The Rethinking Reform Think Tank

The most personal and most moving session I attended at LimmudNY 2009 was called Rethinking Reform and was advertised as being led by members of the so-called Rethinking Reform Think Tank. I do not know who else is in this group, but those leading the session were Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning Executive Director Rabbi Leon Morris, HUC rabbinical student Jill Cozen-Harel and former HUC student, current Ziegler rabbinical student, blogger and one of my many teachers, David Singer.

One year prior to this session, at LimmudNY 2008, the three of them came together for the first time from a place of frustration, loneliness, and excitement to create what they now refer to as The Reform Think Tank. I’ll let them speak for themselves in the following, their missions statement:

The “Rethinking Reform” think-tank is comprised of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who engage in study and sahring on issues of observance, obligation, mitzvah and halakhah in a liberal context. W sek to deepen the discourse within Reform Judaism and beyond with regard to what it means to be commanded, moving beyond a simple dichotomy of unbridled personal autonomy, on the one hand, and Orthodoxy, on the other.

Our discussions are aimed at effecting our own personal thinking on these topics, as well as influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance and away from marginalizing those who are drawn toward a greater traditional observance. The group is engaging these issues intellectually as well as personally, and is open to using this group as an experimental “community” that may determine some standards for itself.

Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not. Some have grown up in the Reform movment. Others have adopted the movement later in life. Some attend or have graduated from HUC. Others, in part because of these issues, have chosen different rabbinical schools. We come together out of a sincere desire to learn from one another and to begin to clearly articulate a way of being Reform Jews in the 21 st century that is more deeply grounded in Torah and mitzvot.

David, Leon and Jill began by sharing their personal stories of growing up Reform, feeling often far more observant than their peers. Because of that, then all mentioned ferquently feeling lonely and misunderstood within the movement. Internally, I reacted to this very emotionally. Though they are all cosiderably older than me and farther along in life than I, I felt a visceral association with that feeling of loneliness in the Reform movement. 

The mix of people in the session was interesting. There was me, quite a few Conservative movement refugees, several more HUC students who are not involved with the think tank, and a few others. Amongst the others were a young woman who grew up Orthodox and cited her opposite struggle to gain further autonomy within her community.

Another, an older woman, a Reform Jew in the pew, asked the first question of the session, rather aggressively suggesting that the purpose of this group is to influence or co-opt the Reform movement for their more observant ends. Though Leon quickly shot this idea down as a misunderstanding of the group’s purpose, his later words in the session seemed to betray him, not to mention the mission statement above. The mission statement says “Our discussions are aimed at […] influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance.”

Leon also said later in the session, and here I paraphrase greatly, that as the movement stands, to be observant, one must justify the observance. For instance, I am constantly called upon to justify why on Earth, I, a Reform Jew, wear tzitzit. Leon experessed a desire to see the movement shift toward justifying non-observance. For instance, I would call on Reform Jews who do not wear tzitzit to explain why they choose not to. This desire of Leon’s dovetails with my constant struggle to systemtaize my own informed choice, but Leon runs in a conservative direction that I am hesitant to run in. I see that direction as conservative, by the way, in both the capital-C and lower case-c meanings of the word.

And here, it seems, is the biggest question I left the session with: Can the Reform tent be big enough for us on the fringe and wearing the fringe and big enough for members of factions like The Society for Classical Reform Judaism and the American Council for Judaism at the same time?

The tent seems to be getting bigger all the time, and I still regularly feel like I’m being pushed out of it. I sense that I share that feeling with members of the think tank, but question what their end goals are. I also question why this is an elite rabbi and rabbinical students-only club. Despite my deep respect for and friendship with David Singer, I question why those who have clearly exited the movement are involved with this project, especially this line from the mission statement: “Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not.” What then, can the stake of those who do not identify as Reform be in this group?

I invite Jill, David, Leon, and any other members of the think tank to comment here and clarify, or expand on any of this.

