Reforming Reform

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer’s most perceptive observation is that the question of whether “American Reform [was] built upon a structured ideology” or “primarily reflect[ed] a series of pragmatic adjustments to the shifting scene” continues to reverberate. For the past several decades, Reform Jews have championed the centrality of “personal choice” in one’s approach to Judaism. This is a seductive motto, not least because it covers up the widening gap between the articulated ideals of Reform and the conventional practices of its adherents. “Personal choice” can confer ideological validity upon the most haphazard and unreflective religious decisions.

To understand how ideology has become obsolete in Reform Judaism, one need only look at the fate of the movement’s extensive literature. Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to the laity and too seldom consulted by the rabbis, gather dust in libraries. And why not: such literature is often at odds with a Reform Judaism for which “personal choice” is the central value.

What Mr. Wertheimer does not say (but I will) is that the language of choice is passé. No one disputes the fact that individuals are free to decide what they will and will not observe. Teachers from all denominations of Judaism appeal to the “relevance” of the tradition in terms of “personal meaning” that acknowledge the supremacy of the autonomous self. But personal choice cannot be the core principle: we limit our autonomy as we enter into a religious community. This is at the heart of the idea of a covenant.

If the motto of “personal choice” is insufficient, the more enhanced slogan of “informed choice” is unrealistic in the context of contemporary Reform. Becoming “informed” is not as simple as studying a snippet of text about a particular issue; it entails immersing oneself in a 3,000-year-old tradition and its literature, most of which remains inaccessible to the vast majority of Reform Jews. If the movement were sincerely committed to “informed choice,” the demand for high-level study would be widespread, and far more time and resources would be devoted to it. But when young Reform Jews are discouraged from adopting traditional practices they have encountered through study, one gets the impression that “informed choice” often means only the choice not to observe.

Mr. Wertheimer argues that the movement should formulate “standards for committed living.” Perhaps this would help. But knowing that many such standards already exist and are ignored, the movement might do better to promote new and emerging models of seriously engaged Reform communities. As “choice” increasingly becomes a given—the starting point rather than the central creed—Reform Jews will be ready for a deepened conversation about mitzvah, obligation, and the ways in which the self is enhanced by moving beyond the self.

Rabbi Leon Morris
New York City

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