Rabbi’s Essays

Real Jews

Recently a familiar Jewish joke passed by my desk. (By the way, the traditional definition of a Jewish joke is one that no non-Jew will ever understand and every Jew has heard before.) It was a variation on this classic:

A fellow buys a new car and goes to an Orthodox Rabbi for a blessing: “Will you recite a b’rakha over my new Mercedes?” “Sure,” says the Rabbi, “once you tell me—what’s a Mercedes?” The fellow then finds a Reform Rabbi and asks, “Will you recite a b’rakha over my new Mercedes?” “Sure,” is the reply, “once you tell me—what’s a b’rakha?”

The joke is doubly cruel, employing two stereotypes: 1. Orthodox Jews are ignorant of basic secular knowledge, and 2. Reform Jews are ignorant of basic Jewish knowledge.

Stereotypes are cruel, but not irrational. They are established by widespread perception. Thus, it might well be the case that in general Orthodox Jews are better informed of certain things Jewish and less informed of certain things secular than Reform Jews.

The most obvious and prevalent conclusion we may draw from these popular images is that Orthodox Jews are somehow more Jewish. From one point of view, this position is absurd. Consider: who is more pregnant, a woman in her fourth or a woman in her ninth month? Being Jewish is a quality that is not affected by quantity. Once one is Jewish, one cannot be more or less a Jew. But, being ‘more Jewish’ generally means being more knowledgeable in Judaica, more committed to the Jewish people, more authentic in one’s Jewish practice, more concerned about the future survival of the Jewish people, more really Jewish.

The perception is powerful. Many Orthodox and Hasidic institutions draw substantial and generous support from non-Orthodox Jews, members in good standing of Reform and Conservative congregations. Occasionally their contributions rival or exceed the level of giving to their own synagogues and movements. Why is that? Better marketing? No, I would rather suggest that many givers justify their gifts on the grounds that the Orthodox institutions need it more. They are less well endowed by the donations of their own constituency (who are thought to be poorer), and they are, after all, the Jews who are really preserving Judaism into the next generation. Thus, Reform and Conservative Jews come to believe that not only does Orthodoxy need it more, they deserve it more.

I am not writing in order to denounce or demean Orthodoxy. Nor am I going to suggest that it is not all that important for Reform Jews to be more knowledgeable of Jewish traditions and practice. The fundamental issue at hand is the divided souls of so many non-Orthodox Jews: the discomfort with the Jewish bona fides of their own life style, and the easy acceptance of the greater worthiness of those who choose to live as Orthodox. Reform and Conservative Jews are real Jews, not only as a biological fact, but also in that their idea of what Judaism is all about is absolutely authentic. In some elements, it is more true to Jewish ideals and values than Orthodoxy itself.

At very least, Reform and Conservative Judaism should be the primary recipient of support by Reform and Conservative Jews.

The Struggle for Terminology

The first problem is one of terminology. Let me give an example: One of the most contentious political and moral issues in American society is the question of abortion. How do we refer to the two principal forces in the debate? Those who argue that abortion is tantamount to murder are called ‘pro-life,’ ‘anti-abortion,’ and ‘anti-choice.’ Those who promote a woman’s control over her own body are called ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-abortion.’ Note that some of these terms have a more positive resonance than others. ‘Pro-life’ implies that the opposition is ‘anti-life.’ ‘Anti-choice,’ on the other hand, assaults the American value of freedom. So, in the abortion debate, each side tries to control the terminology of the argument, claiming that they are ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice,’ while the other side is ‘pro-abortion’ or ‘anti-choice.’ How we express our opinions reveals much about how we think or feel.

In the debate over Jewish authenticity, Orthodoxy has appeared to win the terminology battle hands down. Our conventional understanding of everything Jewish pertains to traditional Jewish ritual items and practice, which are far more associated with an Orthodox life-style. I can suggest a few reasons for this situation, and will in a moment. First, take note that “conventional wisdom” has the virtue of being wise, and the deficiency of being conventional. Orthodoxy has the upper hand in conventional Jewish terminology, but that is quite different from being the standard of authenticity.

Now, why do we tend to equate Jewish with Jewish tradition? For one, all we know of Jewish ritual is the halakhah, rabbinic law. The most religiously indifferent Jew will acknowledge candles on Shabbat, matzah on Passover, a talit during worship and a mezuzah on one’s door as uniquely and explicitly Jewish items. Things and practices Jewish inevitably start with a body of Jewish tradition.

