Reform Jews embrace non-religion

I was not raised as a religious Jew, but I’ve still managed to be a bit disdainful of reform Jews. Back in the 1970s, I figured out that almost nothing distinguished reform Judaism from a sing along folk festival, right down to the obligatory long haired guitar player who always showed up at reform services. My feeling was that, while I’m not religious, if I were religious, I’d want to attend a synagogue that made me feel as if I was actually doing something connected with religion. A feel good hippie celebration didn’t do it for me.

It’s beginning to look, though, as if the 1970s was a high mark in deep religious feelings amongst the Reformed Jews. They’ve just churned out a new prayer book that it so inclusive it seems to leech all the Jewish-ness and Biblical-ness completely out of Judaism:

Traditional touches coexist with a text that sometimes departs from tradition by omitting or modifying some prayers and by using language that is gender-neutral. References to God as “He” have been removed, and whenever Jewish patriarchs are named — like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so are the matriarchs — like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The prayer book took more than 20 years to develop and was tested in about 300 congregations. Its release has been delayed for a year because the initial printed product was shoddy, said people involved with the project. But the book is expected to be released in about a month — too late, however, for the High Holy Days, which begin Sept. 13.

“It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish,” she said, referring to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on Saturday mornings.

It seems to me that Reform Jews really need to sit down and figure out which community they represent: people who are Jewish or people who are spectators.

Having said that, the new prayer book does have some nice touches that make traditional ideas more accessible for Jews who don’t speak or read Hebrew:

There are four versions of each prayer laid out on a typical two-page spread. (Since the book is read back to front, the right page is read before the left one). On the right page is the prayer in Hebrew, the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer into phonetical English, and a more literal translation. On the left-hand page is a more poetic translation of the prayer, followed by a metaphorical or meditative passage reflecting on the prayer, sometimes by a well-known writer like Langston Hughes or Yehuda Amichai.

Rabbis who prefer to lead a more traditional service can choose a prayer from the right-hand side of the page, while those who prefer a more alternative approach can choose from the left side.

It would just be nice if that practical accessibility was a way to lead Jews into Judaism and not into some weird, non-Biblical, non-Sexist, non-God ecumenicalism.

I know I’m the last person who should be commenting here, since I don’t practice religion at all, but it’s looking to me as if the Reform Jews aren’t doing much of that either. If religion simply reflects current pop culture and social mores, without any strong ties to tradition, the Bible, and the great Jewish thinkers, you’ve really got nothing more than a Jewish themed book of the month club, do you?


18 Responses

  1. Wow…Book. This is an interesting post as it reflects some of the trends occurring in the liberal wing of my Church (Episcopal)…at what point does a religion cease to become a faith and become an ideology?

    I would love to get your insight on the following:

    When someone tells me that they are a Jew, I ask myself, do they mean “religious” or “tribal”. If they respond “religious”, then I know exactly what that entails. I also understand fully the importance of and allegiance to Israel. However, if they, by their words or actions, let me know that they mean it only in a “tribal” sense (once they get over being offended), then I wonder just how diverse they are when they insist on defining themselves as being distinctly apart from the rest of us in contradiction to our society’s non-tribal ideals. My guess is that most Jews are somewhere in between or really haven’t given much thought to these contradictions.

    If being Jewish is purely a reflection of tribal identity, then is going to “Temple” simply the same as going to a meeting of the Italian-American Association? If it is, then I can understand why some Leftwing/Secular Jews can make the leap to thinking that Israel is simply an artificial creation and not a reflection of their “Jewishness”.

    Am I being too provocative, here? I would love to know your thoughts on this and what it means to be a Jew in our society today.

  2. What Danny said makes much sense. I, too, see many parallels with what you say about Judaism and what I see in Christianity. This is the same problem we face when we call the US a Christian nation. What on earth do we mean? Are we talking about values or sacraments? If we man values, the folk singer is adequate. If we mean sacraments, are we Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant? Definitions are are dynamic, but the convenient term Judeo-Christian doesn’t fix the problem.

