Becoming Reform

Yom Kippur 5776
September 22, 2015
Let’s talk about Reform Judaism. In July 1883 the Hebrew Union
College in Cincinnati ordained its first class of American Reform rabbis.
Four men were ordained—women would not be ordained until almost
100 years later. The founder of the college, Isaac Mayer Wise, was
very proud. He had successfully created a seminary to serve all of
American Jewry—both the traditionalists and radical reformers were
present. He had succeeded in implementing his vision of only one
modern American Jewish movement. Look at the names he coined,
Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew
Congregations. None of these names declared Reform. (It is by the
way “Reform Judaism” not “Reformed Judaism.” We have done nothing
wrong to require a reformed path.) All the names proclaimed a unified
American Judaism.
After the ordination ceremony the group of newly minted rabbis, their
teachers and families adjourned for a grand dinner at the most
exclusive hotel in all of Cincinnati. As soon as the food was served a
commotion broke out. The first course was…Littleneck clams on the
half shell. This was followed by crabs and then shrimp and then frogs
legs. Two rabbis stormed out of the dinner—never to return again.
And I assume the other two dipped their frogs legs in drawn butter
after saying a blessing. The traditionalists on the other hand had had
enough. Soon they created the Conservative movement. The trefe
banquet, as that first ordination meal has been called, delineated the
early fault lines between Reform and Conservative.
It is now 2015. We are now a Reform congregation. I am a Reform
rabbi. I am a committed Reform Jew. To be sure my Reform Judaism is
different than that of the late 19th century. I keep kosher. I find deep
meaning in the Jewish consciousness it produces as I prepare my
meals. I am forced to ask Jewish questions as I prepare my food. Do I
use meat dishes? Can I use milchig utensils? And yet my commitment
was nurtured in a home in which I was often served shrimp toast and in
which my grandfather z”l and I enjoyed lobster. You might think this
amusing but my parents never served shrimp or lobster on Shabbat.
On those days the meals were the traditional fare. I was however
always fed commitment. I was given devotion. It was a home in which
intention was paramount and the desire to take Judaism seriously was
the goal. That is my hope for us as well. Keeping kosher is a means to
an end. It is a tool. I do not keep track of how many keep kosher. I
measure instead intention and commitment. I strive for meaning. I
also do not place much stock in the term Jewish continuity. That was
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yesterday’s concern. Today we should instead be worrying about two
things: meaning and healing. We should ask two questions: does this
observance add meaning to my life and my family’s life? Does this
practice bring healing to my world?
Reform Judaism is different today than it was yesterday. I grew up in a
synagogue where the rabbi was once not allowed to wear a tallis and
kippah. Today there is the growing recognition that these ancient
practices can be deeply meaningful. My grandfather might not
understand my Jewish path, but I would imagine he would appreciate
it. Is one Jewish journey more authentic than another’s? My Papa grew
up in a world wanting of food. He achieved success. He could then eat
anything he desired. It gave him unbounded pleasure to buy his
grandsons whatever they wanted to eat, and however much they
wanted to eat. Somewhere along life’s path I began to find meaning in
saying “No” to the foods I loved. I found meaning in keeping kosher,
like the pious great grandmother for whom I am named. This is my
path. It is how I have discovered meaning.
This I now realize is too much talk about food on a fast day. It is
important to note that the early Reform movement was first and
foremost about reforming the rituals. It was about throwing off the
yoke of the tradition’s restrictions. It was about introducing decorum
to the service. We should start on time and end on time—an idea I still
think is worthy. Today we recognize that Reform Jews can take on any
of these traditional rituals but only if they add meaning to their lives.
Our ritual actions must be done with intention. They must come from
a place of informed and educated choice. We study and learn. We
make individual decisions. The essence of Reform Judaism is educated
and informed choice. It is a process not a result. Reform demands
that we take our tradition seriously. We make room for Judaism in our
busy lives.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Reform rabbi, once remarked: “Judaism is
Orthodox, but all Jews are Reform.” This is what he meant. And this is
what I believe. Judaism teaches certain ideas and maintains certain
standards. All Jews are free to decide what they do and what they
don’t do. That is today’s reality. I wish to build a Judaism that is not
measured by how many walk on Shabbat or how many verses of Torah
are chanted, but if we bring Torah into our hearts and if we bring Torah
into the world. Judaism is our toolbox. It provides us with a path. We
have learned that we must change and innovate. We seek to reform
the tradition in order to keep pace with changing times. We add music
to our praying. It uplifts our prayers. This should not be so radical to
say, but why can’t services be enjoyable. Taking things seriously and
having fun should not be contradictory impulses.
