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September 13, 2015

Crowns of Torah: Re-Forming Judaism (Rosh HaShanah 5776)

Angela W. Buchdahl

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This summer, David Azoulay, an ultra-Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset and the Minister of Religious Services, called Reform Judaism “a disaster for the State of Israel.” 

David Azoulay must be unaware that in 1917, it was a Reform rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, who helped persuade President Woodrow Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration, which confirmed Britain’s approval of the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.

David Azoulay apparently never learned that in 1922, it was a Reform rabbi and scholar, Judah Magnes, who helped found the Hebrew University and served as its first president.

I guess no one ever told David Azoulay that in 1947, it was yet another Reform rabbi, Abba Hillel Silver, who addressed the United Nations to make the case for Jewish statehood before the General Assembly’s historic vote on Israel.

Reform Jews in Israel created countless kibbutzim and communities, fought—and continue to serve—in the Israeli army, patented scientific inventions, built synagogues and schools.

And here in America, millions of Reform Jews, like you, have supported Israel over the decades from afar, fundraising through myriad organizations, or serving on boards of Israel’s hospitals, universities, and museums, and advocating for its safety and protection. 

So I’d respectfully suggest to Minister Azoulay that he has it completely backwards. Reform Jews haven’t been a disaster for the State of Israel: Reform Jews have been essential to the State of Israel.

But Azoulay’s indictment went even further: he stated that he could not—and would never—consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. He referred to Reform Jews as people who “try to fake and do not carry out the religious law properly, and give it other interpretations.”  He went on to say, “The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, there’s a problem… I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”  Ouch

For many Reform Jews, this comment, aside from being insulting, hits us in an undeniably vulnerable spot. Many of us feel a nagging insecurity about the authenticity of our brand of Judaism. Some wonder if we are, to use Azoulay’s words, “faking it,” because we don’t keep kosher or a strict Shabbat, we don’t daven three times a day, we don’t wear fringes or wigs.  We Reform Jews often look over our shoulders and worry that we’re not quite as Jewish as those other folks who live by a strict Jewish code.

Some of us instinctively assume that they are the true guardians of the religion, and that we have taken the path of least observance. And how many of you who were raised Conservative or Orthodox did, at times, feel just a little superior to those “Reform Jews”? You can admit it. Just ask for forgiveness next week.

In fact, I would guess that the majority of us here didn’t grow up as Reform Jews. Central Synagogue draws from all denominations, and we’ve also been blessed to have many non-Jews join our ranks. Let’s see if I’m right.

If you don’t mind my asking, raise your hand if you were raised as a Conservative Jew? Orthodox? Sephardi? Just Jewish?  And if you’re comfortable sharing, from another faith tradition or no religious tradition at all?

So it’s clear we represent every possible flavor of Jewish, and even other religions as well. We are certainly not all born Reform Jews.

And when I ask people how they ended up here at Central, I often hear some version of the following:

“My grandparents were Orthodox, and kept strictly everything. My Mom was raised Conservative, she kept a kosher kitchen at home—but snuck a little bacon out. But then we became Reform, and we served crab cakes at my bar mitzvah.” 

Or “I grew up really, really Reform. We barely observed anything.” 

Or my favorite: “We were REFORMED.” Which sounds like they had been sent to some penal institution for wayward Jews.

But Reform Judaism is not a “less-than” option. In many ways, it is harder to be a good Reform Jew than one who adopts a system of belief wholesale within an insular community. Early Reform Jews sought to live within the modern world, to take the best from its science and scholarship and to contribute to it fully, while remaining proudly Jewish.

Reform is not just a denomination or a movement: it’s an approach to innovation and change.  To Reform is an active verb. 

We often think of Reform as a 19th-century response to modernity.  But re-forming Judaism is consistent with the original Judaism of our ancestors. It is what we Jews have always done.

If you’re skeptical, let me introduce you to one of my favorite “Reform” Jews of history: Ezra the Scribe.

To find him, we have to travel back about twenty-five hundred years, to the fifth century BCE.  He lived among the exiled Jews in Babylonia, to where our people had been banished after the first Jerusalem Temple was destroyed.

In 539, the Persian King Cyrus decided to let the Israelites return to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple. Most of the Israelites chose to stay in Babylonia. Only about ten percent—mostly the poor and disenfranchised—returned to Israel. They built the modest Second Temple, and tried to establish a Temple-based faith once more.

Ezra the Scribe was dispatched to Jerusalem to be a leader of this sad lot. He knew the Israelites would need something transformative to feel like a nation, dispersed as they now were between Israel and Babylonia.

