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Can Classical Reform Judaism Be Revived in the 21st Century?

Ralph Dombrower
Spring 1999

Please allow one of the few, still-living Classical Reform Jews, from a pew in the back of a ghost Temple of the past, to join the exchange between Professor Paul Gottfried and Rabbi Jay Brickman in Issues (Spring 1997 and Summer 1998). These articles point out much to be considered about Rabbi Brickman’s effort to revive the spirit of Classical Reform Judaism under a new designation, the "Jewish Universalist Agenda."  

These efforts are timely, punctuated by Mainstream Reform’s recently announced deeper plunge into more Fundamentalism. Many previously unwatchful or unconcerned Mainstream Reform Jews are now suddenly awakened and are recoiling with dismay at Reform’s greatly accelerated, more discernible slide into Orthodoxy. Options for escape from this bold regression have become a front burner topic. How many Reform Jews are now squirming in their pews in uncomfortable association with Reform’s trek back to a narrow and ethno-centrific religious worldview?  

Bastion of Reform  

I was born and confirmed in Richmond, Virginia’s Beth Ahabah Temple, a bastion of classical Reform Judaism during this religion’s brightest days. I lived the religion as then set forth by the Pittsburgh platform of 1885 in my city, state and national communities. I am still guided by the actions, teachings and principles of Rabbi Edward N. Callisch, a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Before classical Reform Judaism was swept under the rug, I, together with my co-religionists, lived completely acculutrated lives — about as "American" as people get. We had little knowledge or little disposition toward so-called Jewish ethnic identity or the complex ritual and language of the Orthodox.  

As a fourth-generation Richmonder with a great-grandfather who defended Richmond against Grant, if I have any ethnic-seeming characteristics, they are "Old South, Good Ol Boy," not Jewish. Over twenty five years ago, I was alienated from active Reform religious participation by the doctrinal alterations to Reform basics. My belief in the principles of Classical Reform Judaism, however, still remain steadfast. I and a dwindling few likewise-disenchanted loyalists to this "dead" religion are proof that a small, but strong, segment of Reform Judaism can be replanted and cultivated by younger like-minded people without the need for mythical ethnicity, biblical fundamentalism, or the use of medieval clothing and rituals.  

Jewish Principles  

The religious traditions which were viewed as relevant were altered to complement the environment in which we lived. There was, however, a strong adherence to Jewish principles and love of the basic religion in our religious life. Over the years, unrestrained acceptance of new members from other Jewish traditions, who imported and installed many of the beliefs and rituals of their previous approach to religious faith and practice, is now the widely accepted reason for the demise of Classical Reform Judaism.  

How, then, can a Year 2000 revival of Classical Reform Judaism grow if it is almost completely devoid of ethnicity, ancient rituals, the Hebrew language, and the paraphernalia and attire of Orthodoxy?  

Professor Gottfried asks whether Rabbi Brickman’s form of Jewish religion can exist "absent a sense of ethnic cohesion." Rabbi Brickman, in his October 2, 1998 letter sent to "Friends of the Jewish Universalist Agenda," agrees "that the ethnic factor cannot be removed from Jewish identification." He appears to affirm ethnicity in something of a fundamentalist fashion: "Abraham, the first Jew was to father not only our people but many nations and ultimately all peoples are to be blessed through his seed."  

Many thoughtful men and women who might consider adopting Rabbi Brickman’s Jewish Universalist Agenda would relegate the believability of this literal presentation of the Biblical story of Abraham to the same level of believability they relegate fundamentalist Christians’ literal presentation of the Biblical story of Creation. If Rabbi Brickman and his associates insist on a fundamentalist-type of literal belief in the Bible, their agenda will not attract the well educated, highly informed Jews, or be inviting to intellectually-inquisitive converting spouses.  

A Better Way  

There is a better way, which is more likely to succeed. It must jump this difficult barrier, maintained by many rabbis and theologians who, on one hand, see the urgent need to search for a better, more tenable approach to saving some segments of Reform Judaism from being obliterated by creeping Orthodoxy, while on the other hand, they effectively hinder the advancement of their effort by still wanting to sanctify selected remaining vestiges of Orthodoxy not quite eliminated before Classical Reform’s advances were throttled by the newcomers.  

