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Evolving Reform Judaism
What is God? According to our ancestors, who recorded their beliefs in the Bible, God is an all-powerful and all-knowing entity, living somewhere outside of our world, who created the world and controls what happens in it. My definition of God is slightly different. I tend to think that God is not an entity outside nature, but nature itself, as postulated by a 17th century Jewish theologian, Baruch Spinoza, in Holland. This short article, rooted in my comment dated September 5, 2014, “Heretical or not Heretical,” on this blog is a set of quotes and reflections based on three recently found Internet references.
A brief history of Reform Judaism is presented at the Jewish Virtual Library. Here is a quote, from that reference:
“The ‘Oral Law‘ is not seen as divinely given at Sinai, but rather as a reflection of Judaism’s historic development and encounter with God in each succeeding generation. In this, Reform [views] . . . God working through human agents. Reform believes that each generation has produced capable and religiously inspired teachers (this means that Reform rejects the often expressed view that assigns greater holiness to those who lived in the past). Some individuals of our generation may equal or exceed those of the past.”
Current attempts to modify this theological doctrine are described here. Here is a quote from that reference:
“The classical approach of Reform Judaism towards halakha [Jewish Law] was based on the views of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), leader of Reform Judaism in Germany, and other reformers. Holdheim believed that Reform Judaism should be based solely upon monotheism and morality. Almost everything connected with Jewish ritual law and custom was of the ancient past, and thus no longer appropriate for Jews to follow in the modern era.
This approach was the dominant form of Reform Judaism from its creation until the 1940s. Since the 1940s, the American Reform movement has continued to change, sometimes evolving in what appears to be a traditional direction. Many Reform congregations use more Hebrew in their religious services and are incorporating aspects of laws and customs, in a selective fashion, into their lives. This is a departure from the classical Reform position in favor of more traditional Judaism. . . .
Currently, some Reform rabbis promote following elements of halakha, and developed the concept of Progressive Halakhah. For instance, the American Rabbi Walter Jacob, the Israeli Rabbi Moshe Zemer and the British Liberal Rabbi John D. Rayner believe in many parts of traditional Jewish theology, but take present developments and valuations of ethics and law into consideration. Others actively discourage the adoption of more traditional practices or beliefs, because they believe that this is not in the ethos of the Reform movement. Both encouraging or discouraging practices stipulated by halakha are considered acceptable positions within Reform.”
Progressive Halakhah has recently been criticized. According to this article, it
“has an impact on how we behave in religious communities. The sociologist Rodney Stark has popularized the thesis that religious groups need a strict theology in order to make serious demands on their adherents and that these demands, in turn, make a religion more compelling. Since a liberal theology leads to an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, personal choice is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of God. In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off. This is what has happened in American Reform Judaism and in other non-Orthodox movements as well. . . . Many Reform synagogues have large numbers on the books but few active participants.”
This is not a unique Jewish phenomenon, as far as I know. One way to increase participation in collective activities in places of worship is to make these activities intellectually more challenging, for example, by organizing theological debates, based on the content of slowly-and-clearly-read prayers (not in Hebrew). What else can be done to improve participation, without sacrificing traditional appeals?
Here is a prayer we recited recently, during a Shabbat service: “We acknowledge with thanks that you are Adonai, our God and the God of our ancestors forever. You are the Rock of our lives, and the Shield of our salvation in every generation. Let us thank You and praise You–for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are in Your care, for your miracles that we experience every day and for your wondrous deeds and favors at every time of day, morning and noon. O Good One, whose mercies never end, O Compassionate One whose kindness never fails, we forever put our hope in You.”
It reminded me about difficulties encountered in trying to accept Spinoza’s “God is Nature” definition, as described on page 69 of Rabbi Barry Schwartz’s book: “Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl.” This prayer, like many others, invites theological interpretations. It does not address Spinoza’s God; it addresses the personal almighty God of our ancestors. It would be very difficult to modify this prayer, to accommodate people like Einstein, who believed in Spinoza’s God.
Can this be accomplished via some kind of metaphorical terminology? Most of us know that words “Shield” and “Rock”, in this context,” are used as metaphors. But terms: “Your hand,” “our souls,” “miracles,” “mercy,” “Compassionate One,” and “kindness” suggest literal interpretations. How to avoid this kind of inconsistency? Is the term “metaphor” acceptable? If not, then why not?
Discussing philosophical topics (based on prayers, Torah chapters, webpages, lectures, films, books, etc.) can be very challenging. Do you agree? And how can this be accomplished without sacrificing traditional appeals?
Ludwik Kowalski is a retired nuclear scientist and Professor Emeritus at Montclair State University, Montclair NJ. See more here.
The views expressed by Prof. Kowalski are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Prof. Kowalski for his contribution to this forum.