A second—closely related—reason is that we have a tendency to understand Judaism as a fixed something; a box, if you will, filled with all sorts of objects and practices. In order to be “more Jewish,” one takes more things out of the box. In this conception, what is Jewish is in the box. Nothing is added to the box, and nothing ever disappears from it. Some items—the sacrificial rites performed in the days of the Temple, for example—remain stuck in the box, no longer performed, but not condemned as ‘non-Jewish’ either. What about such innovations as the increased role of women in public Jewish life: serving as rabbis and cantors, or the creation of such ceremonies as a b’rit for baby girls? Orthodox Jews will denounce them as un-Jewish assimilationist fads. Non-Orthodox Jews might defend them as responding to contemporary needs, but when challenged as to whether they are really Jewish, might very well respond, “that is beside the point.” After all, they are not in the box.

A Detour into Philosophy (Feel free to skip if you wish)

The position that Judaism is some fixed thing is referred to in philosophy as realism. Realism is the point of view that the essence of reality is the concept, the idea. Consider a table: When you look at such an object you can see it has a certain height, a certain shape, a certain color, a certain degree of hardness, etc. You recognize, however, that none of these qualities—size, shape, color, material—are necessary for defining the object as a table. They could all be otherwise. The ‘table-ness’ of the table is therefore not found in what you actually see or feel, but rather in your ability to access the concept of “table.” The concept is the real table; the color, size, shape, etc. are simply accidental instances of this particular object before you.

If the concept is real, where is it to be found? Plato, the principal proponent of this line of thinking, suggested that it resided in a world of ideas, a place that could be reached only through the power of thought, but where all pure concepts exist. When Plato’s idea-world was combined with theology, creating medieval philosophy, concepts were to be found in the mind of God. And God, the Creator, is the ultimate reality.

Plato’s philosophy has been very influential in religious thought, but there are other systems. In opposition to realisim there is nominalism, a system promoted by Aristotle. This is realism turned on its head. Concepts are not real. Rather they are the abstraction (which you recognize as the term opposite to ‘real’) of groups of individual perceptions. We see pieces of furniture that are flat surfaces supported by a number of legs. Some are large, small, round, rectangular, made of wood, plastic, metal, etc. Each object is a little bit of reality, and we learn to name (hence nominalism) the common features that they all have as “table.” No pure table actually exists; just the abstract concept to which we have applied this name.

Aristotle’s system was also combined with traditional religious thought. Rather than accessing the mind of God in order to discern the objects of reality, we are the recipients of a God-given ability to abstract from reality (the individual bits and pieces of God’s creation) a comprehensive understanding of the world.

Both the points of view established by Aristotle and Plato, however, reinforce a notion of Judaism as fixed thing. Either it is (Platonic) the pure concept as found in the mind of God, or it is the pure abstraction formed by the activity of God-given reason on the reality of the world. Aristotelianism does allow for greater creativity in determining exactly what is Jewish (what is in the box).

Aristotelian Jewish philosophers—Maimonides is the prime example—were aware of this flexibility, and utilized it in order to suggest modifications in Jewish belief and practice. If Maimonides could employ such philosophic insights toward determining proper Judaism, could not every Jew? When Maimonides published his philosophic tome, The Guide to the Perplexed, many conservative authorities denounced him for opening out—democratizing—Judaism. Their argument was on two fronts. First, they castigated Maimonides for explicating such an approach to Jewish practice and belief. Second, they were particularly upset that the work was written in Arabic, the vernacular language of most Spanish and North African Jews of the twelfth century, instead of Hebrew, the language limited only to Jewish scholars.

Maimonides was not as subversive as his critics contended. Although its rendering in Arabic made the Guide more accessible to non-Hebrew scholars, its technical language still made it a difficult work for anyone not especially learned in Philosophy. Ultimately Maimonides—and most of his Aristotelian colleagues—upheld another Platonic concept, namely that authority resides exclusively in a leadership made up of those who have the talent and education to understand truly God’s will. In the end, Maimonides wanted to preserve the classic structure by which the Rabbis had the right and responsibility of determining proper Jewish conduct.