Unfortunately, a propensity toward Jewish Fundamentalism casts its stranglehold on efforts to move in the direction of modernity. It is essential that the actual Jewish historical facts be faced and emphasized if thoughtful men and women are to be attracted. The facts clearly show, as the American Council for Judaism has long emphasized, that Jewish ethnicity is a myth. My reading of Jews, God and History by Max Dimont, who chronicles the movements of Europeans of Jewish religious persuasion, convinces me that there is little, if any, Jewish lifeline back to Biblical Israel, and that the vast majority of contemporary Jews are, in fact, descendants of southern and eastern Europeans who heard or read about Judaism and adopted it as their religion.  

"Bare Bones" Judaism  

I cannot accept Professor Gottfried’s and Rabbi Brickman’s position that a segment of Judaism cannot thrive on Jewish religious principles alone. It is my belief that a "bare bones" Judaism can have tremendous appeal to the modern, intellectual historic Jew who presently views the available forms of Judaism with benign neglect. Such a religion would have to rely heavily on Classical Reform’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885’s advice to discard those elements and forms which are too far out of synchronization with contemporary American customs and society, or which do not make sense in the light of the knowledge of the day.  

Logic, scientifically-based, historically-correct reasoning and conclusions would have to reduce the status of Reform Fundamentalists’ quaint religious behavior, literal interpretations of the Bible, and stress on Jewish ethno-centrism, particularly its promotion of Israel as a substitute for religious commitment. Be assured, basic Jewish principles have always withstood and can easily withstand the strictest scrutiny of the most assiduous philosophers, empirical thinkers and scientifically-minded investigators.  

How could such a religion be cohesive? Rather than imposing the increasingly untenable belief that ethnicity is the major bond, it must be acknowledged that there are, indeed, several different and distinct Jewish cultures. I suggest that these cultures developed because pockets of Jewish populations were self-contained, often isolated for centuries or decades by either geographical or intellectual boundaries.  

Lasting Characteristics  

Over time, these communities developed lasting characteristics which sprang from the way they lived and thought within their geographical or mental boundaries. One of the relatively newer Jewish cultures, I suggest, was generated within the Reform movement before the movement became diluted. I think that a revitalization of the vision which originally stimulated the founders of Reform Judaism can suffice to maintain a vibrant religion and attract followers who would want to associate themselves with it. It would have much more appeal to the palate of well informed late 20th century and 21st century Americans than the myth of "ethnic cohesion" that many Reform Jewish rabbis and theologians continue to uphold.  

It is my view that a few simple Jewish concepts are, in themselves powerful enough beliefs to support a revised, modern Classical Reform Judaism without necessity for myth, ancient language, anachronistic ritual and other baggage which defy logic and flout empirical reasoning.  

Over-simplified for brevity here, I suggest that most of core Judaism can be found in the following: (1) the same-for-all origin, natural course and destination of life; (2) favoring life over death; (3) emphasis on conduct while living; (4) no conclusions about a hereafter. In themselves, these principles are powerful enough world-class beacons of enlightenment and hope to support a modern Classical Reform revision. Logically acceptable interaction around the ramifications of these enduring principles, I suggest, can make an initially small, upgraded version of the original Reform religion extremely attractive with a long-lasting future of healthy growth.  

21st Century Knowledge  

Sadly, contemporary Reform rabbis and theologians, some of them seemingly drugged on a permanent basis in Cincinnati with overdoses of Orthodox spin on Jewish history, laws, rituals and customs, seem unable to visualize such a religious march forward to keep in step with the advanced 21st century knowledge and needs of potential followers.  

Perhaps they also have their own vested interests in not wanting to watch most of their accumulated Jewish knowledge, Hebrew language skills and ritual-performing abilities diminished by those American Jews, possibly even a majority, who might embrace a Judaism that can assuage them and the world and which is consistent with their lives as both Americans and men and women seeking spiritual nourishment and fulfillment.  

These are the kinds of Jews, now yearning for cultural fellowship in exploring Judaism’s wisdom about life, who can make an updated Classical Reform Judaism successful. With our modern technology, such views may be’ transmitted through the Internet to generate interest in such an endeavor at a heretofore unimaginable fast pace. It is people with a vision of this kind for the future who should be defended upon, not those who have turned their backs upon the vision of the original Reformers of Judaism and have embraced, instead, a fundamentalist and ethno-centric religion, the very religion the Reformers meant to move beyond.  

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