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Shas, Reform Jews, and our inheritance

Like it or not, tradition marries modernity in Judaism, and Reform Jews are the only ones being honest about it

This week, Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, suggested that Reform Jews should not be considered Jewish. He said, “Let’s just say there’s a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel. I can’t allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew.”

This week we read about Zelophehad’s daughters. They approach Moses demanding that the law of inheritance be revised so that their father’s memory will endure. They say, “Our father died in the wilderness…. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27) Justice demands the law be changed.

Right wing parties often criticize Reform, accusing it of picking and choosing from the tradition. Authentic, “Torah-true Judaism” is not piecemeal, but instead the entire package, they argue. This view fails to understand the human heart. Moreover, this philosophy fails to recognize the historical truth that everyone picks and chooses. Do you, for example, emphasize Zelophehad’s daughters or Pinchas, who kills the Israelite idolaters? Both stories are found in this week’s Torah portion. The sermon begins with one verse. The choices made are different in every synagogue, whether Reform or ultra-Orthodox, Israeli or American.

In addition, ultra-Orthodox rabbis imagine that they, and they alone, are faithful to the past, and that their beliefs and practices remain unchanging. This mythologizes Jewish history. Judaism has always changed. It has survived not because it has remained fixed but instead because it has adapted to different historical circumstances. In fact, ultra-Orthodoxy is a response to modernity. It is but one answer to the pressures of contemporary society. In essence, ultra-Orthodox leaders state that all modern values must be shut out and that Judaism, and Jews, can learn nothing from modernity.

I believe however that it is impossible to close our eyes to modernity and that there is much to learn from contemporary society.

We must renew our tradition and even have the courage to re-imagine our inheritance. My Judaism is far different than that of my grandparents. Likewise my grandchildren’s will be unimaginably different from my own. This is not only because I don’t yet have grandchildren, but also because I cannot envision the future, the values it might teach and the accommodations Judaism might need to make to it.

Reform Judaism is an open door; it offers a welcome to our sacred texts. It is an invitation to reread these words with new, contemporary eyes.

I believe Judaism is about change. We must bend toward contemporary times and accommodate modernity. We must adapt to modern values. Today’s Judaism demands a marriage of tradition with modernity.

Here in Jerusalem, at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we study traditional sources in an effort to fashion a new and vibrant modern Jewish life. There are nearly 200 rabbis studying here. Here, Jewish pluralism is modeled and learned. I do not imagine that any one us reads these texts with the same eyes. I do not imagine that any one of us has the same answer or response to modernity. Nonetheless, I love listening to our discussions and debates. I open the doors of the Institute to discover the sounds of colleagues and friends arguing over the words of our sacred tradition.

It is not the answers that I most value but the music of those discussions. It is in those notes that I know the future will be sustained.

We rewrite our sacred texts. We reread the words of our inheritance.

I have faith in learning Torah.

The study of Torah will be found in each and every generation.

There are millions of Jews in the United States and Israel who like myself wish to live lives that are both modern and Jewish. We can only do so with our eyes open wide to modernity. We can only do so with the pages of our Torah unveiled before us.

Our sacred texts are open to reinterpretation. Our Judaism is forever changing. And that is why our people will endure.

No one can be written out of the Jewish people. Our tradition is the inheritance of all.

“And the Lord said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just…”

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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