What are they defending?

In his recent post at RJ.org, Rabbi Howard A. Berman, the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, attempts to prove that Classical Reform is not an “’early historic chapter’ of our Movement’s development.” Instead, Rabbi Berman would have us believe that Classical Reform is “a vital and viable position within the diverse religious community that the Union embraces today.”

Let’s parse out some of his arguments.

We believe that the universalistic ideals and deep personal spirituality of historic Reform liturgy, including it’s [sic] great musical heritage, continue to offer a meaningful experience of Jewish prayer for many people today.

As I have argued in the past, interpretative readings in the vernacular do not liturgy make. Rather they are transient, if spiritually uplifting to the Jews of their time, niceties. The universalistic ideals Rabbi Berman refers to are present only in the English readings of the Union Prayer Book, while the Hebrew, where changes made are more likely to become permanent and lasting, remains unchanged.

For example, when a prayer closes with the words “al kol Yisrael, on all of Israel,” many liberal sidurim expand the quote on the style of nusach sefard to say “al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel, on all of Israel and on all in the world.” That would be a truly universalistic approach to liturgy. Unfortunately, the Union Prayer Book, Gates of Prayer, and our new Mishkan T’filah all exclude any such universalistic measure. No American Reform sidur to date does. The notion of the supposed universalistic liturgy of the bygone halcyon days of Classical Reform is a non-truth.

Rabbi Berman mentions the “deep personal spirituality of historic Reform liturgy,” so as to suggest that perhaps only Classical Reform liturgy can offer any such “deep personal spirituality.” I’m frankly offended at the suggestion that only my Reform forebears interacted with a liturgy filled with personal spirituality. It suggests that the more conservative approach to liturgy that I prefer is devoid of that.

Rabbi Berman also refers, as many proponents of Classical Reform do, to the “great musical heritage” of Classical Reform. This “great musical heritage” was a fad. Just as the Debbie Friedman-style guitar music developed first in the seventies is the current fad and just as the rock music that newcomers like Dan Nichols will be the fad when my generation is on boards of trustees of URJ congregations. Classical Reform music is essentially gone now; the Freidman style will be gone in another few decades and by the end of this century the Nichols style will have passed away as well.

My complaints thus far are purely aesthetic; Music and English, essentially. My perusal of the rest of Rabbi Berman’s post and of the Principles page of the SCRJ website leads me to believe that beyond an increasingly outmoded aesthetic, there are no differences between SCRJ and the mainstream of the movement. Certainly the ideology the SCRJ labels as Classical is no more than standard Reform ideology, with perhaps a slightly smaller emphasis on Israel.

All of that being the case, I am left wondering what the SCRJ has been formed to defend, if indeed they are truly defending anything more than choir music and a desire to read more English in services.

4 Responses to What are they defending?

  1. David August 19, 2008 at 12:59 pm #

    Love it. I’m joining.

  2. hinneni August 19, 2008 at 2:13 pm #

    A bit of modern history may shed some light on your question about what the SCRJ was formed to defend. The SCRJ was formed less than a year ago, apparently as a breakaway from the venerable American Council for Judaism. Rabbi Berman joined ACJ as its executive director just about a year ago, then after a few months left and was apparently instrumental in forming the new organization. My inference has been that there was an internal dispute about priorities between the two foci of ACJ — Classical Reform and distancing American Jews from the dual loyalty they saw in any affirmation of Zionism. Essentially in the split ACJ got custody of the Israel issue and SCRJ of the Union Prayer Book issue.

    Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote the definitive poem on Classical Reform. Google “Miniver Cheevey” for the last word.

  3. davidamwilensky August 19, 2008 at 3:06 pm #

    Thanks, hinneni. This sort of inability to prioritize and organize certainly further demonstrates that we are merely experiencing the death throes of Classical Reform aesthetics. It’s fairly absurd for such a monority (Classical Reform) within a minority (Reform) within a minority (Jews) to splinter itself further.


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