My father, Rabbi Sam Silver, used to joke that a Rabbi is one who would travel 3000 miles to deliver a speech, but would not walk across the street to hear one. So when I was invited to attend a Jewish service, I looked forward to the opportunity to relax and enjoy.
While the synagogue was beautiful, the cantor magnificent, and the attire ornate, I was saddened to hear a Reform Rabbi exclaim that the Torah was delivered by God to Moses as infallible truth and a perfect moral code for Jews to follow forever. I was further surprised to hear that diseases could be cured by praying to God and faithfully following his laws as set out in the Torah, with no message of social justice.
I realize that it is politically incorrect to judge another’s religion, and even moreso to criticize your own, but if Jews fail to critique ourselves, how on Earth, (as opposed to in heaven where it is too late) can we help Judaism thrive and remain relevant in our lives? Judaism is strengthened by ongoing evolution through dialogue, debate and learning as reflected in the Talmud and rabbinic literature. “Reform” means to change, and this process is continuous, thus it is called Reform, not Reformed Judaism. So at the risk of ruffling a few tallesim, let me share a perspective inherited from my father, a classically trained Reform Rabbi who preached that in politics and anatomy, the heart is on the left; raised by proud Yiddish speaking members of the Workman’s Circle, a dynamic, socialist expression of Jewish idealism.
Reform Judaism reflects a great leap forward into modernity, yet also, a return to our prophetic Jewish roots. It was intended to liberate Judaism from the debilitating, archaic concept that God wrote the Torah, and Bronze Age notions that reject evolution, a heliocentric solar system, and the germ theory of disease, ordaining death for those who violate myriad and often, stultifying laws, and ordering the extermination of entire populations of people in or near Canaan who practiced a religion different from our own.
As a constantly evolving religion, Reform Judaism transcends these ideas with modern reason and science, combined with inspiration from courageous prophets of old, who dreamed of Jews leading the world out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of reason and peace.
But how can we lead people out of darkness while teaching that every word of the Torah was written by an infallible being who ordered death for non-believers? Such belief resembles the ideology of ISIS more than progressive Jewish thought as practiced in Israel, America and by Jews throughout the world
Despite the label and outer trappings, such as female Rabbis and a shorter service, Judaism based on an inerrant Torah delivered verbatim by God, should not be called Reform, but rather Orthodox light. Reform synagogues should not teach that Adam and Eve, rather than Cro Magnon man actually walked this Earth, or that different languages were created by God to confound humans so they wouldn’t discover his whereabouts with the Tower of Babel, or that all life on Earth was destroyed by God in a fit of rage about 5000 years ago, when all human civilizations disappeared and then spontaneously reemerged without missing a beat and without contemporary historians taking notice. Teaching such mythology as fact “mythleads” believers and turns off rational thinkers. Reintroducing the yarmulke and other traditions is fine, but reintroducing Jewish fundamentalism to Reform is a step backwards.
I am saddened to meet couples planning their wedding who say they were raised Reform, by which they mean not religious, and then say, “I am now very Reform”, which they erroneously understand to mean having no Jewish connection at all; as well as those who were raised Orthodox, and want nothing to do with Judaism as a result of having their intelligence insulted and their moral sensibilities debauched, and will have a Rabbi at their wedding only to please their parents.
In a world desperate for Judaism’s intelligence, idealism and passion to solve our many problems, we must combine Jewish tradition with reason and science to be a light to the nations, helping to lead humanity to a world of peace, compassion and love. This was the original message and intent of Reform Judaism and it is time to continue this process of reform by returning to the true roots of Reform, which is a Cosmic view of the world and the universe, combining the teachings and methodology of science with the original teachings of our faith, reflecting a universal Creative force in the world. With this Cosmic perspective of the world and our place in it, and a rejection of a literal reading of many passages in the Torah which are pre-scientific, often violent and claim that we are the chosen of God, Jews can truly build bridges of understanding and knock down walls of separation and conflict which inevitably ensue when we claim to be the “chosen” of God and the daughter faiths of Christianity and Islam claim that they are the new chosen ones, and thus we must step aside or be thrust aside by violence.
For those who disagree with me, I invite dialogue and respectful discussion, which is the hallmark of the sacred writ of the Orthodox, the Talmud and the admonition attributed to the prophet Isaiah: “Come let us reason together”.