There is a third system of philosophy worth discussing. This is idealism. Its origins are not in ancient Greek thought, but rather in the early modern era in the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel. Idealism proposes that reality is not presented, neither in the pure concept nor in sensory perceptions. It unfolds. The combination of repeated observation and repeated rational thinking leads to a more refined, and therefore more accurate understanding of what is real. Our current perceptions and concepts are only approximations on the path to the ideal.

In the ancient and medieval systems of philosophy, reality is timeless. It is just there, in the fixed laws of nature, or in the eternal order of God’s will. Idealism introduces the role of time. Thus, Judaism might not be something that simply is. Judaism might be a process of becoming. With idealism, we move from orthodoxy to a notion of reform.

Out of Time, Out of Sight

Orthodox Judaism is established by a certain mind-set. There is nothing particularly wrong with the point of view, but there is nothing fundamentally Jewish with it either.

One component of this mind-set is that Jews, as Jews, exist outside of time. This stance is not a repudiation of history, or even of Jewish history. History however has been temporarily suspended, and we are currently living within that suspension. History is not to be conceived as the human history of the rise and fall of nations and kings, or the development of science and technology, but rather as religious history, or the history of God’s interaction with the people Israel.

This account of time begins with the Creation of the world (perhaps even before the Creation). It continues through the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach), which is distinguished by the presence of the divine spirit on earth. When, following the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the divine presence removed itself—the age of prophecy was over, and with it biblical history. Yet, God’s direct relationship with Israel persisted as long as the Temple stood. Then, the Temple was destroyed. The vital link between God and the Jewish people was cut off. History, as far as the Jews were concerned, was cut off as well. It will only resume when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt. (In conventional Jewish thought, the coming of the Messiah does not mark the final judgment and attendant end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Instead, it is a restoration of God’s original promise to Abraham, with history now picking up where it left off in the year 70 C.E.)

All of the great events of the past two thousand years—the printing press, discovery of the New World, landing on the moon, Monday Night Football—even the Holocaust and the re-establishment of the State of Israel, are irrelevant in the context of Jewish history. [Orthodox Zionists will demur regarding the founding of the Jewish State. It, in and of itself, is not a mark of a return to history, but it does indicate that the return is imminent.]

This point of view is nuanced and sophisticated. It distinguishes between the chronicle of humankind, which includes the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the development of a better cup of coffee among its significant and trivial events, with decisive human history, which is determined by the will of God. All sorts of events have occurred over the millennia, but we are no closer to our hopes and dreams of a redeemed world (universal peace and prosperity) than we were when the sages Hillel and Shammai taught. Hence, the Orthodox feel fully justified in claiming that, as Jews, we are currently outside history. We are marking time until time itself resumes. Until then, it is our task and responsibility to preserve Jewish practice and thought just as it was left for us when the Temple in Jerusalem stood. Of course, with the destruction of that Temple, there are many things we cannot do as Jews—the sacrificial service, for example—but, we must continue to study these practices in preparation for their resumption.

The Orthodox position, however, is fundamentally at odds with Jewish thought. It divides body—the natural everyday experience of human beings, or that which makes for human history—from spirit—the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. In one of the more familiar passages in the Torah, near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are taught that Torah itself is neither in Heaven nor across the seas. Torah must operate in the real concrete lives of people, and those lives include living in time, in the currents of history. Thus, Orthodoxy’s effort at preserving Torah has the unintended effect of corrupting it.

Shver tzu zein a yid

Intellectually, Orthodoxy is on thin ground. Emotionally, however, it has a powerful lure. Most Jews are not Orthodox. The traditional lifestyle—maintaining a kosher home, avoiding most activities on Shabbat, always wearing a head covering, davening regularly, and so on—is intriguing. Most Jews are not at all prepared to act in such a manner, and therefore wonder about those who do. We feel as if they are sacrificing something in order to preserve Judaism. And thus, we tend to regard the Orthodox with a mixture of awe, respect and envy.

One certainly should not demean Jews who choose to be Orthodox; one should not mythologize them either. In the modern world, life-style and practice is substantially a personal choice. It emanates from the individual’s own interests and needs. Jews choose to be Orthodox because they want or need to be so. It is not a matter of self-sacrifice but of self-interest. Shver tzu zein a yid, “it is hard to be a Jew,” goes the old saying. But it is no harder to be an Orthodox Jew than any other type.

