The Future of Reform Judaismby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
Consider how we experienced Reform Judaism in 1980, 1970, 1960, 1950. Consider how we experience Reform Judaism today. What does that comparison tell us about what will be the nature of the Reform Jewish experience in 2010 or 2020 and beyond? It tells us a lot.
Let me begin with a ritual review. In 1950 very little Hebrew found its way into the service. Choirs gave performances as congregants sat passively and listened. We were to be uplifted by the complex harmonies and grandeur of their music. If any kipot or tallitot appeared they did so only on the heads and shoulders of rabbis and cantors and perhaps b’nei mitzvah boys. Few synagogues gave daughters the right to have a bat mitzvah. Girls did not participate in ritual as did boys, nor did women participate in leading the congregation as did men. Daily services were a feature of Orthodox and Conservative synagogue life. We did not want or welcome such practices. We remained very aware of how near or far we were in our religious habits from those with whom we sought to create some distance.
We were modern advocates of a religion of reason. We came from dorfs and sthetls and ruler-wielding Hebrew teachers. We left behind long services using words no one understood, featuring all sorts of physical moves with which we were not comfortable, and conducted in a setting of noise and seeming bedlam that lacked any appropriate regard for esthetics and meaning. We sought propriety and understanding, and we turned our gaze to the future believing it best not to look backwards from where we had already come.
As Reform Jews we advocated strongly for social justice and the creation of good interfaith relations. We did not wear our Judaism on our heads or between our eyes and many did not even show their identities on the doorposts of their homes. We were Jewish Americans, and we wanted to define what that meant and hold onto it. It made us comfortable and happy. It was fulfilling.
Is it not right for the practitioners of a faith to be happy and comfortable and fulfilled and inspired and well instructed in that faith and in the institutions in which that faith is practiced? Of course it is. It is right and good for the members of a Reform synagogue to be at home there, to be uplifted by the experience of one’s faith in one’s place of worship-one’s place of study and assembly. It is right. It is good. It is necessary. That was true in 1950. It is true today. It will be so in 2050. Over the decades however, the content of what makes us happy, comfortable, fulfilled and inspired as Reform Jews has changed.
Let me digress for a moment. When a couple comes to me to discuss getting ready for marriage, one of the assignments is for that couple to study material from a history book titled The Lifetime of a Jew by Hayyim Schauss. I tell them to focus on the ninety pages from the chapters subtitled "Courtship and Marriage." I explain that the purpose of examining this history is not so that they will model their ceremony on the wedding plan enjoyed by Jews from the seventh century BCE in Jerusalem, or from the second century Jewish community of Babylonia, or from tenth century Germany, or from 18th century Poland. I tell them that whatever decisions they are about to make pertaining to the words and rituals that will comprise their marriage service must be based on knowledge and understanding of the Jewish past and present. Reform Jews do not make decisions about the conduct of their faith ignorant of how that faith has been lived from ancient days to the present.
If today’s brides and grooms are planning to give each other rings and if they plan for each to say to the other the very same words of commitment, they first need to understand how doing so evolved from a very different approach to marriage that developed in the Biblical period. The groom from those days would view an egalitarian ceremony in which bride and groom exchanged rings as having nothing to do with Jewish custom as he knew it. Three thousand years ago it was usual for a man to hand a woman, in front of witnesses, a coin worth at least one perutah (like a dollar). When she accepted the item, she was indicating that she accepted him as her husband. Centuries later the groom presented the bride with a ring rather than a coin. Later still a formula of commitment, spoken to the bride by the groom, entered the ceremony. Centuries later the bride gave a ring to the groom. And in our own time the bride does the very same things as the groom and says the very same words to him that he says to her. A native of seventh century BCE Jerusalem viewing a modern Reform Jewish wedding would not understand the link to the customs with which he was familiar. He would call it what we do todayun-Jewish. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I tell couples that the reason I want them to study the contents of this material on the history of Jewish wedding ceremonies is to grasp what a traditionally linked yet dynamic, evolving faith and way of life Judaism is. There is no such thing as the one Jewish ceremony that was done from Biblical days to the present. It evolved. I want them to grasp this reality fully. It is liberating to do so. But they also see that everything we do today emerged from what went before. We are called to act with reverence toward such awareness.
They must see that Judaism, including Reform Judaism, has always changed. The ability to do so is its genius. It has enabled us to continue while other groups long ago faded from the scene. Judaism continues to evolve as it meets the requirements of the people Israel. It adjusts to varieties in cultural experiences and historical pressures. That is how it should be, especially within the Reform world.
