Making Reform Relevant
The Reform movement has launched a series of public dialogues about its future, and the timing could not be more fitting. While Reform remains the largest of America’s four main streams of Judaism, overall membership in Reform synagogues has declined. The movement’s central institution, the Union for Reform Judaism, is still navigating the aftermath of major budget cuts and staff reductions. The search for a successor to the movement’s leader and spokesman, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has begun. The time is right for a hard-headed exploration of what values Reform Judaism’s leaders will highlight as the movement enters a new era.
What we urgently need now is to articulate a broad vision about what Reform Judaism means. What word or phrase will come to mind when people think about Reform Judaism? What motivating passion will drive the leadership and thinkers of the movement?
For much of the movement’s early history, the key word was “progress.” As Jews left the ghettos and became more integrated into American society, Reform was a way of adapting and changing. This trend began to change, slowly but significantly, after World War II. For a significant portion of that generation, and especially their children, Reform Judaism was about “social action” and “liberalism.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, with the significant rise in intermarriage, the focus was “outreach.” In the late ’90s through today, it has been “spirituality” and “transformation.”
What will it be tomorrow? My hope is that when we think of Reform Judaism, we will think of “relevance.”
Jews of every generation are looking for ways that Judaism speaks to the pressing concerns of daily life. We search, for example, for ways to become better parents, and it is no accident that Wendy Mogel’s “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings To Raise Self-Reliant Children” is an extraordinarily popular Jewish book. We search for ways to make a difference in our communities, and it is no wonder that numerous studies suggest many Jews identify their Judaism with acts of social justice. We watch what we eat, and it is no coincidence that issues of food consumption and sustainability have drawn attention from rapidly growing Jewish environmental groups like Hazon.
Focusing on relevance puts the needs of people ahead of the assumptions of organizations. It begins where Jews are, rather than where others think they should be. It does not, however, end there.
A Judaism of relevance does not simply accept and affirm that the vast majority of Jews do not attend Shabbat worship, even on a monthly basis. It does not say that since we spend time at Starbucks, concerts and the health club, the way to make a synagogue relevant is to have good coffee, rock-style musical services and weekly yoga classes. Rather, it seeks to focus on the areas where Judaism can add meaning and purpose to our lives. It seeks to address the desires we have to feel part of something larger than ourselves and to make our lives matter.
In what way would a focus on relevance change current Reform practices? Rather than craft boiler-plate statements on Zionism and the importance of visiting Israel, leaders of our movement would seek to articulate a compelling reason as to why Israel matters to Reform Jews and what obligations — given that we live in America — we have to it. Rather than just provide new curricula for religious schools, we would first try to better understand the ways Reform Jewish families spend their time and act on their values, and seek to make Jewish practices and activities a more meaningful part of their daily lives.
We would also address real theological questions that American Jews confront. Anecdotal evidence from my own experience working as a rabbi suggests that a large number of Reform Jews know very little about Jewish understandings of God. They see their Jewish identity in cultural terms, and if asked about God, they would probably describe either the “old man in the sky” they do not believe in, or something close to “the power that makes for human salvation” envisioned by Mordecai Kaplan. Neither our prayer books nor our curricula address God in a meaningful, relevant way. We need powerful statements about a God that address the doubts we have, connect to the lives we live, and enrich our relationships and activities in a sustained way.
Some may decry a Reform Judaism organized around relevance as dumbing down Judaism and creating a self-centered vision of Jewish life. What happened to commanded-ness? What about the parts of Jewish tradition that are difficult, time-consuming and countercultural?
A focus on relevance does not mean we do not engage in difficult parts of Jewish life. Indeed, what is hard is often what is most worthwhile. Relevance insists, however, that we ensure that what happens in our synagogues, schools and camps makes a difference in the way we live. It seeks to break down the barriers that often exist between rabbis and laypeople, between the theology of the prayer book and our own beliefs, and between what we learn in religious school and what we do at home.
The word relevance is defined as “having application.” Reform Jews need a vision of Jewish life that applies to the practices and values of 21st-century American Jews.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill.