Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shabbat Ki Tetze: "The URJ: Where are we going?"

We are in the thick of the book of Devarim that section of Torah attributed to the Deuteronomist whose main concern was to bring structure and cohesion to the Israelite community. These parshiot which are presented as a summary of legislation offered at the end of Moses’ life are chock full of laws that were deemed necessary for the proper functioning of society by the author and editors of the period. Some of the laws make perfect sense, such as last week’s demand for the appointment of judges who in turn are to govern the people with justice/Tzedek;” or the recommendation to stay true to yourself and your traditions even when faced with foreign (even enticing) practices in a new land. Ki Tetze’s command to return lost property to the rightful owner or to treat one’s children equitably regardless of emotional leanings are laws that were critical in establishing order in the biblical world and still serve, not only as foundations to civil law but as important guides to civility. Other laws contained in the text, well – others challenge our modern sensibilities and require us to delve deeper into the historical context of the biblical text for understanding. Yet, common to all the laws of this legislative litany is a desire for proper behavior. The Deuteronomic legislation is concerned not only with the centralization of a community but also with identity formation. Taken together these laws are all about defining a community, setting parameters, and ultimately concretizing the identity of the Israelite nation.

The notion of divine retribution that lies at the heart of Deuteronomy leads us liberals to dismiss much of it. Our experience in the real world reminds us all too often that such a direct link between reward and punishment and behavior, as is laid out in its presentation of law, is simply untenable as a working theology. It’s a nice ideal perhaps (though even of that, I’m not quite sure), but even as an ideal, it shatters far too easily. Yet, at the same time as we disagree with him and his theology, a lot can be learned from the work of the Deuteronomist. His clarity, his strength of conviction, and his willingness to state it publically is to be commended.

Most of us shy away from taking stands. A Baltimore Sun editorial preceding last year’s presidential election noted that the largest block of voters, what may have ultimately been the decisive factor, the swing vote if you will, was made up of those who were not only undecided but ambivalent. Those of us with strong opinions who are willing to speak them are often labeled as opinionated instead of unequivocal. Knowing our values and what we stand for, however, is the only way in which we can move forward and achieve the goals laid out in front of us. An example of which we have been greatly reminded of this week - Senator Ted Kennedy. Senator Kennedy was a beloved politic figure but more importantly incredibly productive in his work and admired in large part because he knew what he stood for, whether we agreed with him or not, WE all knew what he stood for, and he pursued the implementation of his values with passion.

One of the greatest challenges the Reform movement faces as a movement committed to the value of autonomy is establishing a clear and ‘opinionated’ statement of vision. Unable – by choice - to fall back on Jewish law as a defining force, however, the Reform movement has failed to come up with a tangible replacement compelling for the modern era. Perhaps, as is implied by last week’s Baltimore Jewish Times article on the Conservative Movement, the only important differences between the Reform movement and other liberal branches of Judaism are the tangible and perceived differences such as service structure and the observance of Kashrut. Jonathan Sarna, for instance, a prominent Historian who has spent much of his career studying Jewish life in America, correctly argues that the boundaries between movements are far more diffuse than in previous generations, and predicts a growing future for post-denominational Judaism – for synagogues that choose to remain unaffiliated with any specific movement. There is no question that little differentiates most members of liberal synagogues (and I include here, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even some Modern Orthodox) in terms of our practice. So, has our emphasis on American individualism left us at a point where the ideological differences between movements, what leads to cohesion within movements - does these no longer speak to us?

The Union of Reform Judaism website’s statement of identity, quoting from the most recent ‘Statement of Principles’ adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1999, reads, and I quote,

“Throughout history, Jews have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, even as we learned much from our encounters with other cultures. Nevertheless, since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain. [so far so good, but let's continue] The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.” []

To me this statement cries out as an attempt to please everyone and anyone than to state central values of a movement. The entire 1999 statement of principles, now a decade old (and discussed at length at their inception), could be acceptable to any liberal Jew. I don’t hear a uniquely Reform voice in these most recent principles, and I don’t read much of a distinctively Reform voice on our movement’s website. If the ideology of the movement, including its emphasis on informed autonomous decision making with regard to halacha and ritual, is no longer central to Reform Judaism then what is replacing it?

Where is the passionate commitment to social justice, a pillar of Reform Judaism from its earliest days? I would argue that the commitment is still there, and tikun olam, repairing the world, is certainly mentioned further down in the URJ’s statement of identity, but it seems there is far more attention towards acknowledging diversity in our movement than to bringing our plethora of voices together to work towards making the world a better place for all. Certainly, The Religious Action Center, the Reform voice in Washington DC, is a vital organization of our movement that works publically in this arena, but the URJ needs to reclaim the pursuit of social justice as a central and primary value of the Reform movement. It needs to be at the forefront of its identity and mission. It should’ve been a more strongly voiced value in our new siddur.

Another element that is sorely missing from our Reform movement’s current identity is the commitment to intellectual integrity in the study of Jewish text and tradition. The 1999 principles invite us to “renew our attention” towards ritual; however, this renewed attention must not be without thoughtful consideration. Reform Judaism has historically rejected ritual for its own sake but rather has striven to grapple with text, tradition, and scholarship in its evaluation of traditional habits. Perhaps, we Reform Jews have gone too far in the dismissal of ritual - (this is certainly implied by these 1999 principles, but this is an enduring debate among Reform clergy – however, what is sadly clear is that spirituality (however loosely and subjectively this term may be defined) is, instead of joining, replacing scholarship as a value in our movement. The frank reality that few are willing to admit is that our Reform seminary, The Hebrew Union College, is no longer the bastion of scholarship that it once was. Maybe it doesn’t matter to most, it certainly does to me, and far more important than my opinion, it impacts the integrity of our entire movement.

The Union of Reform Judaism has work to do, and not just in terms of the financial and organizational restructuring that it has begun over the past year. That work will be meaningless if our movement fails to formulate a clear vision for which it stands and to which member congregations can commit. We should want to be connected to the URJ for more reason than to allow our teens to join NFTY – our national Youth Group or for our Rabbis to contribute to a particular pension fund.

Last year at Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need of all of us as individuals to define ourselves as Reform Jews proactively by our actions not our apathy. I still passionately stand by those remarks, but I have begun to wonder how we can demand such work from our members when our movement has failed to do this hard work itself. The reality, which the URJ recognizes, is that few have a clear sense of what it means to be a Reform Jew. We can blame apathy as a problem among individual Jews. But the leaders of our movement are doubtful apathetic; they are or should be our most outspoken and committed advocates - what plagues our movement is a failure to reinvigorate its principles with meaningful and specifically Reform values. If we can’t do that, then it is time to embrace post-denominationalism.

The joke about the difference between the Reform and Conservative movements being about 7 years has a great deal of truth behind it. While the Conservative movement catches up and seizes on issues that were paramount to the Reform movement of the past, the Reform usually moves boldly forward – so, I must ask, where are we going?