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HUC-JIR must be a home for all who “strive to create a Jewish home and serve the Jewish people.” But is that the only requirement we have? I believe we should have a commitment to a theological process that is distinctively Reform, one that would help us parse these difficult question from a solid religious grounding.
Unfortunately, the Reform movement has no central theological positions that are advocated by our leaders or believed in by its followers. There may be theological parameters, but they are so wide that a Humanistic congregation in Cincinnati, whose members are atheists, could apply for admission to what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, in the 1990s. While the rabbi was (and is) a bright and erudite leader trained at HUC-JIR, it should have been obvious that the Humanists’ approach would not be compatible with that of Reform Judaism, a conclusion that was reached only after several years.
But it was not obvious, because the movement passively and even actively accepted — and accepts — almost any belief system as long as it rejects Jesus. This makes common sense, because everyone knows that you cannot believe in Judaism if you believe in Jesus, but even this is problematic because it is not so clear historically that believing in Jesus is worse than, for example, rejecting the divinity of the Torah or the authority of the Oral Law.
It would certainly seem to be less serious than rejecting the existence of God, would it not? Yet, liberal rabbis such as Dan Cohn-Sherbok (Reform) and Carol Harris-Shapiro (Reconstructionist) have argued that it is not necessarily rational to accept Humanist Jews or Buddhist Jews while rejecting so-called “Messianic Jews.” While I am not personally persuaded by their arguments, it is clear that the Reform movement has such vague principles that we are in no position to determine where our boundaries lie. The result is that lifestyle choices determine our values.
The Reform movement has always prided itself on minimizing the behavioral gap between the clergy and the laity. In the period since World War II, the Conservative synagogue was jokingly referred to as a Reform congregation led by an Orthodox rabbi. This was not exactly true, but it was meant to humorously highlight the huge gulf between Conservative rabbis and their congregants. (This gap has narrowed dramatically in recent years.) In the Reform movement, this was never the case. Therefore, what congregants do will immediately affect what rabbis think and will soon after affect how they act.
Dana Evan Kaplan is the rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites, in Kingston, Jamaica, and former rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Ga. His forthcoming work is “The New Reform Judaism,” to be published by the Jewish Publication Society in the fall.