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Becoming Reform

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon about what it means to be a Reform Jew.

Let’s talk about Reform Judaism. In July 1883 the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained its first class of American Reform rabbis. Four men were ordained—women would not be ordained until almost 100 years later. The founder of the college, Isaac Mayer Wise, was very proud. He had successfully created a seminary to serve all of American Jewry—both the traditionalists and radical reformers were present. He had succeeded in implementing his vision of only one modern American Jewish movement. Look at the names he coined, Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. None of these names declared Reform. (It is by the way “Reform Judaism” not “Reformed Judaism.” We have done nothing wrong to require a reformed path.) All the names proclaimed a unified American Judaism.

After the ordination ceremony the group of newly minted rabbis, their teachers and families adjourned for a grand dinner at the most exclusive hotel in all of Cincinnati. As soon as the food was served a commotion broke out. The first course was…Littleneck clams on the half shell. This was followed by crabs and then shrimp and then frogs legs. Two rabbis stormed out of the dinner—never to return again. And I assume the other two dipped their frogs legs in drawn butter after saying a blessing. The traditionalists on the other hand had had enough. Soon they created the Conservative movement. The trefe banquet, as that first ordination meal has been called, delineated the early fault lines between Reform and Conservative.

It is now 2015. We are now a Reform congregation. I am a Reform rabbi. I am a committed Reform Jew. To be sure my Reform Judaism is different than that of the late 19th century. I keep kosher. I find deep meaning in the Jewish consciousness it produces as I prepare my meals. I am forced to ask Jewish questions as I prepare my food. Do I use meat dishes? Can I use milchig utensils? And yet my commitment was nurtured in a home in which I was often served shrimp toast and in which my grandfather z”l and I enjoyed lobster. You might think this amusing but my parents never served shrimp or lobster on Shabbat. On those days the meals were the traditional fare. I was however always fed commitment. I was given devotion. It was a home in which intention was paramount and the desire to take Judaism seriously was the goal. That is my hope for us as well. Keeping kosher is a means to an end. It is a tool. I do not keep track of how many keep kosher. I measure instead intention and commitment. I strive for meaning. I also do not place much stock in the term Jewish continuity. That was yesterday’s concern. Today we should instead be worrying about two things: meaning and healing. We should ask two questions: does this observance add meaning to my life and my family’s life? Does this practice bring healing to my world?

Reform Judaism is different today than it was yesterday. I grew up in a synagogue where the rabbi was once not allowed to wear a tallis and kippah. Today there is the growing recognition that these ancient practices can be deeply meaningful. My grandfather might not understand my Jewish path, but I would imagine he would appreciate it. Is one Jewish journey more authentic than another’s? My Papa grew up in a world wanting of food. He achieved success. He could then eat anything he desired. It gave him unbounded pleasure to buy his grandsons whatever they wanted to eat, and however much they wanted to eat. Somewhere along life’s path I began to find meaning in saying “No” to the foods I loved. I found meaning in keeping kosher, like the pious great grandmother for whom I am named. This is my path. It is how I have discovered meaning.

This I now realize is too much talk about food on a fast day. It is important to note that the early Reform movement was first and foremost about reforming the rituals. It was about throwing off the yoke of the tradition’s restrictions. It was about introducing decorum to the service. We should start on time and end on time—an idea I still think is worthy. Today we recognize that Reform Jews can take on any of these traditional rituals but only if they add meaning to their lives. Our ritual actions must be done with intention. They must come from a place of informed and educated choice. We study and learn. We make individual decisions. The essence of Reform Judaism is educated and informed choice. It is a process not a result. Reform demands that we take our tradition seriously. We make room for Judaism in our busy lives.

