Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't belong to a synagogue?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't care about Israel?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't support same sex marriage?
What does the Reform Movement stand for?
These are some of the questions that are emerging in conversations about Reform Judaism and the Reform movement. Leaders of our institutions and members of our congregations are asking: What are we building towards and why? Recently, the Reform Judaism Think Tank has invited others to reflect on this question in an online forum. Here’s a small sample of the responses they received that reflects the wide diversity of opinions currently present in our movement.
(Reader 1): Reform Judaism stands for the right and privilege of the individual to make informed choices about Jewish practice and it should continue to stand for that. Reform Judaism also stands for social activism and involvement in the global community.
(Reader 2): The strength of our Movement is also its weakness. We have serious Reform Jews within our movement, but we have just as many (even more) who define our movement as the one in which you don't have to do anything. If you don't have to do anything, what's the point of getting involved? It's meaningless and costly.
(Reader 3): We must stand for: 1) support for Israel; 2) a "Reform Halacha" that can be counted upon as unchangeable. Tikkun Olam is wonderful but it is not a sufficient theme for ongoing survival of Reform Judaism. We must develop a Reform Halacha, a Reform notion of spirituality coupled with a strong belief in the Almighty. God must not be an option.
These diverse opinions reflect a similar story to the one in this week’s parashah. Usually, we read the Tower of Babel narrative as an isolated event, unconnected to the flood story that comprises most of the parashah. We tend to skip over the genealogy that makes up nearly all of chapter ten in the biblical text. Yet, the transition that occurs between the generation of Noah and the generation of the tower of Babel provides an important backdrop for understanding the story itself.
In addition to listing who begot whom, chapter ten describes how people lived and interacted. The text uses three words to describe the state of the world during the transition from the generation of Noah to the generation of the tower of Babel: nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah. Spread out, scattered, and divided. We learn that different families were nifr’du, spread out across the earth, implying a physical dispersion reaching across
a vast area of land.
We also learn that the families of Canaan were nafotzu, further scattered from the other clans. The third word in chapter ten is nifl’gah, or divided. The text says a child was named ‘Peleg,’ describing the divided state of the earth when he was born. These three descriptions capture a sense of what happened in the years after Noah’s death. A new generation emerged that was neither united by location nor language. They were spread out, scattered and divided.
Surprisingly then, chapter 11 begins with a declaration of unity. “Va’yahi kol ha’aretz safah echat… All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.”
These opening verses beg us to ask: What in the world happened between the end of chapter ten and the beginning of chapter eleven?How did this generation go from being spread out, scattered, and divided to speaking the same language and dwelling together in the same land?
This contradiction in the biblical text forces us to consider why these texts exist side by side. Perhaps we can learn something about the relationship between diversity and unity, and what happens as a consequence of shifting back and forth between these two states of being.
There are a number of explanations for why the generation of the Tower of Babel suddenly became united by language and geography. A possible clue is in verse four, which states… ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth.”
This verse teaches that the people wanted to make a name for themselves and thought uniting and building was the best way to achieve this goal. Though this might not seem like such a bad thing, the story soon states that God intervenes. God stops the building, confuses the peoples’ language and scatters them throughout the earth. These actions make us wonder: why didn’t God approve of the people’s determination to unite and build?
Rabbi Isaac Arama, a 15th century Spanish commentator, suggests that their sin was trying to achieve unity as an end in itself rather than as a means to a greater end. He notes that the people could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a shelter against the cold,” Or they could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a house of study to serve God.” Instead, they built for the sake of building, uniting with the hope of advancing their own name. This teaching suggests that unification requires a worthy purpose and advancing one’s own name is not such a purpose.
Verse four also teaches that the people built to avoid being scattered across the earth. Perhaps they knew they were already scattered and feared what greater scattering could mean. Instead of asking how they might use their diversity for good, they avoided it at all costs. In this case, the people sinned by making choices out of fear, instead of dreaming about what could be.
Our situation today is not so different than the one in the biblical text. Reform Judaism in America is somewhere between chapter ten and chapter eleven, between diversity and unity. We are certainly nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah; spread out physically and divided ideologically. This division is reflected in conversations you hear in our congregations and also by the conversations we have in this building. Look around you. Chances are you don’t hold the same beliefs or practices as the person sitting beside you.We are just a small representation of the many sub-groups in our movement, each one speaking a different language.
