Reform, Tradition, and Renewal

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Reform, Tradition, and Renewal

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

As an invited speaker at the CCAR (Reform rabbis) convention in Pittsburgh, I was able to hear some of the discussions that preceded the vote to adopt a new "pro-traditional" platform where the original Pittsburgh Platform more than a century ago had denounced and repudiated much of traditional ritual and law.

Many (not all) of the rabbis who chose to come to one or another of my three talks were "self-selected" for interest in the emergence of Jewish renewal. Some of them were happy neither with remaining stuck in the old Reform rejection of ritual and law nor with the new support for "tradition."

Like them, I would urge the Reform movement to move forward toward the creation of a new halakha -- not just a new set of disconnected specific "mitzvot," but a new fabric of Jewish communal behavior in the world -- that is grounded in a new understanding of God's Call to our generation:

A halakha, for instance, that requires Jewish business leaders to act responsibly toward the environment, and is prepared to call them to account if they violate Jewish communal ethics.

A ritual observance of Tu B'Shvat, for example, that through direct nonviolent action challenges efforts to destroy an ancient forest or poison a river.

An obligation to add to our ways of observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, inviting the children of Hagar through Ishmael back into our broader family by welcoming a Palestinian to speak as part of the High Holy Day services.

A halakhic commitment that if a Jewish marriage comes to an end, it do so not only with a secular divorce and not with a traditional "gett," but with a deeply spiritual, egalitarian, and practical version of the gett -- at least equal to the fusion of spirituality, egalitarianism, and business-like practicality with which a sensitive and seicheldik Reform rabbi would initiate the marriage under the chuppah.

A halakhic commitment that any rabbi who is ready to officiate at a wedding of a man and woman must also be prepared to officiate at the wedding of two men, or two women.

A halakhic commitment to eco-kosher eating and consuming -- so that no synagogue could serve vegetables grown by drenching the earth in pesticides, or serve Kiddush wine in plastic cups, or use unrecycled paper for its weekly bulletin;

A halakhic commitment that as part of the observance of Sukkot, households and congregations not only build a sukkah, but spend time and money on support for the homeless;

A halakhic commitment to bring the spiritual meaning of Shabbat -- the need for a sacred rhythm of work and rest, Doing and Being -- not only into our own Jewish lives but also into a public society that has become addicted to Doing, Making, Producing, Consuming until it poisons the very nature of Making into a mockery where H-bombs, global scorching, the burning of the Amazon forest, all become emblems of grotesque "productivity."

Most of the rabbis who came to my talks responded with excitement to this approach. But, they did not see that direction as the one toward which the new platform points -- though as they said, its final version was vague enough to permit almost anything, including this. Certainly this was not the way that the national press explained the new platform after the CCAR adopted it.

I was happy to see that there is indeed an emerging generation of Reform rabbis that is not caught in the false choice between "modern" individualism and scientistic reductionism, on the one hand, versus "ancient" tradition with its patriarchal theology and law, on the other hand -- but that can go forward to renew the meaning of communal halakha and joyful ritual in a new key.

To do this, Reform Jews along with others will have to look again at our understanding of God. For this path of renewing halakha and ritual poses the question: From where would come such new understandings of the Jewish path in the world? For me, this comes not from our own sense of ethics alone, but from the God Who at the Burning Bush took the Name "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh," "I Will be Who I Will Be."

Who is once again in the process of Becoming -- once again demanding that we also Become, by freeing ourselves from Mitzrayyim, all the Narrow Places of our past -- whether Pittsburgh or Poland.


* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center and the author of Seasons of Our Joy, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and Godwrestling -- Round 2, among other works of Jewish and spiritual renewal.

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