Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mutant Judaism

My post on misogyny in some versions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism generated a few comments that got me thinking about Reform Judaism as a model for religion in the 21st century.

Reform Judaism was the second mutation of Judaism in the past 3000 years. The first was the Judaism of the Two-Fold Law invented by the early rabbis. This Judaism argued that God gave two revelations to Moses on Sinai, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah that came to be known as the Talmud. While pure fiction, this new Judaism became THE Judaism for the next 2000 years. *

Reform Judaism was no less bold, replacing the authority of God, revelation, and rabbis with the autonomy of the individual. This shift was huge, and accounts for the freedom that Reform Jews have vis a vis Judaism. In Reform Judaism the individual Jew rather than God (Orthodoxy), Torah (Conservative), or community (Reconstructionist) decides for herself how to be a Jew. Of course this also accounts for the low level of traditional observance by Reform Jews, but this cannot be avoided. The failure of Reform Judaism is its unwillingness to radically and continually redefine Judaism (and by this I mean redefine the meaning of God, Torah, Israel, community, and mitzvot) in line with the humanism at its core.

Still, Reform’s focus on the sovereign self is enough for Orthodox Judaisms to claim that Reform isn’t Judaism at all. That is to say there is nothing in the history of Judaism prior to Reform Judaism that lends legitimacy to Reform Judaism. They are correct. That is why Reform is a mutation. Of course the same can be said of Rabbinic Judaism as well, as the adherents to the more ancient and authentic Torah Only school of Priestly Judaism argued right up to their demise at the hands of Rome. Mutations don’t have precedents. That is why they are called mutations.

Judaism is not the only religion to mutate, but it is among the very few that have done so with the sovereign self at the center. Most religions still seek to subjugate the individual to the will of others. Such mutations cannot be planned or staged. Revolutions that shift power from one group of leaders to another are not yet a sovereign self mutation. My own sense of things is that without such a mutation religions will continue to oppress the “other” (most often women) within their ranks and seek to dominate the other (the nonbeliever, heretic, etc.) outside their ranks. What do you think?

* Some argue that Zionism is the second mutation and Reform the third. I am ignoring Zionism here because it rejected religion while Reform did not.


Maggid said...

I enjoy reading your blog . . a lot. Today I want to head outside and walk around the neighborhood like an actor in the old zombie movie commercials growling, "help me, I'm a mutant." Yeah, it's silly - but - it just sounds like fun . . . I wish you lived around here - we could laugh together really hard.
Happy Day!

andrea perez said...

Organized religion at its core implies that I/We have it right whereas you got it wrong. That's the biggest failure of religion.
As new ideas come into being religions change or evolve whatever you feel comfortable calling it.
I've been to many Reform congregations and I found that the central idea seems to be a strange cultural Zionism. Or, I have a right to exist as a Jew in this world but the rules are silly and archaic but I have some connection with the past and can live out my heritage, hopefully in Israel and making sure that Jews everywhere are free from being killed and persecuted. It's informative to hear the history behind the movement. Thank you. I always thought Reform Judaism tried to use the philosophical systems of the Rationalists or Pragmatists while trying to become part of the modern world... ala we know all this supernatural stuff is kind of foolish with what we can observe in the world but we need to maintain our culture...Guess we need a movement that bridges how we study with how we view the world in the 21st century...using the interdependent web of life along with the "meism" I think we'll have to keep on mutating until we find a happy medium.

Old Lady said...

Maybe evolve is a better word.

andrea perez said...

Don't know if evolve is a better word. That would imply that the change is for the better...Don't know if that is true...we need something in the middle. Reconstructionism comes closer but it's still full of isolation from the greater community. Just got to keep going and trying to connect.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree that it is fun to play zombie, and that services in many synagogues--Reform and otherwise--appear to be conducted by the living dead (good name for a band).

Personally, I am a Jew by birth, culture, family, and tribe but find wisdom in all religions as well as art, literature, and science. Religions as they now stand are too narrow for me. I want a religion that takes the great myths and epics of all traditions and reads them as Joseph Campbell does.

Raksha said...

Re "Reform Judaism was the second mutation of Judaism in the past 3000 years. The first was the Judaism of the Two-Fold Law invented by the early rabbis. This Judaism argued that God gave two revelations to Moses on Sinai, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah that came to be known as the Talmud. While pure fiction, this new Judaism became THE Judaism for the next 2000 years." about synchronistic! One thing led to another the way it always does, and last night I found myself re-reading the chapter on Sabbataianism in Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism for the first time in maybe 30 years.

I wanted to see if certain connections I've made recently would make it easier to understand what completely baffled me the first time I read it. I simply could not grok the connection Scholem makes between Sabbataianism (which I guess I still saw as a "cult") and the development of Reform Judaism. In the end I had to take Scholem's word for it, but I still couldn't understand WHY it was so.

I think I understand it all a lot better now. The connection was the stage in the development of Judaism you're leaving out, and it wasn't Sabbataianism per se but Lurianic Kabbalah. It's easy to miss because Reform Judaism as it developed was such an obvious outgrowth of the Enlightenment, so relentlessly rationalistic in its world-view, rejecting all mystical tendencies. And yet the concept of tikkun olam is basic to all three branches of Judaism today. Where did it come from? Please correct me if I'm wrong, but if it exists in rabbinic Judaism at all it's in a latent form, not the fully developed one of Lurianic Kabbalah.

True, in Reform Judaism tikkun olam is secularized and exoteric, amounting to the performance of "good deeds" or mitzvot and that's pretty much it. In Chabad (for example) it's more mystical and esoteric, still very close if not identical to the original concept of "the raising of the fallen sparks." But the exoteric/Reform version of tikkun olam isn't a distortion of the original Lurianic concept, but simply an exoteric version of it. Also, it focuses on the fulfillment of the ethical commandments, leaving the ritual commandments almost completely optional. That horrifies the Orthodox, but it's still a totally valid form of tikkun olam no matter what they say.

To sum up (this is YOUR blog, after all!) what I'm saying is that I don't believe Reform Judaism was a mutation even if it claims to be. I think it was a natural organic development, fed by an underground spring of esoteric Judaism, namely Lurianic Kabbalah in its antinomian form (Sabbataianism). And any form of antinomianism has to be anti-authoritarian, whether it starts out that way or not.


Michael said...

You are making a fine case for an evolving Judaism, or a reconstructed Judaism. (And as you pointed out the community would become the arbiters of decison-making.)
Well said!
Rabbi Michael Ross