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The Smoke and Mirrors Approach to Reform(ed) Judaism

Klaus J. Herrmann
Summer 1997

Dedicated adherents of an authentic Reform(ed) Judaism, conventionally described as "Classic," would do well to keep up to date on events that are pertinent to the institutionalized life of Reform Judaism here and elsewhere.  

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) sees to it that a well edited and designed quarterly called "Reform Judaism" is published and distributed. For those who want to attain a more profound insight into the actions, thinking and resolutions of the Reform rabbinate, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) publishes a yearbook.  

Yet, what about seekers for insights into workings of CCAR members which are not disseminated otherwise? For them a continuing source of information (and for authentic Reform communicants also pain and suffering) is furnished in the CCAR’s monthly "Newsletter." These are available only to its membership, with others therefore dependant on the goodwill of rabbis who pass the literature along to them.  

These Newsletters are anything but dry as dust publications. To the contrary, they reflect a very dedicated, professionally honed team of editors and contributors. Co-extensive with his position as vice president of the CCAR and therefore in direct succession to its presidency is Rabbi Richard S. Levy of Los Angeles, who serves as executive director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Council in that region and serves as editor of the CCAR Newsletter.  

Clarion Call  

In its December 1996 issue, Rabbi Levy sounds what must be called a clarion call to the Reform rabbinate: he wants his rabbinical colleagues to attend the annual conventions and he wants them to emphasize the Reform component of their ordination and their colleagues.  

In an open letter to colleagues, Levy writes: "The work that many of us do (on college campuses, hospitals, the military, various Jewish educational, charitable and political organizations) has led us over the years to see ourselves more as Jews than as Reform Jews; more as Rabbis to the Jewish People (sic!)than Reform Rabbis. Some of us, growing up in the Reform movement, have grown away from denominational lines; some of us in the 197Os hoped that we might help create a movement that was just Jewish, without adjectives. It wasn’t possible. The movements only grew stronger and those of us on campus found our students rebelling against our desires to blur the distinctions between the movements . . ."  

Rabbi Levy’s Justified Worries  

Rabbi Levy’s rallying summons may have been motivated by the apathy shown by many CCAR members. Of 1657 registered CCAR members, only 492 attended its 1994 Chicago convention. Thus, almost 30% of members registered for the annual meeting while more than 70% did not. Moreover, subsequent annual conventions failed to improve on these figures.  

CCAR conventions are quality events requiring a large investment in creativity, dedication to work and last but not least financial engagement. Those who are called upon to present papers and participate in symposia are challenged to commit much time and effort into presentations that are to excite the interest of their audience. More to the point, these presenters are in constant competition with two unfailing realities. One of these competitors is in the subtle and not so subtle endeavors of Convention registrants meeting with colleagues who are or might be useful for career advancement of one sort or another. The late and deeply lamented Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski actually terminated his CCAR membership because he refused to continue within a Conference that he regarded as a quondam job market.  

The other competitor for registrants’ time is in the very environment, especially so where conferences are scheduled at resort areas of one sort of another or in metropolitan areas. Environmental attractions in locations such as Aspen or Palm Beach inter alia tend often to replace a plethora of symposia, lectures and such events. In addition, whenever spouses accompany the rabbi they often regard a CCAR convention as a vacation and an opportunity for family recreation rather than the business of the rabbinical meeting place.  

If it is difficult to induce those who do attend CCAR conventions to avail themselves of the splendid offerings, it is considerably more strenuous, even improbable, to convince the more than 70% of Reform rabbis to come and be counted as registrants. There are, not surprisingly, obvious financial limitations since many congregations are disinclined to afford their rabbis the wherewithal for such an enterprise.  

Attending CCAR Conferences  

Aside from monetary considerations, however, Rabbi Levy appropriately reminds those who work in the Lord’s vineyard in Hillel (campus based) Foundations, in health care, the military, and in other sectors of society, that they also belong to the CCAR and should be attending annual CCAR conferences. "After all," he says, "we (in these non-congregational) fields do some but not all of the things that our congregational colleagues do, and our membership dues statements encourage us to subtract the amounts paid to our ‘primary’ rabbinic organization. For many years, some of our colleagues tried to discourage us from going into these fields, both because the ‘real’ purpose of the Hebrew Union College was to train rabbis for the congregational rabbinate — that’s why the UAHC was the patron of HUC — and because it would be very difficult later on to get a congregational position — assuming that was what we really wanted to do after we ‘grew up.’"  

