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The Faith of Classical Reform Judaism

Howard A. Berman
Summer 2001

This sermon was originally delivered at Chicago Sinai Congregation on November 14, 1982.  
This discussion of the theme "The Faith of Classical Reform Judaism," is a response to the many inquiries and requests from members of our congregation, for a comprehensive statement of the principles of liberal Judaism as taught and practiced in our Temple.  
Since my arrival here, I have sensed a deep interest and a very special commitment on the part of our people, in their desire to better understand Sinai's distinctive religious tradition, to learn the historical background of our liberal faith, to understand its place in the broad spectrum of Reform Judaism today, and to explore the directions and goals that we envision for the future.  
I welcome this opportunity to express my views on this issue. The overwhelming influence in my own religious life has been my own deep and cherished commitment to what has become known as Classical Reform — the historic liberal interpretation of our Jewish faith and tradition, grounded in the universalistic social and ethical ideals of the ancient Prophets of Israel — and imbued with the spirit of freedom and democracy that nurtured the Reform Movement here in America, enabling it to flourish as an authentic and meaningful expression of Judaism's eternal ideals for our time.  
Preeminent Synagogue  
Chicago Sinai Congregation has always been the preeminent Classical Reform synagogue in America.. Under the leadership of its pioneer Rabbis — most notably Emil G. Hirsch — this congregation gained a national — even international — reputation as the center of a vigorous and forthright Jewish religious liberalism — an uncompromising intellectual honesty in religion, and taught that the ultimate destiny of the Jewish People was to be "a light to the nations" laboring for the fulfillment of our Messianic ideals of justice, brotherhood and peace for all humanity.  
The courageous and creative dynamism that inspired the leaders of Sinai to make our ancient faith a vital living force in the life of the modern Jews, has remained the guiding principle of this Temple since the day of its founding in 1861. This was the creative spirit that saw clearly that in the American society of its time, a generation of our people was arising which was becoming estranged from Jewish worship — whose lifestyle and obligations precluded attendance at the synagogue on the traditional Sabbath — and hence pioneered a revolutionary response to these new circumstances by offering an alternative opportunity for authentic Jewish prayer and study on Sunday ...  
Prophetic Spirit  
This was the courageous Prophetic spirit, inspired by the great teachers of our Bible, that made this congregation the battleground for social justice in Chicago. From this pulpit thundered the call for the rights of the working man, for the equal rights and independence of women, for opportunity and support for the poor, and for a world of peace and freedom. The Sinai ideal of religious and social liberalism, the two inseparable dimensions of Classical Reform, was powerfully expressed by Dr. Hirsch in his Inaugural Sermon before this congregation in 1880. He declared:  
"If Judaism protests, with all the fervor that strength and truth of conviction can command, against the dogma of materialism, it does not less raise its voice against the materialism of dogmas."  
It was the materialism of dogma that Classical Reform fought in its religious quest — the emancipation of Judaism from the dogmas and forms, the superstitions and irrelevant customs, that belied the essential spirit of progress and evolution that had always been a dynamic force in our faith.  
And it was the dogma of materialism that the pioneers of our Movement fought in their social ideals — again, in Dr. Hirsch's immortal words:  
"The Jew assumes for himself the historic post of a soldier of righteousness and justice. Responsibility for our fellowmen, and service to humanity, are the sacraments of the Jewish philosophy of life."  
Tradition of Sinai  
This, then, is the tradition of Sinai, and until our generation, the common legacy and ideal of all Reform Jews. There was a time, in the Golden Age of the Reform Movement's rise and growth, when all liberal Jews shared these principles. Regardless of differing approaches in matters of liturgy, all Reform Jews agreed upon the liberal intellectual concepts and universal social ideals of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. The inner dynamic force of growth and development was at work later when, in the Columbus Platform of 1937, the Reform Movement recognized new dimensions and options in the role of tradition in religious life, but still remained firmly grounded in its historic liberal foundations.  
