At the beginning of the final book of the Torah, God deems the Israelites worthy in their fortieth year of wandering in the desert. Although God's words are somewhat belligerent, this portion speaks of the Israelites growing in unity and righteousness. After many years b’midbar, in the wilderness, the Israelites gain the necessary strength and the appropriate discipline to earn God's support in crossing the Jordan River. Finally bestowing this blessing, God provokes a spiritual change in a people that emerged from slavery, providing the protection and resources for lifelong fulfillment. Likewise, while Reform Jews experience varying levels of comfort in North American society, the majority under the URJ’s umbrella enjoys a comfortable lifestyle very much like the one guaranteed by God for the Israelites in parashat D’varim. More than any other Jewish organization in North America, the URJ possesses significant monetary, political and spiritual influence, yet the potential misuse of this wealth brings Reform Jews to a perilous void of having reached the Promised Land and having yet attained nothing but a desert within themselves.
In an age of modernization, Reform Judaism was a rebellion against non-compliant traditionalism. For the first time, Judaism spoke to certain non-Hebrew speakers via a growing musical character and supplementary text written in the mother tongue. Like a large tent, Reform Judaism allows all who seek a role among the Jewish people to enter, and in welcoming modernity, Reform Judaism stakes its tent in the realm of public life. Allowing secularism to permeate the walls of synagogues, Reform Jews can have an open-minded debate about how to work religion into a world where it seems increasingly negligible. Rather than parse religion and the ever-changing state of daily life, we incorporate what it means to be essentially Jewish into our humanity, transcending laws and sustaining an individualized Jewish experience.
In doing so, however, Reform Judaism confronts a history of appropriation and assimilation that all immigrant-groups and their descendants have faced in North America. At the most classical Reform synagogues, services seem to mimic those at cathedrals only a few blocks south. Where is the line between the temple choir and Christian rock or the commemoration of the birth of Jesus and that of the Maccabee victory against the Greek and Assyrian armies? We risk adapting Judaism to the point that it becomes a religion of empty buzzwords, and we face the threat of equivocating what it means to be a good Jew versus a simply decent human being. The tent of Reform Judaism may embrace anyone who comes into its midst, but when the tent is so inclusive, does standing for everything really mean that Reform Judaism stands for nothing?
The temple experience and contextual Jewish surrounding can not be about manufacturing thirteen year olds who have undergone the process of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather, it should simultaneously distinguish itself from and entangle itself in the daily, fast-paced rhythm of the present in a way that reflects this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat D’varim, God grants the Israelites permission to accept the covenant of their ancestor and be a chosen people. Instead of rising above all nations as God's shining jewel, we should avoid pretension and entitlement, embracing our unique character while living among the other nations. Even in D’varim, God speaks of the nations that will be unassailable, such as the descendants of Esau, affirming that they are as entitled to a subset of land as the Israelites. Thus, in North America and around the world, Reform Jews must recognize their seat of power not as a people selected to rule above or blend with other nations but to call for action upon them.
Foremost, Reform Judaism requires individual effort. In order to achieve outer peace on Earth, we must learn to be introspective, sorting through difficult emotions. Unlike members of other sects, Reform Jews sift through the Torah’s practices and laws in order to determine which ones are still relevant or useful for the present day. Torah requires intention so that challenging Biblical text forms a practical, individualized ideology. Reform Judaism is a process of evaluation, planning, and self-actualization. Refusing to be Kosher, for instance, is an acceptable practice in Reform Judaism, but the individual who chooses to do so must first and come to understand how the history of dietary laws and how they may be useful to someone else. The greatest enemy of Reform Judaism (and possibly Judaism in general) is laziness. If we do not actively agree or disagree with the Torah’s teachings, then indeed, we are appropriating Judaism for the modern world, but skepticism may be one of progressive Judaism’s most powerful tools. To wield it properly, we must first divulge ourselves in the rich history of the past. We cannot call upon the experience of centuries-ago rabbis for worship but rather personalize every part of the prayer service in whatever language as a source of peace or conflict that leads to the ultimate goal of holy self-actualization.
Reaching God, then, is not grasping for an omnipresent authority but searching for the innermost idealism within each of us, and Reform Judaism, thereby, requires a collectivist mindset. Our monotheism, in this sense, exists in multitudes as every Reform Jew interprets tzedek (justice) and chesed (kindness) in a personalized context. The amalgamation of these reflections allows for understanding what it means to be a chosen people. The oneness that is at the core of Judaism may not manifest itself as the mighty God on high for many Reform Jews, but we can work together as a movement toward the reclamation of Jewish values and revelation for one another. Across the spectrum and around the world, both religious and non-practicing individuals emphasize peace, love, and friendship. On the contrary, by pairing these values with tangible mechanisms of action or intention, Reform Judaism can disprove the notion that it is as ideological as a children’s program on PBS. Returning to the tent analogy, we welcome any individual who wishes to come into our midst but in doing so, we should warn them that Reform Judaism is contentious and strives for more questions before it reaches conclusive answers. We should challenge our more conservative partners to evaluate a particular stance on Israel and Palestine or income inequality, determining where our dominantly individualized economy and society diverge from our core Jewishness. As I noted earlier, the so-called tent is beautifully staked in public life, and with this position, we can not wallow in the privilege that surrounds so many of us. When reduced to its most fundamental tenets, each individual within a Reform Jewish community is seeking to lessen the gap between the realized and holy selves, and the richness of synagogue life in North America allows Reform Jews to support one another’s endeavors and project this introspection into making a more wholesome society.
No one said defining or reaching God was easy living. The word “reform” means to take meaningful steps to create change. We are not “Radical Judaism” or “Revolutionary Judaism”, but day by day, we can participate in the work of creation, that is creation of a better self through study and personalized prayer and then a better world via community action and comprehension of one another. The choice is ours as we stand on the brink of promise like the Israelites in parashat D’varim. Perhaps, we can emerge as a reviving, liberal voice for Judaism, proving that people that can still help one another in a world that sinks into nauseating selfishness and diminishing connection.