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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Kol Nidre - 2013/5774


Reform Struggles
Kol Nidre – 2013/5774

It is hard to be a Reform Jew in the former Soviet Union.  In 2007, I visited parts of Belarus over Pesach, leading six Passover seders over the first five days of Passover, along with two rabbinical school classmates and a translator.  We learned that in much of the area, there is a missing generation of Jews: the older generation remembers Judaism from their childhoods, and the younger generation is eager to learn about Jewish culture, but the generation in between grew up with no religion at all, so they cannot serve as role models for their kids, and many of them do not really understand why their kids are interested, anyway.  As we sat down for a youth group seder, the kids pulled out an empty seder plate, but had nothing to put on it and no haggadot, because none of them knew what they needed.  It is hard to be a Reform Jew there.

It also can be hard to be a Reform Jew in Israel.  While I lived there for my first year of rabbinical school, I learned a saying, “the synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.”  Most Israelis who are not Orthodox Jews are secular Jews, and although they are not actively engaged with Judaism themselves, they see Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate way to practice Judaism.  I was on my way back to synagogue for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur afternoon in Jerusalem when a couple of men stopped me.  They wanted to know—in Hebrew—why I, a woman, was carrying a tallit.  Exhausted from fasting and intimidated by using a foreign language, I did my best to explain that the tallit was mine, and I was studying to be a rabbi.  They weren’t particularly satisfied with my answer, but we came to an intersection and went our separate ways, and somewhat shaken, I continued back to services.  I knew it when I got there, but as amazing a country as Israel is, and as much as I cannot wait to go visit again, it is not easy to be a Reform Jew in Israel. 

There is another place with which I am much better acquainted, one which prides itself on religious freedom, and which for many means freedom from religion.  And yet, it is also, perhaps surprisingly, a difficult place to be a Reform Jew.  In our modern world, in our time, it is hard to be a Reform Jew in the United States.

The challenges of being a Reform Jew in the United States are certainly different from those of Belarus and Israel.  But for us, it is these challenges that are closer to home; it is these challenges that are in our homes.  In college, at a Hillel that prides itself on pluralistic Friday evenings where each denomination has its own service, and then everyone joins together for Shabbat dinner, I helped lead the Reform minyan for three of my four years.  The more traditional students moved their service times incrementally each week.  While our Reform minyan was willing to adjust start times seasonally, I tried to maintain at least somewhat consistent timing.  On occasional holidays, we would talk about combining minyanim to boost numbers, and it was generally assumed, if not said aloud, that we would put down the guitar, leave our gender-neutral prayer books in a pile in the library, and simply attend the more traditional service.  All too often, the Reform Jews were expected to yield to what we called the “frummest common denominator,” we were expected to go along with whatever the other groups wanted, because as Reform Jews, we weren’t considered to be bound by anything, so we could change timing, location, standards whenever other groups deemed it necessary.  

I think my college classmates and plenty of others have always made the assumption that reformed Jews had it easy.  I disagree.  I believe that Reform Judaism is difficult and demanding.  It is a constant struggle between tradition and innovation, choosing to make time for Judaism, and along the way, confronting challenges to our very authenticity as Jews.  It means always asking why, and not being satisfied until we understand every Jewish thing we do—and even the things we don’t do.

As Reform Jews, we struggle between tradition and innovation.  Reform Judaism was founded about 200 years ago to bring Judaism in contact with modernity.  Its founders were seeking a way to combine their love and heritage of Judaism with their desire to fit in with German society and gain secular citizenship.  As Reform Judaism developed, the idea was to be both Jewish and fully a part of secular society, to be both Jewish and modern.  We continue, as Reform Jews, to make those adjustments, to seek that balance.  The ongoing change we pursue, constantly adjusting our balance between old and new, is why we are Reform Jews, in the present, ongoing tense, not reformed Jews.

We Reform Jews have a lot of innovations of which we should be proud.  It was Reform Judaism that began the Jewish tradition of Confirmation, Kabbalat Torah, or whatever it is called at each individual synagogue. We began that ceremony for practical and ideological reasons.  It helped keep teens in religious school for an extra few years after B’nai Mitzvah, and it was an acknowledgement that the world had changed.  While in the ancient world, thirteen-year-olds may have been on the cusp of adulthood, in the modern world, they are not, and so we sought another ceremony to mark that transition.  Many synagogues continue to adjust this ceremony, some moving it to the end of high school, again for practical and ideological reasons. That’s Reform Judaism.  We keep old traditions and we seek to understand them, and we innovate to fill voids, and we to come to new understandings.