There had always been diversity in Reform, for liberalism in religion implies, by definition, differing opinions and interpretations. There had been, even in Reform's pioneering days, both the moderate Reformers, who felt compelled to retain the structure and framework of tradition; and the so-called "radicals," those who sought a deeper and broader revision of Jewish faith and practice. But in our time, a combination of forces, more sociological than theological, have transformed the character of organized Reform Judaism. Some of the shifts in this direction were responses to the upheavals of Jewish history in our time — the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. For many Reform Jews, the Holocaust dashed the optimistic hopes and idealistic affirmations of human progress that Reform has always championed; and Israel provided a new focus for Jewish identity and commitment: a national and cultural one, rather than a spiritual one. And there have been other forces at work — a general mood of searching for ethnic roots, that have been the responses of many Americans of various groups to the disillusionments and challenges of our time.  
Move to the Right  
The general move to the right, in religion as well as politics, has been as evident in Jewish life as in the Christian churches. It is reflected in the dramatic growth of Jewish Orthodoxy, no less than in the rise of Christian Fundamentalism. It is evident in the desire for "old time religion" by our Protestant neighbors, in the theological conservatism of the Roman Catholic Church, and in the nostalgic yearning for Eastern European tradition in Jewish circles. And even in the ranks of Reform Judaism, the rigorous intellectual approach to faith, the deep spirituality, and the broad social and ethical perspectives that have always been the hallmarks of our religious liberalism, have given way to a growing traditionalism, an often secular ethnicity, and a self-centered and isolating parochialism. Indeed, as it has been said, Reform Judaism today seems to be more an expression of ETHNICITY than ETHICS, of IDENTITY rather than IDEALS, of JEWISHNESS rather than JUDAISM.  
It is all the more imperative then, that we understand clearly, and proclaim forthrightly, what we believe, and where we stand. We do so in the realization that we represent but one position among many in Reform Judaism today. As religious liberals, we affirm the validity of diversity and free choice. We do not claim to be the only correct position — we only demand that our Movement officially recognize that there are many who remain committed to the historic spirit of Reform, and that the Classical liberal interpretation remains a vital and positive option for many of our People today.  
Honesty and Truth  
And honesty and truth also compel us to state that in the end, as we formulate what, in our time, needs to be specified with the label "Classical Reform," is for us, an expression of what we generally hold Reform Judaism to be at is most authentic ... what Judaism itself has always been, and is, in its most genuine and noblest expression.  
I would venture to say that the essence of Classical Reform Judaism, our guiding principles, may be stated in terms of three distinguishing concepts. These principles proceed out of the fundamental premises which all Reform Jews, at every point on the spectrum, are committed to:  
1) The responsibility and freedom of each generation of Jews to change and adapt our religious tradition to new conditions and circumstances.  
2) The freedom of each congregation and each individual Jew to make a personal choice as to what in our tradition is relevant and meaningful for our religious lives; a choice that must be made within the context of sensitivity to, and knowledge of the tradition, not out of ignorance or for mere convenience.  
Fundamental Ideals  
With these two fundamental ideals of Reform as our starting point, we can then proceed to establish the three distinctive principles of Classical Reform:  
1) That Judaism is first and foremost a religious community, a People of faith, a spiritual commitment; not merely an ethnic or cultural identity, and most certainly not a nationality.  
2) That our acculturation to the society in which we live is the very key to the survival of our People throughout history, and that the secondary cultural dimensions of our faith must reflect our time and place, not those of the past.  
3) That we remain committed to the broad universalism of the Prophetic tradition of our Faith, reaffirming the historic Reform concept of the Mission of Israel: the Divinely ordained destiny of our People to be the champions of justice, brotherhood and peace for all humanity.  
Guiding Principles  
And now, having concisely stated these three guiding principles, let us explore the implications of each of them.  
We hold that Judaism is first and foremost a religious commitment. Now in our time, there are many Jews, even many Reform Jews, who would define Judaism in very different ways; as an ethnic identity; as a culture. Most Israelis tend to see Judaism as a nationality. Classical Reform, however, has always taught that the Jewish People "is a community of faith." We are indeed a People, a distinctive community, with unique ties of history and ideals that bind us to all Jews, everywhere. Our religious commitment transcends the usual categories and definitions of creed or denomination. We are Jews, by historical and cultural ties, in ways rather different and broader in scope than, for example, a Christian might be a member of some particular church. But with all of its many dimensions and ties, our identity is, primarily, a spiritual one.  