Some apologists have argued that being a Reform Jew is actually harder, since it demands a constant balance between an affirmative Jewish identity and a worldly humanist vision. This position, I believe, is equally wrong. Modernity is emancipation: it is the freeing of the human soul to make certain decisions about what to believe and how to live, including the freedom to reject modernity itself! We are the sort of Jew—Orthodox, Reform, secular, etc.—as a result of birth and nurturing, the availability of economic and educational options, and most of all, a fundamental existential will to be what we wish to be.

[Of course, not all of our choices are based on ease or expedience. For the most part, all of us do things that we find difficult—physically, intellectually or emotionally—to do. We undergo this sacrifice, however, for the sake of our larger wishes or interests. As a result, after some time, those painful tasks that we feel obligated to undertake begin to become easier and more natural.]

It is, nonetheless, hard to be a Jew. This is true for two reasons. First, there is the burden of history and heritage, and the challenge of being a permanent minority people. To affirm oneself as a Jew—regardless of practice or belief—is to concede that one is set apart. Some choose to do this defiantly, placing a hat or yarmulke on their heads and displaying the tzitzit dangling below their shirts. Others are more reticent to engage in physical displays of identity, but by virtue of their affirmation, must deal with their acceptance of distinction in other ways.

The second reason is that choosing to be a Jew entails choosing to have a particular vision about how one should live as a human being. The details differ as one moves along the spectrum from liberal to orthodox, but the fundamental vision of participating in the repair of an unredeemed world remains constant. A few years ago, I was sitting in a seminar with one of my teachers. We were about to study some classic text, a passage from the Bible or Talmud, and a few participants reminded the professor that we had not first recited the blessing in preparation for study. In response, my teacher quipped: Sometimes I find it hard to be the sort of Jew I wish to be.

So it is with all of us, again regardless of practice or belief. Our vision concerning our own personal conduct, a vision informed by our Jewish self-identity, is occasionally difficult to live up to. There is always more to learn, more to study, more discipline to build into our lives, more care and concern we can show to both family and strangers; more that we can do in order to be the Jews we wish to be.

The challenge of being Jewish, which is the challenge of being human and being true to oneself and one’s heritage, is made no easier or harder by being Orthodox or Reform. The non-Orthodox envy, respect and feelings of discomfort for those who espouse a traditional life-style is both natural and misplaced. It is natural because there seems to be a component in the human psyche that tends to see the grass as greener somewhere else. It is misplaced because that greener grass is not ‘over there’ in Orthodoxy—at least not for us—but rather inside us, in our sincere efforts to be better Jews and human beings than we are.

Orthodox Jews probably have similar attitudes regarding a liberal Jewish lifestyle. How do each side respond to these feelings? Some act on them, and change their practices and approach to tradition altogether. The evidence is overwhelming that many more Orthodox Jews become liberal or secular than the reverse. There is nevertheless movement in both directions. Others act on them in a different way by actually striving to improve themselves in accord with their Jewish vision. Some repress them, and try not to think much about being Jewish except in the way they currently are. A significant number get angry, seeing the other side as subversive, attempting to undercut one’s own Jewish lifestyle, and perhaps all of Judaism. And finally, some feel guilty. My impression of the contemporary Jewish world suggests most (but hardly all) of the angry are Orthodox, and most of the guilty are Conservative and Reform.


Judaism is the ‘ism’ of the Jews. From its first articulation in the Hebrew Bible, Judaism has comprised three components: God, a people and a land. The biblical history describes the early dynamic of these relationships: from a deity deeply and personally involved in the lives of individuals to a powerful, emotionally and intellectually real but physically withdrawn divine presence; from a family wandering in the desert to a confederation of tribes to a unified kingdom; and from a foreign place occupied by ‘primitive’ nation states to a gained, then lost, then regained homeland.

The biblical era ends, and the land is (temporarily) lost once more, but the relationship between God and a people continues to develop. The people transform once more from a national entity to a world-dispersed faith community. Throughout all these changes, they were able to maintain a sense of cohesive unity. Thus, certain movements—Samaritans, Essenes, Karaites, and Shabbateans among others—would arise to challenge a ‘mainstream’ understanding of Jewish thought and practice. Each would be put aside. Some of their features might be absorbed into the mainstream, but anyone who persisted in defining themselves by these movements would simply be ignored as if they were no longer Jewish. In time, the movement disappeared, or, as in the case of Samaritans and Karaites, their tiny communities are considered the followers of some other religion.

