The iWorship listserve has been talking lately about what we would classify the rejection of The World to Come as. Is it Reform halachah? Reform agadah? I’d say neither. After arguing in this post that such a rejection is not universal enough within Reform to be considered anything in particular (except common) I suggested in a post to the list that if it were true, it might be classified as a Reform principle. And that opened up a can of worms for me that I wasn’t quite expecting.
Someone on the list latched onto the word “principle” and started quoting the various principles created in the Reform platforms: Pittsburgh 1885, Columbus 1937, San Francisco 1976 and Pittsburgh 1999. What each reveals about the Reform rabbinate’s notions of the Messiah and the World to Come over time is fascinating, but not my primary topic here.
Rather, I wanna address what a principle is and what the role of these CCAR platforms are or should be. Specifically, I’ll address this in light of my recent classification of Reform into four categories: Reform Jews, Reform Judaism, the Reform movment, and the Reform intellectual community (or RIC).
First, I’ll have to deepen my definition of Reform Judaism. Previously, I defined it like this:
Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.
When I said that, I carefully skirted anything about belief. So I would amend it like this:
Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief, founded in the acknowledgement of the fact the age of rabbinic oligarchy has ended and the only ritual or moral authority that a Jew is answerable to is God that Jew’s own conscience and intellect.
This addition about authority is important because it’s the basic fact that the rest of Reform springs forth from. Without the acknowledgement of personal autonomy, a Reform Jew is just a lone rule-breaker. With an acknowledgement of autonomy, a Reform Jew is simply exercising the ability to be his or her own legal authority. Obviously, a Reform Jew might still seek out rabbis or others more learned than they are for learning, guidance or advice, but their advice would not be binding unless that Reform Jew decided to be bound by it.
This, of course, is at the core of the Reform responsa endeavor. Responsa literature is common throughout the history of rabbinic literature, but for most of its history, responsa were considered legally binding. Reform responsa, however, are merely one way for Reform Jews to explore an issue of importance. The answers of the CCAR Responsa Committee are learned discussions and suggestions of action– none would suggest that they are binding.
I would argue that the same is true of the Reform platforms. They are the collective decisions about what Reform means at three stages of Reform history, as decided by a group of leading Reform rabbis. As such, they are clearly the work of what I call the RIC, the hard-to-define group of Reform Jews working on and thinking actively about what Reform means.
However, based on what I’ve said above, none of it can be said to be binding on members of the Reform movement. And it certainly isn’t biding on Reform Jews in general, as some are not even members of the movement.