Posts Tagged ‘Reform Judaism’


Jerusalem and the Second Temple fell to Rome in 70 CE. The Sages saw in this event dirty laundry—what Jews didn’t want to talk about. The tragedy occurred because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred. Not of Rome for Judea but of Jews towards each other. Jews around the globe need to take notice. So do non-Jewish Americans.

Today, discrete groups of haredim—ultra-orthodox Jews—maintain great antipathy towards each other. They unite in their distaste—often hatred—for Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular Jews—the majority of Jews in Israel and the U.S.

The haredim deny Israelis in the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) movements religious equality. In 1948, David Ben Gurion gave this then tiny group full charge of all religious lifecycle events to bring them into his governing coalition. With their high birthrate, the haredim grew far faster than other Israeli Jewish groups. In Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s multi-party coalition, they wield considerable political power. This includes preventing Progressive women from praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) by themselves or with men, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and reading from the Torah.

The Jerusalem Post (9-6) reported statements by Shlomo Amar, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, that Reform Jews “… don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]. But no one should think that they want to pray. They want to desecrate the holy.”

Sinat chinam! Jews seeking religious equality very much observe Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday) and Yom Kippur (beginning this year on September 29 and coincident with Shabbat). Their interpretation and observance of the Law is not that of Rabbi Amar and others in the ultra-Orthodox community—who often contend among themselves regarding minutiae. But it is serious, studious and heartfelt, reflecting a love of Torah along with an embrace of the twenty-first century.

Divisiveness also impacts Israel’s political realm. The left has faded. The far-right now abhors centrists, who prefer a two-state solution given sound security guarantees to a greater Israel disenfranchising Arab citizens—or denying citizenship. Despite statements to the contrary, Netanyahu continues to appease the far-right. This while facing allegations of corruption and his wife Sara’s imminent indictment on corruption charges.

The hatred keeps on coming. Bibi and Sara’s son Yair recently posted on Facebook a cartoon using classic anti-Semitic images of his father’s political foes, including billionaire George Soros and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Yair withdrew the meme but not before it elicited praise from American neo-Nazis.

Israel and world Jewry see Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas—among others—as security or existential threats. The challenges they present must be faced with resolve. But Israel confronts an even greater challenge—disunity.

The U.S. exhibits the same dirty laundry. Liberals and conservatives raise fists and shout each other down. Varying groups claim sole knowledge of civic and religious truth. Each seeks to impose its views on the others.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, offers my favorite biblical verse: “Choose life” (30:19). We possess free will. Using it, we can air our dirty laundry and rid ourselves of its stench. Otherwise, we open ourselves to grave risks as reflected in the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly’s beloved character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

To all Jews everywhere: L’Shana Tovah—Happy New Year. To everyone else: shalom—peace.

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Two weeks ago, my friend, Ellen, delivered a drash (mini-sermon) during Friday-night Shabbat services. She proposed that kashrut (Jewish dietary law) divides people at a time when globalism seeks to unite humanity. Meals bring people together. But strictly kosher Jews don’t go to non-kosher restaurants and avoid eating in non-kosher homes.

Ellen’s is the position Reform Judaism took two hundred years ago. The chukim—the Torah’s non-ethical commandments for which no rational explanation is given—were considered irrelevant to (newly) modern Jews. Why no pork or shellfish? Why no mixing meat with dairy? Theories abound from disease prevention to separation from polytheists, but no one knows.

Orthodox Jews keep kosher because this represents God’s will. Kashrut remains the standard for the Conservative movement but is not widely practiced among its members. Some Reform Jews like me eat kosher-style. We avoid forbidden foods (treif) and separate meat from dairy but don’t buy meat from a kosher butcher or have separate dishes for meat and dairy meals.