Reform Judaism, with its ties to secular society, has been involved in civil issues from a liberal religious perspective for generations.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a civil rights activist, and after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, exclaimed that by marching for what was right, it was as if his feet were praying.  The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center was founded some fifty years ago in order to educate and mobilize the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns [1].  The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted in the RAC’s conference room, and Reform Judaism has stayed in the front of other fights for issues central to the principles of Judaism, from economic justice to Soviet Jewry, from workers’ rights to marriage equality.  It is precisely because we live with one foot in secular society and one foot in Jewish life that we can fight these battles as people who are religiously informed but also secularly connected.

Even our prayer books show this struggle between tradition and innovation.  As a movement, we are working on a new machzor, a new High Holy Day prayer book to be published in a couple of years.  The challenge, of course, is in combining the ancient words of tradition with modern words that speak to our present-day challenges, acknowledging that sometimes we need new material, but sometimes tradition has to rule.  A new Reform machzor has to account for a balance between English and Hebrew.  We include English specifically so that we know the words with which we pray, so that our services can be more meaningful, so that we can struggle with those prayers that make us uncomfortable, but we include Hebrew to bind us to other Jews across the world and across history.  As we struggle between innovation and tradition in our liturgy, consider some of the places where it plays out.  Feminism has left its mark on Reform Judaism, as we wouldn’t consider leaving the matriarchs out of the avot v’imahot, even though they weren’t part of the traditional prayer.  Just reading aloud in English from this machzor shows the constant innovation of the Reform movement and our prayer books.  If you are holding a machzor that was printed before 1999, it has masculine language when it refers to God.  If you have an edition from 1999 or later, the masculine language has all been edited out.  In most places, it’s only a word or two different, but in a few places, we all notice that an entire sentence has been changed or edited, creating a delightful noise when we read aloud together.  In one very small example, that is our struggle between tradition and innovation.

Reform Judaism is not about taking the easy way out, and it is not about dismissing traditions for being too…traditional…but rather about struggling with our tradition and experimenting with some innovation.  Consider what you do Jewishly that is ancient, such as lighting candles on Shabbat or giving tzedakah, and what you do Jewishly that is modern, such as building a sukkahmobile or sending kids to Jewish camp.  Do you know why you do it all?  As Reform Jews, we aim to feel that very Reform struggle, but we also do so while questioning, seeking to understand what we do.  We’re piloting that new machzor at tomorrow afternoon’s service.  Come join us at 3:00, and see what that struggle looks like in print.  Reform Judaism was not founded as an easy way out, but as a group effort, a group struggle, between tradition and innovation, a way to keep the old but add some new.  As we reflect this Yom Kippur, let’s consider how to add that struggle into our lives.  For the sin we have committed against You, God, by bowing to tradition without thought and understanding, by considering everything new to be superior without questioning the reasons for innovation, by forgetting to live with tension between new and old, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Reform Judaism is also hard, because it is constantly a choice.  We aren’t required to do anything as Reform Jews.  That means that every Jewish thing we do is a choice, a choice that other Jews don’t always have to make, because for them, their Judaism may always come first; in some ways, that would make it much easier.  Every time we walk in this door, every time we walk into this building, every time we pull out our candlesticks at home, every time we pull a Jewish book off the shelf, we are choosing Judaism, and as Reform Jews, that’s our prerogative.  We all get the same twenty-four hours in a day.  We all are choosing Judaism in addition to work or school or volunteering for other organizations and family time and personal time and other commitments.  Making that choice isn’t easy, and I applaud every person in this room for making that choice. 

As Reform Jews, we choose to live in two worlds, the Jewish world and the secular world, but we aren’t given any more time than those who live in only one world, whether the secular one or the Jewish one.  It isn’t easy.  We are all friends with people who aren’t Jewish, who don’t understand the struggle we face every time we say no to social engagements that interfere with holidays, to team sports that interfere with religious school, to dinner out on that one Friday night we were planning to get to synagogue.  Some are married to people who aren’t Jewish, and that struggle moves inside the home, trying to balance everyone’s needs and wants.  Every time we are here, we are here because we choose to be here; every time we are not here but could be, it is because we choose something else instead.

