Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater III: Losing My Religion

Recently, I have been writing about the concerns that the Engineering Geek and I have about our synagogue membership. I wrote about how the rabbi's sermon on Rosh Hashanah caused me to think about his assertion that the organization is indeed a community, and I wrote more about that in light of my experiences when it felt like community and how that changed.

In the first of these posts I also wrote this: "Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions." And I said I'd return to this idea in a future post. This is the promised post.

"Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions."
For those who know anything about the early Reformers, those in Germany, and those in the United States, this may seem like an odd statement. Many Jews, Reform and otherwise, believe that the early Reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater, that they not only deprived the past of a veto, but also of a vote. In short, many believe that the phrase "Reform tradition" is an oxymoron. The Pittsburg Platform (1885) threw out kashrut (the dietary laws), as well as the ritual laws, in favor of a focus on the uniquely Reform virtues of Ethical Monotheism. Thus the Reform Movement entered the period know as Classical Reform.
During this time the service was mostly in English, nobody wore kippot (yarmulkes), synagogues were called temples (the reformers were not waiting for the rebuilding of the original in Jerusalem) and we were to be Jews at home, Americans on the street. In short, it looked like Reform got rid of tradition entirely. Tevye the Milkman was an embarrassing Ostjude (Eastern European Jew); an example of all that was wrong with unenlightened Orthodoxy. Reform tradition? It's as antiquated as a fiddler on the roof!

But, what was once a reform, if it lasts a hundred years, becomes a tradition.
And as Reform Judaism has been taught and passed down from one generation to another, a certain worldview has developed. (I see it in my husband, who is fifth generation Reform--from Austria to Cincinnati to San Franscisco). Of course, the Reform I was taught, from the New Union Prayerbook, had evolved from the High Classical Reform of the Union Prayerbook. After the Shoah, we had all become Zionists, and we understood the meaning of the People of Israel in a more traditional way. Hebrew had become more common, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies had been restored, Bat Mitzvah ceremonies added, and the use of ritual objects was no longer discourged.

At the same time, important aspects of the Reform worldview continued to appeal. Ethical monotheism--the idea that the ethics of the prophets--justice, righteousness, acts of loving kindness--combined with the rational worldview of the Enlightenment, was held to be the standard of behavior. The ritual commandments that the early reformers threw out wholesale were to be observed by the educated choice of the individual. The Chem Geek Princess is old enough to have been taught Ethical Monotheism as the essence of Reform Jewish life, but she is young enough to have been brought up with more ritual than was common in Reform Jewish households in my generation. The Boychick's formal Jewish education has been sadly lacking in Ethical Monotheism, which might give the mishmash of half-understood ritual some organizing idea that would last a lifetime. (This is why I homeschooled his Jewish education and Torah Talk at the Shabbat table-- I taught him a more comprehensive way of being Jewish).

And the truth to be told, I also think the early reformers did throw the baby out with bathwater. There is much to be said for the beauty and symbolic importance of ritual in the lives of human beings. Ritual defines who we are and who are not as we rub up against other cultures. Symbols send powerful messages of the meaning of our identity as Jews directly to the soul. When I wrap myself in the tallit--the prayer shawl--and say in Hebrew: "Eternal One, you are very great! Arrayed in glory and majesty, you wrap yourself in light as with a garment, you stretch out the heavens like a curtain." I feel that I am wrapping myself in light, that I am clothed in the majesty and glory. That I dwell in the midst of endless possibilities.

And when I wrap my middle finger with the tefillin straps and say in Hebrew: "I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, with impeccability, with loving-kindness, with compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know (physically, emotionally, spiritually) G-d"; I bind myself to G-d, Torah and Israel. But I bind myself also to those prophetic ethical precepts that I say--I bind myself as a Reform Jew with a very particular understanding of the prophetic values. I not only hear in them the voices of my rabbis and teachers, as well as the the voice of the long past; I also hear the call to be a moral human being, even in places where there are no moral human beings.

So although I understand the resurgence of ritual in Reform, I sense that I am losing my religion. The observance of half-understood ritual presented as an optional mishmash, combined with the loss of the organizing principle of Ethical Monotheism, is not a shortcut to a strong Jewish identity. The younger generation is losing an appreciation for both the baby and the bathwater. They are not being trained in the rubrics of ritual practice that will last a lifetime and uphold them during hardship and duress; and neither are they being given the ethical foundation that would give them the guts to stand up against evil and oppression. The moral fiber of Reform sensibility has been replaced with a schlock-rock, touchy-feely, short-cut to spirituality that is unlikely to survive assimilationist pressures from the dominant secular society.

Digression: In reading that last sentence, I see that I am placing myself squarely in the grand Jewish tradition. Ever since Jacob, who worried on his deathbed that his children would no longer be Jews, every generation has so worried. But will we hear the response, as Jacob did: "Sh'ma Yisrael . . . Listen, Israel (Jacob's G-d-given name), the Eternal is our G-d, the Eternal is One"? Will our children have the intestinal fortitude to so proclaim if they are pressed to the wall when they have not been taught the prophetic voice? When Judaism is reduced to an "our crowd" version of a country club?
See what I mean?

I see no harm in bringing back Hebrew. I see no harm in the use of carefully chosen ritual.
But I see great harm in losing the central tenents of Reform Judaism: Rational adherence to the Prophetic voice, crying out for Justice and Righteousness; in short, the precepts of Ethical Monotheism. Ritual observances should be carefully taught. The symbolic nature of the ritual should be elucidated, so that it is not misunderstood as a magic short-cut to holiness, or to the desired end of strong Jewish identity and the comcommitant moral absolutes and sensibilities that make up the Jewish worldview.

And speaking of those sensibilities: Reform Judaism has beautiful ritual and practice of its own. These include strong teaching from the Bimah, a firm tie to the American ideals of Liberty and Justice, and the ethical message expounded in beautiful English and a tradition of majestic choral music.

Nothing reminds me more of the Ethicial Monotheism inherent in the Reform tradition than these words, carried over nearly intact from the Union Prayerbook to the New Union Prayerbook:

" . . . Fervently we pray that the day may come when all shall turn to You in love, when corruption and evil shall give way to to integrity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye . . . then shall Your kingdom be established on the earth and the word of Your Prophet fulfilled . . ."

And I'd love to hear the majestic and beautiful old German-Reform melodies to Yigdal and Adon Olam, Especially the High Holy Day melodies.

Not hearing them for years on end: That's me in the corner . . . losing my religion.

1 comment:

Crimson Wife said...

Interesting post! I agree that ritual without understanding its underpinnings is meaningless. This is a big issue in my family's faith of Catholicism. The religious education I received growing up was sadly lacking in this area and it's made things very difficult for me as I'm trying to teach my own children. It seems like I'm constantly having to research the answers to my oldest's questions about why Catholics do X, Y, or Z. Thank goodness for the Internet! :-)