31 Responses to The Rethinking Reform Think Tank

  1. BZ January 27, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    I’m really sorry I missed this session. I’d be interested in knowing more about this Reform Think Tank. Is there an email list? (I suppose I could just ask any of those 3 people.)

    I’m glad this is happening, and glad it involves Reform expats too. It looks like I differ with this group on philosophy (Leon Morris and I have hashed out our differences in the comments to this post) and framing (I wouldn’t use the language of “more observant” or “non-observance”), but would probably be aligned with them on tachlis practice and on feeling out of place in the Reform movement.

    Anyway, this gives me more motivation to finally write the long Mah Rabu post about Reform ideology that I’ve been putting off for a while. Part of the reason it’s been hard to motivate is a feeling that nobody cares about this stuff and my post will fall on deaf ears, but it sounds like that’s not the case.

  2. David January 27, 2009 at 2:14 pm #

    I’m glad that you found the session so interesting, David. And I am myself interested in all you had to say about it, so much so that I’m commenting now, having just gotten off a fifteen hour flight from Tel Aviv.

    I have to focus on your implicit challenge to me, that being, why would I, someone who “clearly exited the movement [is] involved with this project.” You go on: “What then, can the stake of those who do not identify as Reform be in this group?”

    It is interesting that, from your perspective, the purpose of this group is particular to the Reform Movement. Let me be clear in my language. You will notice from our mission statement that our most specific goal is to be a kehilah of people “who engage in study and sharing on issues of observance, obligation, mitzvah and halakhah in a liberal context. We seek to deepen the discourse within Reform Judaism and beyond with regard to what it means to be commanded.”

    Let me rephrase this, with the caveat that this is solely representative of my own perspective. A group exists – named the “Rethinking Reform Think Tank” – made up of many people – most of whom are or have been involved in the Reform Movement at one point or another – that seeks to ponder the existence space within Reform philosophy – as has been codified over the years and as is manifest in popular reality – for an appreciation of hiyuv. The people involved have come to the conclusion, most during their time within the Movement, that they feel the hiyuv in one way or another, and that, in one way or another, has itself given rise to a either a halakhic or pseudo-halakhic lifestyle, something which, admittedly, is extremely rare within Reform.

    But let’s be clear. The purpose of this group (as I see it) is not to convince anyone that the Reform Movement should make room for a wider acceptance of halakhic observance. Rather, members of the group have come to a place of halakhic living (in one sort or another) as a fait accompli and want to ponder its and their place post-facto as part of some ideological tent of Reform.

    That is all to say, at least in so far as I am concerned, that this simultaneously fully and not-at-all about the Reform Movement as an organizational tent. It results from my past affiliation. But this is about philosophizing, and supporting, and discussing ideas.

    So I am involved in this because I care about all the above-mentioned ideas, and I care abotu Jews and Judaism. And this is me and my life and my living and who I am, within a group context of people who want to discuss their at-least-somewhat similar lives.

    My goal is not the same as the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. I do not seek to redesign an organizational movement. Rather, I seek to find a better understanding of myself and my peers, of Judaism and American liberal Judaism in particular. I seek to explore issues of hiyuv and whether an ideology that, on paper, seems to accept an appreciation of it, is actually open to such a belief, in idea and/or in practice.

  3. hinneni January 27, 2009 at 2:50 pm #

    As I have commented before, in a variety of places, people identify with the Jewish movements or streams based on some not-necessarily-consistent combination of three main factors: ideology, lifestyle, and liturgical style.

    None of those three is necessarily parallel with the institutional structures that are associated with them. We could probably get by (except that we are Jews, brought up on a diet of the shul we go to and the one we wouldn’t enter for a million dollars) with two institutional centers, liberal and doctrinaire, allowing room on the left for tzitzit without kipot, and on the right for knit yarmulkes and beaver hats.