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Reform rabbi, once remarked: “Judaism is Orthodox, but all Jews are Reform.” This is what he meant. And this is what I believe. Judaism teaches certain ideas and maintains certain standards. All Jews are free to decide what they do and what they don’t do. That is today’s reality. I wish to build a Judaism that is not measured by how many walk on Shabbat or how many verses of Torah are chanted, but if we bring Torah into our hearts and if we bring Torah into the world. Judaism is our toolbox. It provides us with a path. We have learned that we must change and innovate. We seek to reform the tradition in order to keep pace with changing times. We add music to our praying. It uplifts our prayers. This should not be so radical to say, but why can’t services be enjoyable. Taking things seriously and having fun should not be contradictory impulses.

Although early Reform Jews found organ music uplifting, we are comfortable adding piano and guitar, drums and bass. We see the music of contemporary society as an invitation to add meaning to the tradition’s prayers. We see change and evolution as necessary and meaningful. We believe as Reform Jews that there is much to be learned from the modern world. We have learned, for example, that although the tradition does not extol democracy, we have come to know that democracy is a great and endearing value. We have been taught by our American experience that religious pluralism enriches our lives. The Torah does not offer such wisdom. It is learned by today’s experiences.

Reform Judaism reminds us as well of the centrality of social justice. The prophets’ voices have too often been stilled. Sure we chanted the Haftarah’s words. But do we listen to their voices? Do we heed the words of Isaiah who shouted and screamed in tomorrow’s Haftarah:
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kind? (Isaiah 58)
Sometimes chanting these words in Hebrew silences their import. Justice is our calling. There are far too many injustices crying out for attention. Open your hearts and your hands to the hungry and poor but a few miles from this beautiful sanctuary. Give to Mazon, a national Jewish organization that distributes grants to soup kitchens and food pantries. I am proud that our movement has served on the forefront of the call for social justice. It was Reform rabbis who by and large marched for civil rights. There were others to be sure but it was Reform leaders who led the charge. A number were in fact jailed. In the summer of 1964 sixteen rabbis traveled to Florida to protest racial segregation. They wrote these words from their jail cell: “We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time.”

This is the prophets’ voice writ large. Fifty years later we see that we have taken some steps forward and some back. In our own time, Black churches are attacked and set ablaze. Fifty years later simmering racial tensions explode in my hometown of St Louis. Do we ignore the pleas of Isaiah? How do we live up to the words of what is now our Reform heritage? For Judaism to have meaning, for the Torah to have import, it must not only bring meaning to our inner lives, but healing to the world at large. If it stops here in this sanctuary, with the singing of Kol Nidre, with the moving rhythms of our prayers, then it is in fact meaningless. It is not all about the inner life. It is not all about my life. That is why we spend the better part of this day recounting our sins. Al cheyt she-chatanu… For the sin we have committed… We have failed to live up to our calling. We have stood silent in the face of injustice. We can always do more for our neighbors.

Our movement has always been at the forefront of these issues, advocating for change, fighting against discrimination and hatred. This past Spring I had the blessing of attending the annual convention of Reform rabbis. It was there that we elected my friend and colleague, Rabbi Denise Eger, to the position of president of the conference. She is, as some have read in the papers, the first lesbian rabbi to serve in this position. It was for this reason that the press coverage was so vast. I happen to think she is a smart and talented rabbi and that should be the only criteria for the attention she received. Although I was deeply moved to be there and witness her election to president, I was even more taken by those who spoke about their struggle as gay and lesbian rabbis. They shared their pain. They recounted the many years they were forced to live closeted. Some of my very own rabbinical school classmates dared not share their sexual orientation for fear of being expelled by an institution that officially did not welcome LGBT students. I feel privileged to have witnessed this change, to see Reform synagogues shift from a posture of fear to one of acceptance—all in the short span of 25 years. I felt blessed to meet a gay Israeli diplomat who grew up in this different age, an age when he could be both gay and married and find welcome and comfort in a Reform synagogue.