Then the Jews entered modernity. For many reasons, the cohesiveness that held the people Israel together as faith community began to weaken. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish religion had developed its three principal Movements of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. The old pre-modern vision of one Judaism for one Jewish people persisted. Each Movement, however, has felt that it embodied the ideas and principles of that one Judaism. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox all understood themselves to be the legitimate heirs to the Pharisees; that is, the natural and appropriate development of Judaism into the twentieth century.

Thus, each Movement has had a period of “triumphalism.” This is the term used by the seminal Jewish sociologist Marshall Sklare in order to describe the feeling proclaimed by a movement that all rival movements are out of step with the needs and interests of the people, and will shortly die on the vine. Sklare observed that in the heyday of progressive idealism toward the end of the nineteenth century, Reform Judaism had its triumphal period, certain that within a generation or two all ‘modern’ Jews would be Reform. Conservative Judaism’s triumphalism was in the 30’s-50’s, as it was certain it represented the combination of modern outlook and traditional practice that appeared to be sought by the Eastern European immigrants who had come to define the Jewish community. And in the generation following the Holocaust, a period of intense criticism of the concepts and institutions defined by progressive modernity, Orthodoxy enjoyed a revival, and with it asserted its own triumphalism, based to some extent on the failures of modernity.

You will note that Reform had its triumphal period the earliest; Orthodoxy’s is the most recent, and appears to persist to this day. The late nineteenth century certainty on the part of Reformers has clearly been shattered. Not every Jew is going to be Reform. Equally obvious, however, is the fact that Reform Judaism has not withered in the face of this ‘loss.’ Indeed, the Movement has grown dramatically in the number of affiliated congregations and adherents over the past quarter century. The history of the Movement has rather given Reform an appreciation of pluralism. The unity of the Jewish people cannot be found in the unity of Judaism, but instead in an acceptance of the different approaches to Jewish identity and to a response to God’s will.

The persistence of Orthodox triumphalism is due in large part to its sheer survival. Most observers, as late as the 1960’s, viewed any continuation of an Orthodox community as an anachronism, a stubborn insistence on a form of Judaism that was completely out of step with the aspirations of virtually all Jews. The observation was simply wrong. The declaration of the death of Orthodoxy was, shall we say, a bit premature. And thus, to its doomsayers, the Orthodox true-believers have had every right to gloat and feel a certain measure of vindication.

The poet Anthony Hecht wrote: “Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence./Nor, given the way things go, /Even of low cunning.” Orthodoxy survives today, not because it is triumphant, but because the predictors of its demise were wrong.

Real Reform Jews

Orthodoxy is a real form of Judaism; not the real form. In order to maintain the Idea of Judaism, it must sacrifice the World for Jews. Orthodox Jews claim that their own sense of obligation as the exclusive standard of Jewish practice. Self-reference becomes the only reference. This is the Orthodox prescription for Jewish survival. It can be respected and understood, but it should never be accepted as the sole authentic path to a Jewish future.

Reform Judaism is also a real form of Judaism. It struggles with obligation, authority and tradition, but in doing so, it opens Jews up to fundamental aspects of Judaism. First, it returns Jews as Jews to the dynamic forces of history. Thus, it reasserts the threefold relationship between God, Israel and the world. Further, it makes us aware of the dynamic force of God; an ongoing process of learning more about ourselves, the world about us, and our obligation as Jews to bringing about its redemption in accord with God’s will.

The finest elements of Reform Judaism are:

  • Outreach and Inclusiveness: An unwillingness to leave any Jew behind and therefore to press for the inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life, women, homosexual Jews, and Jews in interfaith relationships.

  • Tikkun Olam: A commitment to social justice for all humankind, and affirmative action on behalf of the poor and needy regardless of heritage or belief.

  • Response to God’s Will: Being open to find the spark of the divine wherever it is to be found: both in the sacred texts and in the discoveries of human inquiry.

The elements are good not merely because they are upheld by the Reform Movement, but because they represent ideals of Judaism itself. Ideals are difficult. Most Reform Jews hardly live up to the principles of Reform Judaism, but our failures should not be an indictment of our ideals.

You have decided to be a Reform Jew. If you wanted to be Orthodox or Conservative, you would be so already. The choice poses its own challenges and rewards. It is as difficult as being Jewish, and as fulfilling as being Jewish. And it is as real a Jewish decision as being human and true to one’s heritage and beliefs.