Book notes | “Jewish Literacy” # 120, Reform Judaism

As Reform Judaism developed, it increasingly dropped rather than reformed Jewish laws.


6 Responses to Book notes | “Jewish Literacy” # 120, Reform Judaism

  1. Geoff February 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    I didn’t think that they “reformed Jewish laws” in the first place, because “laws” implies something required and binding, which is explicitly disclaimed by Reform, no?

    But if you accept that framing of the issue to begin with, I suppose you could ask, what does a reformed chalitza look like? Reform eruv? What is the Reformed law of determining mamzerus? Reformed law for determining earliest zman tefillin?

    The questions are meant to be silly, of course. If the author wrote “increasingly dropped *practices*” I might think it a little less silly, but I’m confident you can disabuse me of that notion as well. Perhaps your argument is over the style, and not the substance? I.e., “dropped” could imply apathetic and/or ignorant disregard, whereas “aboslished” could imply rational and enlightened progress.

    • Jesse February 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

      Word, Geoff. The notion of Reform Halakha or Reformed law, as you note, continues to confuse the hell out of me. Some Reform Jews clearly seem to like Jewish laws, or the institution of Halakha itself, as evidenced by the URJ’s resources on it, yet most (I imagine) don’t feel comfortable with the “required and binding” aspects of it.

      I wrote a while back:

      “I can think of no other example of a group of people that has a body of optional laws, or laws that can obeyed or not obeyed depending on the unique approach to them by individuals. If such a group exists, they certainly wouldn’t call such an institution ‘laws’.”

      See more of what I’m saying here:

      I’m still so confused…

      • Geoff February 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

        If you call it “halakha” it might make more sense linguistically than if you call it “law.” Any of the terms “mishpat,” “din,” or “chok” could mean “law,” but “halakha” shares the linguistic root of the verb “to walk,” as in, halakha is the way we go about in the world. From that perspective, Reform has a different (revised?) way of going about in the world, and part of that way is to not see what they do as mandated by religious “law.”

  2. Larry Kaufman February 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    I hate the common translation of halachah as law — we should never lose sight, as Geoff suggests, of its meaning as pathway, and its implication of going forward. Even in Orthodox communities, halachah is dynamic, not static, although the pace of change is slower than in the so-called liberal streams.

    Michael Meyer, the premier historian of Reform Judaism, suggests that the major change that Reform brought to Judaism was the suggestion that Torah is the creation of humankind, and thus its interpretation by humankind is an ongoing process, making change possible without resorting to legal fictions (eruv, selling and then buying back one’s chometz, etc.). The formulation expressed by Rabbi Solomon Freehof, the Reform movement’s premier decisor during much of the 20th century, is that we should look to the Halachah for guidance but not for governance. (The same idea as expressed by Mordecai Kaplan — the Tradition has a vote, not a veto.) And at no point did Reform abrogate the binding nature of the ethical component of the Tradition — only of the ritual component.

    It is said that when General MacArthur led the U.S. occupation of Japan after WWII, he did not ban fraternization by his troops with Japanese women, because there was no point in making a law that could not be enforced. The same premise undergirds the Reform principle of autonomy. Basically, the permissive attitude of Reform towards “traditional” practices (traditional in quotes in deference to BZ) that goes under the name of autonomy is a polite way of saying we’ll accept you wherever you are on the spectrum of Jewish observance — it’s not all or nothing.

    So David’s HaHa is perhaps appropriate, if directed to the somewhat ignorant or at least careless interpretation of Reform expressed by Rabbi Telushkin.

    Jewish literacy, too, is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. David A.M. Wilensky February 8, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    Just so we’re clear, I’m not making any kind of argument here. I just thought it was a funny way to put it.

    Telushkin himself is an Orthodox rabbi. While I find that evidenced very occasionally in “Jewish Literacy,” he’s mostly quite even-handed. And keep in mind that I’m only giving you here one sentence from a three-page essay.

  4. Rich February 15, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    An essay which, IIRC, does not miss the opportunity to gloat about the “treyf banquet” as well.