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Reforming Reform: 2. The 'Platform,' 'Principles,' and Cafeteria Judaism

Reforming Reform: 2. The 'Platform,' 'Principles,' and Cafeteria Judaism

As I wrote in my first post, the question of the reasons for the commandments, ta’amei hamitzvot, has been a central issue in the historical evolution of Judaism from the middle ages till today. In the 19th century, Reform, influenced by the European Age of Reason, took up the idea that if a ritual mitzvah didn’t serve a rational purpose, it should no longer be observed. Kaufmann Kohler enshrined these ideas in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism. Here are key passages on reasons for the mitzvot: 3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization. 4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation. For classical Reformers, then, only the ethical mitzvot were lasting commandments from God. The purpose of the ritual mitzvot is spiritual elevation, and when times change and the customs are not spiritually inspiring they are to be altered or dropped. I think there are serious problems with the Pittsburgh Platform, but I have great admiration for its courage and clarity. In the years since the Pittsburgh Platform, the distinction between ritual and ethical mitzvot was preserved, but the grounds for ritual practice became more individualistic, and less rationalist. The Pittsburgh Platform had explicitly planted its flag in the rationalist camp, saying “We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.” Further, it is clear from the “we” in every clause that the movement expects Reform Jews will rally to one standard, specified by the movement. Starting in the 1960’s Reform, along with the rest of America, started to become more individualistic. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the leading Reform theologian, championed individual choice, or ‘autonomy’ as a key feature of Reform. Thus it was up to each individual Reform Jew to decide what rituals were meaningful for him or her. This individualism was qualified in Borowitz, but what spoke most loudly to the laity was the message of autonomy. The 1885 optimism about what reason could accomplish was shattered by the terrible events of the following sixty years. American Jews were also influenced by the emotionalism of the 1960s and later, in which the standard was no longer a faculty of ‘reason’ but an even more problematic standard of ‘feelings’ that were to make decisions for us. By 1999, the time of the Reform Movement’s ‘Pittsburgh Principles,’ the status of mitzvot had quite changed. The change of title from ‘Platform’ to ‘Principles’ is an indication that Reform no longer really knew where it stood. Where the ‘Platform’ was clear, concise, and vigorous, (see above) the ‘Principles’ waffles: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” In other words: “You’re on your own, buster.” The impression of wooliness in the ‘Principles’ is confirmed by the book A Vision of Holiness (2005), by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, one of the writers of the ‘Principles.’ It proposes abolishing the Reform distinction in status between ethical and ritual mitzvot. In the context of the emphasis on feelings and autonomy, this has the unintended consequence that praying with tefillin and committing murder are both on the same level as a matter of personal taste and choice. ‘Reasons for the mitzvot’ have almost vanished. In effect, Reform philosophy has now become “Cafeteria Judaism,” where each person picks the traditional mitzvot that he or she likes, or creatively makes his or her own. The advantage of this approach is that it is welcoming to people of almost all views. The disadvantage is that it provides little guidance or inspiration. It offers little guidance because it is almost all pick-and-choose, with few directives. It provides little inspiration, because it has drained the mitzvot of their traditional meaning, without providing any new, credible basis. Rabbi Jacobs, the new head of URJ here has rightly emphasized the need to inspire current and potential members of Reform synagogues. This I believe is not only a matter of how synagogues reach out, but what they reach out with. To use a commercial analogy, there is a problem with the product, and not just how to sell the product. We need to reform Reform, so that it gives more guidance and inspiration to people. What reforms can strengthen Reform, I will discuss in upcoming posts.

Published: 4/04/2012

Categories: Reform Judaism, What is Reform Judaism?
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