Focus on Issues: Reform Jews Begin Struggle for New Sense of Spirituality
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Focus on Issues: Reform Jews Begin Struggle for New Sense of Spirituality

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Reform Jews are thirsting for God.

The quest now is to develop a language for spirituality and a Reform way to grapple with the existential questions of Jewish life.

“Reform has made explicit the universalism in Judaism, but now we must make more explicit the resources for a personal relationship with God in our tradition,” said Rabbi Samuel Karff of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel.

At the 62nd biennial of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the number of sessions devoted to spiritual issues, and the number of people who crowded into them, attested to the fact that the Reform movement is beginning to grapple with the theological issues it long eschewed in favor of concentrating on social action.

According to Rabbi Daniel Syme, senior vice president of the UAHC, Reform Jews are ready to deal with theology.

“Never has the expressed need for spiritual sustenance been so great,” he said in an interview. “The workshops are in response to demand.”

Reform Judaism, which began 120 years ago as a response to Jewish Orthodoxy and as an outgrowth of the religious and philosophical enlightenment of the 19th century, has historically distanced itself from Jewish tradition.

The movement rejects halacha, or Jewish law, as binding and emphasizes instead the right of each Jew to make autonomous decisions about Jewish practice.

Not long ago yarmulkes, the head coverings traditionally donned by Jews while praying and studying religious texts, could hardly be found in Reform temples.

At one point, the Reform movement even moved Shabbat worship from Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, to Sunday mornings.

More recently, even after resistance to tradition had softened, the Reform movement focused almost exclusively on social action as the vehicle for expressing Judaism’s prophetic mission.


In most Reform temples, there was little energy devoted to Judaism in purely religious terms.

But all that is changing.

Tools for incorporating spirituality into Jewish life are being borrowed from many streams of Jewish thought and behavior.

At the workshop on “Consecrating the Ordinary,” Rabbi Peter Knobel of Beth Emet/The Free Synagogue, in Evanston, III., advised the overflow, standing-room-only crowd to reclaim mitzvot, or commandments, in their traditional forms as a way of integrating spiritual practice into life.

He spoke of reciting the “Modeh Ani,” the prayer traditionally recited in the morning upon waking that thanks God for restoring life; of reciting Shacharit, the morning service; and of saying the “Shema” as he goes to sleep each night.

Knobel, who is also president of the Reform movement’s Commission on Religious Living, advocated integrating blessings into each daily activity, to elevate and consecrate even the most mundane acts of life, much as the most observant Jews do.

He also suggested double-dating correspondence, even to non-Jews, with both the English and Hebrew dates at the top of the page.

In contrast, another panelist, Rabbi Alan Berg of Peninsula Temple Beth Am in San Mateo, Calif., spoke of integrating spirituality in ways that seemed more inspired by the creative format developed by the Jewish renewal movement.

He urged that Reform Jews relate Torahbased images to things they encounter in their daily lives. For example, when you see a tree, he suggested, think about the Garden of Eden.

Other images he suggested included a picture of hugging the Torah, the image of the bush burning in front of Moses without being consumed, and the image of the Red Sea splitting as the Israelites escaped from Egypt.

The Reform movement’s emphasis on individual autonomy has had some problematic consequences, rabbis said.


Autonomy has resulted in the movement’s reaching in so many different directions that “we’re unclear about who we are,” said Arthur Gross Schaefer, a rabbi from Los Angeles who left the pulpit out of frustration with this issue.

Moreover, autonomy may have been taken too far and destroyed concepts that are necessary for Jewish spiritual growth. It may have been a central reason for the lack of spiritual direction for which so many Reform Jews now search, said one observer.

The emphasis on autonomy will continue to pose an obstacle for rabbis trying to guide their congregants toward spirituality through observance when most members of the denomination’s 850 congregations do not want Reform Judaism to expect spiritual discipline of them.

“It’s a tension between making demands and losing members,” said Gross Schaefer.

Reform Jews, Karff said, must develop a sense of “commandedness” and consider “what God wants from us.”

The movement has “been too cavalier in setting aside the sanctified in Judaism, like covering our head in prayer,” Rabbi Dow Marmur of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple said at one workshop. “The cumulative effect has been indifference.”

As the denomination struggles to balance the often-contradictory demands of individual autonomy with developing ways to express spirituality that will bring people together, Reform Jews are anxiously seeking a relationship with the divine.

At a session titled “Bringing God Back Into Your Life,” workshop leader Syme encouraged participants to stand and speak of a time in their lives when they most felt connected with God.

There have been times, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier, when a roomful of people sits silently. No one gets up to speak about having a relationship with God.

But now, at the biennial, Reform Jews were eager to do so. About 30 people stood and spoke of times of tragedy when they felt the presence of God. Others spoke of sensing God during the course of their day-to-day lives.

And one woman spoke of the power of God she had sensed the day before, when, during Shabbat services she had stood in common bond with 4,000 other Reform Jews to recite Judaism’s enduring statement of faith, “Shema Yisrael.”

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