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A Jewish Universalist Agenda

Jay R. Brickman
Spring 1997

I was conducting a week long class at a summer institute, and asked the participants, most of whom were not Jewish, whether they would be interested in participating in a Sabbath evening worship service. They were. Comments following the service, in which I used the old Union Prayer Book, were most positive other than that of a young Jewish woman who said that services in the Reform synagogue she attended were quite different. She asked why I had chosen to make use of this very dated prayer book. I asked if she remembered what happened to Classic Coke. The modest proposal that follows does not seek to establish a new religion, or a new denomination. The Reform Jewish movement is a living organism which has every right to change with the passing of time, so long as it continues to meet the religious needs of the majority of its participants. But there are those of us who remember with fondness what Reform Judaism used to be, and find the changes which the past decade have introduced both foreign and unsettling.  

Contrary to most Orthodox opinion, Judaism from the start has contained widely divergent religious sentiments. The priests struggled with the prophets. Pharisees fought with Sadducees and neither had use for the Essenes. The writings of Maimonides were burned by those who found them too rational. Heinrich Graetz, the great Jewish historian of the last century labeled the Jewish mystical tradition an aberration. Hassidim and Misnagdim, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Reform and Orthodox contended as authentic spokesmen for the faith. An interesting phenomenon born in the Haskalah, the enlightenment period of the last century, was Jewish secularism. Proponents claimed, and most Jews in our generation would authenticate the claim, that they had a right to be part of the community although they were not religious. They cited in support of this their strong ethnic feeling for the Jewish collective, Jewish history and the Jewish "homeland." If one who has no feelings for the Jewish religion is entitled to be called a Jew, why is there not a like place in the Jewish apparatus for those who believe in the religion but have little or no feeling for Jewish national identity? I have chosen as a name for such a program the Jewish Universalist Agenda (J.U.A.). It is modeled on similar convictions to those which shaped Reform Judaism in its origins.  


The Birth of Reform  

Reform was born in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century as an aftermath of the French Revolution. The new liberalism that swept Western Europe, conferred on Jews for the first time the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Ghetto walls were torn down. Jews were invited to participate in the economic, political and cultural life of their lands of residence. Orthodox religious practice had flourished in the isolated Jewish community. Because there was little intellectual contact with the secular world, ancient doctrines were unquestioned. Because there was an absence of other diversions, dedicating the bulk of one’s energies to religious study and practice became a norm. Because an authoritative rabbinic leadership exerted enormous control over the community, there was little opportunity for independence of thought or behavior.  

Suddenly this was all changed. Jews could participate in the culture of the outside world, and in doing so, many found the traditional religious forms to be unsatisfactory. New philosophic concepts conflicted with the ancient ideology. New standards of decorum clashed with the atmosphere of the traditional worship. Many ritual restrictions, like the dietary laws, placed limitations on the degree to which the Jew could integrate socially with the non-Jewish neighbor.  

Prior to the establishment of Reform there were many Jews who abandoned the faith, accepting conversion as a key to total acceptance in the larger society. Others resisted the lure of what they considered an alien culture and wrapped themselves more tightly in traditional ways. The Reformers argued that there was a way of living simultaneously in both worlds. They subjected the traditional thought and practice to major modifications and the compromise proved quite satisfactory to a certain percentage of the Jewish population. From the start Reform was not a mass movement. It appealed particularly to Jews of wealth and general culture who wished to feel more at home in the larger society. They were of course roundly denounced by the more conservative elements of the community.  

