shhhh . . . I’m religious . . .

What’s that now?  You say Reform Jews are not Orthodox?  That’s true . . . I didn’t say Orthodox.  I said “religious“.

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.[1] Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

I’m a religious person.  I have a very deep faith, and I Believe.

No Kool-Aid, compound lock-downs, or multiple wives (although, let’s be honest, think how much faster things would get done!).

Just plain old God, Torah and Israel (both Am/People and Eretz/Land): Judaism.

I’m heavily Reconstructionist in my leanings; I Believe deeply in the Power of Peoplehood, this Civilization that has managed to survive so much over the last 5000 years.  For me, halacha (the Jewish Way) IS obligatory, not necessarily because God ordained it, but because our People have embodied it for 5000 years.  It is a major part of what defines us as Jews, as opposed to, say, Unitarians.  It is our DNA.

The word “halacha” (Jewish law, encompassing stuff from the Torah, Talmud and other various sources) is a lightening rod for controversy over here in the Reform Universe.  “We are not a halachik movement!” (a movement that believes in strict adherence to halacha -True.) “Halacha is not obligatory!” (depends upon how you see halachah.)  “Halacha is outdated, antiquated and useless to us as modern Jews.” (Wrong. IMHO.)

The root of the Hebrew term used to refer to Jewish law, halacha, means “go” or “walk.” Halacha, then, is “the way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life, encompassing civil, criminal, and religious law.  For a very detailed (and pretty accurate) run-down of the term “halakha” and it’s meaning/history see this Wikipedia entry.  See this section for info on present-day views of halacha.  I’ll quote one part:

Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism both hold that modern views of how the Torah and rabbinic law developed imply that the body of rabbinic Jewish law is no longer normative (seen as binding) on Jews today. Those in the traditionalist wing of these movements believe that the halakha represents a personal starting-point, holding that each Jew is obligated to interpret the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish works for themselves, and this interpretation will create separate commandments for each person.

Those in the liberal and classical wings of Reform believe that in this day and era most Jewish religious rituals are no longer necessary, and many hold that following most Jewish laws is actually counter-productive. They propose that Judaism has entered a phase of ethical monotheism, and that the laws of Judaism are only remnants of an earlier stage of religious evolution, and need not be followed.

I fall squarely into the “traditionalist wing” of our movement.  I am grateful that Reform Judaism has begun to embrace what I believe is an integral part of our DNA:  The Jewish Way as it has been passed down through generations.  Does that mean I think people who believe differently in the Reform movement are wrong?  NOPE.  To each his own, I say.  Embrace what works for you.

However.  I do believe learning, exploring, and making these decisions is obligatory.  I cannot get on board with categorical rejection of all things Jewish.  IMHO there are parameters.  Future blog post.  The evolutionary nature of halacha is what makes it possible to be a Reform Jew and believe in the binding quality of this system.  If there were no way, built in, to accommodate modernity, that would be an issue.  But I believe there is, on most issues.  Citing Wikipedia again (I know!  But it’s a factually accurate article):

Throughout history, halakha has, within limits, been a flexible system, despite its internal rigidity, addressing issues on the basis of circumstance and precedent. The classical approach has permitted new rulings regarding [things like -ed] modern technology. [For example – ed] These rulings guide the observant about the proper use of electricity on the Sabbath and holidays within the parameters of halakha. (Many scholarly tomes have been published and are constantly being reviewed ensuring the maximum coordination between electrical appliances and technology with the needs of the religiously observant Jew, with a great range of opinions.)

This is but one example of how the issues of modernity can be addressed within the structure of halacha.  You or I may not follow those exact guidelines, but it is the process of making that decision that is important.  Traditional Jewish law is our jumping-off point – it’s embedded in our DNA – and from this we can make informed, Jewish choices that reflect our lives today and what is meaningful to us.  And this, I embrace.

Now.  I’m not gonna say that I believe every single thing in modern life can be viewed through the lens of halacha.  There are things I believe were codified at a time when said things were seen as a very real threat to our faith and survival, whereas today, not so much.  Given what we now know about life, the universe, human nature, etc, IMHO there are things that are obsolete.

My next blog post will be examples of what I am talking about, both in regards to interpretations of things that are seen as “stuff Reform Jews don’t do” and things that I think are obsolete in today’s 2012 world.  Look for it Thursday.  And don’t hesitate to chime in with your thoughts!

21 thoughts on “shhhh . . . I’m religious . . .

    • excellent question Ruchi! I’m going to get there . . . it’s a post in itself. For now, see the Wikipedia article linked – it’s pretty good, and has the standard “party lines” for each of the denominations.

      I’ll just say this: one’s theology and the ideology that evolves from that, is the big diff between R & O, IMO. Did or did not God reveal the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai? Is the Torah the direct word of God? These are the beginning questions . .

        • Ok, briefly:

          Orthodox Theology: Torah MiSinai – literally. God gave the Torah to Moshe, Moshe to the Israelites, and everything is derived from this. God is an active being. The mitzvot both in the Torah itself and derived from it are obligatory and binding. It is not possible to drive on Shabbes or eat shrimp and be an Orthodox Jew.

          Reform Theology: Torah MiSinai – figuratively. Moshe was a real person, the Israelites were real people, and something big happened out there in the Desert, but the Torah itself was written down by humans, inspired by events as they experienced them. God can be an active being – but can also be simply a presence in one’s life – or not. Mitzvot are not obligatory or binding. It is quite possible to drive on Shabbes and eat shrimp and be a Reform Jew.

          • Gonna weight in here myself on one point:

            (in my not-so-humble opinion) It *is* possible to drive on Shabbat, eat shrimp, etc and be an Orthodox Jew.

