Might You Just be a Reform Jew?

You Just Might be a Reform Jew
Erev Rosh Hashanah
1 Tishrei 5773 / September 16, 2012
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

 A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a moment of crisis, a crisis of identity. It came upon me at the Minnesota State Fair when the family and I were visiting my home state for a family Bar Mitzvah. I can’t say the crisis was terribly traumatic there in Minnesota. I guess I would call it a mini-crisis.

I was very excited about bringing the family to the Fair. Besides knowing that we would have lots of fun and eat lots of bad stuff, I wanted to share with them a bit of me and some of my childhood memories: the rides on the midway, foot long hot dogs, all the chocolate milk you can drink for a dime, the stage shows, the freak shows, the hog shows, not to mention those hot little sugar-coated Tom Thumb donuts straight out of the oil – so bad and yet so good! We spent two days at the Fair and, of course, had a great time, even though the price of the milk had gone up from a dime to a dollar sometime in the last forty years. Being there and reliving, I felt at home, at least on one level.

But yet on another level, I felt a certain otherness, like an alien – a stranger in a strange land, in it but not of it.  Looking around at the literally hundreds of thousand other fair-goers, I started to ask myself, am I still a real Minnesotan? What do I have in common with these Minnesotan Fair goers, milk drinkers, hog raisers, tattooed freaks and donut eaters? (Well, maybe not the donut eaters. I think I know what I have in common with them.)

I’m proud of my Minnesota upbringing, having moved there at the age of two from New Jersey of all places where my brother and I were born.  But I don’t live there, have no plans to, and rarely visit. I like to prepare Gram’s native wild rice recipe on Thanksgiving, but don’t care for certain other Minnesota delicacies like lutefisk or the specialty of the Fair, fried walleye on a stick. My Minnesotaness has almost nothing to do with the teams I root for or the groups with which I engage.  It is but one of many identities I claim, but subsumed by most of the others. So how could I say I was a real Minnesotan? Hence, my mini-crisis.

Luckily, it lasted but a few moments, since I was able to put my mini-crisis in perspective. You see, in preparing for this evening, I had been reading and thinking about the whole subject of identity. It seems that identity is much more complex than ever before. Diversity is now the word. You don’t have to be either this or that; you can be both this and that. We see that especially in the younger generations. Multiple and overlapping – even contradicting – identities can be held by the same person at the same time.

And there are levels of identity; there’s individual identity and there’s shared identity.  Individual identity is how we put together aspects of our experience, our personality, and our values in a coherent whole, using words like personal or core identities, shaping and being shaped by the narrative of our life’s journeys. Individual identity is about who the person is who says the word, “I.” Shared identity is what we acquire through our connections with others with whom we identify, sustained over time. The most powerful sources of shared identity seem to be family, geography, and religion. Just think about whom you rooted for in the Olympics. Shared identity is about who the others we have in mind when we say, “We.”

Which of our multiple individual and shared identities are most important? Not surprisingly, they are the identities to which we give of our time in active engagement.  People are best defined by the “we” with whom the “I” chooses to engage the most.  So, while my individual Minnesota identity is an important part me, my shared Minnesota identity is not. And that’s OK. I can always say I am a Minnesotan in my heart.

More important than my Minnesota identity is my Jewish identity. It is clear to me that my “I” is most shaped when I look at you and say “we.” I am, at the core a proud and affirmative Jew, and at the core of that core, an observant and confident Reform Jew.

I have to tell you, though, that confidence did not come easily or without struggle and pain. It developed out of a real crisis of identity when I was 17, a traumatic maxi-crisis that shook me to the core and necessitated my rebuilding my identity as a Reform Jew, indeed, as a Jew, from the bottom up. It was one of the critical moments in my life’s journey which led me to be standing here.

My crisis was brought about by a new young, clean-shaven, Orthodox rabbi who came to St. Paul just before my senior year in high school. For our purposes we’ll call him Rabbi Moish, which fits, since that was his name. I said that Moish was an Orthodox rabbi. Did I mention that he was an agnostic Orthodox rabbi?

When I first met him, I was working on a presentation on the development of Jewish music, and he graciously offered to help. So one evening I came to his classroom in the Talmud Torah where he had set up two cassette machines, one for him to play examples of Jewish music, and the other to record our conversation. It was not really a conversation; it was more of a monologue, his. While the music was playing and the recorder recording, he talked about how music was an expression of culture. He talked about how Judaism was a culture and about what shapes a culture and defines its members.

Cultures, he said, have cultural norms, practices, and taboos. Only someone who follows the norms of a particular culture can rightly claim identity in that culture.  So what are the defining norms and taboos of Jewish culture? Jewish culture is not defined by bagels or yiddishsism or Jackie Mason, but by Halacha – by traditional Jewish law. A Jew who does not observe all the traditional laws, Shabbat, kashrut, three prayers services a day and four on Shabbat and holidays, tallis, tefillin and all the rest, may be a mimeographed copy of a Jew, but is not a real Jew.