Rabbi Levy noted that, "Few of us were ever put on committees, or found our own concerns echoed in Convention programs, and when we would venture forth into those settings, assuming we could afford the hotel costs, we often found old classmates patronizing us because we had ‘ended up’ in such marginal settings. (Some congregational colleagues, or course, had the same experiences.) Eventually, most of us, who knew that our rabbinates were both important and satisfying, decided that our egos didn’t need the bruising, our pocketbooks didn’t need the fleecing, and that conventions of our professional colleagues were more intimate, more challenging and more relevant to our concerns. We learned, in short, how to live without the Conference. Now suddenly the Conference realizes that it made a big mistake over the years . . . ‘Come back!’ the Conference calls to us, but for many of us it is too late . . . ‘But we want to learn from you!’ the Conference says, but most of us are too busy with our own work. ‘We’ll subsidize your travel, we’ll find you inexpensive lodgings’ . . . but no one wants to seem like a mendicant. Many of us say that you (the CCAR) lost your chance years ago."  

The Convention Program  

This year’s CCAR Miami Beach conference was scheduled to be the most varied, the most stimulating, the most encompassing of any rabbinic convocation on this continent. We need, Rabbi Levy declared, "to give the Conference another chance."  

Undoubtedly, Levy’s assertions are valid and, as Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Boston’s Temple Israel elaborated, there were ten "really good reasons" why rabbis should attend the Miami convention. Let us see what they were:  

1. Rabbis can study all day and in fact from the morning until dinner time and then again as a late night option. One session each day was geared to spouses and one each day was in the Hebrew language altogether. (It is certainly not in the spirit of an authentic Reform Judaism that English speakers exercise their ability in the area of Israeli non-theological Hebrew. Or is this an attempt to impress either the Israeli non-Reform Jews or, alternatively, the Orthodox rabbinate? Aside from such considerations, it would seem more than questionable that rabbis and their spouses would want to study the Talmud all day and much of the night.)  

2. Rabbis could take part in numerous "meaningful" worship experiences and "wonderful models of worship in smaller groups." (With all of these worship experiences, rabbis who are attuned to really meaningful prayer sessions may be the losers. Arrangers of these conferences have consistently refused to provide inspirational organ accompaniments, although banjo-equipped performers are in good supply).  

3. A central Conference worship service proceeded on Monday morning at the hotel and was preceded by a study or the weekly Old Testamentary section from Moses’ Five Books. A newly inaugurated "Conference Choir" led the singing. (Without organ accompaniment, to be sure, and quite certainly not with the singing of the truly great synagogal composers’ music.)  

4. There was a track system that replaced workshops, i.e. eleven different areas from which to select, spending either all of the nine hours with one topic or "jumping" tracks. And here they were: The Sabbath (improperly referred to as "Shabbath," as if the proceedings took place in Kiryath Arba rather than in the United States), Leadership, Transforming the Synagogue (into a replica of Ponevezher Yeshiva in Bnai Braq?), Authentic Jewish Decision Making (i.e. on such earth-shaking issues as keeping a glatt-kosher kitchen facility in Reform temples or encouraging women rabbis to don Zarathustrian amulets/tefillin), "Tikkun Olam," that is improving the world, Health/Healing/Medicine, Defining Your Rabbinate, Life Cycle, Jewish Education and —finally — Worship (i.e. replacing organ music by guitars or banjos and cantors by guitar-playing minstrels while retaining the appellation of chazan/cantor for them).  

5. An enticement for attendance by institution of what was called a "Kallah," i.e. a sort of Retreat or Assembly (not to be confused with kallah-bride) for those wanting to focus on issues: Dealing with Death and Dying, Improving Our Hebrew Skills, Conference Choir, Congregational Systems Inventory, How to Build Relationships, Congregational Expectations in Worship.  

6. Central issues were not to be ignored, wherefore three study sessions of twelve simultaneous panels were to apply to the topics of (a) the Republic of Israel and Zionism, (b) Patrilineality, (c) Sexual Values, (d) Literacy in Hebrew.  