    As I quoted on the rj blog the other day, we should at least consider that we may be “over-thinking” some of this stuff!

  4. davidamwilensky January 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    hinneni, I appreciate that facts on the ground differ from the ideological tenets of those who have time to think about ideological tenets. I do have the time and it’s what I like to do. So that’s what this post is about.

    David, claim all that you want that this group does not seek to influence the movement as a whole and claim all that you want that it is merely about liberal Jews exploring halachah. One of two things is true: Either you are right and the mission statement is badly formulated or the mission statement is accurate and your personal goals within the group diverge from the goals of the group.

  5. davidamwilensky January 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    and BZ, perhaps there is an e-mail list. But it’s been made clear to me that this outfit is for Rabbis and rabbinical students.

  6. BZ January 27, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    But it’s been made clear to me that this outfit is for Rabbis and rabbinical students.

    Wow, that’s lame. I had a comment ready to go in response to your question “why this is an elite rabbi and rabbinical students-only club”, with a sociological explanation of why this endeavor would primarily attract rabbis and rabbinical students. But if the reason is because other people are explicitly excluded, then the whole thing gets a big yawn.

  7. hinneni January 27, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    David references “facts on the ground differ from the ideological tenets of those who have time to think about ideological tenets.”

    But the question then becomes, Does the ideology drive the lifestyle, or merely reflect the lifestyle? And is it ideology, or lifestyle, or liturgical preferences that drive congregational (and thus movement) affiliation?

    As an example of the essential irrelevance of ideology to amcha, I think about a formerly judenrein suburb of Chicago which began about 25 years ago to gain Jewish residents. Soon there were enough to contemplate a congregation — but about half insisted that it be Reform and about half insisted it be Conservative — so they compromised by becoming Reconstructionist (which in those days was simplistically perceived as being “half way between.”) If anybody there (before they hired their first rabbi) was a Kaplanian, it was purely coincidental. And today they are unaligned, without even a mention on their website of their Reconstructionist past.

    Ideology? That’s for rabbis and rabbinical students, to coin a phrase. Few of the Jews choose their pews from ideological clues.

  8. JZ January 27, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

    To respond to David W, BZ, and others, I can’t vouch for my co-panelists and thinktank-ers, but my intention was never to exclude people who aren’t rabbis or rabbinical students. By definition, that was who we were when we came together and who we have continued to be thus far because we haven’t branched out beyond that yet, but that is not who we need to be. Bringing this conversation to Limmud NY, where the majority of people are not in the rabbis or future rabbis category, was a testing-ground. Do other people care? We thought they would and it turned out we were right, but the specifics are still fuzzy.

  9. davidamwilensky January 27, 2009 at 6:29 pm #

    BZ, JZ has corrected me on that front.

    hinneni, you wrote: “Ideology? That’s for rabbis and rabbinical students, to coin a phrase. Few of the Jews choose their pews from ideological clues.” So this conversation is for the rabbis and the rabbinical students and for the few Jews in the pews who care to join in the conversation.

    JZ, thanks for clarifying that for us.

  10. Rich January 27, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    I wear tallit and kipah. I often lay tefillin. I don’t do these things out of a sense of obligation, but rather because I like the what doing them does for my spiritual connection. I think we need to be careful in Reform not to confuse an embrace of ritual with an embrace of halacha, or even of the theologies that are to the right of us.

    I see evidence in Mishkan that the powers that be have looked at these new Tallit-Donning, Kipah Wearing Reform Jews, and made the error of thinking that we want the theology of Sim Shalom repackaged for a Reform worship style.

    So I guess I’m hopeful that I can someday lay tefillin in my shul, or wear my tallit when I am ש”ץ without worrying that I will be perceived as putting on airs, but I am wary that my embrace of these customs will be confused with a desire to “return to tradition” or some such.

  11. davidamwilensky January 28, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Rich, I wear a talit katan all day every day with the fringes outside my pants. I shuckle as I daven. And I’m damn sure there are plenty of liberal Jews who think I’m just putting on airs. Fuck them.

