President’s Corner

Lynn Urbach

Do you know why you belong to a Reform Congregation? Is it a conscious choice, or one of convenience? To me, the difference between the theologies of the Reform Movement (and Bet Ha’am) and the Conservative Movement (Temple Beth El, TBE), is significant. I belong to Bet Ha’am because I firmly believe in the theology and mission of the Reform Movement.
There are many movements within Judaism. I’m sure you are aware of the major ones: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. There are others, such as Hasidic, Humanist, Reconstruction, Renewal, and more. Each of these movements has its own theology, and I find meaning in bits and pieces of each of the ones with which I am familiar. Did you consider theology in making your choice to connect with Bet Ha’am?

It is not an uncommon misperception that one becomes a Reform Jew simply by “not doing much,” by not having Judaism as a part of one’s life. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I made a conscious choice to belong to Congregation Bet Ha’am. I like Temple Beth El – I like Rabbi Braun, the people, the services, and the programs they offer. In fact, my husband and I belonged to TBE for a decade and I served on the board and executive committee. But it never felt quite right to me; it wasn’t home.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, other than my children, Judaism and Bet Ha’am are my favorite subjects to talk about. I’ve learned in my conversations that many people don’t know what Reform Judaism stands for, nor do they know what distinguishes it from Conservative Judaism. I’ve heard some statements that have surprised me, such as, “We have too much Hebrew in our service, it’s like we are becoming Conservative,” or, “A Reform synagogue is where I should belong because I don’t practice many traditions,” or “We are Reformed Jews.”
Let me start with that last one–reformed. As in, our change is complete, and we are now in a constant, static state. I beg you not to describe our movement with that word. One of the many beauties of Reform Judaism, and Judaism in general, is that it is always changing.
Growth and change are fundamental to both the Reform and Conservative Movements. Their approach, though, is radically different. In the Conservative Movement change begins and ends with the rabbis; the rabbis of individual congregations and the Conservative rabbis as an entirety, as represented by the Rabbinical Assembly. The synagogue rabbi is, formally, the Halachic authority, the decider of which laws and traditions should be observed by the community and the individual. They may not enforce this, but that is the intent of the movement.
The Reform Movement is more of a grass-roots organization. We turn to our rabbi for education, guidance, and spirituality. But it is up to us, as individuals and as families, to decide what and how we bring Judaism into our lives. We are empowered to decide whether to light candles to welcome Shabbat and other holidays. We decide for ourselves whether to attend services or work on Yom Kippur, to eat or to shun pork and shellfish; to build a Sukkah; to attend Shabbat services; to make tikkun olam, repair of the world, a priority in our lives. Are the mitzvot, the commandments, an essential part of our lives, or are they just pieces of a religion that we pick and choose when the mood hits? The Reform Movement is clear on this. Rabbi Saks often says, “choice through knowledge.” If we want Judaism to enrich our lives, it falls to us to educate ourselves and to decide for ourselves.

We are obligated to learn about Judaism, its prayers and traditions, its holidays and guidelines. We can learn from Rabbi Saks or by reading, taking adult education classes, asking our children what they learned in religious school, or by asking questions. Only then, after we have learned and begun to understand, and usually, practiced a bit, can we make a valid decision as to what will add meaning to our lives.
I want to close with something written by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the UAHC (predecessor of the Union for Reform Judaism):

As a Reform Jew, the only option that I have is to decide for myself what binds me. I will study Torah and seek guidance from my rabbis and teachers, but ultimately the decision rests with me alone. The autonomous individual deciding for himself or herself is both a central precept of Reform Judaism and also an objective description of reality in American Jewish life. For us and the great majority of American Jews, there is no leader or institution with the authority to impose Torah upon us; we can only impose it on ourselves.
The burden of making such a choice is often intimidating, but it is also exhilarating. I cherish the freedom that my tradition extends to me. Indeed, that is precisely why I am a Reform Jew.

Jewish moral autonomy: Responses to Herbert Bronstein
Eric H. Yoffie, Elliot N. Dorff, Emanuel Feldman, Barack Fishman, Tikkun, Jul/Aug 1999; 14, 4 Ethnic NewsWatch pg. 45

Sources:

Mitzvah and autonomy: The Oxymoron of Reform Judaism
Herbert Bronstein, Tikkun; Jul/Aug 1999; 14, 4; Ethnic NewsWatch pg. 41

And

Jewish moral autonomy: Responses to Herbert Bronstein
Eric H. Yoffie, Elliot N. Dorff, Emanuel Feldman, Barack Fishman, Tikkun, Jul/Aug 1999; 14, 4 Ethnic NewsWatch pg. 45

CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly Spring 2020, What Do We Mean When We Say, “We are Not Halachic”? by Leon A. Morris, p. 9

Photo by Alex Quezada on Unsplash

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