Reform Judaism was created with flexibility in mind. It preferred and sought it, made its very essence the preparedness to blend traditional practice with modern discoveries and sensibilities. It has done so in order to find the right path to Jewish expression. Right is not staying in the ancient past. Right is not abandoning the ancient past for some creative present and future detached from where we have been. Right means examining the Jewish past and present, and taking a serious, very deep look at ourselves, combining the two results and seeing where we emerged. What we did would have to be true and meaningful. What we did would have to be filled to overflowing with integrity and substance and purpose.
Reform Judaism was not constructed to be easy. It was constructed to be demanding and truthful and meaningful. As the wedding ceremony evolved, so would the rest of our worship experience and our religious practices and emphases. We are a tradition based, yet changing faith and people.
It is said that a lot of newcomers, with traditional leanings migrating into Reform, grew up in Conservative Judaism. That is certainly different from the original generation of Reform Jews. They came from Orthodox backgrounds. Is it not intuitively correct to say that anyone who is a member in good standing in a Reform congregation has as much right as anyone else to voice one’s opinion regarding what our practices will be? Is that not intuitively right and proper?
Does this love of tradition mostly come from Conservative reared newcomers to Reform? I do not think so. I can tell you, as one who has served Reform Judaism as a congregational rabbi for the past 25 years that children raised Reform are just as likely or even more likely to push for more traditional practices in their synagogues as are folks who recently left the more traditional settings to join Reform.
Thousands upon thousands of born and bred Reform Jews not only seek but they demand great familiarity with the power and the majesty and the depth of feeling and use of the symbols of their faith. They are not rooted as much in the Reform Jewish practices with which they were raised as they are rooted in Judaism and being Jewish. They know nothing of the reluctance to show who and what they are that inhibited earlier generations of American Reform Jews. They are not so much Jewish Americans as they are American Jews. They want their Judaism to make demands on them and to make them feel good and to connect them with their past and support them as they struggle with all the vicissitudes of existence to find their path to their future.
What we have witnessed over the past fifty years is not the abandonment of Reform Judaism, but its ongoing realization. It is flexible. It is evolving. It is meant to meet the requirements of its practitioners and is adapting accordingly.
That is why the use of Hebrew increases and will continue to increase. The Reform service 25 or 30 years from now will be overwhelmingly recited in Hebrew. By that time lots more worshippers will indeed know well what they are saying without benefit of an English translation on the page. Hebrew study will intensify among us and take hold as never before in the liberal ranks of Judaism. In addition, I believe that Reform synagogues will begin to establish kosher kitchens. And when it comes to conversion, all folks seeking to join our faith will decide to immerse themselves in the mikveh as part of the conversion rites. Someday, some larger Reform synagogues may install their own mikvaot. It is clear that, as time goes on, more and more Reform Jewish youth will attend day schools, and do so eagerly.
Let me emphasize that the family education programming toward which Reform religious schools now gravitate will enhance the participation of the Reform Jewish family in Jewish life as never before. Parents will move from planning most of their lives around secular endeavors and leaving the leftovers for Jewish experiences to planning secular lives around our Jewish needs. That is because morally, emotionally, spiritually, rituallywe will discover how much it matters to do so.
We will be smart enough and able enough to find the way to have our careers move ahead while also paying more and more attention to Judaism. With ever greater frequency we will inform our business and professional decisions with an awareness of Jewish values. The secular realm will shrink and nearly disappear as we become more complete Jews.
We will not lose our commitments to egalitarianism and creativity and embracing the truths that science and technology bring to our attention. We will embrace them. We will be thoroughly modern and simultaneously be thoroughly aware of tradition. We shall make ourselves competent to adapt tradition so that we might become thoroughly fulfilled, modern American Jews.
When it comes to eating habits, my sense is that vegetarianism will become a traditionally Jewish practice for many Reform Jews. Vegetarianism will have greater appeal than merely refraining from consuming pork products or shellfish.
Reform will remain flexible and it will continue to evolve, as it has done since its founding in Germany in 1810. People from that period looking at Reform Judaism in 2001 or 10 or 20 might be moved to say, as the biblical Jew would say of the double ring, egalitarian weddings of today: That is not our Judaism. That is not what we do. But it is.
What they will see as they look ahead will differ greatly from what they know. But the underlying principles and purposes will remain the same. A system that evolves to meet the needs of each generation cannot stand still. We were not created to stand still. That is not the good. The good is enhancing Jewish life and experience for Jews. The good is to use our faith to improve and redeem the world in which we live so that we and the rest of humanity will be strengthened and be well served and move toward wholeness.
More tradition will enter Reform Jewish rites in the decades to come. More Hebrew will be used. More creativity will arise as well and the two, tradition and creativity, will be well blended as Reform Judaism meets its future. Come along. It will be a most delightful ride. Participate and share in bringing about the future. Don’t leave it to others. Be a part of making these determinations and revel in doing so.
May we go from strength to ever greater strength. Kein yhi ratson. So may it be.