I’m a Reform Jew, and I have varying levels of discomfort with that fact. Sometimes the discomfort is mild to unnoticeable, and sometimes it’s severe, but always it’s there, for a number of reasons. But this weekend began to change that, for me. I sense a shifting of things, inside of me – a realignment that begins to look, I think, like comfort, and will look in time, I believe, like pride. So two things happened to me:
1) This week, the decision was made by the Education Director at my shul to scrap the textbook curriculum for Sunday School and replace it with Haiti. Probably lots of religious organizations meeting this weekend did the same, Jews and Christians and everybody in between. But Sunday School, for Jews, is a little more intense than the Christian variety – it’s three hours long, for one thing. That’s a long time to talk about anything, and while it’s broken up with art! and music! and prayertime! it’s still a lot of air to fill.
When I drop my two youngest off at Sunday School, my oldest (the genial agnostic) and I usually hang out in the shul’s library and read, work, do homework, grade papers, etc. It’s quiet there, and lush, and there’s great stuff to look at when you get bored (and also the gift shop ladies are always there on Sundays, so yay! shopping breaks) and all in all it’s one of my favorite times of the week. This Sunday, it was a little hard to get work done there; the teachers of the 4th and 5th graders had apparently decided it was RESEARCH TIME. (You may count 4th grade research among sausage and politics as something you Don’t Want To See.) There was much squabbling over maps and websites and resource material, and much heated discussion over when, exactly, the French government recognized Haiti (shut up Sam you don’t know anything) and when, exactly, the US marine occupation ended (oh yeah why don’t you shut up) and much pointless shushing by the teachers and the gimlet-eyed librarian.
“I’ve seen Haiti!” one girl proudly announced. “Well, but I didn’t see much, since I was just on the promenade deck.”
I hid my smile in my notes and kept my head down. So well-heeled, all of them; so well-kept and well-scrubbed and well-fed and well, rich. And so earnest about learning this stuff, even if it was just to do better than the person next to them. It was an exercise in Reform Judaism, really – all that white-hot earnestness about living the voice of the Prophets, and living the repair of the world, and living the mitzvot. They might never really hear the voice of the Prophets; they might never repair the world; they might never succeed in living the mitzvot. But God, I love them for trying, for rubbing the sleeve of their size 12 Patagonia fleeces on the window of the world and trying, haltingly, as well as they know how, to peer out at the great wide universe beyond.
God bless them, and God bless the country club hippies who teach them every week. There’s a hackneyed old saying that Jews are the only group that earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans, and I was proud to see some of the reason for that today. I was proud of my faith community, for its relentless focus on things that are larger than ourselves, and proud of the way Reform Jews have been on the front lines of engaging Judaism with these issues, from Selma to Darfur to Haiti to yes, Gaza. Hand a Reform Jew a siddur and she might or might not know which end of it is up; hand her a cause and stand the hell out of the way. I suspect I know which pleases Hashem more.
2) In a prosperous bedroom suburb of Tel Aviv there is a synagogue called Darchei Noam. It’s one of 30 or so synagogues in this community, which would seem to say, it’s nothing special. But it is. For one thing, it’s Reform, and if you know anything about Israel, you know that makes you rare to begin with. I’m not going to go into Israeli religious politics here, but suffice it to say they’re uglier and more disheartening than 4th grade research projects by an order of magnitude. And the upshot is, Reform Judaism is not recognized as being any valid sort of religion by the state, which means that Reform rabbis can’t marry or bury their congregants, and often can’t get permits even to build their synagogues. It’s not an easy place to be a Reform Jew, basically.
So this weekend we hosted the rabbi of Darchei Noam, Rabbi Stacey Blank. She’s young (or do people just look that way to me now?) and pretty and blond and pregnant and all the things that tend to get you dismissed in a room full of Orthodox rabbis. What else is she? Well, intensely learned, for one thing. Midrashically brilliant. Passionate about Torah, and passionate about her congregation, and passionate about Israel, and passionate about Reform Judaism. It’s that last that brought me up a little short, because really? I suppose to me that's a bit like being passionate about Presbyterianism – you could be, but why?
Well, she made the case for why. Without getting up from her chair, with an easy smile and deft words, she showed me why. We began as is usual in Torah stody: zeroing in on a few verses of Torah and mining, delving, digging, arguing, hypothesizing, arguing, all in one exhilarating hour. This week it was Exodus chapter 12, when God tells Moses and Aaron, “Speak to the people.” (This is where God has come up with the whole lamb-on-the-doorpost with jazz hands thing, plus the showgirls and feather boas. Though that last may have been edited out, in later redactions.) So yeah: SPEAK to the people, in the plural imperative, dabru. And she posed the question, why does God tell both Moses and Aaron to speak now, as opposed to all the singular imperatives before, where God had just told Moses alone to speak, diber?
Obviously there’s lots of midrash on this, as there is on, well, just about anything. She presented us with a sampler platter of midrashim on the subject and largely stood back to let us hash it out. And the midrash she kept gently drawing us back to was this one:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Moses would share the honor with Aaron and would say to him, ‘Teach me.’ And Aaron would share the honor with Moses and would say to him, ‘Teach me.’ And the speech went out from between them as if they were both speaking.
“You see,” she said quietly. “Reform Judaism, what we subscribe to, it’s not a 19th century invention. It is a living, breathing, ancient voice in our tradition—the voice of mutuality. The voice that says, ‘let us learn together.’ The voice that does not worship hierarchy and authority, the voice that does not silence women. Reform Judaism is here, in our texts and in our tradition, and it’s a voice that was slowly choked out, over the centuries, as we grew more afraid, more insular. And now we are renewing that voice, and all of us here in this room are engaged in that project. We will make that voice powerful again, the voice of Rav Shimon bar Yochai and others like him. In their name we teach.”
I sat there, stunned, not sure what to make of it. Of her. I am at all times impatient with Reform’s lack of what I would call backbone on halakhic issues – as a friend regularly and patiently reminds me, Reform Judaism is not a halakhic movement – and I think I was in danger of losing sight of the larger issues at stake, which is the reclamation of Israel (in all senses of that word) for plural voices. So I suppose I am starting to think of myself—thanks to Rabbi Blank and to Rav Shimon and to the harried 4th grade Sunday School teachers—as a Reform Jew. A Reform Jew with Orthodox tendencies in my practice, sure. But it’s a better fit, I think, than an Orthodox Jew with Reform tendencies in my thinking. All I know is, when she spoke, I wanted to be part of the world she was working to weave. She made me believe that in time, she and voices like hers will prevail, and that my tradition in all its glorious parts and pieces will embrace the lives and contributions and voices of women, of gays, of the other and the outcast. She made me breathless for the World To Come, that could almost—maybe, perhaps—be this world too. A world where women stand on the bimah with their sons, a world where young girls raise their voices in song at the Wall, a world where grandmothers read and teach Torah, a world where one Jew turns to another and says, teach me. Where two women—or two men—stand together under a chupah, and the only shrieking is that of joy. Where no Jew—where no person—is made to feel less than, or smaller than, and where the word of Hashem goes forth from Jerusalem.
In the words of Yehuda Amichai: Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.