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In Defense of Classical Reform Judaism

Nadia Siritsky
Winter 2006

When I was growing up at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, one of my favorite songs was “All the World shall come to Serve Thee”. This statement should give you an indication of my classical Reform background. Now I am not sure exactly why I loved this song so much, certainly it is lovely, but it is, I am sure you will agree, an unusual song for a young child to like. (This was, of course, one of the earlier signs of the path I was eventually to pursue.)  

But it struck me as very majestic. I liked the idea of the whole world praising God together. Not just people, but the islands proclaim God’s glory and the hills shout with song. This song proclaimed the hope and prayer that God was triumphant, and that no matter what happened, righteousness would prevail. And when the whole congregation of 3000 people would join together and sing this song (which was easy to do since it was in English), it really felt as if the whole world was joining together to serve God.  

All One Under God  

I think that this was one of the things that I loved most about my synagogue. I always learned that we were all one under God. I remember I had a friend with whom I once got into an argument, and she told me: “Just because the Jews are chosen doesn’t mean you are so special, you know!” Well, I didn’t know that. The Jews are chosen? I never heard of that. I went back to my religious school teacher and asked him what that meant and he explained how God had chosen everyone, and we each had to choose how we wanted to follow Him (because at this time, most people still referred to God as a He). Well, this concept made chosenness sound better to me, but when I tried to explain it to my friend, she still thought it meant that Jews felt they were superior to non-Jews. Simply reinterpreting the concept of chosenness still kept the dichotomy between “us” and “them”.  

I believe that the theology around chosenness is a response to alienation. It is not easy to be a Jewish minority living in a non-Jewish world. When faced with difference, there are four possible responses. One can reject or disparage the other culture, one can celebrate the differences, one can look for the similarities and learn from one another or one can reject one’s own culture and assimilate. How we respond to difference is central to the development of one’s identity. For myself, I have found myself, at different stages of my life, responding in each of these ways.  

Growing up in a school where I was one of the few Jewish students, I could have grown up feeling alienated ... different. But all of my classmates were from different places: Lebanon, Syria, France, Vietnam, England ... For the most part, we all shared different cultures and learned from one another. When I started studying Jewish Studies at Mc Gill University, I was one of the only Reform Jews in my class. I felt intimidated by my Orthodox classmates’ knowledge, and by their derision of liberal Jews. I decided that if I wanted to be a Reform Jew, I had to know what I was reforming. I moved to Israel and studied in Orthodox Yeshivas (or institutions of learning), and became part of a traditionally observant community. At this point in my journey, my response to difference was to assimilate — away from Reform Judaism and towards Orthodox Judaism.  

On the Outside  

When I returned to my parents’ home and later when I joined Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical seminary, I found myself once again on the outside. It was very difficult for me to keep my traditionally observant identity. I was a militant vegetarian, who kept Shabbat very strictly. It is true that the Reform movement was moving towards tradition, but not nearly as quickly as I was moving. I found myself looking down on those people who did not make the same choices that I had made.  

Until one day I began to realize that my theology was not in line with my practice. I believed that God was everywhere: in everything and every person. Each of us are created in the image of God. And yet, I found myself internally going (tsk, tsk, tsk) every time one of my classmates ate a cheeseburger. Was this really what God wanted? For me to feel so holy that I couldn’t eat with anyone, nor spend Shabbat with anyone. My understanding of what God wanted had alienated me from everyone in my community. And yet, it said in the Talmud: Al tifrosh mm hatzibur! Do not separate yourself from the community. I had chosen this Reform community because of my ideology. I had to live my ideology. I began to eat non-kosher food and to join my community in its observance of Shabbat and holidays.  

I thought about the purpose of kashrut, this traditional Jewish diet that requires that Jews eat special food, prepared in a special way on special plates ... Wasn’t this at least partially a way to ensure that this chosen people not break bread with other people, and thus become exposed to their belief system or even more threatening in their eyes ... create relationships with them? And yet, if I truly believed that God was present everywhere and that we were enriched by our contacts and relationships with others, then I wanted my diet to reflect my theology.  

How God Chose Us  

Now this does not mean that every person who is traditionally observant goes through a similar internal struggle, where in order to uphold their strict observance they needed to reject those around them, but it was my experience. Furthermore, our liturgy reflects this dynamic. Many of our prayers talk about how God chose us. The prayers before we read the Torah or before the blessing over the wine talk about chosenness. Many prayers, like in the mourners’ Kaddish and Oseh Shalom ask God to bless Israel with peace, with no mention of other nations or they refer to Israel as God’s chosen people. Often the more we return to Hebrew prayers, the more we use language which emphasizes this theology. I don’t believe that the majority of us agree that we are an elect people, special, chosen by God and set apart from other people. Yet the Reform movement’s hierarchy has established these prayers as normative, and through this, is communicating this message of chosenness ... this message that alienates not only non-Jews, but many Jews as well!  

