Reform Judaism, by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

This post was kindly written by my Blog Colleague Rabbi Rebecca Schorr of the blog Frume Sarah.  It gives a short, but comprehensive view of some core principles that define the Reform Movement.  This is by no means complete, but it addresses some questions we’ve had via a few posts on Out of the Ortho Box.

I will reiterate here:  respectful and engaging dialogue is encouraged.  Please feel free to read previous posts and conversations, or head over to OOTOB to see exactly what I mean.  I absolutely encourage discussion, disagreement, etc.  I don’t only publish comments that are positive and/or agree with me.  HOWEVER, snark, nastiness, or lashon hara of any kind will be immediately deleted.

Thank you to Rabbi Schorr for agreeing to write this.

The question of “Who is a Jew?” is one that dates back to Biblical times. As a people, lineage was necessary in order to protect the integrity of different family lines as well as national identity.  Though originally tracing genealogy through the paternal line, it was during Talmudic times that one’s status began to follow that of the mother. The Reform Movement, reflecting on the cultural reality of the high incidence of intermarriage, considered this social and religious dilemma on-and-off for more than sixty years before taking an official position that has come to known as “patrilineal descent.” This term is misleading because, in actuality, the Reform Movement requires that a child born to one Jewish parent MUST be educated in and reared as a Jew to the exclusion of any and all other faiths. Meaning – a child born to a Jewish mother but is baptized in the Church and identifies as a Christian would be considered Christian.

The Torah is our people’s account of our ongoing relationship with God. While most Reform Jews would reject the notion that God dictated every word to Moses, many of those same Jews would acknowledge that the author(s) of the Torah were truly God-inspired. Human authorship need not lessen the powerful lessons, laws, and messages that have sustained and enriched Jewish life for three millennia.

One of the hallmarks of Reform Judaism is the belief in personal autonomy. Struggling to maintain a livable balance between tradition and modernity, as well as in reaction to the Enlightenment, the early reformers championed the idea that with education, one is able to make informed choices about personal practices and beliefs. Furthermore, we are encouraged to engage in those ritual mitzvot that bring meaning and sanctity into our lives. Because of this, it is possible for a Reform Jew to keep kosher in a way that would meet OU standards but is doing it for reasons other than it is commanded to do so.

Reform Judaism is not monolithic. It varies from shul to shul, from home to home, and from person to person. Though a great number of Reform Jews identify with the Reform movement because they falsely believe that it’s a “as long as you feel good. do-nothing” way of being Jewish, it would be inaccurate to assert that the Reform Movement endorses an easy way out when it comes to beliefs and behaviours.


22 thoughts on “Reform Judaism, by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

  1. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere: The Rebbetzin Rocks « Frume Sarah's World

  2. I do not wish to offend anyone, but from what I have seen (I have lived here in the US for a little under 9 years) the interfaith children are being brought up with 2 religions and being told that they can decide when they get older. They even call it mingling of the two cultures. As if that Judaism is not a religion anymore. Exclusion would make sense. While I teach quite often the classroom turns into a comparative religion discussion. That would be fine but quite often that is not my objective and I do not intend to rely on a child’s version of it to lead the classroom. This year it is a little better since there is exclusion in the 6th grade class that I am teaching.
    As far as giving meaning and sanctity into our lives that is the struggle that we go through with the Mitzvot and Rituals, teaching with love and faith so the next generation will pass them on.

  3. Hi Ruth.

    You are speaking of something a little different, though. Your example is of interfaith children being reared in two religions. The resolution passed by the Reform Movement regarding Patrilineal Descent clearly states that the child must be reared in Judaism alone and identify solely with Judaism — to the exclusion to all other faiths. We do not endorse the “mingling” of two religions. That being said, when there is a parent who follows a different religion, we do encourage families to acknowledge the religion and traditions of the non-Jewish parent. (That is a whole other blog post.)

  4. Well done, R! It is so hard to write about the beliefs of an overarching theology while acknowledging the differences from home to home. I’m sure this post could go on and on. And you should! (When you can!)

    I’ve loved the conversations at Ruthie’s, here, and elsewhere. You know I cal myself “reformadox.” That’s not only a whole other post but already was a whole other post. I might do more on it in the future.