7. Business sessions were "succinct, cogent, focused."  

8. There were late night options for which rabbis could select study of the Scriptures and Talmudic commentaries, an Open Mike night, an Improvised Group, Ice cream social and songfest. It may be assumed that the ice cream social proceeded under the supervision of the Chief Mashgiach, recently instituted by the World Union for Progressive Judaism and supported by the HUC-JIR, the UAHC and the CCAR. In order to become ever more acceptable to the Orthodox rabbinate, this Mashgiach (supervisor) was charged with the task of seeing to it that all milk products were in conformity with the regulations (Shulchan Aruch) on assuring cholov yisroel, i.e. kosher milk of cows or of sheep or goats, not tainted by the milk of non-kosher animals such as donkeys.  

9. Hebrew Union College provided a unique "Shiur" (Orthodox Talmud/ShulchanAruch study session) program; in accordance with strictly Orthodox laws, this hour of learning was terminated with a "siyyum" and a "kaddish de’rabbanan" — i.e. use of a festive meal and the recitation of an extended Kaddish exhortation.  

Finally, (10) an Installation service and Closing Night program was designed creatively, so that all of the registrants would wish that the conference ought to have lasted longer than it did.  

Why Reform Rabbis Should Celebrate Reform Judaism — Who’s Fooling Whom?  

Since being installed as CCAR president, Rabbi Richard Levy captured the heart of the issue, namely that Reform rabbis should be emphasizing their Reform Judaism and rabbinical status.  

"Let’s face it," he called out to his colleagues, "we retain our membership in the CCAR not as a hedge lest we need its placement services one day; we remain members because we are Reform Jews and Reform rabbis."  

Well, more power to Rabbi Levy for finally stressing the particular denominational status, one which those in the fellowship of authentic Reform(ed) Judaism have ceaselessly celebrated, and not merely since the Miami Beach conference of May 1997 but for a considerably longer duration of time. We have been celebrating our Reform(ed) typology of Judaism since Israel Jacobson founded the first Reform Temple in Seesen (1810), or Abraham Geiger prevailed in getting his Breslau congregation to edify worship by the installation of a pipe organ (1840) and the "Reformed Israelites" of Charleston, South Carolina a year later. Rabbi Samuel Holdheim celebrated Reformed Judaism by seeing to it that the ritualistic encumbrances of yarmulke and talith were eliminated in Berlin within his congregation (1847) and that the prohibition against eating leavened breads during the Passover was rebuffed ("Principles of Reformed Judaism," 1853). Rabbis David Einhorn and his son-in-law Kaufmann Kohler needed no exhortation to preach an authentic Reform(ed) Judaism — much as the latter objected to the "ed" in Reform — neither were the founders of the American Council for Judaism and those who supported it actually or partially remiss in speaking up as Reform rabbis. And their fierce opponents, notably Rabbis Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver as well continued in the ritual and practices of Classic Reform Judaism. Neither of them saw any reason for doing away with the Sunday-Sabbath worship service, for instance.  

Emotional Rationalism  

Rabbi Levy tried to adduce emotional rationales by which the contemporary CCAR membership was somehow still tied to its Reform roots. Let us see precisely what this linkage is to mean:  

1. "Even those of us who prefer to daven (i.e. emotively pray) in Conservative settings have too many resistances to Conservative theology, too many ties to colleagues, to music and minhagim (customs) which helped to shape our growing up, to teachers and experiences at Hebrew Union College, to deny that we are Reform . . . and if you scratch us deeper, you will find that we are Reform not only by common associations but by common beliefs."  

2. "Tikkun Olam" (The improved Divine Order of the World, a kabbalistically originated term of reference used in connection with the re-incarnation of the soul and therefore rejected by the Enlighteners of the middle 19th century. Note Isaak Erter’s satiric book on the subject) is important to us, continuing revelation is important to us; a sense that "mitzvoth" (commanded obligations) impose a "chovah" (duty) on us not only as members of the Jewish people (sic!) but as individuals is important to us; "or la-goyim" (a light unto the gentiles) is important to us; striving for the messianic time is important to us . . ."  

Consider Levy’s exhortations. He stated that alleged Reform rabbis who prefer worshiping in Conservative synagogues may still resist Conservative theology, which continues to be predicated on an ongoing interpretation of the Talmud. Within Reform Judaism the Talmud ("Halachah") has a voice but not a veto, but as comparison is effected between Conservative re-interpretation of Halachah and contemporary Reform’s obsessive and indeed hysterical pursuit of halachic pre and proscriptions, there is an obvious meeting of the minds. And while there are ties to Reform colleagues, just what kind of Reform customs and Reform music is it that Rabbi Levy exalts?  

