Ties That Bind: Autonomy and Obligation in Reform Judaism Todayby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Do you remember the old story about a Jewish mother who gives her grown son two ties for his birthday? The next time the man comes to visit, he makes sure to wear one of the ties. She sees her son, looks at the tie, and exclaims immediately: "What, you dont like the other one?"
My friends, today I want to speak with you about ties that bind; about constraints and commitments and commandments, about some of the changes you have heard about or noticed in Reform Judaism over the past several years, and about our obligations, to ourselves, to each other, and to our God.
We begin with a story.
Now, such a blemish on a cow would mean that the animal was treif, was unfit for consumption by traditional Jews. But what did it mean on a pig? So patient and butcher, together, went to the rabbi. "Rabbi," they asked, "is this pig kosher?
Now, this is a man who will do what he needs to do, but is tied to something beyond his own immediate needs as well. Faced with something the Talmud never thought of, he struggles, to figure out what his God wants of him in a weird New World.
What I am about to claim is hard to say. It may be hard to hear. You may not agree with the conclusions I will come to this morningin any event, agreement, unless I am giving cause-oriented remarks, is not necessarily my goal. My three goals in a sermon are
So, you may not agree with what I have to say today. But hear me out, I ask you, and we can argue about it amongst friends in the weeks and months and years to come.
I believe that this dynamic, this pull of tradition, this sense of obligation to anything other than ourselves has been too much missing from yesterdays Reform Judaism. I believe that we have worshiped our will and invented an idolatry of the self. I believe that it is the need to restore a balance, to remind ourselves of the transcendent, of the One who speaks to us from beyondmore than the embrace of any specific ritual or return to traditionthat is the heart of the new Reform Judaism today. And I believe that we need to ask ourselves what the educated and committed Reform Jew of tomorrow will be like, in a way that will touch our heart not just one day of the year, but every day of our lives.
We live in a world of war and terror; we have witnessed a year of madness and incomprehensible atrocity. We have spoken much in this past year about freedom. But freedom can be misunderstood to mean the opportunity to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. I believe that this is not the kind of freedom that the founders of this country envisioned, or even that meant by the first philosophers of Reform Judaism. To know who we are, to know what we stand for, to know, indeed, what binds our heart and stays our hand, that is the deepest freedom of the soul. We have worshiped autonomy, at the expense of obligation.
Change is a part of life. Poignantly, paradoxically, it is the only thing that does not change. An example. We are having services for Rosh Hashanah tomorrow... a second day of Rosh Hashanah. An old custom. But if you havent been there before, well, its new to you.
I once met with a woman in a different congregation upset and angry that the synagogue now had a service for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. Where was her Reform Judaism? She wanted to know, Reform the way it used to be, with little Hebrew and hidden choirs, with dignified, decorous services and a disdain for ritual of any kind. Second Day Rosh Hashanah? Why, thats Orthodox!
So many ways to respond. Never mind the real answer: that Reform Judaism has always changed, and evolved; that this is why it is called Reform Judaism and not Reformed, that it is an ongoing process, that, indeed, the essential insight of our movement is that the outer forms of our spiritual lives can—should—mustgrow in response to an interaction with the surrounding culture and that, therefore, hello! The appearance of Reform Judaism is going to continually change, with the climate and character of the times. That, in this way, Reform Judaism is absolutely consistent. In allowing for change, it has not changed at all.
I tried to respond rationally, but I missed the deeper meaning, that she was feeling lost and displaced, yearning for yesterday, for the comfort of what was. I answered with my head and not my heart, and with that standard slogan of our movement, personal choice. I tried to be reassuring: "Well, its optional." I said. "Its for those who want it. You dont have to go." Her response was more than I bargained for. "Rabbi," she said, "I dont have to come on the first day, either!"
You know, shes right. Its true. You dont have to be here. Thankfully gone are the days of flogging the slackers who dont show up in shul, shaming families who dont keep customs the way communal bosses say they should. Americans and moderns both, we rebel against autocracy and imposition and coercion. The reality of our lives is the opposite. We live in a world of voluntarism and democracy and choice. So what this woman said, of course, its true.
My question is: should it be? Is this what Reform Judaism means? Is this all it means? Is this what we have become, that we can do anything we want, and call it Jewish?