    Religious doesn’t always mean spiritual, or vice versa. Non-religious doesn’t mean a person has no values. You have every right to ask these questions. You are the first person who should be commenting here: It is your blog, and, more importantly, you are examining your life in light of modernity. This sounds like the kind of self-examination you did when you abandoned being a “liberal.” I admire people who discover what they believe, even if they disagree with me. I can’t remember who said, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” but he/she was right.

  3. I think if the Jews solve the Israeli problems, then they will be okay. Otherwise, doctrinal issues will be the least of their problems.

  4. Like Danny – we Evangelicals call those kind of folks “Episcopal.”

    Just a ecumenical jab to the ribs my CoE type buddies. 😉

  5. Didn’t they learn anything from the fiasco of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches?

  6. Fiasco?

  7. Danny, I don’t like the “tribal” label. I might use “ethnic” but would prefer to describe it as “cultural.” One thing about most American Jews is, whether or not they are religious, the vast majority are proud of their Jewishness. But what being Jewish means is a pretty difficult question to answer. You’re not alone.

    By practice there are a few things that most Jews observe: Circumcision for boys, Chuppa (wedding), some form of Jewish death rites, and attending a Passover Seder. That’s enough for many. In many respects “Jewish” is less a religion than a “tradition.” I think that distinction is a bit tough for non-Jews to really get a grasp of.

    Going to “shul” (only Reform Jews call it ‘Temple’) while important to some is less so to most… but attending services is certainly one way to participate in a Jewish community. There are no “sacraments” that demand attendance at services. Most prayers can be said at home alone. In fact much of Judaism is home centered… Lighting candles on Friday night, sharing a Shabbat meal, even the Passover Seder… are all home based rituals.

    Throughout 2000 years of diaspora, those home rituals have helped keep Judaism alive. No synagogue, nor Rabbi is needed to conduct even the most important Jewish rituals.

    2000 years of diaspora have also given rise to countless interpretations of the Jewish Tradition. And because our numbers are relatively small, there has always been a lot of transference of different aspects. 2000 years of Diaspora has also given us an interesting dichotomy… on one hand a tremendous pride in being American (or German for some 70 years ago) loving and appreciating the State we CHOSE as home, but on the other hand recognizing that over 2000 years we’ve been kicked out of most places on the planet, so many Jews are a bit sensitive about being a canary in the mine. Anyway, introduce two Jews who have never met before and immediately, or almost immediately, a game of “Jewish Geography” begins… searching for common acquaintances and /or family… I guess its’ similar to traveling in Europe and running into someone that went to the same high school… It’s a measure of the small population of Jews.

    Very often, especially with folks who don’t know I’m Jewish, I am made to feel separate… as you put it “apart from the rest of us…” Helenl asks what it means for America to be a “Christian” nation. Sunday sabbath, Christmas, church organizations, throwing in “Jewish” with Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, or Methodist when wondering what “religion” someone is. All of those, and countless other everyday assumptions of Christians… both religious and cultural… that dominate our society. Almost always I simply say nothing and try NOT to be different. I bet most Jews do the same.

    But the fact remains there are some things, some traditions, some cultural aspects that are different. The fact I observe them is more a connection to my heritage than an attempt to be apart. Must I always go along in order not to be seen as being different?

    Reform Jews, for my mind, go a little bit far in order to minimize the differences between the Jewish Tradition and Christian traditions. Some Jews even question the essential Jewishness of the Reform Movement… but Reform Jews still maintain a pride in their Jewishness.

    Being Jewish… what does it mean to ‘Be Jewish?” To borrow a phrase from jurisprudence: I’m not sure I can define what it is but I know it when I see it.

    Like Book, Reform Judaism is not for me… but it does work for a great many, who are no less proud of their Jewishness.Unlike Book I think the current trend is towards a more traditional form of observance. Not that keeping Kosher is on the horizon, but even the new prayer book is bringing some Hebrew back into the service which has been virtually absent.

    When we get down to it. Reform Jews aren’t going to get a release from their Jewishness with the Ahmadinejads of the world.

