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An Acquired Taste

Reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Report. Visit www.jrep.com.

The tension between exclusion and universalism, which Reform Judaism has settled in favor of the latter, has complicated our tradition since ancient times. Strict boundaries have preserved Jewish identity. But they have also left Jews open to the charge of clannishness and xenophobia, as well as exacerbated internecine divisions that weaken the Jewish people.

A few weeks ago I attended a Bat Mitzvah at a Reform temple in California. The prayer book announced itself as "gender-sensitive;" the golden-voiced cantor and one of the two rabbis were women. An accompanying brochure explained the service to newcomers: Prayer is not a perfomance you watch, it is participatory; it may take a few sessions to get into the swing. (Indeed I knew only some of the melodies, and was struck by the user friendly abridgement of the liturgy, which made Kol HaNeshama [a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem] look downright Lithuanian.) The most impressive part of the brochure was a series of testimonials--people explaining why they come to shul: A sense of belonging, a returning to roots, a connection with ancestors--these were the ideas repeated over and over. Who can deny that God dwells in such a place? As it says in the Talmud, Tractate Megillah: Wherever the Jews have been exiled, the shekhinah, the divine presence, has gone with them.

As the Bat Mitzvah girl chanted the Torah portion and Haftarah with consummate poise and expertise, I was reminded that American Reform, so glibly accused of promoting Jewish assimilation, in fact does exactly the opposite. The girl's mother was a convert to Judaism, and a large number of non-Jewish relatives were in attendance. Familiar as I am with Israeli Reform Judaism, I had never before attended a service in which gentiles took part--not by blessing or handling the Torah, but by opening the ark and participating in a Friday night candle-lighting ceremony. Some Jews would seize upon this as confirmation of the fundamental heresy of Reform Judaism. I found it deeply moving, a living fulfillment of the Torah's repeated commandment to embrace, respect and include the stranger, the Other, the ger-- "because you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Here in Israel, most people delude themselves into thinking that none of this is germane in a Jewish country. But in practice, a national ethos that recognizes only one interpretation of Jewish rules marginalizes the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who aren't halakhically (according to traditional Jewish law) Jewish (and are disinclined to undergo Orthodox conversion), and buttresses a Jewish worldview that privileges the elitist, triumphalist strain of our tradition over the empathetic and inclusive one. At a time when our very existence is again at stake, this is an indulgence we can ill afford.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "Jewish law," halakha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.
Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. Hebrew for "scroll," usually refers to the Scroll of Esther ("Megillat Esther"), the biblical book read on the holiday of Purim. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Yiddish for "synagogue." A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.

Stuart Schoffman is a columnist for The Jerusalem Report.

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