Campaign Against Reform Customs  

There has been and continues to be a militant campaign against any and all of our Reform Jewish customs and sacred traditions, and particularly so within the area of music. Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, a distinguished leadership personality within Reform Judaism, has, it seems, failed to outgrow the Orthodoxy of Toronto’s ethno-centered community. He is in the advance guard of those who are determined to eradicate organ music from our temples. When one considers that among Canadian "Reform" congregations, a majority do entirely without organ music or where organ music is literally inaudible, Hoffman and his colleagues have scored an overwhelming victory. Hymns and anthems in the vernacular English were extirpated together with the Union Hymnal, and the inspirational compositions of Sulzer, Naumbourg, Lewandowski, Kaiser inter alia are — with rare exceptions — no longer heard. In point of fact, the very chapels at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and New York City today reflect the kind of worship service that is entirely appropriate to an Orthodox synagogue, but wholly out of place and inconsistent with Reform-Jewish esthetics and ceremonies.  

Rabbi Levy’s alter ego, Lawrence A. Hoffman, glories in the "fully pluralistic" character within Reform congregations: "Temples are learning to respect, even to revere, the diversity in their midst." (Reform Judaism, Spring 1990). Hoffman’s position seems to ignore the fact that pluralism within Judaism was long ago established in the coexistence of congregations following their Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform way of life and worship. Bringing Orthodoxy into Reform temples in no way strengthens healthy pluralism. To the contrary, such reactionisms merely blur and obfuscate an inherently healthy form of pluralism within Judaism.  

Hence, what kind of music and customs and Hebrew Union College experience can Rabbi Levy draw on to remind his contemporary membership of its obligations to Reform Judaism and to its institutionalized Conference of Rabbis?  

Attack On Masculinity  

Already, we have seen an increasingly successful effort to eliminate "masculinity" in reference to the Supreme Being and calling this God Being "she" or "Eternal" in lieu of Lord. This represents an unfortunate exercise in semantics to begin with. One may do well, therefore, to change entirely Judaism’s central creedal affirmation, inasmuch as the Sh’ma Yisrael clearly refers to a "Lord" and not to a "Lady" (Adonai) and in any event represents a more than questionable affirmation of the Almighty’s inherent and monotheistic Unity by use of the word Elohenu. Elohenu is the Hebrew for gods in the plural and not for "God!" Attempts to explain this away by invoking the pluralism majestatis (We by the grace of God, Queen/King") fall flat entirely.  

Altering the Eighteen Benedictions to include next to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their various chief wives Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel constitutes another innovation designed to appease an ever increasing female rabbinate and cantorate. Adding Abraham’s chief wife Sarah to the panoply of ancestors invocable was a particularly misbegotten undertaking. Sarah, by her actions against Hagar (one of Abraham’s additional wives) and Hagar’s son Ishmael, who was also Abraham’s son, actually certified herself as a highly ambiguous figure in Judaism. Certainly she is one which added no glory to our religious heritage.  

Rabbi Levy’s citation of so-called common beliefs that would bind Reform rabbis one with the other does not appear as very convincing, because Conservative Judaism — and increasingly so a modern and reflective type of orthodoxy as well — fully accepts the duties and obligations and visions Levy has mounted.  

In full light of an ever more ritualistically and ethno-centered variance of authentic Reform(ed) Judaism, Rabbi Levy cannot but find his argumentation deemed as invalid, most unhappily so.  

Debasing Prophetic Judaism  

When his contemporary leadership team asks for ever increasing adherence to the dietary laws of the Talmud and the Codes, be these during the year or during the Passover season, he cannot any longer bring up Reform theological interpretations. Transforming our worship services and music hardly summons Reform rabbis to stand and work and attend in unity and happy memories. Imposing a Republic of Israel-centered type of religion on Jews — indeed, even on liberal-religious Jews within the State of Israel — debases a universalist and prophetic Judaism to the level of an ethno-oriented Faith, analogous to Serbian or Romanian or similar Orthodox Christianity.  

Neither the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis nor any of his colleagues will succeed in challenging Reform rabbis to support Reform Judaism, when there is no Reform understanding of Judaism to begin with and when — as is unfortunately the case — one talks up adherence to Reform Judaism in much the same way that certain East European leaders of the past constantly invoked the "People" or "Democracy" or "Progressive Ideals," all the while acting in direct opposition to them.

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