What does it mean for something to be a “Reform principle?”

The iWorship listserve has been talking lately about what we would classify the rejection of The World to Come as. Is it Reform halachah? Reform agadah? I’d say neither. After arguing in this post that such a rejection is not universal enough within Reform to be considered anything in particular (except common) I suggested in a post to the list that if it were true, it might be classified as a Reform principle. And that opened up a can of worms for me that I wasn’t quite expecting.

Someone on the list latched onto the word “principle” and started quoting the various principles created in the Reform platforms:  Pittsburgh 1885, Columbus 1937, San Francisco 1976 and Pittsburgh 1999.  What each reveals about the Reform rabbinate’s notions of the Messiah and the World to Come over time is fascinating, but not my primary topic here.

Rather, I wanna address what a principle is and what the role of these CCAR platforms are or should be. Specifically, I’ll address this in light of my recent classification of Reform into four categories: Reform Jews, Reform Judaism, the Reform movment, and the Reform intellectual community (or RIC).

First, I’ll have to deepen my definition of Reform Judaism. Previously, I defined it like this:

Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.

When I said that, I carefully skirted anything about belief. So I would amend it like this:

Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief, founded in the acknowledgement of the fact the age of rabbinic oligarchy has ended and the only ritual or moral authority that a Jew is answerable to is God that Jew’s own conscience and intellect.

This addition about authority is important because it’s the basic fact that the rest of Reform springs forth from. Without the acknowledgement of personal autonomy, a Reform Jew is just a lone rule-breaker. With an acknowledgement of autonomy, a Reform Jew is simply exercising the ability to be his or her own legal authority. Obviously, a Reform Jew might still seek out rabbis or others more learned than they are for learning, guidance or advice, but their advice would not be binding unless that Reform Jew decided to be bound by it.

This, of course, is at the core of the Reform responsa endeavor. Responsa literature is common throughout the history of rabbinic literature, but for most of its history, responsa were considered legally binding. Reform responsa, however, are merely one way for Reform Jews to explore an issue of importance. The answers of the CCAR Responsa Committee are learned discussions and suggestions of action– none would suggest that they are binding.

I would argue that the same is true of the Reform platforms. They are the collective decisions about what Reform means at three stages of Reform history, as decided by a group of leading Reform rabbis. As such, they are clearly the work of what I call the RIC, the hard-to-define group of Reform Jews working on and thinking actively about what Reform means.

However, based on what I’ve said above, none of it can be said to be binding on members of the Reform movement. And it certainly isn’t biding on Reform Jews in general, as some are not even members of the movement.

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13 Responses to What does it mean for something to be a “Reform principle?”

  1. jepaikin January 6, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    So… a few questions based on your updated definition:

    If, according to your definition, Reform Judaism is based on an “ideology of autonom[y],” then what’s the common ground? I know, I know… this is the question we always ask, but if you’re going to include it in your definition, I have to ask — what binds everyone together other than autonomy itself?

    If, it’s more, and includes an ideology of “individual and personal choice about practice,” then what really differentiates RJ from other forms of movemental Judaism? While OJ and CJ may not talk about it on paper, they do ultimately espouse the notion of individual and personal choice… what makes someone an ‘observant’ Orthodox Jew is the fact that they’ve ‘chosen’ to observe Jewish law.

    Moreover, all of Judaism accepts the ideology of free will. We’re not fatalists. We all – as individuals – have the freedom to make personal choices about what we do.

    What DOES different Reform Judaism from the other movements is that it esposes an ideology of the RELIGIOUS VALIDITY WITHIN RJ of individual and personal choice about practice. While OJ, for example, must accept that there will be Jews who choose not to keep Kosher, they don’t have to accept that such a choice is religiously valid within OJ.

    Back to your definition. Vis a vis your definition of RJ as an ideology of “individual and personal choice about… belief,” I have to ask about Jewish catechisms. We’re not big on them. Can anyone think of examples outside of monotheism and Rambam of other forms of Judaism that actually espouse a prescribed set of beliefs?

