Vneuser, rabbi jacob
Vneuser, rabbi jacob

Hello again, Reform Judaism youve got the right stuff

Once upon a time, there was a young man, a third-generation American who was raised in a classical Reform temple, who in the Reform manner celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah and who was confirmed in the Reform rite.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner

He was inspired by his temple’s rabbi to himself become a Reform rabbi. He held national office in the National Federation of Temple Youth, and he was admitted to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

Then, on the very day this young man was supposed to begin studies at Hebrew Union College, he instead entered the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the intellectual citadel of Conservative Judaism. He agreed to give up the lobster dinners, the veal parmigiana and the BLT sandwiches that he had loved, and even to quit smoking on the Sabbath, as admission to JTS demanded.

The decision was not the result of a dramatic change of convictions. He simply thought he would get a better Jewish education at JTS than at HUC. Six years later, he was ordained by JTS as a Conservative rabbi.

That young man was me. I would go on to raise my children in the Conservative movement.

Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling.

After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.

To explain why I have returned to Reform Judaism, I point to Reform Judaism’s demographic preeminence, and how it can be explained by the appeal of its ideas to American Jews and their relevance to the circumstances in which we live.

Broadly speaking, I would suggest, there are two categories of Judaic religious systems in existence today: self-segregationist and integrationist.

Self-segregationist varieties of Judaism seek to isolate their adherents from outside cultural influences. They see Judaism as the only inherently valuable source of knowledge and do not emphasize science, literature or secular history in their yeshivas, only Midrash and Talmud. Self-segregationist Jews wear distinctive clothing specifically to set themselves apart from the world around them.

By contrast, an integrationist Judaism is any Judaic religious system that takes as its urgent question the issue of how to be Jewish and something else. Integrationist Judaisms join the practice of Judaism with another

cultural affinity. They make space for other commitments besides those of Judaism. The various integrationist Judaisms include Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and so-called Modern Orthodoxy as well.

Over the past half-century, however, the integrationist Judaisms have sometimes seemed to lose sight of their convictions. Modern Orthodoxy has been under siege from its right flank, while even Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites. The outcome of this reversion to tradition has been to effectively present

the integrationist Judaisms as less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy. Rather than settle for a second-rate traditional Judaism, some among the younger generations have opted for the real thing and “returned” — via the baal teshuva movement — to Orthodoxy.

The sorry state of Conservative Judaism — once the giant of American Judaisms — proves this point. Conservative Judaism has increasingly lost the minority of its members who privilege above all else the Judaic component of its message. That group has chosen the Orthodox or even the haredi option. Meanwhile, many more have left for the Reform movement or joined the ranks of the unaffiliated. The center has not held and will not hold.

Reform Judaism, however, has intrinsic strengths that should enable it to resist the self-defeating tendency toward reversionism. From the very beginning, Reform Judaism has presented itself as the Judaism defined by the American condition.

More recently, Reform Jews have allowed their denomination to be painted as an inferior brand of Judaism — a set of compromises of convenience. Reform Judaism needs to stop apologizing for itself.

I would suggest that a platform for a 21st-century Reform Judaism should have three essential planks.

The first would be to reaffirm the tradition of reason and criticism that has characterized Reform Judaism from its inception. Reform Judaism founded modern learning in Judaism. Its Scripture was not dictated word for word by a supernatural being from outer space. Its theology does not promise pie in the sky when you die. The power of Reform Judaism from its 19th-century origins has been its courage to say it stands for the Judaism of today.

The second plank would be to expand the realm of the secular that Reform Judaism defined as legitimate. Reform Judaism accords to halacha a voice but not a veto.

The third plank is to affirm the tradition of individualism that Reform Judaism has fostered, to validate the individual conscience that Reform recognized. I was brought up to affirm what I found personally meaningful and to dismiss as irrelevant what did not fit.

These three commitments of Reform Judaism secure the freedom of modern Jews. And they amount to a Judaism that has profound support in our tradition.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner
is a prominent Judaism scholar and a senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College in New York. A longer version of this piece, which was adapted from an address he delivered Dec. 1 at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, appeared in the Forward.