Ideological Split In Reform  

From the start there was an ideological split within Reform. Abraham Geiger was a learned scholar who attempted to demonstrate that Reform was the normative consequence of the new circumstances. He endeavored to convince the Orthodox to modify their ways. His attitude was followed in this country by Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise. The early institutions he established: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College, Central Conference of American Rabbis, did not make use of the term Reform. Wise believed his teaching was an American Judaism which should be acceptable to all Jews. He even believed that in time it would attract non-Jews and become the religion of America. Geiger’s intellectual opponent was Samuel Holdheim, rabbi of a small Reform congregation in Berlin. Holdheim was not the least interested in winning other Jews to the cause, or in defending his position before traditional critics. Rabbi Emil G. Hersch was the most prominent spokesman for this view on the American scene. It is this position which I shall endeavor to express in relationship to traditional and the new Reform/Traditional Judaism. I am critical of neither. I just wish to propose an alternative for Jews like myself who find neither position congenial to their religious needs.  

The principles upon which Classical Reform were based were few and were simple. The first was the rejection of an ideology that viewed the Holy Land as our true home and our nations of residence places of temporary exile. The Reformers removed from the early prayer books all references to the return to Jerusalem and reestablishment of the Temple worship. Although not opposed to ritual, they considered it secondary in importance to religious ideology (love of God, etc.) And moral responsibilities. Finally, they believed that religion should be rational, and removed all references to miracles, as dividing of the Red Sea, resurrection of the dead. I take some exception to the last point. The rabbis who formulated the Reform theology were trying to escape the dogmatism of a fundamentalist view of scripture. They were not able to conceive the text as dealing in metaphor. The seven days of creation were dropped from the liturgy because the world was not created in a week. If the story is accepted as a story with important underlying ideas, as God’s love and power, the text may well remain.  

Reform Judaism appealed to a small group in its beginning. In the reconstructed form that I am suggesting, it will probably have a small following. But that is perfectly all right. The Quaker group in our city is small but influential. The Bahai fellowship is so small that weekly services are held in the homes of the members. It does not matter how many people are attracted to the J.U.A. In a rabbinic text entitled Ethics of the Fathers is the statement: "When three sit to study Torah, the Holy Presence resides among them."  

Changes in Reform Ideology  

The reason that the ideology of early Reform has changed in this country is because the tiny German migration of ¼ million Jews was swamped a half century later by several million immigrants from Eastern Europe. Unlike the West Europeans, these Jews were the product of isolated Jewish communities, and a more traditional format of Jewish thought and observance. They sought admission to the early Reform synagogues, because the members were among the wealthier and most respected families and the newcomers found it attractive to be included in their company. In a short period of times, the newcomers outnumbered those who had established the congregations and determined their protocol. There was pressure to introduce traditional practices with which the new members had some nostalgic association. The additions were not determined on the basis of any philosophic assumptions. Determination of what to include in a congregational program was based upon the motto of the advertising industry: "You run it up the flag pole and see if they salute."  

Since most American Jews do not have strong religious sentiments (contrast our Sabbath worship attendance to the crowding of churches on Sunday morning), the growth of a synagogue depended upon the variety of non-religious programs it could present. Once there existed a building and professional staff, keeping the organization solvent became an essential consideration. Congregations vied for membership. This involved offering programs that were attractive. An emphasis upon the perils of Jewish existence, the need to stress group solidarity, service to Jews in other lands, participation in the upbuilding of Israel, all became the essential elements of a thriving congregation.  

Jewish Moral Imperative  

To quote from Walt Whitman, "I am neither for nor against institutions." Members of the J.U.A. can in good conscience participate or not participate in synagogue life or activities of the larger Jewish community. They can be Zionist or anti-Zionist (some Israelis may choose to participate). While emphasizing the Jewish moral imperative, we will not identify the appropriate political mechanism to attain these goals. My objective is simply to provide a fellowship for those Jews who are interested in an expression of religion which stresses similarity with other people rather than differences, the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the faith rather than the literal compatibility of the religious philosophy with reason and experience. I do not propose any paid staff or possession of real estate. This will free us from the necessity of attracting a large membership at the cost of modifying principles upon which this association is based.  

Those who are interested in such an enterprise are encouraged to correspond with me in this regard. My address is: 8041 N. Linksway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 5321.

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