Reform Transforms

A tilt toward more traditional observance is only one aspect of the changes sweeping through the Reform movement.

Anyone looking at Melissa Simon, dressed in a denim skirt and sweater, walk by on a Jerusalem street would automatically assume she is one of the hundreds of young Orthodox women who have come to the holy city to study Torah.

They would be half right. Melissa is in Jerusalem this year to study Torah. But she is doing it under the auspices of the Hebrew Union College (HUC). In four years, after completing her studies at one of the college's U.S. campuses, she will graduate as an ordained Reform rabbi.

For Melissa, who speaks with the passionate self-confidence of a born teacher - tempered by a tendency to blush at her own displays of eloquence - dressing like a yeshiva girl is a "subversive" practice, a double-edged sword aimed at undermining the preconceptions of both Reform and Orthodox Jews.

Melissa actively campaigns for homosexual rights and abortion rights, and she is an ardent feminist. Yet, she says, "I decided several years ago, while in college, to reclaim tzniut, modesty, in dress and attitude, as a practice and value for the Reform movement. I found it made me think about Judaism every time I got dressed. That's a key part of the whole thing - to enlarge the picture of what being Jewish is about."

Melissa, who observes Shabbat and kashrut and is deeply interested in other areas of halakha that have been long-neglected by Reform, is part of a growing trend that has transformed the movement's avant garde and is redefining what it means to be a Reform Jew.

Although some of her classmates here for the year in rabbinical school still do not wear skullcaps, even while praying, and lament the hardship of living in a city where it is "difficult to find good shellfish," others wear skullcaps and even tzitzit - prayer shawls, even when they are not praying, and "are in heaven" because Jerusalem's multitude of kosher restaurants means they can finally eat out whenever they feel like it.

The movement as a whole has become welcoming and tolerant of halakhic observance, reversing a 150-year history in which Reform defined itself in part by its rejection of traditional practices. "Fifteen years ago," says Rabbi Rachel Sabath, who was one of the first HUC students to raise the flag of Reform's return to halakha, "I was told that I would have a hard time getting a job in the Reform movement, because I refused to do things like take the youth group to an amusement park on Saturday afternoon. But now I am embraced, hired and asked to speak in Reform congregations about my path as an observant yet Reform Jew. They'll go out of their way to accommodate me - I'm told, `We'll do it on Sunday,' or `We'll come to you.'"

A new openness to "the whole array of mitzvot," in the words of the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement, drafted by Reform rabbinic leaders as a deliberate repudiation of the movement's historic - and notorious - 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, has become part of the movement's official doctrine. Some Reform leaders see this sea change as a form of repentance, or teshuva.

Searching for the secret formula

In the past, says Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who served as president of Hebrew Union College until 2001, Reform saw its task as radically transforming the Torah. The new task, he says, is changing the Jew. "Our starting point is that the Reform Jew of the beginning of the 21st century needs to be transformed," Zimmerman writes, in an essay called Transforming the Reform Jew. "Transform means to question and challenge the times in which we live. ... Transform means to accept Torah (in the broadest sense, in all its aspects) as the starting point of the encounter, to accept teshuva as the primary category for Jews in our time."

This tilt toward more traditional observance is only one aspect of the changes sweeping through the Reform movement as it renegotiates its relationship to modernity, to tradition and to Jewish peoplehood - all the while relentlessly searching for the secret formula or strategy that might stay the floodwaters of assimilation threatening much of their constituency.

Yet Orthodox ideologues would do well, for the moment, to quell triumphal cries in seeing Reform's religious ferment. For what is emerging from the Reform movement is something more subtle, complex and paradoxical than some form of Orthodox lite: a more self-confident and religiously alive form of liberal Judaism, closer to tradition, yet as subversive of our stereotypical assumptions about Jewish reality as the figure of future rabbi Melissa campaigning for homosexual rights looking for all the world like a modern Orthodox yeshiva girl.

To understood how far Reform has come, it is important to remember where it began. From its inception in Germany, in the early decades of the 19th century, Reform's embrace of modernity was nearly total. Rituals or beliefs that Reform leaders found irrational - and believed would impede Jewish acceptance in gentile society - were excised wholesale from the Reform repertoire, as a matter of principle. By 1883, the Reform movement in the United States had flamboyantly rejected the laws of kashrut. A dinner held in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College featured flagrantly non-kosher delicacies, and was recorded in the annals of history as the treife banquet. The Platform also rejected the notion of Jewish peoplehood; the Jews had once been a nation, it argued, but were now something more exalted - individuals united by a religion whose pure essence could be summed up in two words: ethical monotheism.

