I’m going to tell you story this morning that you have probably heard before.
One day Rabbi Hillel was sitting at home when he heard a man come to his door. Rabbi Hillel answered and the man who stood there said the following: I will convert to Judaism ONLY if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel, ever the teacher, responded What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary – go and learn it!”
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
Hillel’s lesson on one foot happened almost two thousand years ago, yet it retains its relevance today to our Judaism and our lives and provides a foundation upon which we have built our movement’s unfailing efforts to advocate for those in our community who are most in need of advocacy, our neighbors in need of redemption.
The Reform movement has taken part of Hillel’s teaching to heart – We have concentrated on loving our neighbors as ourselves, promoting social justice, and speaking up for justice, peace, and protecting those society sees as “the other” based on this statement by Rabbi Hillel, among other teachings. If you were here last night, you would have heard me discuss the deep roots this congregation has in actively working to address the needs of our community and of temple Emanu-El renewing our efforts and recalling our roots as a congregation actively and passionately involved in repairing our world.
This part of Hillel’s teaching surely influenced Jewish leaders who marched in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s, were early advocates of equal treatment of Gay and Lesbian couples, and who are today on the forefront of advocacy of tolerance in issues ranging from immigration to climate change, to incarceration policy.
Nationally, the Reform movement supports the Religious Action Center, a lobbying organization whose primary purpose is to be a hub of Social Justice and Jewish advocacy, supporting temples throughout the United States with lessons on social justice issues, advocacy resources as well as youth programs that allow our teens and young adults to work in Washington DC toward advancing social justice legislation on a national level.
This is all vitally important, and also represents a large piece of how many people / who identify as engaged and socially conscious Jews / interact with their neighbors and their Judaism.
The first part of Hillel’s statement is one that we as a movement have heard loud and clear, and we have taken to heart. We as a community pride ourselves on civic engagement, social justice advocacy, and charitable giving to organizations that promote our ideals and that is something we as a community should be proud of, and should strive to sustain.
The rest is commentary – Go and Learn it.
If you have been at Shabbat services July, you may have heard me speak about the Reform movement’s central tenet – Choice through Knowledge. This principle holds that we as Reform Jewish adults have the right and the authority to choose how we personally practice our Judaism so long as that choice is rooted in knowledge of the law. This choice has marked the evolution of our movement from its inception in the 19 th century to where we find ourselves today.
Previously, Reform Jewish prayer services contained little Hebrew, and looked a more like a protestant church service than the services we know today. That was, in fact, by design. Early Reform thinkers in Germany, where Reform Judaism began, endeavored to help modern, postenlightenment, educated Germans to harmonize Jewish tradition with the realities of society outside of the shtetl. Many modern Jews were shopkeepers and the biggest market day, the day they would be able to make enough money to support their families, would be Saturday and those Jews were forced to choose between religious observance and financial survival more often than not, financial survival won out. Many modern German Jews at the time saw themselves as German first and Jewish second – a phenomena we see here in the United States where the question of identity is unsettled and deeply personal – Do we see ourselves as Jewish Americans, being American first who happen to be Jewish? OR do we see ourselves as American Jews – being Jewish first who happen to be American? I suspect there are many viewpoints represented in our congregation this morning, just as there were many different avenues of thought for early Reform Jews.
When it came down to it, early Reform Jews were dedicated to both their Judaism as well as the society in which their Judaism lived and worked hard to allow room for both. Some congregations attempted to even skirt this difficult question and instead of Shabbat, tried holding their central services on Sunday to avoid forcing their members to answer this difficult question.
The very first ordination class of Reform Rabbis at Hebrew Union College- the brand-new seminary at the time for Reform Rabbis celebrated their completion of formal rabbinic education on July 11, 1883 with a dinner later dubbed – the Traifa banquet – a dinner consisting of a number of courses, but including such foods as Little Neck Clams, soft-shell crabs, shrimp salad, and frogs’ legs. Such traif, or taboo foods were deliberately chosen – some say as a sign of a new approach to Judaism, some say as a message to more conservative members of the then-new Union of American Hebrew Congregations- there are many different theories behind what inspired such a choice of menu to be served to a room full of rabbis, but it was a deliberate choice based on the knowledge of traditional Jewish food law, with the choice to not follow kashrut. Looking back there revisionists who dispute that it was an intentional choice claiming the menu was chosen by an unknowing caterer and not cleared with anyone involved with the ordination but that seems implausible.
Many of the innovations in the Reform Movement throughout the years have come from knowledgeable choices, whether it was the changing of prayer language to include matriarchs, the addition of Mi Sheberach in other than just Torah services, or the additional inclusion of new prayer language in our Mishkan T’fillah prayer book, these are all new innovations that the Reform movement has pioneered.