    I don’t need to worry myself with what other people think or don’t think about my own ritual life. And neither should you.

  12. Jesse January 28, 2009 at 9:19 am #

    David,

    I think I’ve noted this to you before…

    Since the very act of wearing tzitzit, talit, and kippah is both an inward display of devotion and an outward display of Jewishness, it is important to consider both factors. Yes, I believe it is important to consider what message it sends when one publicly displays one’s Jewishness. If it wasn’t important, why then would we adorn ourselves to the rest of the world as “different.” When you wear your tzitzit (I assume), you’re doing so to remind yourself of the commandments. Ergo, your wearing of tzitzit is a personal reminder that you’re part of a different community. Ergo, it’s not just a personal thing. Correct me if I’m wrong in my assumptions of your motivation.

    I think it’s pretty arrogant to say “this is the way I’m going to be Jewish, and fuck you if I’m the only one.” Judaism isn’t now, nor has it even been chiefly about the experience of the individual.

    Individuality (read: NOT autonomy, but rather personal uniqueness) is something that definitely has a place within Judaism. But you know what has an even greater place? Community. Am Yisrael. K’lal Yisrael. Etc, Etc, Etc.

    We do consider what other people think about our rituals. Clearly, you do too, as you search out various minyanim that fit in with your conception of what is “good” (read: no dancing). We want to surround ourselves with people who generally “agree” with us.

    You may not care or personally be offended if someone judges you for your Jewish accouterments, but to flat out say that you disregard all concern for your place in the Jewish world is a little worrisome.

    In fact, I believe that’s what the Think Tank is about… a group of people concerned with the status of their place in a Jewish community. If they didn’t care about it, they would just say “Fuck this, I’m out…” But they do care about it, so they’re thinking about it.

    Now, I also have some strong concerns with the elitist nature of the group, but I’ll save those for a later comment.

  13. BZ January 28, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    JZ writes:
    To respond to David W, BZ, and others, I can’t vouch for my co-panelists and thinktank-ers, but my intention was never to exclude people who aren’t rabbis or rabbinical students.

    Great! Then I retract my yawn. So is there an email list? :)

    So I’ll go back to answering my original interpretation of David W’s question, about why the current members are all rabbis and rabbinical students.

    For most people whose practices/aesthetics/etc. are out of step with the Reform movement, the path of least resistance is simply to leave the Reform movement and find a community where they fit in better. (I include myself in this.) For reasons that I have explored, most people in this situation who are no longer institutionally affiliated with the Reform movement drop their Reform identities and their sense of a stake in Reform Judaism. (I have retained this identity, but I think my situation is extraordinary.)

    Rabbis and rabbinical students, on the other hand, are another story. Because of their positions, they have much stronger institutional ties to the Reform movement and it’s much harder for them to leave (though, as evidenced by at least one think tank member, some do anyway). Therefore, they are more likely to be inclined to address these tensions within a Reform context, rather than eliminate the tensions (while perhaps creating different tensions) by going elsewhere.

  14. David January 28, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    Amen, Jesse. Y”k.

    David, my point is this: halakhic-minded peoples existing within the context of the Reform Movement are already a fact on the ground. That halakhic-mindedness is an authentic expression of Judaism is also a non-sequitur.

    So then the question at hand seems to be why a movement that prides itself on personal meaning and wrestling with the tradition would seemingly find itself to be such a hostile environment for Jews committed to a particular reading of the word “mitzvah.” The think tank seeks to explore whether there is room for halakhic living within a Reform context and, if not, why not.

  15. davidamwilensky January 28, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    Jesse, I get this argument all the time. Essentially, the argument goes that in doing things my way and not letting others’ judgments of me influence that, I am cutting myself off from the community. I would argue that this begins from a false premise.

