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 Reform Judaism and traditional observances

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Debbie B.

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PostSubject: Reform Judaism and traditional observances   Sun May 04, 2014 4:54 pm

I am continuing the discussion about Reform Judaism and being "observant" from the topic on Neshama Carlebach's music:
"Music that speaks to your conversion"

I believe that Neshama Carlebach found that Reform Jews can be spiritual and feel a strong connection to Judaism. But I'm sure (because otherwise it would be mentioned in the later article) that Neshama Carlebach does not have a membership in a Reform congregation, but probably does attend an Orthodox shul. The title of her article was chosen for effect because adding qualifiers would weaken a nice pithy title. And it did indeed catch the attention of some Jews who unfortunately responded very negatively. The issue is that many Jews who identify as Orthodox do not understand that other Jews can identify as Jews in a very different way than they do. Therefore, they assume that Jews who identify as non-Orthodox cannot possibly have much in the way of Jewish identity. This is of course wrong. Conversely, there are Reform Jews who assume that Orthodox Jews follow traditional rules slavishly out of obligation and either dislike doing so or just like to be able to look down on those who don't. They do not understand how a traditional Jew can feel a deep and "spiritual" connection through strict rules that some non-Orthodox Jews can see only as stifling.

While it is true that "observant" does not necessarily mean either Orthodox or not Reform, the "Classical Reform" movement did truly reject many aspects of tradition, not just remove requirements and make rules or traditions optional. Back in the heyday of CR, it wasn't just not necessary for men to cover their heads in synagogue, but in fact a Jew who wore a kippah might be told that he didn't belong in a Classical Reform "temple". And I heard this directly from a man who spoke at a service of a Classical Reform synagogue that I visited about 30 years ago with my husband out of curiosity. We attended services on a Saturday morning because the shul had moved their main service back from Sunday. And the man who spoke was the grandson of a founder of the shul was proud of the fact that they were so open-minded that they could tolerate the wearing of a kippah. (He went on to describe all the different kippot he had seen during his trip to Israel, and proceeded to describe in detail one just like what my husband was wearing: hand-crochetted with a border suggesting the Old City of Jerusalem along with the wearer's Hebrew name. The people in the pew behind us were trying hard to suppress giggles. It makes me chuckle just to remember that experience!)

Perhaps the use of the word "observant" causes misunderstandings. A Reform Jew may feel that being called "unobservant" means that they are not given credit for attending synagogue (even if far less often than Jews who call themselves "observant") or celebrating Jewish holidays or sending their kids to Hebrew school or Jewish summer camp or even Jewish day school. But there is still a wide gulf between the observances of almost any Jew who self-identifies as Reform and a Jew who self-identifies as Orthodox. In the latter case, the traditional Jew says blessings and prayers does things in special ways many times every single day. Except for rabbis and other professional Jews, most Reform Jews keep their religious activities much more separate from their everyday lives.

I think the real problem is also in the implied judgement that the different groups are thought to be making about the other group by the choices that they make for their own lives. I think this comes from people incorrectly applying the idea of putting yourself in another person's place. They imagine themselves doing what the other person does with their own attitudes about those actions.

Here are some experiences that I've had in dealing with the above issues:

I have friends who are very committed Reform Jews, but the only ones who keep kosher are those who are vegetarian (and none care about separate cookware and plates, so it is not kosher by Orthodox standards). It can be tricky for Jews of very different observance levels to interact socially: How do you tactfully tell someone that you can't accept something they cooked in their non-kosher kitchen into your home even if they carefully avoided treyf ingredients? I worried about that when I made my kitchen kosher. It is especially a problem during Passover when I do stick closely to very strict rules. I once hurt the feelings of an Israeli friend when I could not allow her to bring food she cooked to my home during Passover even though since she eats only vegetarian plus fish, she could bring food to my house at other times of the year. She noticed that another friend had brought a cooked dish---but that friend did keep a kosher kitchen. This year, I was relieved when a guest decided not to bring a dish because she had so recently been sitting shiva that she didn't have the energy to do Passover cooking. I told her that it was actually good that she didn't bring food so that it did not make another friend who didn't keep kosher feel bad that I could not allow her to bring any food, not even what she brought to my house for Thanksgiving: a cold raw fruit salad (since the fruit would be cut with her utensils and served in a bowl that was not kosher-for-Passover).

I would guess that many Reform Jews have felt slighted when their Orthodox friends did not attend a bar mitzvah or wedding when the reason was something basic like no hotels within walking distance for a Shabbat event. I know that some of my Shabbat-observant friends have felt bad about not being able to attend lifecycle events of relatives. They feel particularly bad when their relatives do not understand why they cannot simply make an exception and feel that it shows a lack of concern. One source of misunderstanding is that it is more than just a difference in what you choose to do or not do. A Reform Jew who chooses to wear a kippah or avoid pork feels he is making a choice; it is not equivalent to how a traditional Jew feels about the same actions or how free he is to make certain kinds of "choices". I know of an Orthodox Jew who threw up when she realized from a small taste that she had accidentally been served a dish with sauce which contained non-kosher beef. She had been trying to share a meal with non-orthodox Jewish friends who did not observe kashrut. She knew that it would not physically harm her and that once eaten, it couldn't be undone, so vomiting wouldn't help. But she couldn't suppress the deep anxiety that eating something treyf caused her.


Last edited by Debbie B. on Wed May 14, 2014 9:34 am; edited 1 time in total
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Sarit

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PostSubject: Re: Reform Judaism and traditional observances   Fri May 09, 2014 5:21 am

Dear Debbie,

you've started quite a complex topic of which I was always thinking so much. Of course that we shouldn't automatically link Reform Judaism approaches to the lower level of observance practices (and we shouldn't make those kind of associations in any case, after all!), but you've mentioned one thing that I see as very important - the part of "making choices". I'm sure that this is, of course, not the same for every Reform Jewish person, but the Reform Jews with whom I interacted most frequently saw observances as something they chose, thinking of their choice as made out of understanding and loving the path which was given to Jewish people. For Orthodox Jews it doesn't always function like that, as I'm aware of (I'm converting Conservative in a Modern Orthodox community, so my experiences are drawn from that source, and I personally stand somewhere at the Conservadox point of the spectrum, more or less [although the strict lines sometimes don't really work in the denomination self-expression] - this part of "Conservative in a Modern Orthodox community" is a another story - I can explain it some other time).

Of course I am always trying to understand and learn why I am doing or not doing something, and of course I love the path I was brought to, the path that I chose, and I love it so much. But as I learned more and more about Judaism, I also developed great respect and trust for all the mitzvot that have been given - in other words, first of all, I do something (even if I don't quite understand why I would do it in the first place, and what is the function of that mitzvah in nowadays life, in my life), and then I seek to understand. Of course, even better is when I already understand it from previous learning. First doing then thinking about it is not, as I see it, a kind of "blind doing just because it is said", but after all, it is a doing "because it is said". And of course, even all that doing leaves you with a lot of space to think through the "rules", to know it, to pass through it, even to bend it here or there, not moving them from their initial position (which is very important!; that is the magic of Judaism, which mostly functions as a set of laws) and find your own meaningful path that brings you in harmony with those fixed points.

So, to cut the story short, I do/don't do because I am obligated to. You can express it in different ways for sure, but we (are obligated to) keep mitzvot because we are Jews; we are not Jews because we chose to keep mitzvot - that's pretty much how it functions after the mikveh.

I'm very opened for discussion and I'm looking forward to different opinions, of course!

Thank you, Debbie, for starting a great topic.
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