Our challenge, as we reflect this Yom Kippur, is to keep making Jewish choices.  Reform Judaism has been described as giving Judaism ‘a vote in our lives, but not a veto,’ meaning that Judaism is one of many influences in our lives.  Let’s make sure we aren’t blocking out that Jewish voice entirely.  Just because it’s always a choice doesn’t mean it always has to be the last choice.  Calendar Judaism sometimes, just to be reminded that it’s a choice we still get. In Pirke Avot [2], Rabbi Hillel reminds us never to put off study until we have time—we may never have time.  The rest of Judaism is the same way.  Our challenge, as we consider this year on Yom Kippur, is to make the Jewish choice just a little more often.  For the sin we have committed against you, God, by failing to consider the Jewish choice, and for failing to applaud ourselves when we do make that choice, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Reform Judaism is also really difficult because we are forced to confront challenges to our authenticity as Jews.  We face these challenges from within, and we face them from without.  I grew up in an area with a lot of Jews.  Often times, “Reform” was sort of a slur you used toward someone who “wasn’t Jewish enough.”  I no longer remember the supposed “sin” I had committed, but I acutely remember my friend’s dismissal of it: well, you’re Reform, so it doesn’t matter.  I remember how hurt I was, how much effort it took not to self-righteously remind her that I was at synagogue far more often than she, the above-reproach Conservative Jew; that my family’s keeping kosher meant that we didn’t eat non-kosher food at all, that we didn’t have a small set of “treif dishes” at home, as she did, for bringing home restaurant leftovers or takeout.  Every time I hear a Reform Jew say “I don’t do that; I’m Reform” (or worse, I’m reformed), I cringe.  We face enough challenges to who we are from those who aren’t Reform Jews, from those who don’t know us, that to hear the same words from an insider is painful. 

Reform Jews tend to pay attention to the spirit of the law more than the letter of the law: resting on Shabbat, for example, as something refreshing and set apart, even if it involves flipping light switches, cooking, or getting in the car.  As Reform Jews, it is our responsibility to understand why we do what we do.  It requires much more of us than memorizing the laws.  It means that if we cannot explain why we don’t drive on Shabbat (or why we do), or why we keep kosher (or why we don’t), we are not living up to the idea, the ideal of Reform Judaism.  If we cannot explain why we feel the urge to come here on Yom Kippur—or why we don’t feel that urge on Sukkot, one of the pilgrimage festivals by the way, we are not Reform Jews—we are ignorant Jews.  I cannot judge whether it is the letter of the law or its spirit that is more important, that is “more Jewish,” but I hope that as Reform Jews, we can be proud of who we are.  Our choices, our practice is just as valid a way to be Jewish as any other, and the sooner we all believe that, the stronger we will be, the more we will be able to do.  Choice is Jewish.  Celebrating Judaism, as Rabbi Schaalman told us on Rosh Hashanah that we should do more often, has many different forms, many different styles, and ours is just as valid—and becomes even more so when we all believe it.

I don’t hear “well, I’m Reform” as an excuse.  I consider it a challenge.   To confront that challenge, we have to be ready and knowledgeable about who we are as Jews, about who we are as Reform Jews.  We have to have positive examples about choices we make as Reform Jews; we have to have factual information; we have to be ready to say to our friends, “actually, it’s Reform, without the –ed, because it’s an active verb, ongoing reform and change.”  The answer to why we do or do not do Jewish rituals isn’t because we are Reform Jews.  We are supposed to learn about the rituals, practices, innovations, so that we can give an intelligent answer, because we’re Reform Jews.  To convince others of our authenticity, we have to start with ourselves, we have to feel legitimate.  For the sin we have committed against you, God, by undermining ourselves as Jews, by selling ourselves short, by remaining too uninformed about our Jewish legacy, by feeling inadequate, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. 

In order to truly reform Judaism, we have to begin with reforming ourselves.  Many years ago, before I was even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, they spoke to a rabbi who encouraged them to join a synagogue.  My dad said to the rabbi, “I don’t have to join a synagogue to pray.  I can pray in the woods if I want to.”  . . .  The rabbi’s inspired response: “Yes you can.  But do you?”  Needless to say, they joined a synagogue.  Years later, my parents were at visiting day, on Shabbat at Camp Harlam, the mid-Atlantic equivalent to OSRUI, our local Reform Jewish summer camp.  We walked into camp’s Chapel in the Woods, the outdoor site of Shabbat morning services.  My father’s eyes filled with tears.  It had taken him decades, but he was praying in the woods.  The sad part was his acknowledgement that all those years before, the rabbi was right: he had never made the conscious effort to pray in the woods, he just knew that he could.  

May this be the year we struggle with the tension between ancient and modern, between this generation and the next, between “how it’s always been done” and “the next big thing.”  May this be the year that we give Judaism more of a voice in our lives, making Jewish choices just a bit more often as we plan our overcrowded schedules.  May this be the year we feel good about who we are, owning the challenge of Reform Judaism, confronting the fact that Reform isn’t an easy way out.  May this be the year we go into the woods and pray.

[1] Rephrased, from
[2] Pirke Avot 2:5

Sat, May 27 2023 7 Sivan 5783