Can Reform Judaism Be Made More Relevant?

Can Reform Judaism Be Made More Relevant? January 12, 2011

In last week’s Forward, Rabbi Evan Moffic offered some thoughts about how to make Reform Judaism more relevant.  He begins by noting that membership is down (as it is in all non-Orthodox synagogues).  One section in particular caught my eye:

We would also address real theological questions that American Jews confront. Anecdotal evidence from my own experience working as a rabbi suggests that a large number of Reform Jews know very little about Jewish understandings of God. They see their Jewish identity in cultural terms, and if asked about God, they would probably describe either the “old man in the sky” they do not believe in, or something close to “the power that makes for human salvation” envisioned by Mordecai Kaplan. Neither our prayer books nor our curricula address God in a meaningful, relevant way. We need powerful statements about a God that address the doubts we have, connect to the lives we live, and enrich our relationships and activities in a sustained way.

This also confirms my experience in the Jewish community, not only with self-identifying Reform Jews, but also with Jews of all kinds of non-Orthodox backgrounds.  Of course, I personally encourage the rejection of theism and to the extent that people are moving toward Kaplan’s non-supernatural ideas, I would only persuade them to go even further.

I do not fully comprehend Moffic’s complaint.  I have seen many attempts to create “powerful statements” about God by non-Orthodox rabbis.  They are constantly writing and preaching about God, yet as he correctly points out, the message is not getting through.  And you won’t be surprised to learn that I see this as a good thing.

The fact that so many liberal Jews have doubts about the existence of God is not a weakness of the Jewish community.  It’s a strength.

For many years, one thing that liberal rabbis have been honest about is that the texts and traditions of Judaism were created by humans.  Certainly they’ve thrown in the words “divinely inspired” here and there, but that is a phrase empty of content.  It’s never even very clear to which texts it’s meant to apply.  What does it mean to be “divinely inspired?”  Does it mean that you are convinced that God is talking to you?  If so, what claim of authority can that possibly have on the rest of us?  The modern secular Jew has at last learned that it has none.

If these rabbis wanted to make Judaism relevant, they would begin addressing this problem.  Not many liberal Jews attend services, but every time they do they are confronted with a cognitive dissonance between what they feel is true and what is being uttered in prayer and preaching.

I have a Reform colleague who is heavily involved in the creation of the movement’s new machzor (high holiday prayer book).  He told me that the book would restore many traditional passages to the liturgy, specifically mentioning the U’netaneh Tokef, a prayer that speaks of God’s annual decision about who will live and die, and somewhat gruesomely, exactly how death will come.  If there is a single prayer in that liturgy that is guaranteed to create discomfort, it is this one.  Is that a “powerful statement” about God?  Does any reasonable person believe that it will create more belief instead of less?  I, for one, spent many years reciting it with revulsion until I finally asserted my personal integrity and rejected it together with all of the other meaningless liturgy.

If Reform Judaism wanted to be relevant then it would not have rejected the request of at least one humanistic synagogue to join its ranks.  Having turned its back on the most philosophically rational and compelling vehicle for continuing to be Jewish, its leaders should not be surprised when the movement continues its downward trend.  Had that congregation been accepted for membership, I believe that a truly re-formed and non-theistic Judaism would have begun to assert itself.  Instead, Reform Judaism declared itself beholden to unsustainable supernatural ideas.  Closeted humanistic rabbis remained in the closet while the traditionalists took over the movement.

As my midrash teacher, Professor Eugene Mihaly, of blessed memory, commented about the rejection of that congregation back in 1994:

Exclusion, ostracism, mindless stringency to appease the traditionalists, institutional coercion are alien to Reform Judaism…. They chill and kill. They are the death knell of liberal religion.

Indeed they will be.


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