Courage to Create a Judaism of Meaning

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November 1, 2007
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David Ellenson

When Isaac Mayer Wise established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873 and the Hebrew Union College in 1875, he avoided the label “Reform” in the titles of his institutions because he did not believe he was a creating a denominationally distinct form of Judaism. His intention was to create an “American Judaism” that would guide the broad mass of American Jews at a time when the Jewish community was overwhelmingly composed of culturally homogeneous German-speaking Jews. The advent of large numbers of Eastern European Jews after 1881 caused his dream of a unified “American Israel” to perish.

This historical observation is no more than reminiscence today. The social and cultural factors that once so powerfully divided German and Eastern European Jews have long disappeared, and today’s American Jewish community — new immigrants from South Africa, Iran, Israel, and the FSU notwithstanding — is characterized by a high degree of cultural-social homogeneity. Wise’s non-sectarian vision of Reform appears viable once again.

Other factors only underscore the scope of the challenge the movement has today and highlight the task Reform confronts if Judaism is to speak to the bulk of American Jews in relevant and compelling terms. For all the universalistic aspirations and affirmations that marked Wise and the Jewish community during and immediately after his era, endogamy remained the communal rule. This is obviously not now the case. The high rate of intermarriage in present-day America speaks to how acculturated as well as how accepted Jews are by the American mainstream. While the American Jewish community may now be culturally homogeneous, it is just as surely “ethnically diverse.” Acknowledging this, the Reform movement is creating an inclusive and welcoming community that promotes the vitality of the Jewish people and religion in America.

American society today is open in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. Jews construct their individual identity and communal commitments in a world where people derive meaning against a backdrop of virtually unlimited options for affiliation and participation. Yet, as social creatures who seek meaning, Jews remain in need of fellowship, learning, and prayer, and the synagogue and allied institutions can and must provide the gateways and, ultimately, the venues where the fulfillment of such needs occurs.

At the same time, the synagogue will need to foster identity and to craft meaning in novel terms that speak to the present generation. In his important works, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow cites the creation of the highly informal and personalized opportunities for meaning and community that many Generation X and Y persons seek, and he points out how important aesthetics and culture are to the building of their community. Reform leadership and laity must incorporate these developments into their communal planning, as institutions can no longer depend upon traditional associational and kinship patterns to foster affiliation. Contemporary Jews move among movements and individual teachers as they engage in their own personal search for spiritual purpose and community. The Reform movement should embrace this development, and our teachers must have the courage and conviction to acknowledge that an emphasis upon a “Judaism of meaning,” as opposed to a “Judaism of boundaries and borders,” is what is needed in our day.

Reform must establish multiple entry points for all elements of our diverse population in formal and informal settings that are both within and beyond the walls of the synagogue. These settings must include temples and camps, offices and schools, restaurants and shopping centers, the city and the wilderness. Programming should include all types of study that can transform institutions and forge meaning for both the individual and the group, social action programs that contribute to justice in the world, opportunities for the creation of community both formal and casual, and worship and lifecycle celebrations and observances that are evocative and joyous. Our most creative rabbis and professionals are providing for these moments of dialogical encounter already; these efforts must be replicated and increased.

People today, no less than in the past, wish to perceive a sacred vitality at the core of their lives. Living within a pluralistic framework that underscores the importance of individual choice, Jews still can and will seek out Judaism for the wisdom, identity, and community our tradition affords if our religion speaks to them in meaningful cadences. The legacy Isaac Mayer Wise bestowed upon Reform to address broad sectors of the community remains enduring, and the future of Judaism in the U.S. depends, to a large degree, upon the ability of the movement and HUC-JIR to provide leadership that will maintain and revitalize Jewish community, worship, study, association, and action in light of the conditions and values that shape our people today.

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Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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