The history of Reform Judaism is a history of change. Each generation of Reform Jews has sought to distinguish itself from its predecessors by innovating new practices, exploring new ideas, and finding new ways to express creatively what it means to be a Jew in the contemporary world. The most predictable thing in Reform Judaism has been the recurring experience of explaining why we need to change again just when we were getting used to the old way of doing things.
Here is an imaginary situation that I often use to describe the predicament of Reform Judaism. Imagine an older couple walking into a Reform congregation. They see a rabbi on the bimah wearing no robe, but with a rainbow-colored kippah on his head. They see a woman sitting in the congregation wearing a homemade, tie-dyed tallit. They look at each other and they ask, “When did we become Orthodox?”
Reform Judaism, as our name implies, is always changing. However, the change is not, as some suppose, just toward becoming more “traditional.” Rather than moving in one direction, Reform Judaism, since its earliest expressions, has moved in circles. We don’t just adopt traditional practices for tradition’s sake. Oh, no. We look toward the Jewish past, search for inspiration and spiritual meaning, and we bring back to the present the aspects of our tradition that speak to us. But, along the way, we also update them, give them new interpretations, and make them work in the contemporary world and for contemporary Jews. That is what it means to reform.
Let me give you an example. My father, who was raised in a highly Germanic, classical Reform congregation, recently asked me about Temple Sinai’s S’lichot service during the week before Rosh Hashanah. He had never heard of the practice before, and he said, “Is that some kind of new thing?” I said, “Well, yes and no.” (My father tells me that this is a very rabbinic way to answer any question.) The answer is, “No.” It’s not so new. Ashkenazic Jews have been making special S’lichot services late on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah for at least a thousand year. The answer is also, “Yes,” we have made it new. Reform Judaism has given new life to S’lichot by making it a time for modern poetry, music, watching movies, reflection, discussion and spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. That is Reform.
Here is another image. This is a real one that I saw with my own eyes when I was a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College in New York City. A fellow student was the daughter and the granddaughter of Reform rabbis. I remember sitting in the sanctuary at HUC during services one morning when the father and grandfather of my schoolmate came to visit her. The three of them sat together in the front row of the sanctuary – an elderly gentleman who had been ordained in the early 1950s, a middle-aged man who had been ordained in the late 1970s, and a young woman who would be ordained in 2001.
The grandfather wore a proper suit and tie, but nothing on the top of his head. The father wore a blazer and an open collar shirt, but he had donned a kippah for the service, and wore a plain white tallit off of the sanctuary’s tallit rack. My fellow student, the daughter and granddaughter, had on the kippah that she always wore. She also wore a multi-colored purple and green tallit. And, that morning, she was among the few students at HUC who put on tefilin, wrapped around her head and left arm.
I looked at the three of them, sitting right in a row – the grandfather with an uncovered head, the father wearing tallit and kippah, and the daughter laying tefilin – and I thought, “That is Reform Judaism.” Where else in the Jewish world could three people sit next to each other in the same sanctuary with such diverse practices, each accepting and respecting each other’s approach to being a Jew? Where else, but in a Reform congregation, could this family worship together?
Tonight, we have heard that same progression from generation to generation, in the music of our service. We began tonight with the classical and Germanic sounds of Louis Lewandowski, music that is intended to convey the grandeur of an ancient tradition that appeals to our highest aesthetic sensibilities. We have heard Max Helfman’s Bar’chu, a romantic climb up and down the scales that is meant to convey Judaism in a new epoch, a time of Zionist dreaming and soaring. We have heard the contemporary settings of Doug Cotler, Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman who wanted to convey a new Jewish musical approach that emphasizes inclusion, participation, joy and inner spiritual yearning.
Each of these expressions is dear to us. You probably have a style of music and worship that is your favorite, and that is good. Tonight, we want to remember that each expression can touch us. Reform Judaism is not just one thing because none of us is just one thing. When we feel low, Lewandowski urges our spirit to the heights. When we feel bored or uninspired, Helfman challenges us with romantic gusto. When we feel disconnected, no one bring us together as a community like Debbie.