  8. Thank you, Oceanguy. That was very insightful.

    You made an interesting observation about being made to feel “separate”. I know of Jews that have felt that way at times but I wonder if they realize that it is the same for many Christians of different denominations, among which there can be huge differences. Episcopalians (Anglicans), Mormons, Catholics, Baptists and Mennonites are all extremely different from one another and often we let each other know it (some tee-totalling Southern Baptists like to snidely refer to us as “whiskey-palians”, for example). We take it all in good fun. But I never deny my faith or denomination.

    I know that most of the more conservative and fundamentalist Christians I know feel a strong sense of obligation to the Jewish people (as do I), for a number of reasons. Most Christians that I have known have simply been very curious about Jewish life and practices and feel a strong sense of kinship through our shared Judeo-Christian culture – our Top Guy was a Jewish rabbi, after all. So, if people ask, it’s probably because they are curious and want to learn more about you and Judaism. I would love to know what happens at a traditional Seder, for example. If people “assume” things about another’s religion, perhaps it is only because we don’t know any different.

    To flip it around, I can assure you that I have been amazed about the lack of knowledge and assumptions (some quite bigoted)expressed about Christianity by my daughter’s Jewish (Reformed and pretty secular) boyfriend. It cuts both ways.

    I hope that you never feel that you need to minimize your differences between yourself and your Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim) neighbors. I would think that, as a Jew, there is an awful lot to celebrate and be proud of, beginning with a 4,000-plus year history of survival against the odds.

    One thing that I have never been able to understand, though, is how so many (mostly Left-wing) Jews that I have known can disparage their own faith, culture and history…not to mention Israel. Nobody should do that.

    Incidentally, it was J.R.R. Tolkein (“Lord of the Rings”) who referred to the Jews as “that magnificent tribe” in a written riposte to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. “Tribe” is a badge of honor, not a pejorative.

    Thanks again for the insights, Oceanguy. Smooth sailings!

  9. I don’t like labels. Maybe it is because I find it hard to find one that fits me. I belong to a Conservative shul and sometimes daven at one of the Orthodox minyanim near my house.

    I am not sure that it is fair to use your memories of the Reform movement of the ’70s or this siddur as the basis for making a judgement about the Reform movement. FWIW, I didn’t like what I saw there in the ’70s either, but things have changed.

    I think that some of the tenets they list here are not just admirable but in line with Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

    But I want to go back to something. You said the following:

    They’ve just churned out a new prayer book that it so inclusive it seems to leech all the Jewish-ness and Biblical-ness completely out of Judaism:

    Maybe I am just tired, but I seem to miss where the Jewishness has been removed. They added the names of the matriarchs and changed references to G-d to be gender neutral.

    How does that leech out the Jewishness. The matriarchs are all biblical figures. I just don’t get it.

    If religion simply reflects current pop culture and social mores, without any strong ties to tradition, the Bible, and the great Jewish thinkers, you’ve really got nothing more than a Jewish themed book of the month club, do you?

    Is that really what they have done here.

  10. P.S. That wasn’t meant to sound adversarial.

  11. It didn’t sound adversarial, Jack, but my understanding of the Bible is that God is male. Once you turn God gender neutral, you’ve made about as fundamental change in the Bible as possible. Also, even though the matriarchs have important roles in many of the stories, it’s silly to pretend that theirs are the primary roles in many of the stories — and this kind of pairing does that. I never like it when people mess with historic facts or sacred texts to assuage modern sensibilities. I’ve been intensely conservative in this way ever since I was a little girl.

    Indeed, you should probably “watch this blog” for a piece I’m planning in the next couple of days about political historical revisionism. Nothing earth shaking, mind you, but it does set out my feelings on the subject. I’m all for acknowledging the past or challenging the past or, if necessary, escaping from the past. I have a much bigger problem with changing the past.

  12. Book,

    You would be mis-informed. In the Torah, God is referred to using masculine, feminine and plural terms. Some would say it was acknowledgment that we mere humans cannot possibly comprehend the nature of God. There are other explanations, but the fact is that God is neither male nor female as we understand it. I think Christians may have a slightly different understanding.