The central focus of Classical Reform is not, as it is for some others, the unity of the Jewish People, as crucial and vital as that is to us. Nor is it the Land or the State of Israel, as it is for so many Jews; although we revere Zion as the cradle of our Faith, and we love and support our brothers and sisters of the State of Israel today. Ultimately, the central focus of Classical Reform is not the People of Israel, nor the Land of Israel — it is the God of Israel — the God of all humanity. The spiritual quest, the search for God in our personal lives, in the history of our People, and in the world; this is the highest priority of Classical Reform Judaism. We know that there are many ways of understanding and defining God, and individuals must struggle with these issues of faith for themselves. We recognize that faith in the living, loving God that our People have always known and worshiped, is difficult for many people today. And yet, nevertheless, the search for Divine encounter, the struggle with our questions and our doubts, remains the overwhelming priority of our Faith.  
Human Spirit  
As Jews, we also affirm our tradition's characteristic humanism, and much of our faith in God is grounded and expressed in our celebration of the human spirit. The belief in the sanctity of the human person, in the Divinely ordained potential of humanity, are all extensions of Classical Reform's belief in the reality of the one living God.  
But Jews without Judaism, Jewishness without faith, ethnic pride without spiritual commitment, is for a Classical Reform Jew the body without the soul.  
We recognize that a unique. but nevertheless secondary dimension of our identity as Jews, is the multifaceted and rich tapestry of historical experience and cultural tradition that reflect our People's past. And yet ultimately, these important but nevertheless secondary dimensions of Judaism, must primarily be both preserved and newly developed to enrich and nurture our spiritual experience — our quest for God — and our fulfillment of our noblest human potential.  
We may sum up this first principle of Classical Reform Judaism by referring to the great statement of the ideals of our Movement, the Columbus Platform of 1937:  
"Judaism is the soul, of which Israel — the Jewish People — is the body. Living in all parts of the world, our People have been held together by the ties of a common history and, above all, by the heritage of faith. Though we recognize in the group-loyalty of Jews, who have become estranged from our religious tradition, a bond which still unites them with us, we maintain that it is by its religion and for its religion that the Jewish people has always lived..."  
Acculturation to Society  
The second principle of classical reform is that our acculturation to the society in which we live has been the very key to the survival of the Jewish People throughout history, and that the secondary cultural dimensions of our faith must reflect our own time and place.  
Any reading of Jewish history will reveal, unequivocably, that in every period of our People's past, Jewish life has adapted itself to the changing conditions and environments in which Jews have lived. Our People have had the unique ability to enter fully into a variety of cultures and societies and still retain their distinctive religious commitments and identity. Even in the isolation of the ghettos and shtetls of Europe, a creative synthesis of distinctive Jewish ideals and local cultural traditions created a vibrant Jewish life. And what previous generations of Jews did in Babylonia and Spain, in Germany and in Eastern Europe, we must do here in America today — develop and create a distinctively American expression of Judaism , reflecting the free, open and pluralistic society in which we live, while maintaining our unique spiritual identity.  
The great negative catch phrase in the vocabulary of Jewish life today is "assimilation." And yet, what every generation of Jews has done in new situations, has been to acculturate into their environment. What they left behind and rejected, were the customs and folkways that they had assimilated earlier, in other societies; and they adopted new cultural standards and expressions as secondary dimensions to their continuing and distinctive religious commitments. The so-called "ethnic" traditions of so many Jews are, in reality, merely a nostalgic remembrance of the acculturation of one particular Jewish community in history: that of old Russia and Poland, into its own environment, two and three centuries ago. The whole complex of this allegedly "genuine Jewish" cultural tradition: Yiddish, special foods, Hassidic parables, folk music, none of these are originally or innately Jewish; all represent a creative synthesis of Jewish faith and a surrounding culture of a particular time and place. And moreover, they represent merely one Jewish ethnicity among many — and are virtually alien to the cultural adaptations of other historic communities, the Sephardic traditions of the Middle East, for example; which even the Lubavitcher Rebbe would have to admit are as Jewish as his version of medieval Polish culture is, and yet have nothing to do with "Yiddishkeit."  
