The most personal and most moving session I attended at LimmudNY 2009 was called Rethinking Reform and was advertised as being led by members of the so-called Rethinking Reform Think Tank. I do not know who else is in this group, but those leading the session were Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning Executive Director Rabbi Leon Morris, HUC rabbinical student Jill Cozen-Harel and former HUC student, current Ziegler rabbinical student, blogger and one of my many teachers, David Singer.
One year prior to this session, at LimmudNY 2008, the three of them came together for the first time from a place of frustration, loneliness, and excitement to create what they now refer to as The Reform Think Tank. I’ll let them speak for themselves in the following, their missions statement:
The “Rethinking Reform” think-tank is comprised of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who engage in study and sahring on issues of observance, obligation, mitzvah and halakhah in a liberal context. W sek to deepen the discourse within Reform Judaism and beyond with regard to what it means to be commanded, moving beyond a simple dichotomy of unbridled personal autonomy, on the one hand, and Orthodoxy, on the other.
Our discussions are aimed at effecting our own personal thinking on these topics, as well as influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance and away from marginalizing those who are drawn toward a greater traditional observance. The group is engaging these issues intellectually as well as personally, and is open to using this group as an experimental “community” that may determine some standards for itself.
Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not. Some have grown up in the Reform movment. Others have adopted the movement later in life. Some attend or have graduated from HUC. Others, in part because of these issues, have chosen different rabbinical schools. We come together out of a sincere desire to learn from one another and to begin to clearly articulate a way of being Reform Jews in the 21 st century that is more deeply grounded in Torah and mitzvot.
David, Leon and Jill began by sharing their personal stories of growing up Reform, feeling often far more observant than their peers. Because of that, then all mentioned ferquently feeling lonely and misunderstood within the movement. Internally, I reacted to this very emotionally. Though they are all cosiderably older than me and farther along in life than I, I felt a visceral association with that feeling of loneliness in the Reform movement.
The mix of people in the session was interesting. There was me, quite a few Conservative movement refugees, several more HUC students who are not involved with the think tank, and a few others. Amongst the others were a young woman who grew up Orthodox and cited her opposite struggle to gain further autonomy within her community.
Another, an older woman, a Reform Jew in the pew, asked the first question of the session, rather aggressively suggesting that the purpose of this group is to influence or co-opt the Reform movement for their more observant ends. Though Leon quickly shot this idea down as a misunderstanding of the group’s purpose, his later words in the session seemed to betray him, not to mention the mission statement above. The mission statement says “Our discussions are aimed at […] influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance.”
Leon also said later in the session, and here I paraphrase greatly, that as the movement stands, to be observant, one must justify the observance. For instance, I am constantly called upon to justify why on Earth, I, a Reform Jew, wear tzitzit. Leon experessed a desire to see the movement shift toward justifying non-observance. For instance, I would call on Reform Jews who do not wear tzitzit to explain why they choose not to. This desire of Leon’s dovetails with my constant struggle to systemtaize my own informed choice, but Leon runs in a conservative direction that I am hesitant to run in. I see that direction as conservative, by the way, in both the capital-C and lower case-c meanings of the word.
And here, it seems, is the biggest question I left the session with: Can the Reform tent be big enough for us on the fringe and wearing the fringe and big enough for members of factions like The Society for Classical Reform Judaism and the American Council for Judaism at the same time?
The tent seems to be getting bigger all the time, and I still regularly feel like I’m being pushed out of it. I sense that I share that feeling with members of the think tank, but question what their end goals are. I also question why this is an elite rabbi and rabbinical students-only club. Despite my deep respect for and friendship with David Singer, I question why those who have clearly exited the movement are involved with this project, especially this line from the mission statement: “Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not.” What then, can the stake of those who do not identify as Reform be in this group?
I invite Jill, David, Leon, and any other members of the think tank to comment here and clarify, or expand on any of this.