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Reflections on Reform Judaism - Yesterday and Today

Irving J. Goldberg
Winter 2003


I come to you tonight as a loving son of Congregation Emanu-El. I feel honored and privileged to have been invited by President Carmen to speak to you. It was an experience of genuine joy to participate in Emanu-El’s leadership for many, many, years during which time many crucial decisions were made. I regret, in many ways, that over the past 22 years, since becoming a judge, my participation has been minimal, at least insofar as leadership in purely lay affairs is concerned.  

Let me begin by saying that I promise to you, and to myself more importantly, to be a loyal and devoted member of this congregation for the rest of my years, regardless of what route it takes on the torturous road of reform, conservative and orthodox practices, whether it becomes more ritualistic in emphasis, or embodies differing concepts be they philosophical or historic. You have my pledge, if it is worth anything, to never schismatize or divide this congregation. I love every brick of its construct and the mortar between. This temple is a loving treasure of mine, and I want to be buried here and carried through its portals. Now let me begin.  

I come tonight with no code nor credo for reform Judaism. I come only to share some of my thoughts, ramblings, ruminations and experiences about reform Judaism over the past 80 years. I do not expect much agreement; I simply wish to set forth my views - to give you the benefit of one man’s faith. I am an ordinary lay reformed Jew, not particularly educated in Judaism, not reared under any strict Judaic code. I am neither a theologian nor a scholar of Jewish history. The opinions expressed here tonight are my opinions, individually and wholly subjectively my own. I do not expect - I do not invite - concurrence. All I ask is that you listen with your ears attuned to tolerance.  

We are all joined by the Jewish religion and its powerful bonds, and motivated by the question of what it means to be a reform Jew in America. In my struggle towards an answer to this question I will explore four themes, the role of works, of ritual, of belief, and of ethics and morals, to American Reform Judaism. My opinions and observances began in my early childhood days.  

Towards an American Judaism  

I was born and reared in Port Arthur, Texas, a town of less than 20,000 people, coming from a family of reform Jews, who observed no dietary laws, who had a truncated seder. Port Arthur had very few Jews in its population, so we belonged to the congregation in Beaumont; a reform congregation to which I traveled twenty miles on Saturday and Sunday of every week. I was confirmed at that temple in a confirmation class of about 6.  

I graduated from elementary and high school in Port Arthur. I then went on to the University of Texas, where I was introduced for the very first time to a much larger group of Jewish students. There we had a Menorah Society, of which in my senior year I happened to be President. Every Sunday we held a meeting, at which some speaker would talk about Jewish related subjects. During my four years at the University of Texas, I met and ate lunch with and had intimate conversations with every reform Rabbi residing in the State of Texas between 1922-1926. They were all reform Jewish Rabbis. They had a fervor and a devotion to Judaism as they saw it, with or without trappings beyond cavil. Among the Rabbis were some of the greats in Texas history of reform Judaism: the great Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston; Rabbi Frish of San Antonio; Rabbi Lefkowitz of Dallas; Rabbi Macht of Waco; Rabbi Merfeld of Ft. Worth; Rabbi Peiser of Austin; Rabbi Wessel of Tyler; Rabbi Rosinger of Beaumont; and Rabbi Barnstone of Houston and Rabbi Zielonka of El Paso. There is no one within the sound of my voice who would deny that they were Jews. But they were Jews without tallis, decor or embellishment. They needed no reminders or catalysts. The simplicity of their faith, the morality by which they lived their lives, and the fervor with which they worked to build a life for Jews in Texas offers a model to today’s Reform Jew.  


I have little taste for ritual and am not overly concerned with articles of faith. Judaism is ethically derived, ethically practiced. It is most emphatically not a gastronomic religion. I, in my humble judgment, can be a reform Jew, and should be recognized as such, even while I eat a ham sandwich. It may shock some, but that is the way I feel about it. I respect those who disagree and who can do so and still be Jewish. I do not believe it is necessary for me to enter a house of worship with a tallis around my shoulders. That was instituted in the days when the synagogues were cold, and they needed warmth. It was worn in the days when they lived in the ghettos and pales for several centuries. It has no relationship to the environment of America today.  