He saw that we needed a shared script—one master narrative, embodied in a new technology that could be mass-produced and more portable than stone tablets. So Ezra wrote the first Torah scroll. 

This itself was a major reform. But Ezra didn’t stop with the first Torah. He also created a new ritual: the first public Torah reading.  It was on Rosh HaShanah, and great crowds gathered, men and women, near the water gate in the town center—the Lincoln Center of its day.

Ezra stood on a wooden dais and chanted the Torah’s Hebrew words in public for the first time. Hardly anyone understood him, because only a small scholarly group knew Hebrew, the mainstream language at the time being Aramaic. 

So Ezra employed a kind of closed captioning: first the Torah was chanted from the scroll in Hebrew, and then a scholar offered a Targum, a translation in Aramaic.  But this translation exercise went beyond the literal decoding of a foreign language: Ezra wanted to offer an interpretation of the text.

It was the practice of d’rash-ing—very much like the one you’re familiar with today, when our clergy offer up a weekly take on the Torah reading. 

Ezra moved us away from a law that was literally “set in stone” to a living, breathing scripture that could be interpreted and reinterpreted for the people in every generation. 

And we Jews needed that interpretation in Ezra’s time, just as we need it today. Because Torah can be hard to understand. There are layers upon layers of meaning.  And sometimes discrepancies. And portions that never were meant to be taken literally. 

There has never been a group of Jews, neither in ancient days, nor in the deepest part of Chasidic Brooklyn today, that follows every law as it is written in the Torah.

We don’t stone one who curses God.

We don’t stone someone who breaks the Sabbath.

We don’t stone a rebellious son.

If we Jews followed all these laws literally—we would have a lot of stoned Jews.  I’d even have a few in my own house.

The Talmud, our second-most sacred text, was also a “reform” for its time. As Jewish life changed, the rabbis interpreted the law for relevancy.  By the second century, many Jews had made their way from farms to urban centers. Refraining from work on the Sabbath had less to do with sowing seeds or plowing feeds, so Rabbis came up with new interpretations of work relating to handling money and travel; further interpretation paved the way to today’s Shabbos elevator.

Later on, as rabbis of the Talmudic period grew sensitized to the social and economic vulnerability of married women, they amended the Torah’s laws regarding dowry by codifying the use of a ketubah, a marriage contract that provided unprecedented financial protection and legal rights for a woman in marriage and divorce. Today’s traditional ketubah was yesteryear’s “reform” document.

The Talmud does not contain a single immutable truth. The Talmudic rabbis present their evolving arguments as ongoing revelation, calling the Talmud the Oral Torah, on par with the Written Torah.

In a famous Talmudic story, Moses sees God writing a Torah scroll and adding decorative crowns to some of the letters.  He asks God “What are those?” God responds that the crowns represent interpretations of Torah that don’t yet exist.

When Moses doesn’t understand, God sends Moses on a trip to the future. Moses travels hundreds of years ahead to the second century CE, finding himself in a beit midrash, a Jewish school, run by the head sage Rabbi Akiva.

Moses sits in the back of the classroom, and tries to listen, but he is absolutely lost, and cannot follow Akiva’s teachings. Akiva is talking about texts and rabbis—Moses practiced a Judaism of sacrifices and priests. Judaism had evolved beyond Moses’s recognition! 

Moses then hears Rabbi Akiva say, “and we learned this teaching from Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses our teacher,” and he realizes it’s still his Judaism. It’s just in a different form. It has been re-formed. 

This process of reinterpretation has continued through Jewish history. The laws of the Talmud were reinterpreted in Codes. The Codes were reinterpreted in the Shulchan Aruch. And legal interpretation continues to this day.

Some reforms gave rise to significant Jewish movements. In the 9th century, a group of Jews called the Karaites abandoned the oral Torah of the Talmud and tried to return to a practice of Judaism based solely on the words of the Torah.  And you’ve all heard of Chasidism, which emerged in the 18th century and emphasized mysticism and spiritual experience as a way to draw closer to God.  Chasidism influences Jewish life to this day. 

During the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the values of human autonomy, scientific and intellectual inquiry, and universal justice were elevated as the highest of human values. Judaism was influenced along with the rest of the world, and Reform Judaism was our response. 

Early Reformers in the 19th century discarded kashrut, religious dress, and other ritual laws, not only because they saw how these laws separated Jews from non-Jews, but also because of a belief that an emphasis on ritual distracted Jews from responding to our prophetic call to champion the stranger, to lift up those who were most vulnerable and needy, and to work for justice.

