stating their opinion, even though their divergence in opinion was caused by their concept of Judaism as a religion which should not be linked to the ideological or political endeavors of the Zionist movement. According­ly, the Council, always exposed to spurious vilifications, avoided useless confrontations and limited its activities to the shrinking circle of its membership. The State of Israel and its interests determined the pulsation of Jewish life.  

Rises and Falls  

Enthusiasm, however, rises and falls; it has its seasons and progressively weakens until it is spent and rises no more. That is what happened to the Zionist idea; its place on the screen of Jewish consciousness can be detected only by those who look for it. For a number of reasons, one of which is, of course, the fact that the turmoil of the Holocaust and the excitement of the founding of the State of Israel occurred almost two generations ago, Jewish life has become again less distracted by matters unrelated to the problems and tasks of religious living in the spirit of Judaism. The significance of this reversal can be seen in the shift of emphasis from the com­munity to the individual who, by his or her presence, contributes to the dignity and strength of the community, however without grant­ing the fellowship the privilege or making public pronouncements in the membership’s name. It is remarkable that the course of events with its impact upon the thinking and feeling of Jewish persons should have returned to the condition which prevailed before the calamity of the Holocaust effected the rise of Jewish nationalism and the preoccupation with the problems of the State of Israel. Judaism as a religion has again the attention of those who are conscientious Jews. The wheel has turned and brought the adherents of Judaism back to the spiritual sources which nurtured the founding of the American Council for Judaism. What its founders asserted that long ago is now even more emphatically valid and deserves new consideration for the sake of helping awareness and orientation in the quest for religious meaning and purpose.  

Concise Descriptions  

A concise description of Judaism would state that its characteristic is the concern with conduct rather than with principles of belief. Of course, the prerequisite is the acceptance of God’s existence which, since it cannot be stated as if it were a mathe­matical theorem, must rely on impressions which thoughtfulness pon­ders and which the desire for a meaningful view of life incorporates into a comprehensive conception of existence. Logic does not func­tion in this instance because God cannot be verified by pure reason­ing. That is evidently the mystery of God; we need Him yet we cannot prove that He exists. By insight and a leap of faith, He can be affirmed. And so it should be, for Judaism needs belief in God no less than humans require air in order to live. Judaism without God is as conceivable as the search for an angle in a circle makes sense. Judaism is meaningful and life-hallowing only when it is inspired by belief in God.  

Humans and God  

A concise summary of Judaism’s view with respect to the relationship of humans and God is given in a liturgical phrase, consisting of three Hebrew words. The phrase encapsulates the principle of the Bible, namely that humans were made familiar with God’s will re­garding their conduct and that they must live accordingly. The pas­sage is found at the beginning of the Kiddush, the prayer over a cup of wine with which, on their eve, the Sabbath and the festivals are ushered in. The three Hebrew words, referring to God, may be translated like this: “Who has consecrated us by means of His commandments.” This is Jewish thought concisely and precisely stated. Humans, though apt to fail, are responsible for conduct and deed; they are capable of doing what is right and wholesome and therefore must strive to realize their potential. The commandments function as guides to that realization.  

Moral Obligations  

It can be stated without qualification that Reform Jews take the commandments as moral obligations. Morality outlines what is good and beneficial for the individual and others. It indicates the boundary which separates the interests and claims of one person from those of others. While it safeguards the respective interests and claims from encroachment by others, morality prescribes what the individual owes others and what others owe the individual. It establishes mutuality by designating the spheres of privileges and rights for the one person and others. It represents the unwritten law, the law of sensitivity and tactfulness, which is intended to control egotism on the part of the individual and exploitation on the part of others. Morality regulates the entitlements of indi­viduals and groups in relationship to each other. It purposes the social well-being of society as a whole and the protection of the private realm of the individual. Morality is the spiritual-intellectual concept of the responsibilities and privileges which have their beneficial functions in the manifoldness of human relations, while the moral law provides the application of that concept.  

Classical Reform  

With this outline of morality, the view of what has become known as Classical Reform Judaism is indicated. Merely for the sake of completeness, the ritual customs should be mentioned. Although fellow-Jews take them as the binding power of the community, their observance is not always marked by consistent attentiveness and enduring piety. Those religious observances which have their proper place in the home, like the Seder or Hanukkah, have too often become occasions for social gatherings; a ritual obligation is turned into a pleasant get-together and thus what is intended is desecrated or polluted. The question arises whether under such circumstances Judaism as a living faith and a lived religion can have a vibrating future. The compelling inward force is lacking and therefore the future not assured.  

Judaism as a living faith cannot be contained in rituals and ceremonies or described by observances which are proper and expect­ed on specific occasions. While a living faith cannot pulsate with­out some regularity of religious observance, be it prayer or cere­mony, observance alone is not sufficient for Judaism’s authentic purpose which is the sanctification of life. Religious observances have their special hours and days, the moral law, however, has no set times for its effectiveness ― it commands our attention all our waking hours.  

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