Certain parts of today’s reform liturgy and rituals have the value of true sentiment earned by practice through the years in this country. Illustrative of these are, without a catalogue, the Day of Atonement, Rosh Hashanah, Channukah, Purim, Passover, Succoth, the Kaddish, the Shema and the Barechu. These all have relationship to America because they have been in our traditional services ever since temples and synagogues were carried into this country. There is, however, very little advantage to Judaism or to the individual Jew in importing seemingly endless additional commemorative days. It may be that we add a ceremony or two, but these should be American born and bred.  


Similarly I put little stock in articles of faith. Judaism, in my judgment, is not an overly theological religion; I do not remember when I last heard a theologically generated sermon from a pulpit. I don’t think that I have ever heard a Jewish Rabbi discuss the Jewish theology on the immortality of man. We do not look upon God as an anthropomorphic god, with the face and features of man (or woman). We do not look upon God as omnipresent or omnipotent. This is what my beloved friend Rabbi Olan believed and taught me. Jews in Levi’s opinion, were surrogates of God, however God be defined or described, whose assistance was required to carry out the mandates of our religion. I am not a theologian; I am not a Jewish historian; I do not know the answer to any of these questions, but I do know that we are a caring congregation. And I know that we were ethically oriented from the beginning, our religion should be geared to life today. Jewish ethics is predicated on the here and now, and not the hereafter. Our ethical principles should focus upon the sins of today, and not on those of yesterday.  


Reform Jews are measured not by what they believe, or what they wear or eat, but by what they do, by works of Justice. One of the great errors of our society during my lifetime was the depression and oppression and prejudice against black people. I sometimes wrestle with my conscience for hours. Where were you in the 1920’s when these things persisted, and you did nothing about it? And I chastise myself, but I am also proud to say that in later years, Jews were leaders in the movement for liberation of the blacks, to the extent that they have achieved liberation. I am very proud of the fact that regardless of what Jews should have done, and could have done, they did many things for which credit should be given, particularly in the political and sociological fields. The reform Jew in my opinion, reaches the highest flower of Judaism; the highest echelon status occurs when the Jew engages in activities relating to or aiding the oppressed from whatever sources it came.  

We have had four generations or more in this city and in others where our reform synagogue sent our members out under the inspirations of our rabbis, into the cities of our country. They have been the leaders in music, art, theater, charity, education, welfare, government, holding important public offices, and I can think of very few avenues of today’s operations to which the Jews of today are being denied entrance.  

Our Guiding Principles - Toleration and Caring  

To simply work to succeed to make this a better world, however, is not enough. The drive for success must also be driven by ethical principles. These ethical principles are hard to define, but there is one of which I am sure: That it is the work of the Jew to work for freedom and liberty, not only for himself, or for Jews, but for others as well. This one principle is a product of two more, toleration and caring.  

Tolerance in America and Israel  

The first principle is toleration. One case which came before our court illustrated this principle with great clarity, by pointing out what we ask of the world, and therefore demonstrating what we must also ask of ourselves. The Texas Democratic Party Convention was set by statute to fall on the third Tuesday in September. In 1974 Rosh Hashanah fell on the same day as the State Convention. The statute was not designed against Jews. It had been written many, many years before. The date of the convention had never before fallen on Rosh Hashanah. It would not do so for another century. There was nothing to do but to hold the convention on that date: The court said so. I agreed that the Constitution did not make the law unconstitutional, but I wrote a special concurring opinion raising an ethical, rather than a legal objection. I argued that the spirit of our democratic society if not the letter of our Constitution required an adjustment. It required genuine knowledgeable tolerance. It required, in my opinion, for the Democratic Party to adjourn on that day, on a motion made by a Christian that set the next day for the opening session. Well, maybe two days later to satisfy the Orthodox Jews. I wrote, “When members of a respected religion are, even temporarily and unintentionally, excommunicated from an important part of the political process, all citizens sensitive to the rights of minorities and to the precious freedoms vouchsafed in the Constitution should weep.” Jews and non-Jews have written and said, “I wish I had joined your opinion.”  

