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Mark Cohn

The anguished dilemma of a Reform rabbi

Jews are a particular people with a universal message – If we abandon our particularity, we risk losing ourselves
Against the notion that you can have 'Judaism your way'
Against the notion that you can have 'Judaism your way'

How long do I remain a Reform Jew if the institutions of Reform Judaism stray into territories that are untenable for me ideologically?

This past week, the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, decided to overturn a long-standing ban and barrier and ordain students who are in committed relationships with non-Jews. That decision was not surprising, given the growing tendency of the Reform movement to prioritize universalism over peoplehood and the needs of the individual over those of the larger community.

We, as a movement, have been justifiably embracing of interfaith families. But that does not mean the rabbi should be permitted to be in such a relationship. Rabbis hold a unique role in the community and ought to be models of Jewish commitment, reflecting the endogamous (in-married) custom and law of our people.

This decision by the HUC Board of Governors reflects a historic crisis in the Reform movement.

Judaism stands on a three-legged stool. If you remove one leg, the stool cannot stand. Those three legs are God, Torah, and Israel (the people and the land).

I recently came upon an expression used in a fundraising letter for the Union for Reform Judaism: “Judaism your way.” It’s hard to imagine anything more antithetical to Judaism than “Judaism your way.” After all, it was in the first person plural that our ancestors stood at Sinai and said, “We will do and we will hear!” (Exodus 24:7). To live Jewishly is to be engaged with the Jewish people.

A product of the Reform movement and a practicing Reform rabbi for nearly thirty years, I owe the very basis of my Jewish education from childhood to graduate school and ordination to institutions in which Jewish history, theology, practice (both the dos and the don’ts), and Hebrew were all central. I learned that to be a Reform Jew meant to be an informed Jew, a proud Zionist, and someone seriously engaged with our Jewish community.

“Judaism your way” – further demonstrated by HUC’s decision regarding rabbinical students – causes me to worry about the future of liberal Judaism: placing the ultra-individualism of American society above the essence of Jewishness.

Reform Judaism was founded to stem the tide of assimilation and to form a Judaism guided by Jewish law without always being beholden to it. Despite breaking from religious authority, Reform Judaism never rejected the importance of community and Jewish peoplehood. Although it gave the individual power to make informed choices, the goal was always to be connected to the Jewish people.

The movement has both suffered and excelled because of its emphasis on the individual. Yet today, this more explicit call replaces the communal with the individual – and the individual is rarely expected to find ways to serve the community. Given the current crisis faced by half the world’s Jews living in our people’s homeland, this is precisely the moment to prioritize the needs of the communal over the individual and to return to the three-legged stool of Jewish life.

While visiting relatives in Israel recently, we discussed their granddaughter’s future army service. I was impressed that instead of entering the army for mandatory service immediately after high school, she, like many of her peers, had volunteered to serve the country in a social service capacity for a year and then begin her military conscription. For those who follow such a path, their total commitment to the country increases by three to five years, depending on gender and branch of service. Israeli teenagers assume that serving the state is part of life.

By contrast, we American Jews do not expect the next generation to consider how they will serve their community. Many of us who serve as Jewish professionals tend to spend more time worrying about providing “Judaism your way” than helping or even demanding that individual Jews work their way into normative Jewish life.

I grew up in an era of activism on behalf of oppressed Soviet Jewry. Counselors from my Reform summer camp who had moved to Israel were regarded as heroes. While I knew I was growing up in a Reform milieu, I also knew that being Jewish meant belonging to a people, feeling a connection to our ancestral land, and approaching Judaism with rigor and reflection.

But a shift has occurred in the past two decades. A few weeks ago, a younger colleague referred to me – or at least to my ideas – as “antiquated.” I have come to take that comment as a compliment.

We now live in an era in which many Jewish educators and rabbis highlight universal Jewish values and present them as the driving force of Jewish living – or sometimes even as its only purpose. And so, biblical concepts like “created in the image of God,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “justice, justice you shall pursue” become the rallying cry for a form of Judaism that seeks to advance a progressive vision of society. It became commonplace to break Shabbat for an AIDS Walk or a solidarity march with Black Lives Matter. Given that progressive vision, permitting exogamy for rabbinical students becomes predictable.

Some years ago, I delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the need to be better caretakers of the earth. Given that the Jewish New Year celebrates the birthday of the world, I thought it perfectly appropriate to draw connections between Jewish text and the wisdom of grounding our responsible actions in those words.

I would not give that sermon today, not because the earth doesn’t need attention (see: Genesis 2) but because people are constantly hearing that message in their secular lives. Instead, Jews coming to temple need to explore the teachings of Torah, God, Zionism, and peoplehood. While I am not suggesting we abdicate our communal and universal obligations – after all, they are part of the 613 mitzvot – I urge Jews of all stripes to drill down to what keeps them Jewish, how they reinforce their connection to our people, and what can we do as individuals to uplift the whole.

Much the way the National Transportation Safety Board comes in after a train wreck to assess the cause and the damage, Reform Judaism needs to assess what happened to allow our movement to “go off the rails.” Today the Reform movement’s leaders will issue statements about a Supreme Court decision or a presidential executive order but say little if anything when antisemitic demonstrations threaten college campuses. In their silence, they fail to communicate to our congregations and youth – let alone the world at large – our commitment to Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish State.

The Jewish people are a particular people with a universal message. Our universal message promotes caring about the other and extending love and kindness. Yet our particularity keeps us engaged and informed, loyal and dedicated to the rituals, ideas, beliefs, and practices that reflect our 3,000-year-old covenant with God and one another. The three legs of the Jewish stool are the anchors by which Jewish individuals and families find meaning and bring our heritage to life.

Part of the strength of the Jewish people is believing that each generation could be the last. The twentieth-century Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz called us “the ever-dying people.” Indeed, either because of forces from the outside or forces from within, we are seemingly forever on the verge of extinction. A sense of preeminent individualism, disengagement from the Jewish people beyond one’s temple, and the notion that you can have “Judaism your way” – including for clerical leaders – all make for an increasingly thin Reform Judaism, let alone Judaism. I know that I am not alone among Reform Jewish professionals and lay people who share these concerns. Together, we recognize the imperative of embracing the “particulars” that define Judaism and making the Jewish people the centerpiece of our thinking and our behavior. Maybe we, Reform Jews, need to be a bit more antiquated. As long as we do, then a Reform Jew, I remain.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Cohn serves as the Director of Partnership Development for the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and is the rabbi of Temple Sholom in New Milford, CT.