Why Be Reform?

Members of our movement are continually confronted, knowingly or not, with the need to answer two questions: Why be Jewish? And Why be a Reform Jew?

Our members know instinctively the answer to the first question. To be a Jew is to be a member of the people of the covenant, an heir to one of the world's most ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring faiths. It is to be committed to values to which Jews have always been committed: to love of family, to education, to philanthropy, to individual righteousness, and to the idea of a unique Jewish destiny.

But when the members of our Movement are asked the second Why be a Reform Jew many have trouble articulating an answer.

Why is it that so many of our members have no clear sense of what it means to be a Reform Jew?

First, we are victims of our own success. Take any Reform congregation in the country, and you are likely to find that well under 50 percent of the board members grew up in a Reform temple; some came from Orthodox homes, some from Conservative homes, some from non-Jewish homes. They do not possess the positive associations or childhood memories of Reform that were common in an earlier era.

Second, North American Jews, particularly today, are not inclined toward systematic thinking when they make religious choices. They rarely ask what is the belief system to which the synagogue subscribes or the philosophy to which it adheres. More often, Americans choose their synagogues because the location is convenient or because they like the rabbi; because they want a cantor or they don't; because they want more singing or less; because they want two days of religious school or three.

Third, our communal leaders are rarely comfortable with denominational differences. Fearing that communal unity will be disrupted and fund-raising affected, they tend to speak a language of a too-often bogus language that blurs religious differences even when they need to be sharpened. Communal leaders should learn what religious leaders already know: that in most cases, the passionate particularism of religious life does not weaken our communities, it strengthens them.

And so, our members ask, what are the religious principles that distinguish Reform Judaism? I suggest five.

  • Reform Jews are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day. Since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain. Changes must be thoughtful, of course, and must be rooted in the history and traditions of our people. But we assert Judaism's innovative character, and we assert, too, that a stubborn failure to change will make Judaism an irrelevance. This willingness to adapt has brought new vitality and strength to a Jewish community that is fully integrated into North American culture.
  • Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues. While we have not yet totally fulfilled this commitment, there is no longer any debate that a Judaism that diminishes the equality of women is a Judaism that degrades our dignity and besmirches our soul.
  • Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.
  • Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion. We understand clearly the need for boundaries between Judaism and the society around us, but we have little patience with those who spend day and night trying to define precisely where the boundaries are to be drawn in order to keep the maximum number of people out. Far better to spend time filling our Jewish world with experiences that will draw people in to Knesset Yisrael the indivisible collectivity of the Jewish people.
  • Reform Jews are committed to a true partnership between the rabbinate and the laity. Of course, rabbis have their prerogatives, and we defer to their scholarship. But Reform Jews have come to understand that holiness and religious insight are not the monopoly of any segment of our community. And so we neither flatter one another nor refute one another; rather, most of the time, we decide together. This is not how it is done elsewhere in the Jewish world. Elsewhere the grand rabbis decide, or the Seminary decides, but we Reform Jews prefer shared insight and learning.

Where else does such a constellation of principles exist in the Jewish world? Absolutely nowhere.

The power and uniqueness of Reform Judaism does not in any way demean the other religious movements, which we respect and with which we join in common cause whenever possible. But we can best serve the members of our Movement and draw upon the springs of their Judaic spirit if they truly know what it means to be a Reform Jew.