Genuine Tolerance  

It is this ethic of “genuine tolerance” that has been a fighting faith of American Reform Jewry. Jews have gone out from the synagogues of America, under the inspirations of our great teachings, to do justice, to be compassionate, charitable, and philanthropic, to desegregate and to enfranchise. They have worked for the betterment, not just of Jews, but of our whole citizenry. This is what we should be proud of and what our history should record as one of our accomplishments in the present era; done as missionaries of the Jewish faith and as individuals indigenous to American soil. It was not imported from Poland. It was not imported from the Jews of Spain, great as those societies may have been from the Jewish point of view.  

With this principle of tolerance as a guiding principle of American Judaism, our relationship to Israel is difficult to define. I do not think that it has been successfully expressed by any thinker that I have been exposed to. I will admit that I do not spend all my time reading what I should be reading. We have a relationship to Israel based upon the fact that the Jew was not accepted fully into any society. I submit that while there are still organizations in the United States of America which have not advanced in admitting the Jews into all avenues of its operations, the U.S. more than any other nation that I know of in the modern day has embraced Jewish participation and thereby accepted its basic ethic. I think that every Jew owes to his fellow Jews, because he has been handed down a tradition of justice, to see that the Jews wherever they are, are freely accepted. And I do pray that a time will come when the Jews will be accepted everywhere, and those that will want to live in Israel can do so with no compulsion other than that they like to live in the land of their forefathers. But in America we have asked for toleration for all and have been granted toleration for ourselves. There is a tension between this principle and the argument for a Jewish state in the Holy Land.  

State of Israel  

The State of Israel has a right to exist, and I have worked hard on Israel’s behalf, but I do not think that a case can be made that the Jews own the land that they occupy in Israel. Our case is much more tenuous. The Bible furnishes no abstract of title. In law we have title searchers, and I think that if they were to be presented with the problems of title to Israel, even their great minds would be taxed. For centuries that land has been populated by one people or another people. A straight title finding could not be traced accurately. What law we do have comes from the United Nations. They are the spokesman of the law and rights of people throughout the world. They have determined that the Jews should have the right to live in Israel as a people and as a state. I think that law should be abided by and respected. Those that go there should go there knowing that that is the title, and they have no right to annex other countries any more than any other country could annex their religion. I believe that the interpretations of the laws or statutes of the United Nations should be the law of the world regarding its land.  

Since I view Israel’s right to exist as derived from earthly rather than divine mandate, I am concerned, with the treatment of Israel’s neighbors in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank. The violence in the occupied territories is a modern aberration from what I consider the conscience of Judaism. Since you have asked me to speak my faith, I believe that the treatment of the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip are evident horrors of the war going on there. I regret, mournfully regret, that I have heard very few decibels emanating from even the pulpits of the Jewish synagogue, as criticism of those activities. I have heard no Jeremiads flowing from the vocal chords of any modern Jeremiah. The reason for the silence I am going to leave to others. I do not pretend with my limited knowledge of the problems with the Palestinians that there is an easy solution. I only hope we do everything in our power to bring a peaceful solution. Sacrificial give and take here and there may be required. The ethic of toleration requires us to consider not just the “rights” of Jews, but also the “rights” of Israel’s Arab neighbors.  


