Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Adventures in Reform Judaism

I have always wanted to visit Temple Beth Ora. Having always been something of a rabble rouser raised in a modern Orthodox home, Reform Judaism holds many allures for me. Reform is on the left wing of Jewish observance. It is not at all like the Reformed movement in Christianity, which is actually quite conservative. Services are egalitarian (men and women have equal standing in services and leadership). There is an emphasis on social justice to the community - the entire community, not just the Jewish community.

At the same time, my Orthodox baggage has made me somewhat cynical of certain aspects of the movement. Despite my desire for egalitarianism, something inside me cringes when I see a woman wearing a kippa (yarmulke) - to me, that is a man's piece of clothing. Our covering is our hair. Reform also accepts patrilineal descent. While I know this is all part of being egalitarian (it works both ways), the privilege of a Jewish heritage being transmitted through women makes being a Jewish woman all the more sacred and special.

Reform is based upon the principle of informed choice. That is, one learns the laws and then decides what one will or will not do based upon one's conscience, lifestyle considerations, and so forth. I totally respect this, and in fact have done this in my own life to varying degrees. However, now that it has been officially given a name, I kind of smile and wink while I sometimes refer to the principles of Reform Judaism as "Pick and Choose-ianity."

Is Reform a legitimate form of spiritual expression, or an excuse not to follow the laws, and engage in a feel-good social time on Friday nights or Saturday mornings? I would argue it is legitimate - the singing, prayers, and atmosphere in the place was absolutely reverent. I saw a lot of the same enthusiasm for G-d that I have witnessed in some of the most Charismatic churches I have visited. There is a choir that is absolutely stunning in its musical interpretations of prayers, and the rabbi has a gorgeous voice as well. In fact, there were a lot of similarities between this service and a church service - the choir, the piano playing, the singing, men and women sitting together - with the exclusion of anything having to do with the New Testament.

I love the fact there is a woman rabbi. That is the biggest point of contention between me and my traditional family when it comes to Reform. When I was a little girl I actually wanted to be a rabbi, and when I was told I could not because I was a female, I lost a lot of interest in my culture.

TBO usually meets on Friday evenings, which often does not work for me for family reasons. However, there is a Saturday morning service once a month, and when one of my friends on Twitter turned out to be a member of the congregation, she invited me along. The service also included a Bat Mitzvah of a young lady with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, and both sides of her family were equally represented in front of the congregation. She also have to give a drash (a teaching sermon) about that week's Torah portion, and her major conclusion was that she had studied the laws of kosher, figured out why G-d gave them to the Jewish people, but has decided that they are not for her. She sounded very much like a 13 year old girl! I will try not to be too cynical here, but this hearkens back to what I wrote about earlier concerning "Pick and Choose-ianity."

Even still, I am very intrigued about what I experienced here and plan to return, if only occasionally as my schedule allows. Despite the fact that I cringe at the thought of patrilineal descent, despite the fact that I am as likely to meet non-Jews here as Jews (most of the people there appeared to be part of intermarried couples), I think Reform is probably one of the few Jewish outlets for spiritual expression a lefty like me can go.

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