The most explicit prayer in our liturgy is the Aleynu. It thanks God for not having made us like the other nations of the lands or made us like the families of the earth, for not having given us a portion or a lot like the multitudes. The original version of the prayer goes on to claim that they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a God who does not help, whereas WE bow to the King who reigns over all Kings. It expresses the hope that soon everyone will come to praise the one God who created heaven and earth. This prayer, traditionally attributed to Joshua, after he led Israel across the Jordan, became incorporated into the Rosh Hashanah service during the Talmudic era, and only became part of our daily prayer service in the Middle Ages. If you think about this time period, it is a time of persecution and oppression for Jews, and it functioned as a type of inverse racism. It was a response to alienation. A psychological defense that may have been necessary for that time period, but I question its continued relevance for our day. This prayer is THE prayer of chosenness, and a modified version is becoming normative in Reform synagogues around the country. If you turn to p. 80 in your prayer books, you can see the creative translation of the traditional prayer that has been included in the new prayer book.  

Return to Tradition  

The Reform movement is returning, for the most part to tradition, reversing the journey that I made when I entered Rabbinical school. Now certainly, I can appreciate the need to return to tradition for those who choose to do so, but I believe that this move towards tradition alienates the majority of us. We began this journey with a goal: to be more open to traditional practices and their wisdom. This was a move towards pluralism as opposed to what had become the rigidity and (dare I say — Orthodoxy?!) of Classical Reform Judaism. It was once heretical to wear a kippah or a talit ... How far we have come! On the day of my ordination, the dean and the president of HUC both approached me and rebuked me for refusing to wear a kippah and taut. Yet it was a conscious choice on my part: I believe that the rabbi should not be set apart from the rest of the community as “the religious one”, and wearing such markings can create such a distinction. For my ordination, I was the only person in my class who did not don traditional prayer garb. Whereas Classical Reform Judaism had been Orthodox, now Orthodoxy is becoming normative. The foundation of Reform Judaism advocates educated choices and pluralism, and yet, in many synagogues, there are people who observe tradition simply because it is expected, without even understanding why.  

This move is intended, I suspect, as a response to assimilation. No intermarriage, no pork, lots of Hebrew ... It is as if our movement, together with the other movements and institutions in the community, are waging a war ... a war against the way of life of generations of Reform Jews who have integrated into our society.  

Alive and Well  

Well, I refuse to believe that this war needs to be waged. I will continue to assert that Judaism is alive and well, and if war needs to be waged it is against those who strive to undermine the choices of thousands of Jews who are finding new and creative ways to live their Jewish identity in a world filled with diversity. This, I believe, is the essence of Reform Judaism ...  

And what I appreciate in this new prayer book is the attempt to accommodate this diversity. In addition to the original version of the Aleynu, we can find two alternative versions of the prayer on pp. 82-83. I am proud and relieved to be part of this community, our Temple, that has not embraced this particular move towards the tradition. You will notice that we never do the original version of the Aleynu here, and luckily the new prayer book can accommodate the few congregations left that follow our lead. And yet, there are versions of this prayer that seem to me to be missing. If the goal of this prayer book is to include us ALL, then there should be the words for us to be able to sing: let us adore the ever living God, or All the World Shall come to Serve Thee, which are both adaptations of this same prayer, that we could all sing together as one community, united in our diversity.  

I pray that our movement be big enough to include all of us, and strong enough to feel compassion towards those who feel left out. May we come to see that there are many paths to God, and that there are an infinite amount of ways for all the world to come and serve Thee.  

Closing Benedictions  

Among the many people that we remember today, we remember (Rabbi Leonard Devine) a spiritual leader of our congregation, who I understand was known for his care and sensitivity to all and his appreciation of diversity, from the culture of Jews around the world to the many voices in our own community. May his memory and his legacy continue to be a blessing for us all.  

Eternal source of all life, be with us and bless us. Help us to hear your voice in every voice that we encounter and to learn from everyone that we meet. May we never be so afraid that we fully shut ourselves off from You, neither by judging people who are different from us, nor by judging ourselves by other people’s standards. Give us the courage to assert our faith and to grow in our identity — not by putting others down, but by building them up, by holding each other up and thereby building a truly supportive community. Help us to value each of our voices as a different yet an essential part of the chorus that is your creation. Guide us as we seek to translate our prayers into our words and actions. Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha b’emet ... Open our hearts and renew our spirits that we may all truly come together to serve Thee in truth.

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