An American Judaism  
What our ancestors did in every period and place in Jewish history, what our grandparents or great grandparents did in Germany or in Eastern Europe, we have a right and a responsibility to do here in America today. One of Classical Reform's historic goals has always been the development of an American Judaism — an authentic expression of the eternal, constant and unchanging ideals of our faith in an American cultural context ... a Jewish commitment that recognizes the special Divine Providence that brought our people to these shores and rendered us an integral force in the creation and building of this nation from its earliest days ... an American Judaism that celebrates the cosmic significance, the uniqueness of American Democracy in the broad scheme of Jewish history — affirms the flowering of the Jewish spirit that has created in this land the greatest Jewish community the world has ever known — and which sees on these shores the primary stage upon which the drama of the Jewish destiny will unfold in the future.  
Our religious and our social lives must and should reflect the best of the cultural and aesthetic standards and perspectives of our time and place, as our ancestors did theirs. And so we gather in a synagogue whose architecture and design is totally of our time, in a reverent worship service that employs the language we speak, in its highest literary form; that draws upon the best of the musical heritage of our Western civilization in our praise of God; a synagogue that we attend dressed as people in our time and place dress; and yes — a service that happens to be held on the most appropriate and accessible day that our culture sets aside for worship and fellowship. And if all of this be called "assimilation" — then, it is the very same brand of assimilation that every generation of Jews strove for and achieved in the creative adaptation of our faith to changing local conditions and aesthetics — and it is no more an assimilation than that practiced and cherished by the "ultra-orthodox" — who worship as Eastern European peasants worshiped, who chant many of their prayers in melodies originating in Slavic tunes, who dress as medieval Polish Catholic nobles dressed, who speak a language based on Middle German, and who sing songs and dance dances identical to the folk songs and dances of old Russia. And we would assert moreover, that in their glorification of one single chapter and place in Jewish cultural history, above all others, and their rejection of the culture in which they now live, it is these so-called "ultra-Orthodox" who represent the aberration and distortion of Jewish history — not us!  
Prophetic Tradition  
The third guiding principle of classical reform is, once again, that we remain deeply committed to the broad universalism of the Prophetic tradition of our faith — upholding the historic Reform concept of the Mission of Israel: that divinely ordained destiny of our People to be the champions of justice, brotherhood and peace for all humanity.  
The spirit and the conviction that breathed life into Reform Judaism in its earliest days, was this fundamental belief that the Jew was chosen by God to spread His Word, His Love, and His Justice to all the world. Grounding their faith in the courage and zeal of the Biblical Prophets, the founders of Reform taught, and Classical Reform still teaches, that we are a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People" whose mission and destiny is to serve all people — as a community and as individuals.  
Classical Reform has always echoed the words of the Prophet Micah in its answer as to what true religion must be:  
Messianic Age  
And Classical Reform has always believed, as well, that we must labor together with all men and women of good will, inspired with hope and optimism, for the dawn of the Messianic Age; when God's kingdom of justice and love will be established here on earth. The struggle for justice, for freedom, for human dignity, and for peace, which has been the constant theme of Jewish history, was seen as the great lesson that we were challenged to learn from our own experience.  
In the history of our Movement, these were never merely high-sounding, noble sentiments — they were translated into courageous action, as Reform Jews led the struggle for justice in society. Whether it was the outspoken abolitionism of Sinai's founders during the Civil War, or our Rabbi Hirsch's denunciations of economic and social oppression in this city, the commitment of historic Reform Judaism was always expressed in social action. In the words of another great Sinai Rabbi, Dr. Louis Mann, words inscribed at the entrance to our Chapel:  
Now as we have already observed — fewer and fewer Reform Jews remain committed to this broad universalism today. Claiming disillusionment by the trauma of the Holocaust, which some say has dashed any universal hope or optimism; and allegedly preoccupied with their first priority, the welfare of the State of Israel, many Reform Jews have turned their vision and commitments inward. They say that in the world after Auschwitz, a Jew should be primarily concerned with other Jews — with "Jewish" issues and priorities — as if universal justice and peace were not the ultimate Jewish priorities!  
Labor for Redemption  
But a Classical Reform Jew today reflects upon the horror and the suffering of the Holocaust, and responds with even greater determination than before, to labor for the redemption of our sick and troubled world. An authentic Reform Jew has enough love and compassion to be concerned both about specifically Jewish issues and about broader human problems — and if it is hard to do that, and it proves to be difficult to love both our own and all others, we might well respond, in the words of the old Yiddish proverb:  
"Nu! Schver tzu zein a Yid ... It has always been hard to be a Jew!"
