Open Reform

November 1, 2007
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Andy Bachman

There is an abundance of terms of art around which American Jewish leadership organizes the idea regarding how the Jews should be configured and led: denominationalism; post-denominationalism; trans-denominationalism; and, of course, pluralism. Each in its own way, it seems to me, runs the risk of representing a new movement in American Judaism that only creates higher barriers.

As a Reform rabbi and ideological pluralist, I would be happy to never use the word “denomination” again. In an open-society and digital age when access is paramount, barriers to access seem beside the point.  After all, we are encouraged in Pirke Avot to “build a fence around the Torah,” not a fence around the synagogue.

Though my ordination is Reform, I arrived at Hebrew Union College by way of a secular Yiddishist, a German Jewish historian, and a Conservative rabbi — each of whom understood the younger iteration of my own aspiration for Jewish leadership and recommended HUC as the place of greatest, open inquiry.  That worked for me. Men and women played equal roles, gays and lesbians could be ordained, all 613 commandments were not considered binding, the demographic challenge of interfaith relationships would be addressed openly, and authorship of Torah was open to inquiry. While we accepted we were learning in a “movement” institution, our intellectual environment was pluralistic.

Interestingly, the one place I felt the presence of the movement was where many students also felt the need to express their individuality most: in prayer. Here we were bound by the decorum of a movement curriculum and siddur and here one could truly experience the dynamic tension between the classical idea that “Reform is a verb.” I often wondered if Reform was a verb or rather an institutional idea around which intellectual inquiry was organized.

The vast majority of students were less interested in “Reforming Judaism” than they were in finding their own place in a broader Jewish civilization.  For some, this was a position of humility; others relished the convenience of a movement that emphasized “choice.” But most felt that as the 20th century drew to a close and a new paradigm for the organization of Jewish life began to emerge, a pluralistic, expressive Jewish civilization was ascendant.

Here’s an example. Nearly 40 years ago, HUC began sending its first-year students to Jerusalem. This strategic move accomplished at least two things: First, it made an unambiguous statement about the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity; and second, an equally clear statement about the centrality of the Hebrew language to that identity. While students learned about the various initiatives undertaken by the Reform movement to advance the cause of Progressive Judaism in Israel, we were fundamentally immersed in an orientation to Jewish life that challenged our particular denominational ken. Shabbat and holidays in and around Jerusalem happened across a spectrum of choices:  Feminist Orthodox; Braslaver Ecstatic; Traditional Egal; Meditation/Renewal; Old-Fashioned Orthodox; Artists’ Beit Midrash; Classical Reform; and Progressive Israeli. We saw it all. The geographic and linguistic centrality of Israel and Hebrew meant that Reform Judaism would be one of Ahad Ha’Am’s unanticipated beneficiaries.

In the twelve years that I’ve been serving the Jewish people as a Reform rabbi, the majority of the inquiries I field from seeking Jews of all generations — even within the Reform synagogue — is what Judaism has to say about life, death, meaning, the state of the world, and the call to action for justice and peace. And just as HUC’s first-year students experience the invigorating varieties of expression along the Jewish prayer spectrum, so too does our synagogue, comprising dues-paying Reform Jews, offer multiple modes of spiritual engagement each week.

As Reform Judaism develops in this open atmosphere, I believe that we will experience a more open Judaism in general, enriched by pluralism’s shared goals of openness to inquiry, experience, and expression. Nearly two centuries ago, the denominationalism of Judaism answered a particular historical need at a particular time. Today, the Jewish maneuver, from what Franz Rosenzweig termed the “perimeter to the center,” necessitates a new series of configurations. Our synagogues and movements will be the richer for these changes. There is an elegant irony in all this:  Reform sets the organizing rules of engagement (open, democratic, historical reasoning) but the system engaged is the broad, plural ongoing miracle of Jewish civilization.

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Rabbi Andy Bachman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.

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