    The false premise is that to be Jewish you must seek an authentically Jewish way of being Jewish that is similar to the way that the Jews around you seek to be Jewish. I would argue that though it is nice to be surrounded by Jews that seek to be Jewish in the same way that I seek to be Jewish, it is not a necessity. Rather, to be Jewish you must seek an authentically Jewish way of being Jewish, but that way of being Jewish does not have to be in lockstep with the Jews around you.

    In fact, to go back to the communities that, for lack of a better term, I review on this blog, the ones that get the highest marks are those like Kol Zimrah and my own Chavurat Lamdeinu that include a variety of Jews who are seeking to be Jewish in many different, yet equally authentic, ways of being Jewish.

    BZ, well said. However, I would argue that it is entirely possible, especially in the NY area, for Rabbis to extricate themselves from the movement system. There are many successful congregations (BJ, The New Shul), which employ Rabbis who were ordained by major movement seminaries, but no longer work in the movement that produced them, not to mention the many possibilities represented by employment in the world of Jewish non-profit organizations.

  16. BZ January 28, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    BZ, well said. However, I would argue that it is entirely possible, especially in the NY area, for Rabbis to extricate themselves from the movement system.

    I didn’t say impossible, I just said harder. Even if you’re not working for a denominationally affiliated institution, if you spent 5 years of your life getting a degree from a particular movement, that’s going to continue to have more of a pull on you than if you didn’t.

  17. davidamwilensky January 28, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Fair enough, BZ.

  18. Rich January 28, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    I don’t need to worry myself with what other people think or don’t think about my own ritual life. And neither should you.

    Yes and no. My own ritual life is one thing. But when I am שליח ציבור, that’s what I am, and minhag haMakom matters. I am at a 2000 family shul where praxis runs the gamut from Classical Reform to something that would look Conservative if one did not look closely at it. The ma’ariv service at which I read is designed for the express purpose of giving mourners and observers of yahrzeits the opportunity to say Kaddish. It is brief – runs 15-20 minutes. Every lick of Hebrew is optional. And I am there to serve these people, not to impose my will on them. I am there to represent that community.

    It varies, service to service. Sometimes I have people who read the Hebrew with me and remain silent for the English, sometimes its the other way around, sometimes its a mix. But in the end, the place has its customs, and it is not the custom for a lay leader to wear a tallit to lead that service. So I set my feelings about what should happen aside, and bend to the custom of the community.

    So there it is. If I lay tefillin at home, or go to one of the Conservative shuls for shacharit (where I daven out of a copy of Sim Shalom that I’ve tweaked so as not to offend my theology), that’s my business. But if I assume a role of leadership, I am representing the institution to the congregants and I must hew to its will if I wish to remain part of it.

  19. BZ January 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm #

    Rich writes:
    I think we need to be careful in Reform not to confuse an embrace of ritual with an embrace of halacha, or even of the theologies that are to the right of us.

    Along those lines, I offer the think tank this unsolicited advice: Your endeavor necessitates walking a tightrope, and so I advise the utmost care in the terminology and conceptual frames that you use, to a degree greater than what I have seen so far in this thread.

    So far, in the mission statement and David S’s comments, I have seen the phrases “traditional observance”, “hiyuv”, and “halakhic living” (and more) all used as apparent synonyms. I don’t think any of these concepts, taken individually, should be alien to Reform. But I do think that the frame that suggests that these ideas are inextricably linked, and that conflates all of them to the point that they can be used synonymously, is a dangerous one, which I have warned about, and I think this frame (I assume unintentionally) lends credence to David W’s accusation that the think tank’s mission is Conservative or otherwise not-Reform.

    Let’s look at each of these concepts individually:
    * “traditional observance” – for reasons already discussed in the posts I linked to (and here), I would recommend treading very carefully about the “traditional” frame. But if we’re talking about a particular set of ritual observances that are often labeled “traditional”, Rich’s point is important: these observances are not necessarily pursued for reasons of hiyuv or halakha, but might be for reasons of minhag or aesthetics or spirituality.