A year ago, in the days after the High Holy Days, in the midst of much weightier matters, a small item in the Style section of the Washington Post caught my eye. It was a gossip column report on an African-American politician and a well-known Jewish journalist, seen together in a restaurant. On Yom Kippur. What was the journalist eating? Why, a ham and cheese sandwich. Some schmendrik had the chutzpah to say something. A ham and cheese sandwich, in public, on Yom Kippur? Look, I would have stared for a second, and left them alone. But the journalists response really stuck in my craw. His response, offered as explanation, not an excuse: "I am a Reform Jew."
Call it what you will: autonomy, personal preference, freedom. This notion that we can pick and choose what we want to do has become the litmus test of Reform Judaism. Weve even taken the term we try to use for convertsJews-by-choiceand emphasized that, in the modern world, we are all Jews-by-choice. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations wrote, a la Kennedy, "in the eyes of too many, Jews do not exist to serve Judaism, Judaism exists to serve the needs of Jews."
Of course Judaism should serve the needs of Jews. But listen closely. Jews and Judaism. It should be a two-way street. Not alone a tyranny of faith, but neither the unrestrained whim of the folk. My friends, we have overdone a good idea. Freedom exists in the context of commitment, as part of the whole of who we are, not in a vacuum. Even in our first freedom, our Exodus from Egypt, we ended our servitude to Pharaoh, to enter into the service of God! We were supposed to be free, we Reform Jews, within the bounds and ties of our Jewish identity, not about them.
A little background. We based our idea of autonomy on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Autonomy, to Kant, meant a freedom from any external pressuresinstitutions, power structures even emotions and passionswhich might influence our thinking, and the freedom to follow the unfettered dictates of reason. Through this pure, internal mental process, Kant believed, we would then "discover a moral law, applicable everywhere and equally to the behavior of all people. To the authority of that moral law... the individual, in turn becomes subject." (Herb Bronstein, 1999 quoting H.J. Paton, 1950) And is bound. In my words now: The uncovered ought becomes a universal must. Autonomy begets obligation.
And here is the problem. We have seen with our own eyes a century in which one persons morality is anothers atrocity. We no longer believe that reason is pure, that our thoughts can ever be untouched by the assumptions of gender and culture and race. What we are left with is a philosophy of "freedom from," absent any companion rationale of "freedom to."
I believe that a blank check, a blanket heksher to "do whatever you want" does a disservice to the Jews and Judaism of today. And I believe that, more than any other motive, the new Reform Judaism is an ongoing experiment in what we are free to do.
Like that woman I spoke about earlier, there are those of you who are worried about what is happening to "your Judaism," to the language and liturgy you loved, to the style of worship and level of observance you were comfortable with. Thats not just happening here; its going on in every Reform congregation in the country.
Now, there is a lot to be said here. No one sermon alone can send an adequate message of comfort, or can convey the sense that what seems to be a "new" Reform, greater experimentation with a wider variety of practices, is a development from, not a rejection of the Reform Judaism of the past. As we heard last night, we will spend much of the next year, as a congregation, in a programmatic and pedagogical exploration on the theme of "Reform Judaism: Celebrating our Past, Creating our Future."
With all its greatness and glory, and all of what our movement had already achieved in Jewish life*, I believe that part of what is going on is a reaction to an anarchy of individualism, a "do-whatever-you want" view of Reform Judaism that has developed in popular perception and practice.
To try to be reassuring to some of you, let me tell you, for a moment, what this new Reform Judaism is not. It is not a credal oath of affirmation. It is not a new and different litmus test of observance. It is not even a return to specific expectations about particular commandments. No pork police knock down your doors, or stop you in your car for a treific violation. An open tent, a pluralistic movement, an inclusive community, we welcome with warmth Jews and Jewish families in all the varied shapes and sizes they come in today; the woman who davens with tallit and kippah, and the man who sits next to her and worships bareheaded; equal partners all in the Reform Judaism of today.
But today, when one wears a kippah, and another does not, we not only expect each of them to be comfortable with their own choices. We also expect them to be comfortable... with each other.
