Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5774

Temple Sinai, Reno, NV

He’s Orthodox! He uses so much Hebrew! Is he conservative or Reform? I still think he’s Orthodox. OMGosh, our rabbi keeps kosher? Is he going to make us keep kosher?

These are some of the reactions I have heard since starting at Temple Sinai in July. Don’t worry, I wasn’t offended. And just to dispel the myth right off the bat, I am not Orthodox and no, I don’t want each of you to start keeping kosher—unless you want to. I am an ordained Reform rabbi. But what does that mean?

You see, Reform Judaism, and this is the reason I love Reform Judaism, advocates for informed choice. What’s informed choice? We are not a Halachic movement, meaning as Reform Jews, we do not live our lives according to the letter of all of the Jewish laws. We allow for innovation and leniency to reflect our modern lifestyles. This DOESN’T mean though that the pressure is off, and that being Reform is your Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card. I understand informed decision-making as centering on experience. Because the only way one ever really learns what a ritual or practice feels like is by doing it. And then one can make an informed decision about whether or not to follow it. Try a given practice for at least three months, and if it adds depth and meaning to your life, keep it up. If not don’t feel guilty about not doing it.

Because of our respect both for being “less traditionally observant” and taking on meaningful Jewish practices, being Reform is more about how you get there. It’s Not just an adjective that describes a particular level of ritual observance. We are all Jews: Liberal Jews, inclusive Jews, learning and inquisitive Jews on a journey, seeking to be part of a diverse yet like-minded community that adds meaning to our lives. Every modern American Jew, no matter the denomination, finds him- or herself in a balance between the particular and the universal. How we understand this balance is truly at the crux of how we live out our Judaism and how much meaning we allow ourselves to derive from it. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century German rabbi who helped put the “modern” in modern Orthodox and who is increasingly relevant for Reform Jews wrote: “The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations.” In our terms I think this translates: “the deeper one embraces and delves into one’s own religious and communal tradition, the more fully American one becomes.” We live in a diverse, multi-cultural society. The more we learn and live as Jews, the more we have to contribute to the cultural landscape of our society.

By coming to services on Rosh Hashanah we are saying with our feet, “being Jewish matters to me. I may be figuring out how exactly. I may not know why entirely. But it’s part of who I am and it’s part of who I want to continue to be.” So now what? What does it mean to live as a Jew throughout the year? How will you engage and continue your Jewish journey after High Holy Days are over?

Before we answer this question, I want to give us some more context about Reform Judaism, its history, evolution and current trends. To best find our footing going forward, it can be helpful to fill in the picture of where we’ve come from.

The history of Reform Judaism can be described in four stages:

  • Stage One: Emancipation to the Creation of the Jewish State
  • Stage Two: The Six-Day War to Saving Soviet Jewry
  • Stage Three: Innovation and Interfaith
  • Stage Four: A Paradoxical State

Each of these stages is characterized by the way in which Jews in each period expressed their particular Jewishness balanced with universal concerns. In the first stage, which covers the origin of Reform Judaism in Germany in the early 1800s, its transposition to the American context and until the Creation of the State of Israel, one contemporary Reform colleague, Rabbi Lawrence Englander lumps together over 100 years of history, essentially dubbing it “Classical Reform Judaism.” Reform Judaism began in Germany as a response to the European Enlightenment and Age of reason, and as a direct consequence of state-wide emancipation. This was the first time we asked ourselves how to be full and loyal citizens and Jewish at the same time. To better acculturate to their historical circumstance, and reflecting the genuine intellectual movements so many Jews were a part of, German Jews began taking up the customs of German Protestant churches: this included praying in German as well as Hebrew, singing or reciting these prayers in unison or set to hymnal music with or without an organ, and in general presenting a much more orderly service that non-Jews could recognize as both religious and civilized. German Jews were embarrassed by traditional Jewish shtiblech, where worshippers could be all over the room in the course of a service, shmoozing and shuckling without decorum and scarcely any stillness. German Jews were so concerned about public perception and anti-semitism that this expression became common: “be a Jew at home and a German on the street.” Reform Judaism began as a way for Jews to seek acceptance in the greater world.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism came into existence in reaction to Reform. Before Reform, there were no denominations: regional and local differences, maybe, Ashkenazi and Sephardi certainly, but never separate denominations.

The next period Englander discusses is characterized by an uptick in ethnic pride in the 1960s—fueled by the ethos of “back to roots” in the Civil Rights Movement, and then further by Israel’s surprising victory in the 6 Day’s War in 1967. Reform Jews also found success in the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry, a movement which required ethnic solidarity and political activism. The third stage of Reform Judaism, in the 1980s and 1990s was a period marked by changing policies to Interfaith families and other areas of innovation. The controversial responsa on patrilineal descent was passed in that time, along with policies for greater inclusion of LGBT Jews and their families. Worship changed to be more participatory and guitar-inspired as well. The fourth and current phase of Reform Judaism, according to this rabbi, is what he calls the “Paradoxical State.” Here’s what Rabbi Englander says about this current stage we find ourselves in:

“Reform Jews are in a paradoxical state today. On the one hand, most of the barriers that kept us from “fitting in” and “being like everyone else” have come down; on the other, our ancestral roots still nourish us and we want to preserve our differences. Our sense of belonging is becoming simultaneously wider and narrower.

One could say our expression of universalism now truly embraces the entire world, for global culture has become increasingly homogenized: people from Toronto to Tokyo drink Coca Cola, listen to the same musicians, wear identical brand-name clothes, and engage in instant technology-driven communication.

At the same time, our understanding of particularism has shrunk from peoplehood to self. Whereas, two hundred years ago, one’s personal identity was essentially defined through two primary groups -usually country and religion, Today, identity is more fractionalized and complex, determined by such factors as country, language, gender, profession, socioeconomic status-and religion.

