Friday, September 5, 2008

The Limits of Reform Judaism and Non-Halachic Halacha

The Union for Reform Judaism has an interesting ongoing essay series called "Eilu V'eilu." Two knowledgeable people (generally rabbis, sometimes others) post on a particular issue, respond to each other's points, and respond to reader's e-mails. The archives are here.

In the most recent series (Volume 30 - with 4 weekly posts and 1 supplemental post), Cantor Dana Anesi and Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl address the the limits of Reform Judaism in general, and more specifically the following question:

Some people say that Reform Jews can believe just about anything and do just about anything, as long as they still call themselves Jews. Others disagree. They insist that there are indeed identifiable boundaries in Reform Judaism. Is there anything I have to believe or do in order to call myself a Reform Jew?

The question is a great one. Reform Judaism claims to be a non-halachic movement, and its primary and perhaps overriding value is individual autonomy. There is much to commend as to this approach, but one drawback is that it lacks a structured and deterministic ideology that can supply definitive answers. It cannot say that people who believe or do X are not Reform Jews. One the other hand, such limits are necessary. Certainly a Jew, or Jewish congregation, that believed and practiced the negation of all the mitzvot would fall outside the scope of Reform Judaism. But how does one determine these limits?

Cantor Anesi and Rabbi Stahl offer some insights, and both draw on an interesting Reform Responsum dealing with whether a humanistic Jewish congregation that omits all references to God should be admitted to the UAHC. I'll discuss the Responsum first, the arguments of Cantor Anesi and Rabbi Stahl's arguments, and then a few thoughts or why Reform Judaism is not really a non-halachic movement.

Reform Responsum 5751.4

Reform Responsum 5751.4 dealt with the issue of whether a humanistic Jewish congregation could be admitted to the UAHC. Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote the responsum excluding the congregation. The congregation had adopted its own liturgy that deliberately omitted all mention of God and well as the Kiddush, Kaddish, Barekhu, Shema, Ve'ahavta, Amidah and Aleinu. Rabbi Plaut noted that although Reform Judaism has always been "an open-ended and variegated movement," it has always grounded itself in a belief in God at least in some form, as reflected in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the 1935 Columbus platform, and the 1976 Centenary Perspective. (I just have to note that the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform most ofter refers to an undefined "God-idea" rather than "God".) Thus, "[t]he Congregation has cut itself loose from the three platforms that define Reform Judaism for their times."

Rabbi Plaut then asks the next logical question: even though it is outside "the realm of historical Reform Judaism," "should we not open the gates wide enough to admit even such concepts into our fold? Are not diversity and inclusiveness a hallmark of Reform? To this we would reply: yesh gevul., there are limits. Reform Judaism cannot be everything, or it will be nothing."

In this dicussion, Rabbi Plaut makes two important distinctions. Individuals can have doubts or disbelief and still belong to a Reform congregation. And congregations can have doubts and still be a Reform congregation. But when a congregation explicitly and affirmatively removes God from the liturgy, it is crossing this limit.

This responsum was not unanimous, and Prof. Eugene Mihaly issued a dissent arguing that the congregation should be admitted. The dissent and the response are summarized at the bottom of the responsum.

Cantor Anesi

Cantor Anesi starts by discussing this responsum, notes that the more recent 1999 Pittsburgh Platform reinforced the centrality of God, Torah, and Israel to Reform Judaism, and added social justice as an important concept. Her conclusion:
And so, this is Reform Judaism: one eye on the tradition; the other on the contemporary needs of our members: lay people and clergy alike, as together we create an evolving consensus as to where our boundaries lie.

Rabbi Stahl

Rabbi Stahl focuses on custom, or minhag, as providing guidance in setting these boundaries. He cites Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, who argued that minhag, which "emerged creatively, anonymously and spontaneously through­out world Jewry," can help define these boundaries.
It is through minhag that we can discover our boundaries as Reform Jews today. Minhag is what serious and learned Reform Jews at a particular time and place con­sider necessary for us to be responsible partners in our covenant with God. It is through our minhagim that we can discern what is obligatory and what is optional.

He then makes a clever move. Boundaries to the left, he notes, "are thus shaped as classical, traditional halachah (Jewish law) continues to encounter modernity." But Reform Judaism's commitment to certain modern principals, such as egalitarianism, also set a boundary on the right.
"Can we, in good conscience, support a plan that will not allow a woman to sit on a beit din (Jewish law court) or to act as a witness at a conversion? If we are truly committed to egalitarianism, can we really sacrifice this principle as a matter of conscience, even to advance the interests of K’lal Yisrael (community of Israel)?"
Rabbi Stahl does not actual advocate kicking a congregation out of the UAHC if it adopted more traditional gender roles, such as excluding women from a bet din or (perhaps more likely, although still quite unlikely) having a mechitzah. But the point remains; there are some limits on the right as well.

Further Thoughts - Reform Judaism's Non-Halachic Halacha

Both authors are almost completely in agreement. They both focus on specific criteria (God, Torah, and Israel), on traditional beliefs and practices, and on the current consensus of Reform Jews about how far is too far. And they both avoid (as they must) a specific list of disqualifying criteria.

What they have described, simply put, is halacha. A more moderate or liberal form of halacha, no doubt, but halacha nonetheless. They have described an organized process or rulemaking, based on some combination of first principles and public policy concerns. In fact, Cantor Anasi quotes the Talmud in her analysis of this situation:
"This is not new; in the Talmud (Bavli, Eruvin 14b), we read: “Said Raba son of R.Hanan to Abaye: What is the law? ‘Go,’ the other told him, ‘and see what is the usage of the people.’""
This is a more moderate or liberal view of the law, as reflected in modern times by Solomon Schechter's claim that the locus of authority of Judaism resides in "Catholic Israel" (that is, the Jewish people considered as a whole, or k'lal Yisrael).

In the Supplement to this series, Ben Dreyfus (who, coincidentally, is the blog-meister at Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, where Steve, Diane, and are part of a large team blogging on aggadah) asked a perceptive question:
Rabbi Stahl writes that "egalitarianism often conflicts with halachah", and that "we cannot compromise those values of human equality that we Reform Jews have come to regard as sacrosanct, even when they contradict halachic demands." As a Reform Jew, why do you accept an Orthodox understanding of halachah as the authoritative one? Why not say that our Reform understanding of halachah must incorporate egalitarianism, and that values of human equality *are* halachic demands for us?


If Reform Judaism took its supposed non-halachic status seriously, it would be incapable of making even the most minor prescriptive or normative statements. At most, it would simply offer a list of things that Reform Jews might want to consider as they go about making their own autonomous decisions. But Reform Judaism does not do this, and does not claim to do this.

In short, the method by which Reform Judaism makes recommendations or advocates positions, all under the label of "not halacha" is similar to the method by which Conservative Judaism makes recommendations or advocates positions, under the label of "halacha". I think the Conservative label is more accurate and appropriate.

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