These innovations did not form in a vacuum – Many of the changes we have seen in our movement come from a need in our community – a need for equality in our actions and language, a need for spiritual fulfillment that comes out of different texts and settings than religious tradition may dictate, a need to welcome more traditional observances into our movement, to broaden our tent to welcome those of differing religious viewpoints and philosophies into our sanctuaries and houses of study – these were all created in reaction to prevailing forces, with an understanding of the roots of such observances, an understanding of the thought behind certain practices, or an acknowledgement that certain traditional approaches were not relevant or authentic to mainstream Reform Judaism.
The unifying factor in all of these choices and changes were that they were deliberate, and they all began with Jewish law and worked their way from there.
We’re Reform, so we don’t keep Kosher. We’re Reform, we don’t need to keep Shabbat – But I’m Reform…
How many times have we heard someone justify why they were eating a bacon cheeseburger, or going out to lunch after Yom Kippur services, or seeing a Jewish holiday on the calendar, seeing there was a show, a game, a dinner reservation, something more personally appealing on the calendar and passing quickly over it with the statement “Eh, we’re Reform”
How many times has “I’m Reform” become an excuse to do whatever we want, no matter what Jewish law says?
How many times has “But I’m Reform” been used as the mantra for the disengaged, the disinterested Jew who wants to quickly and easily explain away why Shabbat is just another day in the week, or why festivals and holidays go unacknowledged?
The choice to keep kosher or not is a personal decision, not a movement decision. You may not see any personal relevance to observing biblical dietary law and feel no need to commit yourself to following a law you do not feel connected to. The choice to observe Shabbat – in whatever way that means – is a personal choice, not a movement choice, the choice to help those in our community who are in need of help – that is a personal choice, not a movement driven one although I would suggest meaning is possible to be found in any observance.
Reform Judaism has for years prided itself over the tenet of choice through knowledge, allowing Reform Jews to make personal choices based in knowledge of what is right for the individual. Our movement has attempted to teach tradition, to massage observance to be relevant and meaningful for the broadest group of Reform Jews. We as a movement have educated our rabbis, our educators, our cantors and our lay-leaders as to how to teach in relevant ways , how to help the “Jews in the Pews” relate to tradition. We as a movement have failed.
We have failed to tie our teaching with the choices our communities are confronted with regarding Jewish law’s role in our daily life, effectively changing the Tenet of Reform Judaism to choice.
We are all experts at choosing the parts of our Judaism that are meaningful to us, but we seem to have forgotten the necessity of coming about our decisions through knowledge of where we are coming from. The idea that we all must be aware of the law before we make the personal decision has been lost and all that now remains is teaching for teaching’s sake.
If you want to eat lobster, or cheeseburgers, or catfish that’s your perogative, but it is incumbent on each one of us to do so knowing what Torah says regarding the mixing of milk and meat, and what the rabbis in the shulchan aruch, the 15 th century work defining modern Kashrut observance, says regarding Jewish law. If you work on Shabbat, that’s your perogative, but know what Torah says regarding the laws of keeping the Sabbath, and what keeping Shabbat actually truly means not only to tradition but to you personally. If we won’t see you until the next High Holidays, that’s your prerogative, but understand the observance the areas of your Judaism you are choosing not to engage with before making your choice.
I am not advocating that we begin to keep kosher nor walk to shul on Saturday morning and I’m not at all advocating that we move closer toward Halacha – Jewish law, in our practice. I’m also not advocating a Temple Emanu-El Crawfish boil and rib eating contest, nor am I advocating moving services to Sundays.
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor – the rest is commentary, go and learn it.
We as a movement are great at being good to our neighbors, to advocating for social justice, for promoting understanding in our world, and we have become experts at the choice piece of choice through knowledge, but we have seemingly forgotten the second half of both of these important pieces of our heritage.
In order to choose, we must know what choices we are faced with, what options we have presented to us. In order for us to know that, we must understand the depth of tradition and the breadth of opinions regarding various areas of religious observance. In order for you to know Torah, it is incumbent upon me, your rabbi, to teach about what our tradition says and how we are to understand how to interact with that tradition. This is why this year a focus of my teaching our adult education this year will be on observance in the Reform world and the breadth and depth of observance across the Jewish world. It is incumbent upon me to give the knowledge so that choice can come authentically.
You may have heard a sermon I delivered a number of shabbatot ago encouraging us all to proudly proclaim our Judaism and to not cede our authenticity as Jews to those with different and more stringent observance. If we are not willing to take on both parts of choice through knowledge and merely focus on choice, we have weakened the foundation upon which our movement and our tradition sits. When we say I don’t do that because I’m Reform, we are doing ourselves and our community a disservice. When we choose without knowing, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, and to our movement. When we choose without knowing we have essentially removed choice as we don’t know from what we should be choosing from. We must heed the teaching of our movement and the words of Rabbi Hillel.
All The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.