For many, identifying the Jewish piece of that mix or its importance among the other components has become increasingly difficult. What is the binding agent that connects us to the Jewish people? Our personal theological beliefs are far more divergent now than in stage one, and therefore connect us less strongly with Reform (or any branch of) Judaism. Our ethnic ties still draw us together, but nowadays ethnicity lacks the impetus it did in the post-war period, in part because today’s synagogues have many more members who were not born into Judaism and cannot share the commonalities of cultural heritage. Loyalty to the Reform Movement may be waning among younger generations of Jews, who tend to dislike labels and prefer more fluid lifestyles. They may seek out the Jewish community to fulfill current needs, such as a lifecycle ceremony or the education of their children, rather than regarding synagogue membership as a lifetime commitment.

Even the State of Israel no longer confers the sense of belonging it once did. We no longer respond instinctively to the “crisis mentality”-that either Israel is in danger and we must save her, or that Diaspora Jewry is vulnerable and only Israel can save us. Instead, our relationship with Israel has become more nuanced, as we have come to understand that the Israeli government-just like our own-sometimes makes unwise decisions, and that we Diaspora Jews, who hold a variety of perspectives about such policies, are free, even duty-bound, to express them.

How Reform Jews confront the paradoxical nature of universalism and particularism will determine the character of the Reform Jewish future.

So why, given all these challenges, did I become a Reform rabbi? Because I believe I have the most to give in a Reform context, I can be of the greatest service. And I treasure the coming together of Jewish-by-birth, non-Jewish spouses who are supporting and raising Jewish families—there is no greater mitzvah than that—and because our focus can be on what’s meaningful rather than on what’s required. Still, we have a duty to experience a full range of Jewish practices so we know authentically for ourselves what is meaningful before we write off a given practice as “Orthodox” or out-dated.

Today what the Reform movement tells its rabbis is:

Be flexible in how and where you meet people. Meet them wherever they are. I strongly believe in that as a rabbi and as a human being: the only way to challenge and inspire people in their Jewish journeys is to begin where each person is, and in a spirit of acceptance. And yet I don’t stop with acceptance. I want Jews to find meaning in an array of Jewish practices and traditions.

Have you all heard the story of Rabbi Zusya? That as he was lying on his death-bed, he was trembling with fear. A student asked him what he feared, and he answered, “when I appear at the heavenly gates, I am not most afraid that God will ask me, why were you not more like Moses? But rather I’m afraid God will ask me, “why were you not more like Zusya?” Part of teshuva, of returning to our truest selves, is about living up to our unique purpose in the world. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in Jewish With Feeling, writes: “Zusya understood the challenge with clarity: to be most vigorously and alive-ly ourselves. His challenge is ours as well. As we wonder why and how to be Jewish, the challenge that faces us is to see ourselves not only as a Jew among Jews, as Zusya did, but from the perspective of a Jewish cell in the Jewish organ in the greater planetary organism of the world. In choosing to be Jewish – as often and as deeply as we can—we enrich not only ourselves but our organ in the planetary organism, our part in the great world drama, our instrument in the universal orchestra.” The more Jewish and rooted in Jewish commitments and tradition you become, the more and more uniquely you can contribute to universal pursuits, bringing an authentic Jewish voice with you.

Being Reform allows us to embrace and be open to all kinds of people. But it need not weaken or lower the bar for the depth with which we learn and engage in meaningful Jewish practice. That really is my point. Denominations matter less and less. I have friends who are rabbis in all denominations, and I am not unique in this. Younger American Jews do not define their peers in terms of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox but in terms of individual commitments. We are all Jewish. Just be Jewish. And how can we best be Jewish? Do more Jewish. Ours is a tradition that is lived through doing and experiencing. All too often, Reform Judaism is defined as a movement for all that its Jews do NOT do: no full Shabbat, no 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah. Even if this perception is incorrect, we all fall into this thinking sometimes as well. My challenge to you this year is to define yourselves as Reform based in what you DO.

Come more to services, come to adult education classes and programs. Make yourself known in this community. Bring your talents to bare and deepen relationships with other Jews here. We need strong webs of relationships for everything we do together. Volunteer to teach a special topic you know about in our religious school. Attend my book club. Join us for Talmud or soon, monthly Shabbat morning learning. In your personal life, choose a practice like an all-day Shabbat commitment, and try it out. Explore what it would be like to have a day without email or internet, a day of quality time only. Make Shabbat dinners a weekly reality in your home. Perhaps this year, you build a sukkah in your backyard even though you may have never done this before. Invite guests to your home. Do more community service as a family. If you haven’t already, enroll your children in religious school and Familyhood retreats. Attend our very first Frist Friday Familyhood Shabbat this Friday. For women, attend Rosh Hodesh once a month with my wife Nadya and learn about women in the Bible. Here’s a good one: say the Shma twice a day. See if that leads you to pray more, even if it is just talking to God for five minutes. The opportunities are endless and the doors in are so many. I am here as a guide. My hope for my own work this year is that I get more emails asking how to do something Jewish, like practice havdalah or how to meditate Jewishly, or how to more fully practice Shabbat. Or coffee dates with people looking to grow and deepen their Jewish practice with questions like: what prayers should I say with my kids when I tuck them in at night? How do I make the words of the Jewish prayers come alive for myself? Where do I start if I want to learn more Torah?

We can only grow in our connection to our tradition and Jewish practice when we try new things. Make a commitment to a new practice for 40 days or 3 months. You need the repetition to really feel the practice in your bones. I look forward to walking with you in your Jewish journey, both personally and within our warm and accepting Temple Sinai community.

May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Shana tova u’metukah.
Rabbi Bair