Replacing the commandments and Jewish people-hood was a powerful belief in science and progress, as well as in a God who ruled over a world evolving inexorably toward rationality and goodness. Perhaps most audaciously, the Reform movement believed that modernity itself contained the seeds of messianic fulfillment - the first flowering of the redemption. "We recognize, in the modern era," says the Pittsburgh Platform, "the approaching of the realization of Israel's great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men."

Isaac Meyer Wise, the outstanding leader of American Reform Judaism during the last decades of the 19th century, believed that, purified of its primitive elements and distilled into its essence, Judaism would, within decades, become the religion of all humankind. Zionism was despised as a small-minded, nationalistic throwback.

According to Rabbi David Ellenson, the current president of HUC and a passionate Zionist, when Rabbi Kaufman Kohler became president of HUC at the beginning of the 20th century, "He fired every Zionist faculty member, and gave speeches to the students saying they could choose between the pure God of universal progress and love or the Godless nationalists."

Movement is virtually unrecognizable

The movement began to change its attitude toward Zionism in its 1937 Columbus Platform. But in its religious beliefs and practices, Reform remained, for many decades, largely static - Protestant in its aesthetic and style of worship. Services were mostly in English, and a professional cantor accompanied by a choir and organ sang the liturgy, while the worshipers remained seated and passive. Friday night worship was scheduled for after dinner, not at the traditional sunset hour. Congregants had little knowledge of Jewish sources. Even the rabbis, though eloquent and knowledgeable when it came to American politics and Western culture, were not necessarily Judaic scholars. "There are two kinds of Reform rabbis," one prominent mid-20th century Reform leader once quipped. "Those who believe in ethical monotheism, and those who know Hebrew."

But now, five years into the 21st century, the Reform movement - or at least some of it - has changed to such an extent as to be virtually unrecognizable. Bill Berk, a soft-spoken, engaging man in his mid-50s, is the rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona, a Reform Temple that many in the movement say they look to as a model. The prayers, which are sung enthusiastically by the entire congregation, rather than by the cantor and choir, are in Hebrew. The services are scheduled for 6:15 P.M., approximating the sunset onset of Shabbat, as is traditional. Berk says that new worshipers who grew up with Classical Reform are often dumbfounded when they walk into his Friday night services. "They absolutely don't believe that it's Reform," he says.

What has catalyzed the changes that are redefining Reform, transforming it from the quintessentially modern religion it was into a new, postmodern era? The answer is multifaceted, with theological notions and sociological conditions fitting into each other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. One of the two or three most powerful leaders of Reform today, Ellenson, who was appointed president of HUC in 2001, is one of the finest minds studying the puzzle - and is also emblematic of the shifting face of the movement today. Ellenson was born and raised in an Orthodox family, and although he broke away from halakhic observance as a teenager, he is "obsessed" with his field of scholarly research: the impact of modernity on Orthodox ideology and halakha.

Ellenson is a student of Jacob Katz, the towering historian of the Jewish encounter with modernity who died in 1998. Until the modern period, Katz taught, Jews were part of a religious community with a separate political status in the societies they inhabited. Within their communities, the rabbis had the authority to impose communal norms. Emancipation gave individual Jews rights as citizens, dissolving the rabbi's coercive power. Orthodoxy, Reform and Conservative Jewry all grew out of the vacuum of power that was created, as they vied for individual hearts and minds. Reform embraced modernity and its freedom wholeheartedly, while Orthodoxy attempted to preserve the authority of halakha in the face of political change.

For several generations, Reform continued to benefit from the glue that kept Jews together even in the absence of religious tradition: remnants of tribal loyalties, the ongoing threat of anti-Semitism and lingering discomfort over Jewish identity in a Christian society, all of which made intermarriage rare. But in recent years, the glue has melted away. "The issue today," says Ellenson, a warm, genial man with a trim beard, who says that until he became president of HUC he would go to work in blue jeans, "is what to do when you have a fifth and sixth generation American Jewish community that is totally acculturated, when Jews can be officers in companies like DuPont, or presidents of Ivy League universities?" As Rabbi Naama Kelman, associate dean of Hebrew Union College in Israel puts it, speaking of American Jews, "We no longer have to keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses."