            The key here is that Orthodoxy in general is more sensitive to the fact that, if they do so, they stand *in opposition to* halacha.

            This takes the conversation outside of “who’s ya daddy” (ie: who wrote the Torah – God, Moses, or some amorphous group of “them”) and into the realm of “how do I respond to this law”.

            Sure, having the law given by God makes it carry more weight. That’s fine as you analyze how you stand and why you are OK standing there (for the moment or for life).

            BUT the point remains that (as I see it) Orthodoxy isn’t confused that it’s a law they are violating. There is no attempt to mitigate, justify, rationalize, etc. You broke a law. Put on your big boy undies and take responsibility for your choice.

            Some people choose not to drive with seatbelts. Or to go over the speed limit. Or to knowingly fudge on their taxes. They aren’t confused about whether or not there is a law prohibiting this behavior. But they stand in opposition to it. If they get caught, they will suffer consequences.

            The difference between human law and halachic law is that you ALWAYS get caught, because YOU are with you in every moment, and thus you “catch” yourself in the act. And then you need to (or at least ought to) take responsibility.

            On Rosh Hashana water was pouring through my roof, into the kids bedroom and soaking their mattress. I was up in the attic, lights turned on, towels in hand, sponging and wringing and doing everything I could to reduce the damage (not to mention emotional upheaval going on below). In the process, I broke several halachic violations (maybe dozens. There’s a lot I don’t know.)

            At the moment I decided to do that, I made a choice (I actually said it out loud, although nobody was listening at that particular moment) that I could not stand by and just let this happen, halacha or not. MAYBE, “bedi eved” (after the fact) I would find out there was an exception for that situation. But at 2am, I wasn’t about to call dial-a-Rav. I chose to act, knowing that act was a violation.

  1. Actually, that’s the practical/theological difference between Reform and Reconstructionist. Reform (as a movement) maintains that halacha in any form is NOT binding, although I know that most clergy and many Reform Jews individually undertake observance. Recon is premised on the idea that halacha is binding, but that each community determines its own parameters for what halacha is, and once agreed upon, members of the community undertake to bind themselves to it.

    So really, you’re Reconstructionist. :)

    • Ha! True on one level! My theology is highly reconstructionist. On the other level, because the Reform movement places a high value on informed choice, I am simply choosing a lot. I also think that the Reform movement places value on the process of making these decisions, and in fact would say that we are obligated to go through the “Jewish process” to come to whatever conclusions or decisions we make – there are Reform responsa to this effect, and there have been issues where the Reform movement has taken a stand and said, “while we will not tell you what to do, we encourage our clergy and constituents to follow X path for Y reasons . . .” Etc.

      • So you can really present as conservative, reconstructionist, or orthodox, but actually be reform, if it’s based on informed choice? I thought autonomy was the hallmark of reform ideology – similar to what ET states above – whereas viewing the commandments as binding (whether you actually fulfill them or not) is the hallmark of orthodox theology.

        • Informed choice IS autonomy – everyone chooses what works for them. Reform ideology is exactly that – halacha is not binding. For me, it’s the PROCESS that is obligatory. Making JEWISH choices. And, I think, while the movement would certainly not say the process is obligatory, I believe the Reform movement values the process, to the point that much of our responsa are decided by going through this process.

          • Ok. Not to be nitpicky, but I’ve always wanted to understand this.
            1. If my informed choice leads me to view the mitzvot as obligatory, am I no longer reform but rather Orthodox?
            2. What if there is a process, but it’s very loosely driven by ignorance or peer pressure? Or, what if the process (motzi/shrimp) above would have weeded out the motzi and retained the shrimp… now what?

            • ok good questions!

              1. yes. if you come to believe that the mitzvot are obligatory and binding, especially if you come to believe in an Orthodox theology, you are Orthodox, or on the path to it. HOWEVER. I know Reform Jews who consider mitzvot obligatory, but are active in the movement (some are clergy), who are dedicated, ideological Reform Jews. They are shomer shabbes, shomer kashrus, some have taken on traditional taharat hamishpacha. For many, the motivation is NOT because God set this in stone (literally hahahaha :-) ). It is their commitment to perpetuating the traditions of our people. I guess I think that the WHY is what separates observant Reform from Orthodox. The theology.

              2. so many Reform Jews ARE driven by ignorance and peer pressure. This is what I have to decided to work publicly to change, hence my sudden foray into more public blogging :-)

              If someone decides that after the bar/bat mitzvah service to have a reception with no connection to Jewish ritual, I personally have no problem with that. They have chosen to celebrate their child’s coming-of-age in a traditionally Jewish way in the presence of their community and God. No shul that I know of would simply “perform” a prayer service for that child/family without the child/family going through a process of learning, praying, doing acts of Chesed, etc. So for me, a shrimp lunch does not cancel the Jewishness of the bar/bat mitzvah. IF a family decided to simply celebrate a child’s 12th/13th birthday with a big party similar to a bar/bat mitzvah reception but with no bar/bat mitzvah process, tefillah, etc, this is not a Jewish choice IMO. Even if they say motzi over the biggest challah in the state. Party on a 13th birthday does not = bar/bat mitzvah. IMHO. I am pretty sure there are people that don’t agree with me though.

    • I believe they are representative of what the Reform movement believes. The general constituency? Not so much. And it’s because our movement has a long and sad history of under-educating its membership. It would not surprise me if your average Reform Jew explained the difference between Reform and Orthodox as “They do all that stuff and we don’t”, i.e. the WHAT as opposed to the WHY. But, I hope there are people out there reading this that will say I’m wrong.

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