There also remains a desire for unity, both physically and ideologically. In the physical realm, we see Reform leaders regularly coming together for retreats, conferences and conventions. Every other year, thousands of people attend the Biennial for the purposes of uniting as one movement and developing a shared language to spread throughout our individual communities. In addition to these gatherings, we are using technology to virtually unite people who would otherwise remain isolated due to physical limitations.
In the ideological realm, we still operate under a framework of institution-building. We built Unions. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, later the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Today, leaders of these institutions still seek to create a shared language, a shared set of values and shared way of thinking about Judaism.
Small numbers of people are producing and distributing materials that carry significant ideological messages about where this movement stands on any given issue. Mishkan T’filah, the Chai Curriculum, Mitkadem. Though these materials do not always succeed in uniting the greater Reform Jewish world, they reflect the ongoing effort to create a shared language. Similarly, HUC-JIR has standardized educational and experiential expectations for becoming a leader in this movement. These requirements serve to develop leaders that will speak and share a basic unified voice.
Given this blended state of dispersion and unity, we must ask ourselves: Do we still have a reason to unite, or are we simply building for the sake of building, uniting to make our name great, to be the biggest, the best movement of Judaism? The mission for the URJ reads: “to provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish congregations and to perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism.” The first clause in this statement serves a purpose: To provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish Congregations. Though one could debate whether this purpose is worthy, it certainly is a purpose. The second clause though, falls under the category of what Rabbi Arama would call building for the sake of building.
“To perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism” is building to make a name for one's self.
There is also a section on the URJ website entitled, “Advancing Reform Judaism”. The concept “advancing Reform Judaism” stems from fear; a fear of being scattered across the earth, a fear of no longer being united. We are scared of not having enough members to fill our pews. We are scared of not having enough students to fill our classrooms. We are scared of not being able to find a job when we graduate. If we don’t unite, if we don’t advance our own name, what does that mean for us? This question could not be more real and relevant for all of us in this room, and yet it is the wrong question. Instead of asking how we can unite, we should ask why we must unite in the first place.
The builders of the Tower of Babel never asked this question. Instead, they continued to build until God punished them by scattering them across the earth and confusing their words. They chose not to utilize their differences and discover a shared purpose, and were punished in the worst possible way. They could no longer communicate with one another, share ideas or dreams for the future. The possibility for uniting was destroyed because of their pursuit of fame, recognition, greatness and immortality.
Today, as we stand at a crossroads in the evolution of Reform Judaism, we are confronted with the task of living in a balance between diversity and unity for some greater good. We are already spread out, already divided. We are also deeply grounded in a need for unity.We are certainly afraid of being scattered. And yet, we have not yet tipped the scales too far. We are not yet scattered and our languages are not yet confused. It is up to us to determine what course we take next.
What does the Reform Movement stand for? I believe that if the Reform Movement stands for anything, it stands for changing with the times, reforming Judaism according to the changing needs of society. American society is moving beyond boundaries and boxes, and embracing diversity. Identity is fluid and people are searching for meaning through the multiple frameworks that make up their lives. Today, we do not just struggle with the tension of a dual-identity, trying to figure out how we can be both American and also Jewish. Instead, we struggle with the tensions of tens, even hundreds of identities pulling at us simultaneously.
I am not just an American and a Jew. I am a Wisconsinite with a New York driver’s license. I root for the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Gophers. I have a desire to stay at home with my children and I also have a desire to work full time as a congregational rabbi. I am a Jew and I also celebrate Christmas with my family. I feel at home in Israel and also a bit alienated from it. This list could go on without end.
My life is just a small reflection of what I think it means to express and yearn for meaning as a Jew in America today.
I believe that the value of reforming Judaism today means accepting that we are moving toward a Post Denominational Jewish World. If Reform Judaism wants to remain relevant, we need to find ways to embrace, not run away from, the diversity that makes up our congregants’ lives. I also believe there are many worthy reasons to unite and hope that Reform Judaism will lead the way in serving a diverse population of individuals
seeking meaning through Jewish tradition. I believe we should unite because we can learn from those who are different from us. We can share ideas, dreams, and also resources that can enhance our individual and collective Jewish experiences.
The downfall of the generation of the Tower of Babel was that they kept building and nobody ever stopped to ask why they were building in the first place. As we stand at the brink of our own Bavel, the brink of confusion, may we learn from their mistakes. May we find ways to celebrate our differences, to bring holiness to this strange new land of Post Denominational Judaism. May we each stop, think, and ask: What is our purpose for uniting? What do we stand for? And as we do, let us pray that the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to You, Oh Lord, our God.