What is the central motif of our People’s history and the ongoing evolution of Reform Judaism? “Innovation, anchored in Jewish tradition.” Since its earliest days in Germany and throughout its history in North America, Reform Judaism has captured the spirit of that Jewish evolution. The Movement has been truly creative, yet ever conscious of the inherent tension between that creativity and the rootedness of Reform in traditional Jewish life.
Since 1889, the Central Conference of America Rabbis – the rabbinic leadership organization created by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was the visionary founder of today’s Reform Judaism in North America – has led the ongoing conversation about who we are as Reform Jews and what we believe. CCAR’s platforms and positions, the Reform responsa issued by the CCAR since 1906, and resolutions of the CCAR and our sister organization, the Union for Reform Judaism (originally founded by Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), bear witness to our emerging Reform Jewish identities and theologies.
In a recent CCAR publication – A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path – we presented an in-depth examination of practices, rituals, and beliefs; our relationship to Torah and halachah; the centrality of social justice; and issues such as conversion, interfaith families, and the relatively new Reform community in Israel. Conversations in the Reform Movement are confronting those issues head on. Reform Jews disagree – sometimes passionately – about what Reform Judaism can and should become, but that very diversity of thinking is one of Reform’s great strengths. Robust discourse and evolution of thought are essential to Reform Judaism, ensuring that our Torah remains a living document that preserves Jewish tradition even as we transform it.
So what would Rabbi Wise think of our contemporary form of Reform Judaism? He would be proud of the accomplishments of the Movement, which has nurtured and sustained a vibrant American Judaism while expanding its Torah and practice throughout North America and elsewhere in the world, yet ironically he might not even recognize today’s Reform as the Reform Judaism he thought he had initiated.
A sugiyah in the Talmud imagines the biblical Moses sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, confused by everything he hears. Moses does not recognize his own Torah! Not until he learns about the influence of the Oral Torah – Mishnah and Talmud—does Moses begin to accept the dynamic impact of subsequent generations on the meaning and experience of Judaism.
Just as Moses before him, Wise would have to learn that our innovations are built upon the foundation that he constructed, but that since then every generation has added its own layer. Wise would be pleased that today’s Reform Judaism is grounded on his core values and vision – to make Judaism relevant, inspiring, and accessible for the contemporary Jew – but at the same time he might be perplexed by current religious practices, the breadth of denominational and institutional Judaism, the depth of our connection to Israel, and our People’s integration into general society.
Just as he sought to balance the economic, cultural, and spiritual realities of his time, Wise would appreciate how we strive to do so today. Some of his challenges in the late 1870s are also our challenges now: technological advancement (then, railroad; today, social media); demographic shifts (then, European immigrants; today, our welcoming of community members raised in different faiths or different cultures); and differences of opinion about issues of theology. Add questions about the role of Jewish law, how best to use language in the prayer service, and how to engage the next generation in communal and congregational life.
Another critical contribution to an understanding of who we are and what we believe comes from the Reform Jewish prayer books published by the CCAR, starting with the first Union Prayer Book in 1890 and continuing through Mishkan T’filah in 2006 and Mishkan HaNefesh in 2015. While our liturgical publications have contributed to the theological and moral unity of the Reform community and to a sense of connection between one Reform Jewish generation and the next, that liturgy reflects our unity, not our uniformity. Mishkan HaNefesh – our newest liturgical publication for the High Holy Days – maintains the gorgeous, poetic, and often romantic language of our prior prayer books, while offering ranges of theologies, ideologies, and traditions that allow for individual intimacy and communal involvement.
“Innovation, anchored in Jewish tradition” beats in the heart of Reform rabbinic leadership, motivating us to enhance community engagement and education, and to create inclusive communities for Jews from all walks of life and for those who wish to join us on our Jewish journey. Indeed, today’s Reform Judaism embodies a teaching of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935): Hayashan yitchadeish v’hechadash yitkadeish, “The old shall be new and the new shall be holy.”
– Rabbi Fox