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Classical Reform Judaism for the Twenty-First Century

Arnold Mark Belzer
Spring 2007

As a child I remember reading Keeping Posted, which was a monthly child-oriented newsletter, published by the UAHC, given out at Sunday school. Vividly, I remember a particular cartoon. It was set in heaven. Soft clouds wafted in the background. Two angels stood off to one side. They were attired appropriately in white robes and wore the standard issue halos. They were pointing to another heavenly resident, also in a white robe but without a halo. The caption read: “Oh, he must be Reform!” At that time I enjoyed the cartoon. What motivated the cartoon then, I am not sure. Today very few young Reform Jews would get it!  
I was and am proud to be a Reform Jew. I was inspired and moved by the founders of the Reform movement. The writings and basic documents of nineteenth-century Reform shaped my religious sensibilities, inspired my spiritual orientation, and informed my religious inquiry.  
If there is a legitimate critique of the “Classical” period of Reform Judaism from the days immediately preceding and following the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the Central Conference of American Rabbis until the 1960s or so, it is the fact that many Reform Jews defined themselves by what they didn’t do, or didn’t practice, or didn’t believe! Some critics called it “NO JUDAISM”: as in — No! We don’t do that. No! We don’t believe in that. And to be accurate, historically, those negative positions often described the Judaism of the Reform laity. Reform Judaism — with its founding heritage of impeccable scholarship — too often became “uninformed Judaism.” The excuse for not knowing was simple: We are Reform! Notwithstanding the aforementioned critique, Reform Judaism was more often an expression of appropriate piety, religious commitment, and true spirituality.  
Change in the 1970s  
In the 1970s things began to change. The first-year Israel program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) influenced newly minted rabbis. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ (UAHC; now Union for Reform Judaism) camping movement and the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) were laboratories for experimentation, and often, iconoclastic change. Young rabbis and rabbinic students, raised in Classical Reform, were for the very first time — and this is crucial — FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME — exposed to traditional ritual practices and liturgical aesthetics.  
It was NEW (though very old). It was often seen as neat, fun, evocative, perhaps mystical, perhaps “more spiritual.” But surely it was seen by young rabbinic students as AUTHENTIC. The youth culture of the late 1960s and 1970s added a folk dimension to the repertoire of the Reform movement (influenced by NFTY and UAHC camps) and coming at a time when formality in manners, dress, and even speech was on the wane. (It was reinforced by a money crunch, which would make the guitar-wielding young cantor, or soloist, more cost effective than a paid choir and a musical director.) The changes surely attracted many Jews to the Reform movement. New suburbs, new temples, were the fertile soil for change, for experimentation with the “New Reform” or the “Warm Reform,” while older Reform congregations with Classical traditions were hold-outs.  
Older rabbis — holding on to power and influence in their historic, or mega- congregations, resisted change, but their younger assistants and associate rabbis reflecting their generational orientation, exerted sometimes quiet but nevertheless consistent influences. Eventually, those “older” rabbis, educated at HUC-JIR in the pre-youth culture years of the 1940s and 1950s, began to retire. Replaced by their younger associates or by talented young veterans of the kultur kampf of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, “New Reform” or “Warm Reform” had become “Normative Reform.” The leadership of the Reform movement, its president, as well as the president of HUC-JIR are graying veterans of the youth culture movement. Folk music and rock music were the themes of their formative years, traditional Judaism the inspiration of their spiritual lives. With the adoption of “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism” adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Pittsburgh, PA in 1999, the ideological underpinnings of Reform Judaism took a 180-degree turn away from the founding principles of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform.  
Revolution Is Complete  
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the revolution in Reform Judaism was complete. The dawning of a new century, however, awakened the inherent and latent inclinations of universalism, liberalism, aesthetic sensitivity, and prophetic commitment that were the hallmarks of early Reform Judaism. The reality of a new and growing Jewish polity, which included Jews-by-choice, unconverted but sympathetic and committed (to Jewish continuity) spouses, not necessarily comfortable in a spiritual/aesthetic environment (which looked more like Conservative-lite than the more accessible liturgical environment of Classical Reform), and the grossly underserved Classical minority, has led to the emergence of a renaissance of activism on behalf of a new “Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century.” Not at all a simple counterrevolution, but rather a new orientation and option that looks to the Classical past for inspiration but at the same time acknowledges twenty-first-century reality and encourages innovation (as opposed to imitation of Orthodox Judaism). The Sinai Edition of the Union Prayer Book (created and published by Sinai Congregation of Chicago and its rabbis, Howard Berman and Michael Sternfield), is a metaphor for the Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century. Preserving the aesthetics of the Union Prayer Book, but including gender neutral language, standard English (as opposed to Elizabethan English), and transliterations, the Sinai Edition of the UPB reflects the sensibilities and needs of many twenty-firstcentury Reform Jews. New music written by some of the heroes and heroines of “New Reform” insofar as they include English lyrics embedded in Hebrew liturgy (i.e., Debbie Friedman’s “Mishaberach”) could well be in the spirit of Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century. A clarion call for a truly warm and totally inclusive outreach to intermarried couples is a vital component of the new Classical tradition. So too a renewed commitment to the Classical Reform founding principles of prophetically inspired social action and the ultimate achievement of a just society.  
A Religion of “Yes”  
The new Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century must be a religion of “YES,” it must be a religion of possibilities, of outreach — a religion that promotes brotherhood and sisterhood and interfaith cooperation. The new “Classical” must be a Reform Judaism that is an “informed Judaism.” Study and intellectual activity should be considered a prime commandment of the new “Classical,” with attention being paid to the traditional material of the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures), rabbinic texts, the founding documents of Reform Judaism, as well as the writings of contemporary religious thinkers. “I know the answer!” should be the triumphal answer of the twenty-first century “Classical” Reform Jew. Banish forever the excuse “I don’t have to know that!”  
The new Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century must be committed to serving the needs of the thousands of traditional “Classical Reform” Jews who make up a significant and extraordinarily loyal minority in hundreds of American Reform congregations. Often unappreciated, underserved, and even disrespected, Reform congregations must be encouraged to be sensitive to “Classical Reform” Jews and begin to serve their religious and spiritual needs. Alternative “Classical” worship services, with officiation that is respectful, devoid of metaphorical “nose holding,” must become available, as an option, in all but the smallest Reform congregations.  
Spiritually Proactive  
The new Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century must be spiritually aggressive and proactive. It must encourage those whom the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler called the “unsynagogued and the unchurched” to identify with a welcoming, positive, rational Classical Reform Judaism for the this century. The new “Classical” should be an inclusive community that celebrates liberal religious orientation in the Jewish tradition of commitment to the ideal of “one God, one humanity.”  
The new Classical Reform Judaism for the twenty-first century must reiterate resolutely the founding concept of Reform Judaism as stated in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885:  
“We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and in every mode, source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

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