    If RJ is more, and includes an”acknowledgement of the fact the age of rabbinic oligarchy has ended and the only ritual or moral authority that a Jew is answerable to is God that Jew’s own conscience and intellect,” then what differentiates Reform Judaism from Modern Orthodoxy, or the Wissenchaft des Judentems, for that matter?

    I return to my previous supposition that ultimately, Reform Judaism is undefinable. Until one of the four categories that you’ve identified comes together and issues a definitive statement, I’m not sure if we’re any closer to defining RJ.

    Perhaps, though, we should start speaking of Reform Judaisms (plural intended). If the religious validity of autonomy reigns supreme, then ultimately the only entity that can define Reform Judaism is each Reform Jew for him or herself.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 6, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

      If Reform Judaism is based on an “ideology of autonom[y],” then what’s the common ground?

      There isn’t necessarily any common ground, I suppose. For instance, I find that my common ground with the movement is a fast-shrinking thing. The common ground that those Reform Jews in the movement share is not ideologically mandated. Rather, it simply has the critical mass to keep going on with as many followers as it has.

      If it includes an ideology of “individual and personal choice about practice,” then what really differentiates RJ from other forms of movemental Judaism?

      Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism see law as binding. For them, clearly there is free choice and in the case of CJ and much OJ, modernity is acknowledged. Yet, in CJ and OJ the choice is singular: Opt in or opt out. No middle ground. That isn’t the reality of it, but it is the ideology of it, which is what I wanna talk about. And in the case of OJ, there is no acknowledgement of an end to rabbinic legal authority, as I’ve asserted exists in RJ.

      What DOES different Reform Judaism from the other movements is that it esposes an ideology of the RELIGIOUS VALIDITY WITHIN RJ of individual and personal choice about practice. While OJ, for example, must accept that there will be Jews who choose not to keep Kosher, they don’t have to accept that such a choice is religiously valid within OJ.

      I thought my implication was that one would have to find it valid to call it one’s own ideology. But the definition could be amended as you suggest.

      I return to my previous supposition that ultimately, Reform Judaism is undefinable. Until one of the four categories that you’ve identified comes together and issues a definitive statement, I’m not sure if we’re any closer to defining RJ.

      Why would a definition by a body be any more possible or valid than my definition? And why do you insist in the fallacy that something that has yet to be defined is incapable of being defined?

      • jepaikin January 7, 2010 at 10:01 am #

        I don’t mean to knock the validity of your definition – certainly it very much true for you. But as autonomy is a part of it, it means the definition can’t be valid for all of Reform Judaism. By issuing a definitive statement, I was imagining something along the lines of “Reform Judaism is xyz.”

        And where have I stated that something that has yet to be defined can’t be defined…? I agree – that’s a fallacy, and that’s why I didn’t say it.

        As a matter of fact, Reform Judaism used to be quite defined. At its onset and for much of it’s first century, it was quite clear what the essence of Reform Judaism was, beyond autonomy. In fact, congregations and members weren’t very autonomous at all – there were pretty strict mores that people were expected to abide by.

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

          The definition can’t be valid for all time periods of Reform Judaism, but there is truly no such thing as a 100% classical community at this point.

          However, recognizing that as where we’ve come from, I included it in the first part of the definition.

          And was far as “Reform Judaism is xyz,” that’s verbatim how I formatted it, so I’m not sure what you’re going for there.

  2. ML January 7, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    While I am not sure how to put it, one thing that differentiates Reform from other movements is that Reform Judaism doesn’t recognize Jewishness as a birthright. One could be born to both a Jewish mother and father and not be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement’s definition. Not so in other movements. This used to be referred to as a denial of Jewish Peoplehood. However, since the outright change from being an anti-Zionist movement to one that now is Pro-Zionist and in which Israel holds a central place, this is a much more gray area.

