I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means for me to be a Reform Jew.
Part of it has to do with a thread that popped up on the forum recently where the poster states that his conversion, under the auspices of the URJ, did not go well. In his and others responses much blame was laid upon the Reform movement and their outreach initiative and as someone who studied and converted under a Reform rabbi as part of a Reform temple my feathers were a bit ruffled. I wrote and discarded a couple of responses, knowing in the end I was reacting emotionally and not rationally or in a thought-out way. While any organized religion, and especially any organized religion within that movement, will have problems, I think blaming the URJ as a whole is more than a little problematic when considering the problems relating to conversion, observance, and acceptance within our own communities.
I believe that personal autonomy and choice is an authentic means to come to observance within Judaism. I know the common refrain is “I don’t do X because I’m Reform,” and honestly I’m sad for those people. They don’t understand the opportunity for taking control of their own spirituality and religious destiny. There are plenty of mitzvot that I do not observe and it isn’t out of laziness or because I don’t want to think about it. Rather I have studied and found what is meaningful for who I am in this moment in time. My observance has evolved from the moment I began to consider myself Jewish, and it will continue to evolve throughout my life. I feel an obligation to the mitzvot, but not in the same way an Orthodox Jew would. I feel that I am obligated to educate myself and to make informed decisions and be deliberate about how I live my spiritual life. For me, to take on an observation just because it is the tradition without putting any thought into why I am doing it is inauthentic to who I am as a person and a Jew. That’s not to say that tradition has no place in my observances or theology, but I subscribe to the the Reconstructionist idea of tradition having a vote but no veto. I have taken on “traditional” observances, such as wearing tzitzit (and kippah, though it isn’t strictly a mitzvot), moving towards a kosher (or at the very least ethical kosher) diet, and the like. And while my idea of Shabbat observance wouldn’t fit into any Orthodox community, I have defined rest for myself and what it means to make Shabbat a sanctuary in time in my own way.
My commitment to Reform Judaism doesn’t just come out of my ideas on observance, however. I believe that the Torah was written by men, inspired by God. I’m not sure if I believe if everything in the Torah happened, just as I’m not sure if I believe none of it happened. What is important for me is the history and the framework it provides for living a moral and ethical life. A few years ago I was thinking about the Exodus from Egypt and whether I believed that the splitting of the Sea of Reeds could scientifically occur and what I realized at that point in time is that it didn’t matter to me if it could happen. I believe that in some way or another it did happen. For the first time in my life I believed in a miracle and not because I was told it was a miracle. I believed because of how the idea of it affected me as a Jew.
I believe that we are created in the image of God and that no one deserves to be discriminated because of who they are. My frustration with certain laws in the Torah and Talmud do not preclude my belief in God or my adherance to Judaism as a religion. My belief that the Torah was written by men inspired by God leaves room for the idea of infallibility in the laws. For some people this would be the end of their faith, a chasm that they just cannot cross over. For me it is something beautiful and brings up the idea of a partnership with God in the creation of our morals and ethics. Those who wrote the Torah and the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash and every bit of commentary that has come down throughout the years, I believe they were all acting as partners with God and responding to where they were at that specific time. I value that tradition but cannot allow it to snuff out my own thoughts and my own responses to where we are today.
When I was considering which stream of Judaism I most identified with at the beginning of my conversion journey I didn’t choose Reform because it was the “easy” way. I chose it first and foremost because the idea of personal autonomy was incredibly important to me. After having been brought up as a Catholic and told that I need to do this or that because that’s what Catholics do and don’t you dare question it because then you won’t be a good Catholic… well, I knew that my faith in God couldn’t be relegated to simply following the rules that someone else has set out without using my own ideas and who I am shape my observances.
Does the Union for Reform Judaism have problems? Sure. As I said above, any organized religion that has an organized movement will have problems, but I believe that all are well-intentioned. The URJ is trying to face modernity, and helps its members face it, in a way that speaks to us as Jews and helps us to continue to connect to our traditions. With a wide and varied group of member congregations can it sometimes hurt to have large overarching programs that don’t necessarily work in each community? Of course, but I think that is only if those implementing the programs don’t take the time to adapt what will work for them. Despite any issues I might have with the bureaucracy of the URJ, I still love Reform Judaism.