Why I Can’t Be Reform; Part I of a Series

“I can’t be Reform because I love the mitzvot too much.”

That’s what I recently told my Reform friend, but that’s not a very accurate statement. I did hear a long time ago that Reform, ideally, is meant to let people come to their own informed decisions, never mind what the CCAR or anyone else ruled. Theoretically, I didn’t really disagree with this because in a sense it’s really just a question of which level of authority you can stand to defer to. I’m not so into big institutions, so I don’t really find it essentially wrong to not let the CCAR have the final say.

But I can’t be Reform because in order to practice Judaism the way I “personally” find fit would mean that I’d have to do it outside of Reform synagogues. It includes things that Reform synagogues can’t accommodate, like hand-washing and saying the whole Shema etc.

Mah Rabu has a really great outline of what’s going on here.

He mentions a difference between halacha, aggadah, and minhag: Halacha being just what you think it is (and Reform, wow, does have some halachic standards actually); aggadah being the underlying values of the halacha such as tikkun olam—a big one; and minhag, which is things like Debbie Friedman and other things that are palpably Reform. I actually don’t disagree with the halacha as much as I once thought I did, after reading this outline. Actually, since I’m in the situation I’m in, I’ve been following it precisely without knowing: “there is no living human authority with the power to establish religious law that is binding on others; rather, individuals are responsible for paskening for themselves,” he writes. And who could disagree with the aggadah?—though I admit that I’m not actually as blindly universal in my “social justice”, also I don’t really feel so convinced that the ultimate and only useful purpose of any mitzvah is to “become a more just person”, because for one thing who can measure such a thing immediately? That takes all the fun out of it.

But it’s the minhag that’s the reason I can’t be Reform. In theory, I could be Reform, of course. But what would be the point? My “personal observance” has led me to say the whole Shema; the whole Amidah—and thrice a day at that; it’s led me to not like using musical instruments and LCD projectors in the service; and so on and so forth. Also I don’t like Debbie Friedman; the Mishkan T’filah; lighting Shabbat candles in the synagogue; praying in English; singing the Barchu; the emphasis on the synagogue and the lack of emphasis on education. To use a phrase from the post, I especially enjoy “yeshiva-style speed-mumbling”. I mean, I can handle other things, but I don’t want to identify long-term with a community that’s actively against all my favorite things.

Another point: “[T]he mitzvah is, in essence, the core value/requirement, while the halacha are the rules as to how to fulfill that requirement.” This is a good way to put it; in fact I’ve been thinking of it entirely differently. Somehow, my first exposure to halacha happened to be Hasidic or something, because I went a really long time thinking that a mitzvah was only good if it was done perfectly (that ridiculous Sloveitchik story may have had something to do with it. I hate men paskening as if they know everything about ALL WOMEN AHHH). Due to exposure, I realized that that couldn’t be true, because then even simple things like Ashkenasic versus Sephardic tzitzit tying would render it either TOTALLY VALID or TOTALLY INVALID. Realistically, there’s both getting the same thing done. And it really does make sense if you think of Reform as an “edah” that you’d allow that any minhag (or halacha, for that matter) that it came up with after The Split in the 1800’s. The same thing happened between Ashkenasim and Sephardim, if I’m not mistaken—Rambam is generally looked to in the Sephardic community, and Caro/Rema in the Ashkenasic community.

So to say that a Reform approach to the same mitzvah is “less observant” (assuming the mitzvah is actually being done) isn’t accurate. To use an extreme example, this might include substituting tefillin with reading the first paragraph of the Shema. I wonder if it could even go so far as to allow for the photocopies in the mezuzot at the Reform temple here, too. I don’t like it—in fact I hate it—but I see that there is no One Halacha to get to the original mitzvah.

Once again, just like with Conservative, I’m much more comfortable with its theory than with its real-world practice. I have a feeling, too, that “paskening for ourselves” is what happened before rabbis for some reason started getting handed the minister/pastoral/preacher-type role. I’m not sure what to think, though, because I also thought it was traditionally the case that people came to their rabbis for halachic decisions and were compelled to follow his decision. That’s what I tend to think is still the proper case today; but of course this is where I veer off course and buy tzitzit even though I’m avoiding telling my rabbi because I know he won’t like it. There’s a dissonance, I know.

Part II.

Why I Can’t Be Reform revisited.

Why I Can’t Be Reform re-revisited.


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