In addition to the ethic of toleration, there is the ethic of caring, caring for Jews and others. The concepts and most assuredly the practices of caring have changed over the past 50 years. Charities and philanthropies are quite different than they were at the beginnings of this century. Among other things they have been largely professionalized. In the early days, the synagogue carried on practically all of the caring operations, which today are operated by large organizations. There were no Jewish federations. There were no community centers. In those days the Joint Distribution Committee, the immigration organizations, and many of the women’s organizations were devoted to philanthropy and charity, but the synagogues carried on the major portions of work now performed by these organizations. Today, I think that one of the things that Jewish life can profit by is a slight amount of de-professionalization, so that individuals will more actively participate. I am not pleading in any measure, for the lady bountiful days of old, but I think the personal participation, the personal touch, the neighborhood concept, even in this regard, is something that might be considered in which congregational life would be a part.  


In our experience in Israel, I see and I fear, a precedence of ritual and faith over works of justice based on the ethics of toleration and caring. In the professionalization of Jewish Philanthropy I see a decline in a sense of personal responsibility. In the face of these two trends, I also sense a far more dangerous tendency to run in precisely the wrong direction - toward ritual and faith as a replacement for the lost ethics of toleration and caring.  

This is my thesis. This is my theme. Disagree if you will; I am still going to be with you as a fellow Jew. You are not a reform Jew by virtue of what you eat or wear or what you do not eat or wear. I can still be a reform Jew so long as I adhere to the principles that are the centrality of reform Judaism: its ethical consideration, its ethical practices, its mission into the general community, into the world community to make this a peaceful, happy place in which to live. These things to me are the essence of Judaism, and the rest are trimmings on the tree, unnecessary to the growth of the tree, but planted there from time to time in different centuries by different people and different modes of operation under different circumstances and environment.  

I do not believe in either a tonsorial, or sartorial Judaism. I have no deeply set convictions regarding how you would hyphenate Judaism: Conservative-Judaism, Reform-Judaism or Orthodox-Judaism. I am concerned only that all who claim and want to be Jews be so thought of by our fellow Jews and the general community whether we follow ritualisms of one sect or another. We walk shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand in combating the malefactions of this world together, in the name of a Judaism, which seeks righteousness, justice, compassion and all the fine elements of a good and fair society. You can change the name of the congregation, you can hyphenate it, you can do anything you want so long as you adhere to the ethical practices of Judaism. And I will be your member and your loyal supporter.  

Trappings and Trimmings  

I do not agree that all these other trappings and trimmings are important or necessary to the carrying out of the commands of Judaism, and on that I will not yield. But I am willing, as a majoritarian, to bow to the majority and when I come to this congregation and things are going on in the pulpit unrelated to the ethical concepts of Judaism, it will not disturb me one whit. I will be thinking of my parents and in reverie about what Judaism can do and how I can live a better life as a Jew and participate in the betterment of our world.  

I live in the twilight years and, as I reflect, I think Reform-Judaism has been a great factor in making the enlightenment a happy, happy event for all Jews. I think it was accomplished through Jews going out from our reform congregations, and other congregations, to do the right thing and to see that they were done.  

I am sure that this is my valedictory. I hope that this congregation will always adhere to the ethical concepts of Judaism which are the ethical concepts of all of the decent societies and civilizations of the world. Its forms do not disturb me. But I do not want anyone to leave here thinking that because I do not practice them to the fullest or half way that I am not a good Jew. I know that this congregation will bring up out of its ranks many and many a leader all of whom will be good Jews, carrying forth the banners of Jewish ethics. The folkways and the mores of ancient times and of modern times combined to make this a better world, wearing what they may, eating what they will, but always loyal to the ten commandments.  

Democracy and Fairness  

My benediction in valediction is: Blessed be those who give and blessed be those that work for the righteous cause in order that democracy and fairness shall be with us in all parts of the world. May you live and the congregation exist for many years as one of the great congregations in America.  

I hope that I will be with you for some years to come as you continue your march toward Utopia. Thank you for your kind attention, and if you do not agree with everything that I have said, it is alright. I shall always be a friend to the people who make up the congregation of Emanu-El and I want them to be my friends. I hope I have offended no one, but I wanted to say what was in my heart. I have said it and having said it, I say that I sincerely appreciate this occasion having been made available to me, and wish to express a grateful thank you to each of you and to all of you.  


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