And in every generation, Reform Jews have been found at the forefront of movements for social change, from the civil rights movement to feminism to recent advances for LGBT equal rights.

Reform leaders wrote the first modern Torah commentary in North America. The Reform Movement ordained Sally Priesand as the first woman rabbi in America. Reform Jews revolutionized worship by allowing families to sit together, by introducing the weekly sermon—granted, sometimes a mixed blessing—and by introducing the musical styles and instrumentation that we all know and love.

The Reform leader Rabbi Alex Schindler courageously reached out to intermarried families almost forty years ago when they were shunned in synagogues and instead said: “you belong here.”

Reform led the charge to empower lay Jews to own and interpret their tradition for themselves so that personal observance was no longer dictated by your rabbis but by your own conscience.

Those lay Jews are you. 

I know that I would not be counted as a Jew today, nor would so many of us here in this room, were it not for the crowns of interpretation that the Reform movement added to our tradition. 

To be a Reform Jew is not a path of least resistance.  It’s not “Judaism lite.” It takes thoughtfulness, agency, and integrity to make “informed choices” about what it means to be a Jew today. 

I hope you know this and believe it. Because we have some work to do to educate the Jewish world about Reform Judaism, especially in Israel. 

Because to return to where I began, I wish that Minister Azoulay was speaking only for himself, but sadly he represents a systematic denigration in Israel of the Reform Movement, as well as any other Judaism that is not ultra-orthodox. Reform weddings, Reform conversions, Reform rabbis themselves are not recognized by the Jewish State.

Despite the fact that Reform leaders helped to establish the State of Israel, that our movement sends its rabbis to study there, and that we Reform Jews continue to support Israel in too many ways to enumerate here.

Azoulay says he cannot call anyone who stops following the religion of Israel a Jew, but no true Reform Jew has stopped following the religion of Israel. That is an unjust slander. And it infects and inflames the rhetoric in our homeland while imperiling its soul.

You may feel that these tensions and drawn lines are irrelevant to you, or at the very least, remote. But you have a key role to play and a voice that can’t be ignored. I hope you will raise it loudly, and proudly. The future of the Jewish world depends on it. 

And lest you think you can’t do it, God reassures us that we’re equipped, in Deuteronomy—a passage we will read on Yom Kippur together:

Surely this Torah which I give to you today
is not too baffling nor is it beyond your reach.
Lo Bashamayim hi
It is not in the heavens, that you should say
“Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us?”
It is not beyond the sea, that you should say
“Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea.”
No, the thing is very close to you,
it is in your mouth,
it is in your heart.”

Believe it.

The Torah is not beyond your reach—for each of you to translate into your life.

In the way we conduct business, the way we mark sacred time, the way we eat, the way we treat the people around us, the way we live, and the way we die.

We make Jewish choices every day.  And this is how we put Torah in our mouths and hearts today. It is truly yours.

And do not let an Israeli minister of religion, or your inability to read Hebrew, or your own doubts about authenticity, stop you from taking your place as an interpreter of our tradition, in the line from Ezra the Scribe to Rabbi Akiva, to Rabbi Sally Priesand, to you. 

For you are the translators of our tradition.  You are now the re-formers of Judaism. 

Can you imagine if Moses were to walk into the back of Avery Fisher Hall here and witness this community’s observance of Rosh HaShanah?  What would he make of this diverse crowd of thousands?  What would he make of the singers and instruments on stage?  What would he make of the “Jumbotron”?  Or this rabbi?  I am venturing a guess that he would not recognize it.

But he would not be able to miss the energy and dedication of this great community.  Moses would look around and see families, three and even four generations, sitting all together. Praying with sincerity.  Gays and lesbians, many colors, all God’s children.  Committing to renew our relationship with our tradition.  He would see Jews by inheritance and Jews by choice, Jews with non-Jewish partners who, in love, contribute to our people. 

He would see modern Jews—all of us—still making Kiddush and mourning Kaddish. He would hear ancient prayers sung to new melodies, for in every generation we “sing a new song” to God. 

But Moses would see that this—all of this—is still the Judaism he began.  He would see that every time we lift up our Torah scroll and sing V’Zot HaTorah, we say, “This is the Torah which Moses placed before the People Israel.”  And then he would be not only reassured, but inspired; he’d realize, “Ah—these are the new crowns being etched upon our Torah scroll.”

Judaism has always been a re-forming Judaism. Its interpretations and reinterpretations will outlive me and my children, and thank God for a living faith that lasts because it never stands still.

L’Shanah Tovah.