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Evolving Reform Judaism

Monday, October 27, 2014 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Ludwik Kowalski
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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.

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5 Responses to “Evolving Reform Judaism”

  1. kowalskil says:

    Some of you might be interested that my short theological article (in English) has been published today at a Polish online philosophical journal, FAG:

    A rebutal will be published in the next issue, I was told.

  2. Gnarlodious says:

    In reality, the Torah was written, edited and interpreted in highly ambiguous language by people of widely variable motives. There is no clear theme or consistency through any part of it, and it seems custom made for anyone who wants to twist its meaning to suit their desires. Why would this be?

    Because the Torah is a successful meme. Every meme, to propagate itself, must be meaningful to the person who reveres it. All non-meaningful memes had no appeal, and went extinct, leaving the most meaningful memes to propagate themselves into the modern age. And to be successful, it must be ambiguous, lending itself to interpretation by a wide swath of people who revere it for its ambiguity and not its absolutism. The contradictions you seek to diminish are there for a purpose, to increase the memetic appeal of the document. The juxtaposition of contrasts found in Torah and the entire body of Jewish writings is a measure of our unity as a people. You can’t excise one part of that whole and expect it to remain whole. The Jewish people are one, despite our differences. Contrast that to some other religion, where every group that disagrees with some other group has to splinter into its own separate group. That’s not us.

    As for halakhah, it is obsolete but we just don’t know it yet. Halachah was really invented for the exiled Jews. Even in Israel there are people who believe they are still in exile, and coincidentally they are the same people who continue to believe in religious law as superseding statutory law. So instead of asking if halakhah can be modernized, we should wonder if halakhah and statutory law can co-exist in a modern healthy Jewish state.

  3. Jerry Blaz says:

    Baruch Spinoza, whose name was invoked in this statement by Mr. Kowalski, was probably the first thinker to present an organized proposition for a Pantheistic deity which became a signpost towards modern intellectual thought. Today, the ideas of Spinoza, have also been refined theologically into what became called the so-called “god-talk” initiated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the middle of the 20th century. He believed in a God as a process within nature and not a supernatural being. He called it the process for making goodness, beauty, and a variety of characteristics that make life worth living. However, invocation of such a god expressed though the actions of the human operator who does something good or beautiful, and allows humanity the ability to participate in doing “God’s work.” Until this time, Judaism as a faith seldom concerned itself beyond the common terms of describing God such as omnipresence, and omniscience and eternal, etc. as set forth in the scriptures. True, the scriptures give the deity many appellations, which have become ceremonial more than meaningful, so the renewal of the topic, “god-talk” has brought a way of comprehending God to humans in their current state of development.

    • kowalskil says:

      My description of Spinoza’s God-is-Nature theology was placed on an atheistic forum in Russia, several days ago. Responding to that description, one person wrote (in Russian): “Your position–God is a spiritual entity invented by humans–is atheistic. …”

      And here is my reply: “Thank you for an interesting comment, Atmel. I suspect that Judaism is not the only theology in which there are several interpretations of God, ranging from traditional to modern. Some orthodox Jews probably also think that Reform Jews are atheists. They believe that Bible was written by God, rather than by ancient sages. Why should we fight with each other about who is right and who is wrong?

      Yes, I am a theist who is trying to accept Spinoza’s “God is Nature” theology. What is wrong with this? God-based conflicts are dangerous; they might again lead to real wars of annihilation. The more tolerant people are, toward each other, the less likely such wars will be.”

      Ludwik Kowalski (see Wikipedia)

      • kowalskil says:

        I am struggling with definitions of words “theist” and “atheist.” Usual definitions are based on the phrase  “believing in God.” But the term “believing” is ambiguous. Some people take: “Our Father our King” literally,while others do not. God can be anything from our Biblical God (personal, anthropomorphic and omniscient) to the pantheistic entity of Spinoza.  
        If it were up to me I would base definitions on participation in collective activities in houses of worship.  
        Any comments?

        Ludwik Kowalski Ph.D. (see Wikipedia).

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