    I think autonomy is the ONLY Reform principle, outside of principles shared with other movements and philosophies.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 7, 2010 at 6:47 pm #

      I’m inclined to agree with you about autonomy, ML.

      But as far as patri- or matri-lineal descent goes, you’re way off. Find me a Reform anything that says you can be a non-Jew and have two Jewish parents. Unless you’re talking about the possibility of conversion away from Judaism?

      • ML January 8, 2010 at 12:22 am #

        “Reform Jews consider children to be Jewish if they are the child of a Jewish father or mother, so long as the child is raised as a Jew.”

        http://reformjudaism.org/whatisrj.shtml

        What if the child is not raised as a Jew?

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 8, 2010 at 11:21 am #

          That’s a doozy, but it doesn’t speak to the facts on the ground.

          Now find me a Reform rabbi that would require conversion of someone with a Jewish parent who wasn’t raised with the tradition.

          • ML January 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

            Find you one? And if I could, then what?

            In my humble experience, they are out there. I’ve heard numerous stories of Reform rabbis who have flatly declared that a person wasn’t Jewish (because they were not raised Jewish), even if they would be recognized halachally by other movements.

            However, after looking into it a little, it seems that if someone has two Jewish parents, they are in, automatically. If they have one Jewish parent (either mother or father,) then they have to have been raised as a Jew in order to be recognized as such by the Reform movement. If I’m wrong about this, I’d be happy to be corrected.

            • Sholom Rav January 20, 2010 at 10:10 am #

              Here – found one.

              I am a Reform Rabbi who (might) ask someone to convert to Judaism even though they would be considered halakhically Jewish by another movement. One reason is that I take other religions at face value. An orthodox rabbi would accept the child of two Jews if any of them had converted, even if the child had been baptized (for example) and raised in another religion. I would not. To sincerely interact with other religious groups and clergy (and expect them to respect me and mine), I need to accord that there is a power in their ritual. While I may not believe that baptism reserves a place in heaven, I have to acknowledge that a person undergoing the procedure should and that it is a life-changing experience.

              Now, you do raise an interesting point about the hypocrisy of Reform Judaism in re: patrilineal descent and what it means to be “raised in Judaism”. I try very hard to hold either patrilineal or matrilineal-ly descended Jews (that way remaining non-sexist) to the same standard – ideally, b’rit (bat or milah), Jewish education, synagogue membership, bar/bat mitzvah. On the ground, it gets tougher. I wish that I could hold children of two Jews to the same standard. After all, if I will not perform a marriage ceremony for those for whom it has no meaning (i.e. they profess no loyalty/belief in Judaism), why should it matter if both their parents are Jewish? In practice, for children raised without a “good” Jewish upbringing, I take them as they are and hope to make them good Reform ba’alei t’shuvah.

              That having been said, I have also had people of different lineage (one or two Jewish parents) who have wanted to go through study and re-affirmation of their Judaism. For me, this can include mikveh and beit din at their request.

              JNA

              • David A.M. Wilensky January 20, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

                Good to hear, I suppose. I see that you would take someone already Jewish (by someone’s standards) and convert them if they wish, but would you ever REQUIRE them to?

                For instance, at the synagogue I grew up at, it was a policy that non-Jewish member of the kahal could sit on a committee, but neither chair one nor sit on the on the board of trustees.

                If you had this policy and you had a person with one Jewish parent, but little or no Jewish upbringing, would you allow them to sit on the board of trustees or chair a committee?

                • Sholom Rav January 20, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

                  Dear David,

                  To question #1 – Yes, if they had been raised in another religion or converted themselves.

                  Question #2 – Policies are made by congregations, so it is a little disingenuous for me to answer, but… in our congregation, non-Jews can be on committees (although we might think twice about Religious Practices) and hold office – all accept the 3 VP’s and Pres. As to allow – again, not up to me, up to Temple to have it’s own policies and enforce them. What would I recommend? Depends on the committee and their qualifications – including knowledge and Jewish experience.

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