I am immensely proud in the achievements of my movement. For decades we have also advocated for the full participation of interfaith couples. I continue to believe that our synagogues should be an open door. Our arms should be opened wide inviting and welcoming those who feel estranged. We are enriched by the participation of others. Intermarriage is a fact and a reality. Do not believe the pundits. Our tribe is not lessened. Erecting walls will not do. Seeing blessings in this new reality is our only option. Never before have rabbis been confronted with the following. A woman comes to me and says, “Rabbi I have read books about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. I have read Soren Kierkegaard and Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Dalai Lama and Martin Buber. I was even a Wiccan for a while. I have decided I want to convert to Judaism. It seems to offer me the best path. I love that it allows me to question.” Do I push her away three times as Jewish law urges? No! I say, “Welcome. Study with me.” Never before has there been such openness to religious exploration. I consider this a blessing.

We learn from the modern experience. We now understand that one’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, as the Torah assumes, but instead a matter of birth. As Reform Jews we are informed by Jewish law but not confined by it. We learn from modernity but are not beholden to it. We live within these two worlds.

I wonder if perhaps my silence about LGBT rights has forced others into silence. On this Yom Kippur I confess, if I have failed to convey to any of my students that I would be anything but accepting of them, then chatati—I have sinned. If I have forced them to hide who they truly are, then chatati. If they have yearned to share with their friends, family and teachers, but have thought we would be unaccepting and disapproving, then chatanu—we have sinned. We must open the doors of our synagogues wide.

And then this summer we realized the fruits of our movement’s labors, with the Supreme Court’s June decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

I understood this to be an issue of justice many years ago. In the 1990s when I was a newly minted rabbi, one of my friends approached me to officiate at his partner’s funeral. His partner of many years was dying of complications from AIDS. The young man’s estranged parents flew in to see their son. Soon they made medical decisions that were contrary to what my friend knew his partner wished. The doctors were obligated to listen to the parents. In the eyes of the law, to which the doctors were obliged to adhere, my friend had no authority. As close as I am to my parents, it is Susie who knows my heart and knows what I would want. It is my spouse with whom I would trust with such life and death decisions. The injustice shouted to be addressed.

The young man soon died and I fulfilled the promise made weeks before, and officiated at the funeral. I cried with my friend. My heart broke for the parents now mourning a son they refused to accept and were unwilling to understand. I was overwhelmed by the sight of these mourners: young men in their 20s and 30s. They were far too experienced with the rituals of death and mourning than men of their age should ever be. They knew exactly what to do. Whether Jewish or Christian, atheist or irreligious, they were accustomed to these rituals. They had been to far too many cemeteries. They knew how to comfort each other. They understood how to support each other. It was a remarkable sight, a blessing in the midst of such sorrow. But the injustice of it all continued to scream out. They should not have learned these lessons. In those moments I realized that they should not only be permitted, but encouraged, to sanctify their love. It is a matter of justice. It is a matter of our shared humanity. Their marriage makes no statement about my marriage. Justice Kennedy and the Supreme Court’s majority have it right.

As a Reform rabbi, I can say, the Torah has it wrong. Saying it like that might make some people really uncomfortable but that is the chutzpah of the Reform movement. I am not limited to the literal words of the Torah. For me Torah is far more expansive than the five books of Moses. We must be open to learning not only from our tradition but also from modernity. It is this unique combination of the two that is the hallmark of Reform and that allows us to bring meaning to our lives and healing to our world.

I stand before you on this holiest of days and declare that although we may not always agree we have chosen a path that is not one of convenience as some would suggest, but instead one of intention and meaning, commitment and healing. This is the legacy of Reform that is now our inheritance. How will we make it our own? How will we bring these teachings into our hearts?

All of Jewish practice is to bring more healing to the world. Judaism provides the tools by which we bring meaning to our lives and healing to our world. It must not all be about the inner life. We might begin with the foods we eat. But we must end with the words we speak. They must be filled with healing and comfort. We must conclude with righting the wrongs we see around us. That is the vision provided by our tradition. That is the mission clarified by Reform Judaism. May this become our legacy as well. May this path provide the guidance our new Reform synagogue requires.