Sunday, November 10, 2013

The 2010 Vision of Reform Judaism and the Triumph of Empty Rhetoric

In 2010, the Reform Leadership Council (RLC) convened a Reform Judaism Think Tank to develop a vision statement for Reform Judaism. The result is a document heavy on emotion, empty of meaning, and lacking all vision. Here is the statement as published:

Our Faith
Reform Judaism maintains faith in the Covenant between God and Israel as expressed over the generations in the teachings of an ever-evolving Torah and tradition. Stirred by the mandate of tikkun olam, Reform Judaism seeks to be the living expression of those teachings. It welcomes all who seek Jewish connection to pursue a life of meaning as inspired by the Divine and proclaimed in the truths grasped by Jewish teachers throughout time.

In Community
In sacred attachment to the Jewish people and with connection to the State of Israel, Reform Jews, as members of a group and as individuals, in holy congregations and in diverse settings, strive to make thoughtful choices about how we put our values into action. Reform Judaism asks us to seek the holiness that is present throughout creation through reflection, critical study, and sacred acts so as to renew our living Covenant with God, the people Israel, humankind, and the earth.

With Leadership
The organizations of the Reform Movement exist for the purpose of bringing the teachings of Judaism to the world. In partnership with one another, these organizations hope to realize the many lessons contained in those teachings by nurturing individual Jews, by sustaining congregations and groups that foster authentic and innovative community, and by shaping a shared destiny for Reform Jews with fellow Jews in Israel and around the world.

To see what’s wrong with it, let’s walk through it slowly and just ask the obvious questions that the statement raises but does not address. There is no need to critique this statement, only to see that it is empty of all meaning.

Our Faith

Reform Judaism maintains faith in the Covenant between God and Israel as expressed over the generations in the teachings of an ever-evolving Torah and tradition. What is this Covenant, and who is this God? Are we to understand God and Covenant the way Orthodox Judaism does? If so, why do we need Reform Judaism? And if not, somebody had better define these terms.

What does ever-evolving Torah and tradition mean? If Judaism is ever-evolving and Reform Judaism is the latest expression of this evolution, does Reform negate other forms of Judaism? What causes Torah and tradition to evolve? What is the difference between an evolving Torah and merely inventing a Judaism that suits our personal needs regardless of tradition?

Stirred by the mandate of tikkun olam, Reform Judaism seeks to be the living expression of those teachings. What teachings? No teachings have been articulated, and hence the word those is empty and meaningless. What do we mean by mandate? Where does it come from? If Reform is to be the living expression of these teachings, are other expressions of lesser value? And how are we to understand tikkun olam in the first place?

It welcomes all who seek Jewish connection to pursue a life of meaning as inspired by the Divine and proclaimed in the truths grasped by Jewish teachers throughout time. Is Judaism about pursuing a life of meaning? I thought it was about maintaining faith in the Covenant (whatever that means). And what does it mean to be inspired by the Divine? What is this Divine and how does it inspire me? Is inspire taking the place of command? What are the truths grasped by Jewish teachers throughout time? What makes them true? Reform Judaism rejects many of the truths of the past, were these so–called truths really falsehoods?

In Community

In sacred attachment to the Jewish people and with connection to the State of Israel… What is sacred attachment? What is the difference between sacred attachment and regular attachment? What does sacred even mean in this context? What is our connection to the State of Israel? Why isn’t this sacred as well? What is the difference between attachment and connection?

Reform Jews, as members of a group and as individuals, in holy congregations and in diverse settings, strive to make thoughtful choices about how we put our values into action. What does holy mean? What makes our congregations holy? Why are other diverse settings not holy? What are these values? Do they have anything to do with our Covenant, and if so what choice do we have regarding them? If we are bound by a Covenant, choice is irrelevant.

Reform Judaism asks us to seek the holiness that is present throughout creation through reflection, critical study, and sacred acts so as to renew our living Covenant with God, the people Israel, humankind, and the earth. Again, what does holiness mean? How is it present throughout creation, and how does reflection, critical study, and sacred action reveal it to us? Why does our Covenant with God need renewing? What does it mean to renew it? Since I have no idea what is in this Covenant, how can I renew it? And now it seems I have living Covenants not only with God (whatever God may mean), but also with the people Israel, humankind, and the earth as well? Where did these additional covenants come from? What are they? To what do they obligate me?

With Leadership

The organizations of the Reform Movement exist for the purpose of bringing the teachings of Judaism to the world. Now this excites me. I believe we need to bring Judaism to the world as a way of ensuring Judaism’s survival. I want Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Humanists, and Secularists to borrow from Judaism the way Jews borrow from Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Humanism, and Secularism. But I still need to know what these teachings are, and nowhere in this statement are they articulated.

In partnership with one another, these organizations hope to realize the many lessons contained in those teachings by nurturing individual Jews, by sustaining congregations and groups that foster authentic and innovative community, and by shaping a shared destiny for Reform Jews with fellow Jews in Israel and around the world. This is simple blather. How is nurturing individual Jews the way we realize the lessons contained in Jewish teaching? And since we don’t know the teachings how can we realize their lessons? What is authentic and innovate community? And what are we to make of the notion of shaping a shared destiny. If something is our destiny we don’t shape it, we fulfill it. And what is this shared destiny in the first place? Nobody tells us!

The 2010 Vision of Reform Judaism is nothing more than the stringing together of verbal emoticons: words that carry emotional baggage and yet are stripped of all intellectual content. Maybe that was the authors’ intent. Maybe they realized that if they actually defined their terms and obligated Reform Jews to something specific, most Reform Jews would bolt. But if what passes for vision in the Reform Movement is merely empty rhetoric, it is time to shut it down anyway.


2 comments:

Raksha said...

Wow! I agree with everything you said, along with a few additional items that came to mind as I was reading the 2010 Vision Statement and your deconstruction of it. I especially like your conclusion: "The 2010 Vision of Reform Judaism is nothing more than the stringing together of verbal emoticons: words that carry emotional baggage and yet are stripped of all intellectual content."

Yet for me the most essential part of this critique is that it comes from the inside. Coming from an Orthodox rabbi, or an Orthodox layman for that matter, it would just be more Reform-bashing, which simply makes my eyes glaze over at this point. His conclusion would inevitably be: "It's time to shut it down. Reform Judaism was the worst thing that ever happened to Judaism, and it was time to shut it down before it started."

But knowing that you are a Reform rabbi and passionately committed to the vision of Reform Judaism-- whatever that might be--the implied conclusion is completely different, i.e. "Can't we do better than this?"

The author of this blog is said...

spot on, the emperor is naked and at least someone is saying it is so