Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Reform Judaism is just misunderstood

As a rabbi, I find that one of the Reform Movement’s biggest assets has also become, over time, one of its biggest hindrances. Reform Judaism prides itself on being one of the most inclusive movements, welcoming, to name a few, interfaith families, same-sex families, women on the pulpit, and, most importantly, a range of theological views. While this wide range of views has successfully welcomed a number of different voices into the movement, there has also been a problematic result: Reform Judaism has blurred the lines as to where the movement stands on certain Jewish issues; in essence, Reform Judaism has not made clear the lines the define it.

This has led to the overwhelmingly popular view that as Reform Jews we “don’t do anything,” that we are “Judaism Light,” and that we “break the rules whenever we want.” In fact, you have only to read some of the comments on previous articles by myself and Reform Rabbis to see this in full view.  However, none of those above statements are true. Unfortunately, perception becomes reality, and too many Reform congregants do not know why we practice what we practice, or why we appear to ignore certain mitzvot.  Members of the Israeli government even openly reject Reform Judaism, telling us we are not a real religion. At times, I find myself thinking that perhaps we cannot blame them when the average Reform Jew honestly believes we have no structure for examining the mitzvot and that we simply do whatever we want, whatever feels “right” for us. Reform Jews are seen as Jews who “pick and choose” what to practice based on convenience and lifestyle while our Orthodox and Conservative neighbors know where they stand because they, unlike us, look to the texts for guidance.

This, of course, is not a fair representation of our movement. In fact, it’s a rather damaging one. The truth is that Modern Orthodoxy is only as old as Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism is a great deal younger, and all three movements have complicated understandings of Jewish law based on the Torah, the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and later texts such as the Shulchan Aruch, and Responsa. As Reform Jews, we look to these texts just as the conservative movements do. Note that I use the word conservative, not observant. Reform Jews observe Jewish laws just as Jews in other movements do. However, we observe them differently, based on our movement’s understandings of the texts that brought them forth in the first place, as well as an understanding of “informed choice” for our members.

Allow me to illustrate this principle with three examples:

First, let’s consider the laws of Kashrut, the dietary laws found in our Torah. Most of these laws are given in Leviticus, and are restated in Deuteronomy. While the rabbis of old were not interested in the “why” behind the laws forbidding animals without fins or scales, birds of prey and scavengers, and amphibians and insects, the Reform mindset is different from those of our rabbinic predecessors. Reform Judaism is a movement that encourages questioning, and pushes away blind faith. Our scholars at universities across the world look into archaeology and document analysis to uncover the historical circumstances that led to these laws in the first place. For example, we know have evidence to suggest that the majority of the book of Leviticus was written and redacted by a priestly class, who helped codify the Torah while interweaving their own theology. The laws in Leviticus, whose name hints to us its writers, the Levites, were most likely written to apply only to priests, not the average Israelite. Priests of the time were held to a much higher standard than an average citizen, and a great deal of the laws included were to keep these priests as pious as possible. Kashrut was one way to encourage piety. Moreover, recent scholarship suggests that the laws of Kashrut served a secondary purpose. Israelites lived in areas populated by other tribes and peoples, just as we live in a diverse culture today. Living in close proximity to the Amorites, Jebusites, Girgashites, Canaanites, Hiittes, Perizzites, Hivites, and Philistines, to name a few, the priests began to worry about intermingling, and intermarriage. Since one of the most repeated sins the Israelites commit in our Torah is the sin of idolatry, the worship of other gods, the priests sought to protect the Israelites from the influence of other religions. Kashrut law was their solution. Different dietary laws meant that one set of people could not dine with the other. An Israelite could not sit and eat with a Canaanite when the Israelites had such strict laws against what to eat. Instead, Israelites were to follow Kashrut law and only dine together with other Israelites. If you can’t have dinner at another person’s house, you can’t marry their daughter, and you can’t convert to their religion.