Believe in God; don’t believe in God, that did not matter. If you follow the cultural norms of halacha, you deserve the name Jew. If you don’t, you don’t.

As he supposedly was teaching me about Jewish music, what he was really doing was taking apart my Jewish identity. For almost two hours, I felt my identity getting smaller and smaller, so that at the end of the session, there was almost nothing left. And I had my whole Jewish disintegration – recorded on tape so I could hear it again and again, as if I ever would want to.  I knew that Jewish law said that if you are born Jewish, you are Jewish, but that did not seem to matter either. I walked out of the room shaken to the core, doubting the authenticity of my Jewish feelings, and confused about the dismissal of God.

Was I not a real Jew? If I wanted to be really Jewish, would I have to be Orthodox? That certainly was not going to happen.  These questions haunted me over the next days, weeks, and even months. But the Jewish identity I had gotten through my family and through my engagement with the Temple Youth Group and Reform Jewish camp was important to me. I had to find a way to rebuild it. I needed to understand my relationship to Jewish law and tradition and; have an answer to Rabbi Moish’s challenge, not to convince him that I was a real Jew, but to convince myself.

Fortunately, I was not only involved in the Youth Group – a powerful conveyor of shared Jewish identity – I also attended the post-confirmation classes with my own rabbi, Fred Schwartz, of blessed memory. Rabbi Fred taught us that there were many different paths to a Jewish life. “When I visit my mother in Chicago,” he would say, “I can take I-90 or I-94. There are many ways to get to the same destination. The important thing is the journey.”

He learned this from studying Martin Buber and especially Buber’s friend, Franz Rosenzweig. Here’s his story: Rosenzweig had been an assimilated German Jewish intellectual around the time of the First World War. Wanting to make his entry into the modern world complete, he decided to convert to Christianity. But he wanted to enter Christianity, not as a pagan but as a Jew as Paul had done, so his first step towards conversion to Christianity was an immersion into Judaism. To make a long story short, once immersed in Judaism, he saw no need to go anywhere else.

But there seemed to be no clear path to find a way into the Jewish life he sought. On post cards he wrote from the trenches, he asked “How does a modern Jew find his way into authentic Jewish life without moving back into the ghetto or giving up rational thought and personal autonomy?” Since he did not believe that Jewish law was divinely given, he could not accept the traditional system of commandments as binding.

His quest began with a personal engagement in Torah and Jewish texts, augmented by Hegelian philosophy. Especially helpful was Hegel’s distinction between law and commandment.   Laws are what is in the books. Commandments are those aspects of the law that address one personally. “Judaism is not law” wrote Rosenzweig. “It creates law, but it is not identical with it; Judaism is being a Jew!” God is not a law-giver, but God commands. The mitzvot are the commanding voice of God in the world, and it is up to each of us to study, to experiment, and to discover in covenantal dialogue those mitzvot through which God addresses us personally. It was not the product that was so important; it was the process. The destination is Jewish living and engagement and there are many paths that can get you there. His approach was open-ended. For instance, when asked questions like, “Do you keep kosher?” or “Do you drive on Shabbat?” his answer would often be, “Not yet.”

Rosenzweig spoke to me. He took God and tradition seriously but did not equate Judaism with Jewish law. My encounter with Rabbi Moish had given me a deeper appreciation for tradition, and Rosenzweig gave me a way to engage tradition as a Reform Jew.  My authenticity would not come from following this or that particular mitzvah, but in the commitment to make Judaism the central part of my life’s journey.  My renewal was born out of that which Rosenzweig says should be the starting point of our journey: confidence.

He wrote, “There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish. That recipe is to have no recipe…  Our fathers had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence. Confidence is the word for a state of readiness that does not ask for recipes…  Confidence walks straight ahead.”

And that’s what I did; I walked straight ahead with “not yet” on my lips. I experimented with not eating pork and found it meaningful, consciousness raising and not terribly difficult. In Temple, there were times when I was the only one wearing a yarmulke. Some thought I was now Conservative but I said, “No, I’m just a Reform Jew who has chosen to wear a kippah when I pray.”  I was happy to explain my practices to anyone who asked – which included my grandfather whose Reform Judaism this was not. But I apologized to no one. I knew who I was as a Jew, confident in the authenticity of the Reform approach which challenges us to look for meaning in the tradition and find our own Jewish paths.

I realized that, contrary to common belief, Reform Judaism did not give me the freedom to choose my own path. I’ll repeat, Reform Judaism did not grant me freedom to choose. The fact that I lived in a post-Enlightenment western democracy which enshrines the separation between religion and state, that is what gave me my freedom. Reform was that Judaism which acknowledged my freedom and blessed it, and which then called me to use my freedom to make informed, values based and disciplined Jewish choices.

So there I was. Rosenzweig, Rossoff, and Reform – perfect together.

That was in the first few months of my senior year in high school. Later that year, and with other influences, I decided to become a rabbi.