    * hiyuv – this concept should be and already is present for all Jews, including Classical Reform, which holds that the ethical mitzvot are mandatory. The idea of hiyuv should not be restricted to ritual “observance” (and, to be fair, you never specified that this was specifically about ritual, so maybe you’re talking about ethical mitzvot too, and that’s great).

    * halakhic living – there are Reform approaches to halakha (which I have discussed), which need not result in “traditional observance”. Unfortunately, Reform Jews have been made to think that Reform approaches are “not halakhic”, despite the presence of extensive Reform halakhic literature.

  20. davidamwilensky January 28, 2009 at 11:44 pm #

    Rich, I’m in total agreement that acting at shatz is game-changing. But I’m speaking in my usual Jew in the pew role.

  21. Jesse January 29, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    David,

    I think you might have misread my argument, although I can see how easy that would be. So fair enough.

    To clarify: My argument is not based on the premise that you’re cutting yourself of from the community by just doing things your way and not letting others’ judgments of you be a factor.

    My argument is that you risk cutting yourself off from the greater Jewish community if you adopt the flippant attitude of “what works for me comes first, and fuck you for thinking otherwise”

    I’m not suggesting that we all walk in lockstep with each other; as you should know, that’s never been my attitude. What I am suggesting is that at the very least, when one outwardly identifies oneself as Jewish, it’s important to consider what it means to represent our people. And if someone has questions, rants, or thinks your putting on airs… you should be ready to respond to that with something a little more substantial than “fuck you.”

    Also… KZ thrives because it is inherently a communal experience that values individual expression. It still places community higher on the spectrum.

  22. davidamwilensky January 29, 2009 at 10:12 am #

    Jesse, I’ll clarify my original “fuck them.” If people don’t take a moment to wonder why I, a Reform Jew, am wearing tzitzit and instead jump straight to, “You’re not Reform. That’s not a thing that Reform Jews do,” and start calling me Orthodox, as some of our dear friends at RJ.org and on the iWorship list do, then yeah, fuck them.

    But if they’re just wondering about it, great. I’m happy to answer their questions. In my experience, there’s plenty of people just wondering and plenty of people jumping to hurtful conclusions.

  23. jewtah January 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    Hey, got here from Mah Rabu . . . very interesting conversation. As I don’t have much of a stake in the Reform movement, I won’t chip in, but since we’re on the tangent, I’d love to know – why do you choose to wear tzitzit? (As a woman who wears tzitzit, I answer this question every now and then myself :) . . .) Keep up the interesting blogging!

  24. davidamwilensky January 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by, jewtah. Why do I wear tzitzit? Short answer: I need to be reminded to be nice to people. Longer answer: http://davidsaysthings.wordpress.com/2006/11/03/live-from-israel-david-wears-anti-asshole-fringes/
    That’s the first post I ever wrote about tzitzit. It’s less nuanced than my current understanding, but most of it is pretty accurate.

  25. davidamwilensky January 30, 2009 at 9:31 am #

    This post has now been cross-posted to RJ.org, my other blogging home. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2009/01/the-rethinking-reform-think-ta.html

    In the comments there, fellow RJ.org blogger Willima Berkson says:

    David, for me the key issue is not level of traditional observance, but the reasons for it.

    As I have written, the ethical mitzvot I think are commanded, as we are born with conscience and sympathy.

    The ritual commandments, which I haven’t discussed yet in my posts, I think are rather a product of the Covenant, and of the desire to bring a sense of holiness into our lives.

    For me the Covenant is a sense of mission for the Jewish people to be a holy people, to have a strong connection to God and each other and to be a light to the nations on this.

    So indirectly the ritual mitzvot have some aspect of command, but only in so far as they are related to our commitment to the Jewish people.