So why might some Reform Jews choose not to adhere to Kashrut? Because we descend from German and American thinkers who embraced assimilation, rather than feared it. Reform Judaism is inclusive of interfaith couples, interfaith relations, and building peace and bridges with our neighbors of other faiths. As such, Reform Judaism leaves your level of Kashrut up to you, recognizing that intermingling is okay, and even encouraged.  Furthermore, we must give these laws the historical distance they deserve.  Some Reform Jews, therefore, might not see a need to keep Kosher since the reasons for Kashrut are outdated.  In other words, we aren’t picking and choosing based on the fact that we like cheeseburgers and lobster, but rather because our  research and understanding of scholarship consider it outdated.  Because there are no explicit reasons given for Kashrut laws, we add our own theories as to the “why,” and make our decisions based on those theories.

Let me give you a second example: Tattoos. An increasing number of Reform Jews, particularly of younger generations, are getting tattooed. In doing so, are they being unobservant of Jewish law? Hardly. The prohibition of tattoos, again from Leviticus, states “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves…”(19:28). The rabbis of the classic period, 200 CE-600 CE, discussed their beliefs as to why markings were prohibited since tattoos were a common occurrence during Israelite tribal days. They concluded that it wasn’t the marks of ketovet ka’aka (tattoos) that were the problem, but rather the purpose behind them. The sages rejected tattoos only when the tattoo served the purpose for idolatry, again the most common and repeated sin of the Israelites. And this makes sense, as our Canaanite and Amorite neighbors would tattoo themselves to show love for their gods. The priests of Leviticus, wishing to make the Israelite tribe distinctive from other peoples, banned marks completely, so an Israelite would know an Israelite by the lack of marks.

As Reform Jews, we do not feel the need to make ourselves distinctive from our neighbors on the outside, because we know, internally, that we are different because we are Jews. We share history, peoplehood, and memory, and the tattoos that we choose are generally not for the purpose of idolatry or the worship of other gods. And as for the “the body is a temple” argument, as Reform Jews, we should know that this phrase is of Christian origin, from 1st Corinthians 6:19. Therefore, using this phrase for prohibition or support is as superfluous as Jews knocking on wood for luck, which originates from knocking on wood of the cross. So again, are Reform Jews with tattoos unobservant? I would argue no. Rather, they read the laws for what they were at the time of creation and respond to them based on their applicability today.

Finally, as a third example, let us consider the topic of being shomer Shabbos, the observance of the Shabbat laws. Most Conservative and Orthodox Jews know that the observance of Shabbat comes from the Mishnah, a 2nd Century rabbinic work, Tractate Shabbat 7:2, which lists the 39 activities prohibited on Shabbat. These include sowing, baking, making two loops, tearing, writing two or more letters, kindling a fire, and transporting an object between private and public domains. However, if we look at Shabbat at the source, the Torah, we see that the origin of the observance of the Sabbath occurs in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and Exodus 31, all with different purposes. Shabbat reminds us of creation in Exodus 20, it commemorates redemption from Egypt in Deuteronomy 5, and solidifies the covenant in Exodus 31. In other words, literary criticism suggests that the authors of the Torah attempted to reinvent the purpose of Shabbat several times, and what resulted centuries later was a mishmash of all three. Modern scholars therefore ask, if Shabbat was repurposed in the Torah, what was its original purpose?  More importantly, if the authors of the Torah repurpose Shabbat, we continue that tradition as Reform Jews in response to modernity. Shabbat, therefore, in Reform Judaism has options for how to observe it, but the most important way is to keep it distinct from our other days in some way. The informed choice we have leads us to create a special Sabbath for each of us, and by doing so, we follow in the footsteps of the authors of the Torah, and the rabbis that followed centuries later.

Of course, entire papers and books have been written on this subject because Reform Judaism is just as complex as the other movements in Judaism.  What I hope to accomplish here, in part, is at least to curb the unfortunate comments we read all too often such as “Reform Judaism is not Judaism.”  It most certainly is, and I hope this is just the beginning of your journey to understand it.

About the Author
Ordained rabbi and social justice advocate with extensive experience serving congregations and leading large-scale community change. Published author who concentrates on bringing deep Jewish understanding to the lay public. Doctoral student with a focus on how Jewish philosophy can drive social justice work in the United States. Passionate Jewish educator using innovative teaching methods to reach unaffiliated Jews. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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