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A “Nonconformist” Rabbi Looks Back to the Lessons of Classical Reform

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2004

While many in Reform Judaism are in the process of returning to once abandoned Orthodox practices, such as resurrecting discarded kosher dietary laws, a-self-proclaimed “nonconformist” rabbi urges a return to Classical Reform’s universalism.  

Writing in Reform Judaism (Spring 2004), Rabbi Suzanne Sanger of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California, recalls that, “My years at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were some of the happiest of my life. I felt particularly blessed to be able to attend the College-Institute following a twenty-year career in television. Yet I often felt isolated and alone. Every week I would walk into services surrounded by flowing tallitot, colorful kippot, and skin-binding tefillin. I would wear none of these. As the cantor would chant ... bodies would bend forward in reverence. I would nod my head in respect ... As the Torah scroll was paraded around the room, it became an object of reverence to be kissed. To me, kissing the Torah felt idolatrous; I would nod my head in respect. My classmates branded me with the ‘C’ word — Classical Reform Jew and that was considered no compliment.”  

Rabbi Singer notes that, “I don’t regard myself as a Classical Reformer — I am not an advocate of services conducted primarily in English or of organ music and choirs — but there are aspects of the early days of Reform that I sorely miss and wholeheartedly wish we would retrieve ... I miss Classical Reform’s commitment to the primacy of social justice. I subscribe to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s theology that God represents the forces of good in the world, forces that allow you and me to be better people and to make the world a better place ... I miss Classical Reform’s devotion to universalism. I am disheartened by the fact that, in our concern to retrieve the traditions of our past, we have lost a sense of how to reach out to the larger community, how to bring our Jewish values to bear on the ills that cry out to us very day. I care about Jewish people, but I also care about non-Jews. And because I care about the non-Jew, I need to limit my particularism.”  

In Rabbi Singer’s view, “Universalism also allows me to be part of the larger society, to remain in fellowship with others. If I were to observe kashrut, I would not eat comfortably at my sisters’ homes, nor at the homes of my friends, non-Jews and observant Jews alike. ... Classical Reform directed us to take the road toward tikkun olam and to walk the tightrope between particularism and universalism. It is time for us to enter into a dialogue and explore what lessons we can learn from our Classical Reform forebears.” According to The Forward (March 12, 2004), the Reform movement’s return to tradition appears to be growing: “More than a century after the founders of Reform Judaism rejected kosher dietary laws as outdated practices likely to ‘obstruct’ modern spiritual development, a growing cadre of the movement’s religious leaders are seeking to revive the practice. Discussion about resurrecting the observance of kosher laws, or kashrut, dominated the latest edition of the journal published by the Reform movement’s rabbinical union (Central Conference of American Rabbis). A movement-sanctioned rabbinic task force is exploring the possibility of drafting guidelines for dietary practice, with one leading member going so far as to propose the establishment of a Reform Kashrut Board...”  

“Many rituals we once saw as having no redeeming value in many instances in fact contribute to enriching Jewish lives,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yoffie counts himself among a growing number of the movement’s rabbis and congregants who keep a kosher home.  

The Forward reports that, “Some rabbis who favor classical Reform Judaism are resistant to any change. Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, a lecturer on biblical Hebrew at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, argues in the CCAR journal that while movement leaders may tout kashrut, most rank and file members do not now, nor will they ever, intend to keep kosher. ... ‘There are other things I’d rather galvanize (Reform members) to do,’ said Dreyfus. ‘They would fall in the realm of social service and social amelioration. There are far too many problems in society to ask people, some who are not at all affluent, to add to the cost of serving meals and feeding their children.’”  

Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles, proposed the creation of a central kashrut board as well as local synagogue-led Home Consecration Committees that would enact rituals to accompany the disposal of non-kosher utensils. He also called on the Reform movement to explore whether it should train its own ritual slaughterers.

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