    Loving it, ladies!

    • Thanks, N. I made The Rebbetzin give me very clear guidelines in order to maintain brevity.

      I think these dialogues are so important. Let’s keep on talking!

  5. I live in ohio and I think that it has to be rough on any jewish person living here no matter if they practice reform judaims or whatever. Hopefully the times will change but I think that the majority of people living in ohio need to know more about judaism if possible.

  6. Kain, I live in Ohio too (as does the Rebbetzin, in Cleveland). I find the community to be amazing. While it’s small in comparison to “the big guys”, it still has a huge variety and a lot of opportunities to learn and explore. Many MANY more than a lot of other places.

    That said, your comment is not intrinsically wrong. “People” need to know more about Judaism.

    Jews of all stripes need to have easy access to information about the other “flavors” to replace what might be outdated information or stereotypes.

    And non-Jews need the ability to understand Judaism in the context of society, culture and their own religion.

  7. So glad to see the conversation happening in a responsible environment such as this. Too often, the media becomes the “go-to” vehicle for Jewish information. Reform Judaism is so much more than “anything goes” (every stream of Judaism should challenge and inspire).

  8. Thanks Rebecca. I did not know that Reform Judaism believes that you can “convert out.” I didn’t know any segment of Judaism believes that. I actually know a (born Jewish) woman in this category – except both her parents were Jewish, so not sure how that would impact the case – who became a Messianic Jew (ie, accepted Jesus). Would she be considered Jewish by Reform standards? She missionized to Jews and everything. Happy part: she came back to Judaism. What would that process involve – can you just rejoin the religion?

  9. A Jew can never really “check out” out of Judaism (in fact, mikvah is not necessary for the Jew who is Messianic, and then abandons his messianic beliefs to return to the Jewish community). To me, Frume Sarah meant (and I agree) that a baptized Jew who attends church is not regarded as a Reform Jew (a “DNA” Jew they may be, but not a Reform Jew).

    • I also believe that a Jew can never check out. A baptized Jew is not regarded as a Reform Jew, but then, neither is an Orthodox Jew regarded as a Reform Jew. However, the Reform movement will not consider the former *Jewish* period [news to me], whereas the latter is considered Jewish.

      • Ruchi, no one can be stripped of their Judaism, and a Jew-by-birth who is not practicing Judaism is still a Jew in the eyes of Reform Judaism. However, if said Jew-by-birth is messianic in belief or practice (or actively engaged in some other religion), than that person cannot be recognized as a REFORM Jew.

        • Shuki, that’s what I believe as well, but see Rabbi Schorr’s quote from the original post: “Meaning – a child born to a Jewish mother but is baptized in the Church and identifies as a Christian would be considered Christian.” How does that jive?

  10. In the case of a Messianic Jew, while we would recognize that the individual is technically Jewish, we also recognize that what that individual is practicing is not Judaism. We would not count him or her towards a minyan or extend any of the other privileges that are reserved for Jews. Belief in Jesus is not consistent with the Jewish religion.

    Should that same individual choose to renounce all ties with Christianity, which is what Messianic Judaism really is,Shuki is correct when he says that a mikvah is not required. I would, however, use the opportunity to do some type of reaffirmation ceremony to welcome that person back into the community. Much in the way that I have done such ceremonies for people who have discovered their families were once Jewish but lived as Conversos at one time to escape the Inquisition.

    • That is different from Reform to Orthodox. My husband’s family and my family would not require any reaffirmation ceremony. My husband and my son can go right up to have an Aliyah. Whereas if we had become Messianic I believe our return would be different. Just proving that reform and orthodox or any of the others we still consider us all Jewish, in spite of our families anger with us.

      • A reaffirmation is not required. I do suggest it, however, because I believe that rituals are powerful vehicles to mark transitions such as status change.

  11. 7 months late to the party–this is a really interesting post. Thanks. Frankly I didn’t know that Reform Judaism had rules like this regarding practicing two religions.

    In case anyone’s still out there, what does “practicing” mean? Does a Christmas tree and cookies for Santa make the kids not Reform? Going to church once a year for an Easter egg hunt?

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