Confessions of a post-Vatican II Reform rabbi


Why is this knight different from all other knights?

A terrible pun, and my esteemed colleague deserves so much better.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the veteran inter-religious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, has been named a Papal Knight of Saint Gregory for his work on Catholic-Jewish relations.

Only eight other Jews have received this wonderful honor. Among them are three other rabbis: David Rosen, and the late Mordecai Waxman and Leon Klenicki.

Rabbi Rudin’s efforts contributed to the further opening of dialogue between the Jews and the Church.

We have much to discuss.

Such as: faith itself.

In a recent column in The New York Times, Ross Douthat wondered aloud whether some changes in Roman Catholic liturgy and practice have worked as well as their supporters wished they had.

Douthat’s issue is not worship in the vernacular, rather than Latin; nor the Church’s struggle with the issue of birth control.

Rather, it is that for many Catholics, attending Mass has become entirely elective. It is simply no longer an obligation. He writes: “The idea was not simply to make Catholicism easier, of course; the hope was that a truer Christianity would flourish once rote obedience diminished. But the policy and the results, not the hopes, are what we should be interested in three generations later.”

The result of all this? “The evisceration of a whole ‘culture of obligatory practice’ which severed various threads binding people to the faith.”

For me, this is the killer quote:

For most people, Catholic faith isn’t an idea you’ve chosen that then has corollaries in practice (like get to Mass on Sunday). It’s an inheritance that you get handed and have to decide what to do with. And the foundational problem with the keep-people-Catholic-by-making-it-easier-to-be-Catholic approach, it turns out, is that it removes too many of the signals indicating that this part of your inheritance is important — essential — rather than something you can keep without really investing in it, for yourself or, when the time comes, for your kids.

It is not as if people are willfully staying away from ritual and liturgy. It is more like other things have simply successfully competed for their time, like sports or the need for family time. 

And over time, this pattern compounds: The children of those families become couples who don’t bother to marry in the church and parents who don’t baptize their kids, and so decline continues because of cultural priorities rather than beliefs.

What has diminished is the sense that these rituals are important.

I read Douthat’s column, and I get it. Because non-Orthodox Jews struggle with exactly the same thing.

As a Reform rabbi, I grew up with the idea of autonomy — that I could create a Judaism that did not depend on external authority.

I am not so sure that it is working.

I remember my last conversation with my teacher, the late Reform thinker, Eugene Borowitz. Rabbi Borowitz had essentially canonized the integration of autonomy and Reform Judaism.

His words from the “Centenary Perspective of Reform Judaism” (1976):

The past century has taught us that the claims made upon us may begin with our ethical obligations but they extend to many other aspects of Jewish living, including: creating a Jewish home centered on family devotion: lifelong study; private prayer and public worship; daily religious observance; keeping the Sabbath and the holy days: celebrating the major events of life; involvement with the synagogues and community; and other activities which promote the survival of the Jewish people and enhance its existence.

Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge. [My emphasis — JS]

I humbly suggested to my aging, frail teacher that contemporary Reform Jews had clearly heard and internalized the second clause of that last sentence. They were clearly “exercising their individual autonomy.”

But, as for the first part — “confronting the claims of Jewish tradition” — yes, for the Reform elite — rabbis and literate and engaged lay leaders. But, for most Jews — not so much.

As for the third part — “choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge” — again, yes — for the Reform elite. But, for the Jew in the pew — again, not so much.

It turns out that people are autonomous as regarding even to be Jewish.

Rabbi Borowitz agreed with me. He thought that he had overestimated the desire of Jews to engage in the tradition, and then make their autonomous decisions from there.

The truth is: Modern people no longer need to learn that they are autonomous individuals. They know it quite well. They exercise choice, even radical choices, in every corner of their lives.

As Barry Schwartz wrote in “The Paradox of Choice,” the sheer number of choices are dizzying and confusing. Starbucks offers the consumer more than 170,000 ways to customize their beverages. 

Ultimately, the plethora of choices are not terribly conducive to happiness. People who use dating apps often report that they are drowning in choices of possible mates, so that the entire enterprise of intimacy has fallen prey to the same kind of market forces that you would find in, say, the choice of an automobile.

Douthat is asking several critical questions that pertain to all religious people.

First, do we believe that ritual is still important?

I do. I agree with the late Rabbi Neil Gillman, who wrote:

If we live in an age of communal fragmentation, anomie, and isolation, or rootlessness and emotional aridity, then more than ever we need ritual, even more theatrically performed than ever before—even if some of us no longer believe, as our ancestors did, that God explicitly commanded us to act in these seemingly arbitrary ways. If God did not command, then maybe we can discern a commanding voice in our very human nature and in our communal needs, and we may be prepared to hearken as obediently to this voice as our ancestors did to God’s.

Second, do we will believe in external authority?

I do, but I don’t want it to be compulsion or tyranny. Neither do the overwhelming majority of Jews, I think.

I have long resonated with the words of my colleague, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi: “Even the modern Jew, seemingly totally free, is only truly free when our autonomy is limited by a deep sense of the responsibilities of the covenant; and only a freedom lived in covenant can be worthy of the living Jewish people.”

I would like to repeat one of Ross Douthat’s great lines.

“[Faith is] an inheritance that you get handed and have to decide what to do with.”

Exactly right. My ancestors handed me this faith. I am not entirely free to abandon it. I have to decide what I want to do with it.

In his poem, “Before the Bookcase,” the great Hebrew poet, H.N. Bialik, imagines confronting – and being confronted — by the totality of the Jewish library.

You, ancient books, God’s stars in the dark sky,
you who can read my heart and soul,
why are you quiet, why are you silent?
Can it be that your golden eyelids have nothing
to say to me and to my heart?
Or can it be that you do — but it is I who have forgotten your language,
I who no longer understand your speech, laden with life’s secrets.
Answer me, you stars of God’s night, for sadness has taken hold of me.

I want to remember the language, and to teach it to others.


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