What is new here? The Reform Judaism of today reflects a new openness to tradition, evident in congregations across the continent, a thirst for meaning and hunger for depth in which the ancient customs of our people are no longer off limits in the spiritual journeys of modern Jews. It calls upon all of us to take our tradition more seriously than we have, to study Torah with more discipline and devotion than we have, and, yes, to be open to "the whole array of mitzvot" [a word which means not "good deeds" but "commandments"), some long observed by Reform Jews, others, both ancient and modern, demanding renewed attention."
We are free to choose still, but open to a larger repertoire, perhaps, and aware that if we do feel "addressed" by a particular custom, it is not as an adornment or a dressing or a nicety. Though our choices may differ from those of others, what we embrace we take on with the force of a commandment, and the awareness of a compelling power beyond ourselves.
And in the words between the lines we assert with pride: no longer are we a Reform Judaism defined by what we dont do. You cant define us the same way anymore: that we dont use Hebrew, we dont cover our heads, and we dont keep kosher. No, the results may be the same for some, but the rationale is different.
Called upon to choose, equally bound in the covenant of Israel as any other Jew, we begin in openness and freedom. But now remember an ancient goal. It is to uncover constraints. And acknowledge their source. Obligation: a yoke upon the soul, yes, but a tie that binds, an arrow as well, pointing to a place beyond the self. Rabbi Yoffie again: "If mitzvot are done to please God, we must be prepared, at least some of the time, to please God before we please ourselves."
Or, in more ancient words: "It has been asked you, O Israel, what it is that the Eternal, your God demands of you."
What is it that is demanded of us, as the educated Reform Jews of tomorrow? To find answers, we need to ask questions. Some of the questions will sound bizarre. They will be "kosher-pig" kinds of questions. For a strange New World. But they need to be faced.
Am I doing enough for my children? Am I doing enough for my parents? Am I doing enough for my people? Is this genetically-altered tomato kosher? Is stem-cell research kosher? How far do we go to have a child? What can we do to not have a child? How much do we do to keep a loved one alive? Am I helping or hurting the planet? Can watering my lawn be against Jewish law? Where is the balance between defense and offense? In Afghanistan and Israel, in Iraq and in Chevy Chase, where is the border, between justice and revenge? Is it even possible to remember the past and also not "stop thinking about tomorrow?" Is this what we are supposed to do, in a situation we never knew wed face?
For a moment, forget denomination. Authentic Jews ask questions. We ask questions about what happens in our lives. What is the Jewish answer? Listen. The answer is rarely: do whatever you want. The answer is rarely "its permitted." The answer is either: its required. Or: its forbidden. Case by case, the answer, if there is a God, is a commandment.
But since we cannot, we will not, we should not return to a religion of coercion, we cannot, as Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf writes, reconstitute the obligatory through others. Wolf, who, as we heard last night, will address our congregation in early November, asserts that we can only discover it ourselves. (The source of authority remains, then, as it has been. It is the intensity, and the discipline, that must reach a new level.) It is not the number of mitzvot you perform, but the direction of your life that matters. Are you going in, or coming out? Are you acting out of obligation, or whim? Is God at the center of the universe? Or do you worship yourself?
Let me try to put this in a different way. Have you ever felt the call of compulsion? The pull to do something, not what you wanted to do, but because it was the right thing to do? There is a wholeness in that feeling, a holiness. A power beyond words.
We read this morning a story of a rope, and a knife. A story at once both compelling and horrible, like an accident we cannot tear our eyes from, an encounter we are eager to avoid and cannot stop thinking about.
Perhaps perhaps we have been reading it wrong for centuries. Maybe weve missed the point. Maybe this story is not about a literal sacrifice at all. But in a parent teaching a hard lesson to a child. Maybe the point was the rope, and the knife. After all, Isaac was bound. And lived. As Pippin found: "if Im not tied to anything, Ill never be free." Or, in more familiar words, echoing still for all of us in this year of rediscovered patriotism: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."
So, too, are all of us bound. By our heritage. By the echoes of yesterday, and the call of tomorrow. By the influences around us. By our obligations and commitments. By the things we think constrain us, which are, in the end, half of who we are.
"Lchol eish yeish sheim, shenatnu lo heharim, vnatnu lo ktalov; Each of us has a name, given by the mountains, and given by our walls."
"Elu dvarim sheein lahem shiiur; These are the obligations without measure, that which we take upon ourselves in this world, and whose full fruits we taste, in the world to come..."