And yet, as Reform Judaism has learned to its surprise, modernity cuts both ways. "What you see," Ellenson says, "is that modernity destroys tradition, but, at the same time, it makes people seek tradition, so that what you have in America today are trends that move in opposite directions." In the often cold and impersonal contemporary society, Judaism has "vast reservoirs of meaning" to offer. Ellenson says he is open to "the full range of how Jewish spirituality is expressed in our times" - and that definitely includes halakha. "Halakha is the idiomatic way in which Judaism spoke and continues to speak. If you want to talk about the possibility of creating meaning, you have to look at halakhic sources."

But openness to halakha does not mean a return to Orthodox notions of commitment. A recent, influential study of the postmodern Jewish self called "The Inner Jew," written by Israeli sociologist Steven Cohen and Stanford historian Arnold Eisen, paints a portrait of the contemporary American Jew as still connected to Judaism, but on his or her own terms. "Personal meaning," the study concludes, has become "the arbiter of their Jewish involvement. Jews are focused on the self and its fulfillment, rather than directed outward to the group. With the valorization of tradition, the absolute commitment to pluralism and the continuing assumption of individual autonomy, [Jews] feel free to borrow selectively, and perhaps only temporarily, from traditional Jewish religious and cultural sources."

Ellenson sees the significance of halakha and Torah learning in their capacity to produce a web of meaning and memory that can sustain Jewish identity. "Too many people think in binary categories of forbidden and permitted," he says. "We would do better to think in categories of meaning." Although he is endearingly apologetic about it - "I don't know whether it's an emotional or an intellectual problem" - Ellenson admits he is not personally interested in theology and is agnostic about most ultimate questions.

But for other Reform Jews, like Rabbi Rachel Sabath and Rabbi Leon Morris, head of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York City, observance does emerge from ultimate concerns. With the messianic hope Reform placed in modernity shattered by the Holocaust, says Sabath, "There is a need and a place for the commanding voice of God outside of human capacity and anything that could stem from reason."

Rate of intermarriage has skyrocketed

Sabath and Morris are both students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the preeminent Reform theologian, who argued for the spiritual necessity of an ongoing inner struggle in which the transcendent voice of God is filtered through our own autonomous ethical sensibility. "What I would like to turn on its head," says Morris, "is that the burden of proof is on the tradition itself - Reform Jews have the right to reject a specific tradition after studying and wrestling with it, and finding it ethically untenable, but the default position is that I have to observe this, it has come down this way, these commandments have a claim on me as a Jew."

The place where the future of the Reform movement will really be decided is in its version of the trenches - in the congregations scattered across America that serve the movement's more than 1 million members. American Jewry, and the Reform movement in particular, were traumatized in 1990 when a population survey showed that the rate of intermarriage had skyrocketed over the last 30 years from about 6 percent to more than 50 percent. In the past, Reform's desire to keep and expand its constituency of highly assimilated Jews - unofficial estimates say 30 percent of Reform congregants are intermarried - has meant a hesitancy to make demands in terms of knowledge or practice.

But in an era of spiritual search, many Reform rabbis have begun to realize that a call for greater commitment and involvement may have a far wider appeal than they once thought. Rabbi Bill Berk of Temple Chai, where hundreds of Jews pack Shabbat services and participate in often- intensive ongoing programs, believes that demanding higher levels of commitment has helped create a more vibrant community. "You have to have a sense of the mitzvah as something coming from the outside so that you don't get yanked away by each passing breeze of the modern world. Living in modernity there are a lot of wounds - unbridled competition, the impact of media, the whole underside of capitalism. If you can be part of a real community, you can survive the shallow side of America."

In a sermon delivered a year ago, Rabbi Janet Marder, currently the president of the CCAR, Reform's rabbinic organization, succinctly expressed the critique of Reform's past, which has caused a return to more traditional forms of ritual and prayer.

"Speaking to God in polite paragraphs of good English prose, or figuring God out of the equation altogether and making worship a purely cerebral act of self-evaluation - these are not activities compelling enough to make many people today opt for Friday night worship rather than a good dinner and a movie." In her address, she spoke about Eileen, a congregant who had recently lost her husband and then discovered that she herself was ill with Parkinson's disease. "Reducing Judaism to an arid core of reasoned principles or generic moral virtues that we share with good people of all faiths, stripping it of its color and vitality and emotional force - these are not enough for Eileen, whose world is collapsing around her. If we have nothing of significance to offer a woman like her, who craves an experience of spiritual sustenance and meaning, then we have nothing of real value to offer the world."