And that’s my story. I share it with you in the hopes that there might be something in it for you by way of explanation or challenge, as you reflect on who you are and the individual and shared identities you claim during these 10 days of introspection and turning. Are the shared identities which engage you the most really the most important? Do they take your time by habit, necessity, or choice? On reflection, might you want to re-prioritize and reallocate your time and energies? And as we begin our New Year of the soul, I would also ask you to reflect on your identities as Jews and as Reform Jews, and what that might mean for what engages you this year.

I know that most of us here have strong Jewish identities.  I have seen it expressed in so many ways. Many of us also have strong identities as Reform Jews, some newfound and some, like me, going back for generations. I know that many of you like to think of yourselves as “just Jewish,” but I hope you understand that you are living your Jewish lives with the singular Reform approach which respects your freedom to choose.

Some of you have come from other Jewish backgrounds and other faith backgrounds, because you have found within Temple B’nai Or, and hence, within Reform Judaism, something you need or desire: be it engagement with community for friendship and support and to combat the loneliness. It might have been the desire to give your children – or yourself – a Jewish education, the longing for transcendence and a Jewish spiritual connection, the hope to find a place where families with a parent who is not Jewish can be welcomed and engaged as a Jewish family, a place where you can worship in Hebrew, with English prayers you understand and with music that truly uplifts. Reform Judaism gives us all that and more.

Not sure if the term Reform Jew fits you? Well, perhaps I can help.  Taking from comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, whose signature riff ends, “You just might be a redneck…..,” here’s a checklist to see if you just might be a Reform Jew.

  • If, like every other modern Jew, you determine your own Jewish observance, but, unlike others, you don’t feel guilty about it, you just might be a Reform Jew.
  • If you think that the Torah was written by people, not dictated by God, but that it has timeless lessons for life and for society, you might be a Reform Jew.
  • If, when you heard the organ tonight, you did not immediately think that it sounded like being in church, you are definitely a Reform Jew. And if you had to get used to hearing an organ or a guitar in worship but now enjoy it, you have become a Reform Jew.
  • If, in the words of the URJ’s new vision for Reform Judaism, you seek a life “inspired by compassion and our Divine mission to do what is right and just,” you might be a Reform Jew.
  • If you study the Torah portion on Shabbat on your computer,
  • If you say on a Saturday afternoon, “Hey kids, it’s Shabbat. Let’s jump in the car and go for a nature walk in the park,
  • If you order your bacon cheeseburger without the roll because it is Passover, you just might be a Reform Jew.
  • If you are not sure about this God thing but find meaning in singing Shema, you just might be a Reform Jew.
  • If you want for your daughter the same Jewish learning and opportunity that’s available to your son, and if you think that having a rabbi or cantor who is a woman is normal, either you are a Reform Jew or someone whose Judaism has benefitted from Reform’s values and innovations.
  • If you think that someone with a beard is more Jewish than someone without, you just might be a Reform Jew, but in need of a bit more Reform confidence and self-esteem.
  • If you equate being Reform with being totally non-observant… Oh wait. Never mind. That’s not you – you’re here!
  • And if you think that the practice of Jewish tradition is not all or nothing – and that this checklist list is not all or nothing, and that there is more than one way to be Jewish, you ARE a Reform Jew.

We Reform Jews share that “we” with generations of Reform laypeople and leaders, scholars and dreamers, visionaries and activists, those who fought for the rights of coal miners in the 1800s, who marched with Dr. King and stood up for racial equality, women’s rights, and gay normalization, who elevated and expanded Jewish spirituality through music and creative prayer. We share identity with all those of the last 200 years who affirmed that you can be Jewish and… And, of late, we share with one of the younger members of a Reform congregation, Ally Riesman, who stood before the world with her gold medals, a proud and affirmative Jew, apologizing to no one.

True, I once heard Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, definitely not a Reform Jew, say that it does not matter which religion you practice, as long as you are ashamed of it. So yes, I see the flaws, the weaknesses, and inconsistencies of Reform Judaism and Reform Jews, including myself.

But at the end of the day, I am proud to be a Reform Jew, not just in my heart but in all of me.  I am blessed by a Judaism which respects my mind and my freedom.  I am inspired and challenged by a Judaism which affirms that I am eternally linked with God and with the Jewish People in full covenantal love and mutual covenantal expectations.  For in that covenantal dialogue, I hear a commanding voice, a voice heard in mind and heart which calls me to ease the suffering around us, within us and between us, to see in every Jew a cherished brother or a sister regardless of belief, knowledge or practice, political or social views, age, ability or orientation, to honor and protect the spark of the divine in ourselves and in every other human being, and to create sacred communities of joy, compassion, and meaning such as Temple B’nai Or.

We are community; we are family, with common destination and shared destiny. I am honored and blessed that my I and your I have come together in the shared WE which is the family of Temple B’nai Or. May we continue to share our individual and collective journeys together in healthy, happiness, compassion, and peace. May we walk straight ahead in confidence into this New Year, knowing who we are as Jews, open to the possibilities of new engagements and the renewed identities they bring!

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