So, a good question for us to be asking tonight is this: What is the music of the next generation of Reform Judaism? In five years, will we be singing the Reggae rap melodies of Matisyahu as we pray for God to unite the hearts of humanity in the Aleinu prayer? Will we find inspiration for our worship in the great wealth of contemporary Israeli singers and songwriters? Will tomorrow’s synagogue music be something that we have not yet heard, or even yet imagined?
And what are tomorrow’s spiritual innovations of Jewish practice and living? Certainly, computers and the internet are already playing an important role in the way that Jewish communities are organized and in how we express ourselves as Jews. We still have to answer important questions about being a Reform Jew in the internet age. Is Shabbat a time for us to unplug and turn off the screens, or do our devices allow us to experience Shabbat in creative new ways, as we Skype with Grandma as we light candles on Friday night, and follow the Torah reading on Saturday morning with apps to access vast libraries of commentaries and interpretations?
We have not finished reforming. In fact, we may be living on the edge of the next great revolution of Reform Judaism that takes us into a new golden age.
It is clear, though, that no movement – no expression of Judaism – can succeed through the turmoil of changing times if it is not also grounded firmly in certain bedrock values. For us, as Reform Jews, these values include an enduring commitment to inclusion. No one is left out of the tent that is Reform Judaism. Reform was the first to make women equal partners in worship and leadership, and we were the first to ordain women as rabbis. Reform Judaism was the first to explicitly welcome interfaith families and to honor the non-Jews who choose to raise their children as Jews, even if they choose not to make the magnificent choice of becoming Jews themselves. Reform led the way for the inclusion of our gay Jewish brothers and lesbian Jewish sisters. Today, Reform Judaism is the place where Jews of all races, all backgrounds, all ethnicities, and all types of ability are accepted, loved and nourished in their Jewish identity and growth. We practice radical hospitality by making everyone welcome.
Reform Judaism also stands for action. We don’t just talk and hope about the Jewish vision of a future world in which all has been redeemed and transformed from its current brokenness. We work to repair the world. Our Temple kitchens are not places for mincing the minutia of which cheese is kosher. They are places where we make sandwiches to feed to the hungry. Our reception galleries are not just places for cocktail parties, they are places where we collect winter coats for the homeless. Our sanctuaries are places where we gather to pray, but also places where we gather to send messages to our elected officials about the need for civil rights, for action on climate change, and measures to end the epidemic of gun violence.
Reform Judaism stands for the Zionist dream. We regard the restoration of the Jewish state in our ancient homeland as sufficient evidence that God still performs miracles. We may not always agree with the positions of the Israeli government, but we understand that we live in an extraordinary time that has extraordinary challenges. We, the Jewish people, have the right to determine our destiny in our land as much as the French have the right to France and the Japanese have the right to Japan. We stand with Israel.
Reform Judaism, of course, also stands for Torah. In each of our congregations, we delve deeply into our tradition, but not just for the sake of arguing and intellectual rumination. In words of Torah, we find treasures that help us understand the difficult choices we face in life, our personal searches for spiritual meaning, and the values that should govern our families, communities and nation. Reform Judaism exemplifies the ideal of Living Torah. We do not view our tradition as a museum piece kept safe behind glass. For us, Torah is alive in the way we live our lives.
Tonight, we celebrate our Reform congregations, and what it means to be a Reform Jew. This is our heritage to be handed down from generation to generation. Along the way, it will change and transform to meet the needs of the Jewish people in their time, but it is rooted in a foundation that is unshaken and unshakable.
I offer my thanks tonight to all of you who have helped keep this shalshelet hakabalah, this chain of tradition, strong and thriving in our communities. I am grateful to my colleagues, the rabbis and cantors who are the spiritual leaders of these congregations. I am grateful to the many lay leaders here tonight who give their time, their wisdom, their vision, and their passion to build great Jewish communities. I am grateful for all the music we make together. It is a song we sing together in joy, and the final stanza has not yet been written.