    That being said, I’m with you on the essence of what you’re saying about molding ancient traditions to assuage today’s sensibilities. However there is a role that science and history plays that may change some long-held assumptions, or at least lead us to examine them more closely…

    Now, whether new-found knowledge would lead us to change our traditions… That’s an entirely different question.

  13. Also, even though the matriarchs have important roles in many of the stories, it’s silly to pretend that theirs are the primary roles in many of the stories — and this kind of pairing does that.

    Hi Book,

    I hear what you are saying. It is a tough road to hoe. However some people would argue that the matriarchs played a bigger role. For example it was at Rebekah’s urging the Jacob stole the birthright from Esau.

    A couple of thoughts to share. If scientists prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that homosexuality is genetic the Frum community is going to be faced with a huge challenge as to how to deal with this.

    If you look at halacha versus minhag there are a ton of questions that can be asked about why we do the things that we do. Some of our people dress the way Polish noblemen did.There is nothing holy in that, but after several hundred years it is just accepted as something that should be done.

    The way that Orthodox Jewry practices Judaism today is not the way that it always has been done. There is evolution within all of the denominations.

  14. Thanks, Oceanguy. I was under the impression that the reference to a feminine “God” actually referred to another entity altogether, separate from but joined with “God.” That is, I didn’t understand it to detract from the ultimate masculinity of “God.”

  15. This interchange is fascinating – it sounds a lot like what is happening in many Christian denominations, including my own – that is, the ones losing members as the huff and puff to keep up with being socially relevant. There is a defining line between what constitutes a church or shul…versus a “social club”, right?

  16. I belong to a conservative congregation, but had the opportunity of teaching 4th grade Sunday school at a reform temple last year. This temple, I was told, has the 6th largest Hebrew school in the US – about 800 students, all told.

    Quite frankly, I went into it expecting to find watered down Judaism, but I was very pleasantly surprised. In fact, the level of enthusiasm and spirituality was greater than that I find at my own temple. I didn’t even realize what was we were missing until I saw what it was like at this synagogue. Part of it is that my temple is shrinking and has fewer resources, while this reform congregation is growing and vital and has greater financial support from its members. But above and beyond that, there definitely was much evidence of strong Jewish identity, Hebrew was learned and spoken, Jewish philosophy, Torah, tefillah, and tzedakah were being taught and lived. It felt good being there and I was very moved by their deep commitment to Judaism and the great warmth of the people I met – from rabbis to cantors to teachers, administrators and parents.

    I can’t speak for all reform congregations, but this is what I found at one of the largest, if not the largest, in Northern Virginia.

  17. That is nice to know, Gail. I can’t say the same for the reformed congregation in my community, although my data is old because I last attended services there about 8 years ago. There was more energy than you find at the local conservative synagogue, but it was an awfully touchie-feelie kumbaya kind thing. Still, I’ll be the first to admit that, if I embrace ritual, I like it feel ritualistic, so I’/m the kind of person who is put off by completely unstructured approaches to religion. Heck, I can do unstructured on my own. If I do go to synagogue, I go for the structure normally missing in my own life.

    I’m probably not alone, either. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Islam is growing quickly in Europe, where neither secular society nor the traditional Church offer structure. For those who neither need nor crave it, fine. For those who want something that feels important and ritualistic, Islam assuages those desires.

  18. Oceanguy Says:
    September 3rd, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Danny, I don’t like the “tribal” label. I might use “ethnic” but would prefer to describe it as “cultural.” One thing about most American Jews is, whether or not they are religious, the vast majority are proud of their Jewishness. But what being Jewish means is a pretty difficult question to answer. You’re not alone.

    That’s weird! I like the word “tribal” better. It has a little tang of romance(makes you think of Braveheart-if you like that movie. Or even Godfather-though some might not like the connection. Or whatever). It is also a way of thumbing my nose at PC(“Yeah, I’m tribalistic-what’ya gonna do about it”).
    Interesting how tastes go.

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