Our broad, liberal and universal perspectives are also essentially expressed in our religious life. Classical Reform Judaism dedicates itself to the idea that the Synagogue is, in the words of our Bible, "A House of Prayer for all People" — indeed, the very motto we of this congregation have inscribed above our doors.  
God of All People  
We pray with and for all People, to the God of all People. All are welcome in this House, and we in turn recognize and celebrate the common ideals that we share with our brothers and sisters of other Faiths. In the words of our Prayer Book ...  
"The synagogue is the sanctuary of Israel. It was born out of Israel's longing for the living God. It has been to Israel throughout our endless wanderings a visible token of the presence of God in the midst of the people. It has shed a beauty that is the beauty of holiness and has ever stood on the high places as the champion of justice and brotherhood and peace. It is Israel's sublime gift to the world. Its truths are true for all people, its love is a love for all men and women, its God is the God of all humanity, even as was prophesied of old, `My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.' Come then, you who inherit and you who share the fellowship of Israel, you who hunger for righteousness, you who seek the Lord of Hosts, come and together let us lift up our hearts in worship."  
One of the major reasons why most Reform Congregations that identify themselves as "Classical" have retained the historic Union Prayer Book in our worship, is that it so powerfully and beautifully expresses this broad, liberal, universal religious spirit.  
New Liturgies  
Many of the new liturgies of the Reform Movement, have proven to be a retreat from this ideal. In their pre-occupation with traditional liturgical passages, simply because they are traditional; in their focus on the use of Hebrew for Hebrew's sake, regardless of its intelligibility to most Jews; in their very narrow, parochial, and often arrogant ethnocentricity — many of the "revised" worship materials have been a profound disappointment to many of us. While the Union Prayer Book may have some flaws — chief among them a pre-liberated language that often seems sexist to our heightened consciousness, and which we at Sinai revise in inclusive ways, — it is, nevertheless, the most eloquent proclamation of the spiritual ideals of Classical Reform — and that is why it is so precious to so many of us.  
These, then, are the guiding principles and, in turn, the definition of Classical Reform Judaism.  
These have been the ideals that Chicago Sinai Congregation has always cherished, and, as long as God wills that I am your Rabbi, they will continue to be the foundation upon which this Temple lives.  
We are perhaps a minority, but as Jews, we are no strangers to being a minority and to being different. And yet, I believe that there are many others in our community, and in our Reform Movement nationally, who share our commitments, and we are increasingly making our presence and our position known in the broader Jewish community.  
Reflect on Principles  
I challenge each of you to reflect upon these principles and, in good liberal fashion, after developing your own personal interpretations and expressions of them, to affirm your own commitment to these ideals. Reflect them in your lives ... proclaim them to others ... and share them with your brothers and sisters here at Sinai.  
I hope and pray that the instruction, and perhaps even the inspiration that may have been imparted in this message, will enrich and strengthen the life and service of this great congregation as we worship, study and serve together, proud and forthright, yet humble and grateful, in our faith as Reform Jews.  
Let us join together in expressing that hope ... as we offer with all our hearts one of the passages from our Prayer Book that so truly sums up all that we believe and cherish ...  
Almighty and merciful God, Thou has called Israel to Thy service and found us worthy to bear witness unto Thy truth among peoples of the earth. Give us grace to fulfill this mission with zeal tempered by wisdom and guided by regard for other peoples faith. May our life prove the strength of our own belief in the truths we proclaim. May our bearing toward our neighbors, our faithfulness in every sphere of duty, our compassion for the suffering and our patience under trial, show that He whose law we obey is indeed the God of all goodness, the Father of all people; that to serve Him is perfect freedom and to worship Him the soul's purest happiness.  
O Lord, open our eyes that we may see and welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time. For Thou hidest not Thy light from any generation of Thy children that yearn for Thee and seek Thy guidance ...  
Endow us with purity of heart and steadfastness of spirit that our lives may testify of Thee and sanctify Thy name. O satisfy us early with Thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days ...  

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