This article, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander–rabbi of Solel Congregation, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada and former editor of the CCAR Journal–has been adapted from the Summer 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The full article is available at reformjudaismmag.org.
Q: Now that Reform Judaism has reached its 200th anniversary–its first temple opened in Seesen, Germany in 1810–what can we learn about our Movement’s transformations through time?
From that time to the present, I believe it is possible to identify three stages through which our Movement has evolved and to see the beginnings of a fourth. One feature common to all these stages is the search for a sense of belonging, both within general culture and within the Jewish community.
The first stage emphasized Reform’s universalistic tendency, as our ancestors sought to integrate into the majority culture into which they had been recently admitted.
The second stage, fuelled by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, witnessed a particularist tendency to assert pride in our ethnic Jewish identity.
In the third stage, beginning in the 1980’s, Reform Jews expressed their universalism by engaging in interfaith dialogue and tikkun olam activities. Their particularism was reflected in liturgical development that enhanced personal spirituality and expressed a more inclusive approach toward Jews who had formerly been marginalized.
However, as we enter the fourth stage, we Reform Jews find ourselves in a paradoxical state. On the one hand, most of the barriers that kept us from “fitting in” and “being like everyone else” have come down; on the other hand, our ancestral roots still nourish us and we want to preserve our differences. As a result, our sense of belonging is becoming simultaneously wider and narrower.
Our expression of universalism now embraces the entire world, for global culture has become increasingly homogenized: people from Toronto to Tokyo drink Coca Cola, listen to the same musicians, wear identical brand-name clothes and engage in instant technology-driven communication.
At the same time, our understanding of particularism has shrunk from peoplehood to self. Our personal identity is more fractionalized and complex, determined by such factors as the country I live in, the language I speak, my gender, my profession, my socioeconomic status—and my religion. Each of these components makes up our identity like pieces of a pie.
For many, identifying the Jewish piece of that pie or its importance among the other identity components has become increasingly difficult. What is the binding agent that connects us to the Jewish people? Our personal theological beliefs are far more divergent now than in stage one, and therefore connect us less strongly with any branch of Judaism. Our ethnic ties still draw us together, but nowadays ethnicity lacks the impetus it did in the second stage. Loyalty to the Reform Movement may be waning among younger generations of Jews, who tend to dislike labels and prefer more fluid lifestyles. They seek out the Jewish community to fulfill current needs, such as a lifecycle ceremony or the education of their children, rather than regarding synagogue membership as a lifetime commitment.
Even the State of Israel no longer confers the sense of belonging it once did. We no longer respond instinctively to the “crisis mentality” and we seek a more mature and nuanced relationship with the Jewish homeland
To infuse a sense of belonging into Jews in this fourth stage, our Movement will need to develop a more flexible type of community that meets Jews wherever they happen to gather. Even as we draw sustenance from members who make a lifelong commitment, it is incumbent upon us to also provide something of value for those just passing through. Nor can we wait for everyone to come to us; we also have to meet Jews wherever they happen to gather—restaurants, living rooms, internet chat rooms. We also have to make better creative use of electronic media for communication and online study.
At the same time, if Reform Judaism is to survive in this fourth stage, we will have to go somewhat against the stream in a society in which the only constant is change by creating a community that stands for something timeless. The universalist Mission of Israel teaches us that our lives have meaning beyond the immediate present, beyond the aims and ambitions that we assign to ourselves. It reminds us that we must settle for nothing less than tikkun olam in our continuous effort to bring justice and peace, freedom and enlightenment to the world. The particularist side of the coin is that the Jewish people have a unique contribution to make to that purpose, a contribution that comes from nowhere else. Our uniqueness will be found in a blend of ethical, spiritual, educational and cultural elements – a blend which will be different for each individual, but which can be shared with fellow Jews in community.
One way to preserve tradition is to transform it. This is precisely what Reform Judaism, at its best, has been doing at every stage for the past 200 years.
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