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Although early Reform Jews found organ music uplifting, we are
comfortable adding piano and guitar, drums and bass. We see the
music of contemporary society as an invitation to add meaning to the
tradition’s prayers. We see change and evolution as necessary and
meaningful. We believe as Reform Jews that there is much to be
learned from the modern world. We have learned, for example, that
although the tradition does not extol democracy, we have come to
know that democracy is a great and endearing value. We have been
taught by our American experience that religious pluralism enriches
our lives. The Torah does not offer such wisdom. It is learned by
today’s experiences.
Reform Judaism reminds us as well of the centrality of social justice.
The prophets’ voices have too often been stilled. Sure we chanted the
Haftarah’s words. But do we listen to their voices? Do we heed the
words of Isaiah who shouted and screamed in tomorrow’s Haftarah:
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your
head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not
this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo
the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break
every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see
the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your
own kind? (Isaiah 58)
Sometimes chanting these words in Hebrew silences their import.
Justice is our calling. There are far too many injustices crying out for
attention. Open your hearts and your hands to the hungry and poor
but a few miles from this beautiful sanctuary. Give to Mazon, a
national Jewish organization that distributes grants to soup kitchens
and food pantries. I am proud that our movement has served on the
forefront of the call for social justice. It was Reform rabbis who by and
large marched for civil rights. There were others to be sure but it was
Reform leaders who led the charge. A number were in fact jailed. In
the summer of 1964 sixteen rabbis traveled to Florida to protest racial
segregation. They wrote these words from their jail cell: “We came
because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had
done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our
exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed
an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the
unpardonable sin of our time.”

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This is the prophets’ voice writ large. Fifty years later we see that we
have taken some steps forward and some back. In our own time, Black
churches are attacked and set ablaze. Fifty years later simmering
racial tensions explode in my hometown of St Louis. Do we ignore the
pleas of Isaiah? How do we live up to the words of what is now our
Reform heritage? For Judaism to have meaning, for the Torah to have
import, it must not only bring meaning to our inner lives, but healing to
the world at large. If it stops here in this sanctuary, with the singing of
Kol Nidre, with the moving rhythms of our prayers, then it is in fact
meaningless. It is not all about the inner life. It is not all about my life.
That is why we spend the better part of this day recounting our sins. Al
cheyt she-chatanu… For the sin we have committed… We have failed
to live up to our calling. We have stood silent in the face of injustice.
We can always do more for our neighbors.
Our movement has always been at the forefront of these issues,
advocating for change, fighting against discrimination and hatred. This
past Spring I had the blessing of attending the annual convention of
Reform rabbis. It was there that we elected my friend and colleague,
Rabbi Denise Eger, to the position of president of the conference. She
is, as some have read in the papers, the first lesbian rabbi to serve in
this position. It was for this reason that the press coverage was so
vast. I happen to think she is a smart and talented rabbi and that
should be the only criteria for the attention she received. Although I
was deeply moved to be there and witness her election to president, I
was even more taken by those who spoke about their struggle as gay
and lesbian rabbis. They shared their pain. They recounted the many
years they were forced to live closeted. Some of my very own
rabbinical school classmates dared not share their sexual orientation
for fear of being expelled by an institution that officially did not
welcome LGBT students. I feel privileged to have witnessed this
change, to see Reform synagogues shift from a posture of fear to one
of acceptance—all in the short span of 25 years. I felt blessed to meet
a gay Israeli diplomat who grew up in this different age, an age when
he could be both gay and married and find welcome and comfort in a
Reform synagogue.
I am immensely proud in the achievements of my movement. For
decades we have also advocated for the full participation of interfaith
couples. I continue to believe that our synagogues should be an open
door. Our arms should be opened wide inviting and welcoming those
who feel estranged. We are enriched by the participation of others.
