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Thursday 6 December 2007

Rabbi Marmur - But what do you believe?

But what do you believe?

Posted by Rabbi Michael Marmur
This blog belongs to the genre commonly known as the Reform think-piece.
There are two common species of this creature, which may simply be
termed the indignant (in Latin: blogus self- righteous) and the benign
(blogus harmless). The first variety usually involves wailing and
gnashing of teeth about one injustice or other perpetrated on the
proponents of liberal Judaism. The other kind tends to involve treacly
calls for unity and solidarity. Among cognoscenti of the field, I am
known to belong to the second of the two camps. My articles are often
warm but rarely hot. I tend to come out in favor of friendship and
generosity, and the extent of my politics would usually be to express
reservations about the programs of Yigal Amir, Ahmedinejad and Genghis
It's not very racy stuff, and you have to try very hard not to agree
with it. Reading through the responses to my previous blogs, though, I
have discovered that it hardly matters what I write. Since it appears
under the heading 'Reform Reflections', the article is to be decried,
and its author accused of sundry misdemeanors. One week I'm thinking of
simply asserting a page from the telephone directory, just to see if the
anti-Reform lobby also attacks the piece as self-hating Hellenistic
treachery. I suppose they could complain of name-calling.
There is a reason for this knee-jerk condemnation of any expression of
Reform Judaism. It stems from the fear that any legitimacy given to
non-Orthodox religious voices within the Jewish conversation will
somehow weaken the basis of Judaism. The argument goes that if you read
this and agree with it, mixed dancing and intermarriage cannot be far
One of the recent responses to my corrupting prose was particularly
charming: "70% of Reform Jews are goyim; the other 30% are idiots." Now
there are many good things to be said about this insight. Firstly, it
displays an impressive command of mathematics, which is certainly to be
applauded. Second, it implies that these non-Jewish Reform Jews are not
idiots (apparently it's just the Jews who are developmentally delayed),
so it counts as an example of inter-religious tolerance and understanding.
In a sense it's too easy to spend time marveling at the intellectual
prowess of those who trade in hate and prejudice. The question can
fairly be asked: but what do you Reform Jews really believe? Forget
about your detractors, and tell us where you really stand.
Obviously, this is a very uncomfortable task for at least 30% of us, for
whom joined-up writing is enough of a challenge. But especially in honor
of this blog, I racked my brains and I have managed to come up with
three things I really believe. After I've typed this in, I may need to
go and lie down.
I believe that Judaism is the ever-changing response of the Jewish
people to God's word. As a human endeavor, Judaism exists within history
and culture. As a yearning for the divine, it aspires to a truth which
lies beyond the exigencies of any particular context. When my Orthodox
friends tells me that the Oral Torah is the sole and indisputable
expression of the will of God, I admire their faith – and reject it. The
Judaism I study and teach is one of change and growth; just like the
people who practice it, it's in a constant state of becoming.
I believe that in every generation Jews have been called upon to express
their highest commitments and yearnings in the language formed through
millennia of Jewish expression. That's why I reject the notion that
defending the basic humanity of every person is to be seen as a
"non-Jewish" act. I understand it to be a quintessentially Jewish act,
and every time I hear a self-appointed representative of Judaism imply
that the rights and needs of non-Jews can be trampled upon, I am ashamed.
I believe that in our generation the time has come to re-calibrate the
roles allocated to men and women within Jewish tradition. In my Bible
(apparently the Idiot Reform Edition) there are two versions of the
creation account, and in one of them man and women are created
simultaneously. It is that basic insight which informs my belief that we
Jewish men have a lot of learning and changing to do. (It's also the
reason that every time I go onto the JPost Blog Site and see a long
uninterrupted list of male contributors, I don't know whether to laugh
or cry.)
Come to think of it, there are one or two more things I really believe
in. These beliefs and commitments relate to such themes as Religion and
State, Human Sexuality, Social Justice, Jewish Education, War and Peace,
Crime and Punishment, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and
more. I don't pretend to own the copyright on certainty, but I'm
struggling hard to find a way of living a rich Jewish life here and now.
Reform Judaism aims to be a genuine search, one voice in a long and
wonderful conversation. If that appalls you or inspires ridicule, you
may want to take a moment to consider an uncomfortable possibility:
maybe only 99% of the problem is mine. Maybe 1% has your name on it.


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