Kosher-style eating enables non-Orthodox and “post-denominational” Jews to make dietary practices a conscious part of their lives and still dine with others. In restaurants, I skip shellfish and eat fish with fins and scales. Pork, including ham and bacon, often fill the menu. I choose chicken, beef or lamb. Do mashed potatoes with butter or milk come as a side? I ask for extra vegetables. And I can always order a salad. True, I find restaurant menus limiting. But when I eat out with friends, I always enjoy what’s most important—their company.

Admittedly, I sometimes ask: Why set myself apart? That leads me to ask: Why do others set themselves apart from me? Why do they eat pork and shellfish? Why do they eat cheeseburgers? And more important, why do they think I should?

People worldwide have distinct dietary practices. Muslims don’t eat pork but do mix meat and dairy. Some eat shellfish, some don’t. Hindus refrain from beef. Then there are vegetarians, vegans and a complex number of allied groups.

Should we all have the same diet? If so, who creates the menu? And what other practices should be recognized not as preferences but as law? Before I retired, did I induce conflict by not working on Friday night and Saturday? Do I fracture the global society by attending Shabbat services and Torah Study? Do I create civil disorder by being in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

If peace depends on foregoing “tribalism” and adopting universalism, whose is the default position? Will those who claim it cling to or cast off Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? Will San Francisco see the last of parades on St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year?

At the end of her drash, Ellen invited anyone to join her for lunch while she eats a BLT. “You can have a tuna sandwich,” she added. She was referring—jokingly—to me. And that’s just the point. We can keep to ourselves, because that’s our right. Or we can eat as we wish and still sit at the same table, which Carolyn and I did with Ellen and her husband, David, last night.

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I generally see the glass as half filled. Some friends find this amusing. In a world filled by deceit and violence, it’s a real challenge to retain a sense of optimism. Still, I do—particularly during the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah—this past Wednesday night and yesterday morning—congregants and guests filled the sanctuary at Congregation Sherith Israel. (The Reform movement, as in Israel, marks only the first day of the New Year.) Similarly, worshippers will fill the pews on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—next Friday night and Saturday. In truth, this will represent an anomaly. Yet something positive will take place.

Many Jews active in synagogue life may raise an eyebrow at “twice-a-year” Jews filling so many of the temple’s seats. These people almost never come to Shabbat or holiday services.  They don’t attend Torah study or adult education classes. In fact, they rarely find reason to walk through our doors. While they may pursue secular Jewish activities, Judaism has little or no place in their lives.

Nonetheless, although they have every opportunity to totally break from Judaism, they maintain their synagogue memberships or buy High Holy Day tickets. They feel impelled to touch base with the past and something within themselves.

Touching base should not be minimized. Granted, many—perhaps most—Jews will not attend High Holy Day services at all. But others, who find religion of no appeal, cannot cut the cord. Do they feel guilty, given the historic sufferings of the Jewish people? Do they fear disappointing their parents, living or dead? Do they consider attendance a form of noblesse oblige? Must they let the religious community know that while they have little interest in it, they are big-hearted enough to offer a measure of support?

Perhaps a qualified “yes” informs each answer. I suspect, however, that something more is involved. I suspect that many “twice-a-year Jews” would like to find a path towards God—however they might define God—but don’t know how. I suspect that touching base keeps alive the idea that they remain capable of making a commitment to Judaism besides the writing of checks.

I suspect that in a society grown increasingly secular and often devoid of lasting values, “twice-a-year” Jews hunger for an experience to take them outside of themselves and beyond the material objects of modern “worship.” They seek to connect with something larger and more meaningful. Likewise, I suspect that many Christians who go to church only on Christmas and perhaps Easter experience the same longing. They express a non-denominational, very human desire to find deeper meaning in a bigger world.

I’m glad that our sanctuary fills up even if empty seats abound the rest of the year. I also understand that touching base alone won’t guarantee liberal Judaism’s survival in North America. But touching base keeps the door open. It maintains the possibility that a spark—perhaps many sparks—someday will be lit.

Sometimes—and I write this as an optimist with his feet on the ground—that’s all we can ask.

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