    In particular, I reject the ritual mitzvot as commanded simply because they are written in ancient texts. That they are practices, such as celebration of the yearly holidays, and especially Shabbat, which hold together the Jewish people and our community engagement with the divine is important enough in itself.

    There are separate individual and group questions on ritual. In theory, Reform can have a wide range of individual practice. However, if you pray for restoration of the ancient Temple and adhere to the ritual mitzvot simply because they are written, and believe that is the authoritative word of God, I think another movement within Judaism is a more appropriate home.

    Individually, I think that if you want to wear a talit katan, that is consistent with Reform today. As far a groups who like more Hebrew in the service and more traditional ritual, I think that is a matter of having a minyan that wants to do this.

    The congregation in which I grew up, Sinai Temple in Champaign, Illinois, has for many years had a traditional minyan, as well as a more conventional Reform service. I think that is fine.

    I think the reality is that if you understand the Hebrew, it is way better than translations. And if you don’t, it’s not, and only works as a minority of the service. So the best solution is different services.

    To me Judaism is sacred, because that is where the covenant is. God didn’t make a covenant with Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, or Reconstructionist. The movements are vehicles for Judaism–important vehicles, but not sacred.

  26. Lenny February 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    just a quick point i would like to raise. I think the distinction between ethical and ritual method is actually very difficult to make. many mitzvot in the torah, if not all, have underpinnings of both ethical and ritual. for example: the torah describes shabbat both as a sign between the covenant of g-d and the jewish people but also as a day of egalitarianism when all people, even slaves, and even non-people such as animals get to rest, an ethical idea that no matter how wealthy or poor we are, we are all created by G-d and given a day to rest and to re-connect to G-d. another example would be kashrut- the midrashism on the book of vayikra (leviticus) often explain the complicated laws of which parts of which animals can be offered on the altar as sacrificies as symbolizing animals or parts of the animals that benefit from theft. Meaning that certain parts of certain animals cannot be offered onto the Altar because the animal stole the food that it ate, and the Torah is teaching us the severity of theft in that anything that benefit from theft cannot be offered on the altar to G-d, so too in our own lives we must stay far away from theft. There are many more examples of an inter-mingling of ‘ethical’ and ‘ritual’ mitzvot in the torah. my point is that if one is going to choose to only do the ethical mitzvot, such as the early reformers in germany, i feel that they would have a hard time actually determining which are ethical and which are ritual, and if they were intellectually honest, they would end up observing all the mitzvot!

  27. davidamwilensky February 19, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    Lenny, I’m right there with, up to a point.

    I think that there are some that walk a blurry line between ethics and ritual. Especially in a version of Reform ideology that says that if a ritual enhances your ethics, you should be observant of that ritual. This renders any ritual act potentially ethical in nature.

    Shabat is a perfect example of a mitzvah that walks that line, an example I often use. I’m also fond of using tzitzit as an example.

    However, as to the oft-attempted business of giving the mystifying rules of kashrut ethical meaning, I am highly skeptical. We must accept that any attempt to apply ethical considerations to kashrut is a backwards projection and highly exegetical. Not that there’s anything wrong with projection or exegesis. I just think that it’s not in the text, whereas ethical components to Shabat and tzitzit are inherent.

    • Lenny February 25, 2009 at 1:15 pm #

      david, i agree its not in the text.
      the examples i was giving about the animals were not from kashrut, but the korbanot, the offerings. the source for the stuff i said about it was from the vayikra medrash rabbah .

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  2. When I say “Reform intellectual community”… « - December 21, 2009

    […] of the Reform intellectual community living largely inside of the Reform movement. The members of the Rethinking Reform Think Tank are a good example of a mixture of members of this community living both inside and outside the […]

  3. The Rethinking Reform Think Tank | RJ Blog - December 6, 2011

    […] David A.M. Wilensky(First posted on The Reform Shuckle)The most personal and most moving session I attended at LimmudNY 2009 was called Rethinking Reform […]