Intermarriage is a fact and a reality. Do not believe the pundits. Our
tribe is not lessened. Erecting walls will not do. Seeing blessings in
this new reality is our only option. Never before have rabbis been
confronted with the following. A woman comes to me and says, “Rabbi
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I have read books about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and
Buddhism. I have read Soren Kierkegaard and Abraham Joshua
Heschel, the Dalai Lama and Martin Buber. I was even a Wiccan for a
while. I have decided I want to convert to Judaism. It seems to offer
me the best path. I love that it allows me to question.” Do I push her
away three times as Jewish law urges? No! I say, “Welcome. Study
with me.” Never before has there been such openness to religious
exploration. I consider this a blessing.
We learn from the modern experience. We now understand that one’s
sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, as the Torah assumes, but
instead a matter of birth. As Reform Jews we are informed by Jewish
law but not confined by it. We learn from modernity but are not
beholden to it. We live within these two worlds.
I wonder if perhaps my silence about LGBT rights has forced others into
silence. On this Yom Kippur I confess, if I have failed to convey to any
of my students that I would be anything but accepting of them, then
chatati—I have sinned. If I have forced them to hide who they truly
are, then chatati. If they have yearned to share with their friends,
family and teachers, but have thought we would be unaccepting and
disapproving, then chatanu—we have sinned. We must open the doors
of our synagogues wide.
And then this summer we realized the fruits of our movement’s labors,
with the Supreme Court’s June decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy
wrote:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the
highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In
forming a marital union, two people become something greater
than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases
demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even
past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say
they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do
respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its
fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to
live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest
institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The
Constitution grants them that right.
I understood this to be an issue of justice many years ago. In the early
1990s when I was a newly minted rabbi, one of my friends approached
me to officiate at his partner’s funeral. His partner of many years was
dying of complications from AIDS. The young man’s estranged parents
flew in to see their son. Soon they made medical decisions that were
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contrary to what my friend knew his partner wished. The doctors were
obligated to listen to the parents. In the eyes of the law, to which the
doctors were obliged to adhere, my friend had no authority. As close
as I am to my parents, it is Susie who knows my heart and knows what
I would want. It is my spouse with whom I would trust with such life
and death decisions. The injustice shouted to be addressed.
The young man soon died and I fulfilled the promise made weeks
before, and officiated at the funeral. I cried with my friend. My heart
broke for the parents now mourning a son they refused to accept and
were unwilling to understand. I was overwhelmed by the sight of these
mourners: young men in their 20s and 30s. They were far too
experienced with the rituals of death and mourning than men of their
age should ever be. They knew exactly what to do. Whether Jewish or
Christian, atheist or irreligious, they were accustomed to these rituals.
They had been to far too many cemeteries. They knew how to comfort
each other. They understood how to support each other. It was a
remarkable sight, a blessing in the midst of such sorrow. But the
injustice of it all continued to scream out. They should not have
learned these lessons. In those moments I realized that they should
not only be permitted, but encouraged, to sanctify their love. It is a
matter of justice. It is a matter of our shared humanity. Their marriage
makes no statement about my marriage. Justice Kennedy and the
Supreme Court’s majority have it right.
As a Reform rabbi, I can say, the Torah has it wrong. Saying it like that
might make some people really uncomfortable but that is the chutzpah
of the Reform movement. I am not limited to the literal words of the
Torah. For me Torah is far more expansive than the five books of
Moses. We must be open to learning not only from our tradition but
also from modernity. It is this unique combination of the two that is the
hallmark of Reform and that allows us to bring meaning to our lives
and healing to our world.
I stand before you on this holiest of days and declare that although we
may not always agree we have chosen a path that is not one of
convenience as some would suggest, but instead one of intention and
meaning, commitment and healing. This is the legacy of Reform that is
now our inheritance. How will we make it our own? How will we bring
these teachings into our hearts?
All of Jewish practice is to bring more healing to the world. Judaism
provides the tools by which we bring meaning to our lives and healing
to our world. It must not all be about the inner life. We might begin
with the foods we eat. But we must end with the words we speak.
They must be filled with healing and comfort. We must conclude with
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righting the wrongs we see around us. That is the vision provided by
our tradition. That is the mission clarified by Reform Judaism. May this
become our legacy as well. May this path provide the guidance our
new Reform synagogue requires.
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz
Congregation L’Dor V’Dor

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