A movement of change

The ground is certainly shifting beneath the feet of Reform Movement, of Jewish world in general; a new leader is exactly what’s in order

June 6, 2011 22:39
Rabbi richard jacobs 521

Rabbi richard jacobs 521. (photo credit: Ben Fink Shpiro)


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A significant meeting will take place this weekend in Brooklyn. Representatives of the boards of three major institutions of the North American Reform Movement – its congregational body, rabbinical association and seminary – will be gathering to ponder the challenges and opportunities of the coming decades.

It is perhaps symbolic that the meeting will be taking place shortly after Shavuot, “the time of the giving of our Torah.” A Midrash from the collection known as Pesikta Rabbati points out that the Torah was given in Sivan – a month whose astrological symbol is Gemini, the twins. Torah is not given on the backs of impressive beasts or mythic creatures. It is carried by human beings. Despite the fact that astrology is not a big part of Reform theology, this assertion of the human dimension certainly is. For Reform Jews, Torah is given to men and women in particular historical contexts, and we are enjoined to engage in a ceaseless quest for its meaning.

From its inception, Reform Judaism has grappled with the tension between individual expression and group commitment. In our day, this tension is playing out in a variety of spheres: theological, communal, political and more. Social and technological developments of recent years have made it easier for individuals to “customize” their Jewish experience. Recent debate within the movement covering the spectrum from classical to neo-traditionalist has emphasized the view that meeting the needs of the individual is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a vibrant Reform Judaism.

THE GROUND is certainly shifting beneath the feet of the Reform Movement, and indeed of the Jewish world in general. Anecdotal evidence and scholarly research point to new trends in denominational affiliation, generational attitudes, religious practices, economic priorities and much else. The fact that critics of Reform Judaism are predicting its downfall is neither surprising nor particularly interesting; some have been willing its demise for two centuries and see every achievement of the movement as a trivial prelude to its much-anticipated downfall. It is perhaps more significant that within Reform Judaism, a serious debate has been taking place about its future.

During the long weekend of deliberations, the candidacy of Rabbi Richard Jacobs for the presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism will be confirmed. Succeeding Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs brings many gifts. He has built a spectacularly successful congregation in Westchester, New York. He is thoughtful, inquisitive, articulate, caring, passionate, funny.

Despite widespread acclaim, the announcement of the decision to appoint Rick Jacobs sparked some controversy. An advertisement was placed in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal by a small number of Reform Jews protesting his affiliation with the New Israel Fund and other left-of-center groups. The implication was that by adopting a non-normative position, Jacobs would sow discord.

As a matter of fact, this concern has so far proven unfounded. As a point of principle, it is highly problematic to suggest that the only way to express support for Israel is kneejerk approval of whichever party happens to be in power. This suggestion becomes all the more improbable when the coalition includes a wide range of parties and views.

Many liberal Jews are struggling to recalibrate their relationship to Israel. In this process, Jacobs is not part of the problem, but part of the solution. In the way he leads his own life, he models deep commitment to Israel, just as he insists on promoting the liberal values he holds dear. Some self-styled defenders of Israel seem to think in extreme and one-dimensional terms. Either you support Israel (which means you keep a picture of Avigdor Lieberman among your prized possessions) or you don’t (which means you are a card-carrying member of al- Qaida). This dichotomous thinking excludes countless lovers of Israel who refuse to buy in to this binary system. To imagine that demonizing those who hold more nuanced opinions can be good for Israel is not only an offense against pluralism, it is an offense against common sense.

MOST RABBIS in the Reform Movement today have an academic background. Some have come to the rabbinate from other professions; we have a number of what are sometimes called recovering lawyers. Jacobs is rare among members of this particular guild: For a time he worked as a dancer and choreographer. In the task he is now taking on, he will need all the suppleness, flexibility and strength he can muster. He will also require the balance and nimbleness necessary to respond to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who look to his movement to mediate between individual choice and commitment to something that reaches beyond the personal to the eternal.

The Revelation that Reform Jews will celebrate this week is one born in divinity but borne by human beings, with all their frailties and inconsistencies. As the leadership of North American Reform gather to ratify the appointment of Rick Jacobs, it is appropriate to reflect on the enormity of the challenges he faces. He will be presiding over a movement on the bleeding edge of uncertainty and upheaval in Jewish life. He will be asked to show leadership in the unfolding relationship between the state of Israel and American Jewry in a period when everything is high – rhetoric, emotions and the stakes. He needs to demonstrate that Reform Judaism can play a vital role in the next chapter of the Jewish story.

No Reform Jew should be surprised or alarmed by change. Our approach is based on an understanding that change is a constant, that the most traditional thing a Jew can do is change. It is easier, of course, to embrace this concept in the abstract than to apply it to the specifics of one’s own movement. But like it or not, we are called to respond to rapid and significant developments in Jewish life. Rabbi Rick Jacobs has what it takes to lead a movement of change into a period of change.

The writer is vice president for academic affairs of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He lives in Jerusalem.

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