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Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner: D’var Torah for Chagigah 2012

This D’var Torah was given following Shabbat morning services at Chagigah 2012: a weekend celebrating Reform Judaism.

We just couldn’t get anywhere near it.

We were excluded from the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting that we just read about in our parashah. This tent contained God’s portable presence but the hoi polloi, you and me, Am Yisrael, were kept well away, banned from trespassing on this holy space, on pain of death.

The term, ‘tent of meeting’ strikes me as somewhat paradoxical as only one group – the Levites –were granted the proverbial key to this space.

Our town square-style Torah service in here stands in stark contrast to this model of exclusion and privilege. Our service followed the spirit of the haftarah we read, adopting the ‘Nehemiah method’ of Torah inclusion. We held up the Torah for all to see. We read Torah so we all had proximity to it, so we all were included. This is Judaism that is passed down for our hands to grasp and hold.

But it’s not enough to hold the Torah up for all to access. For our Judaism to be substantial, nourishing and sustaining, it needs three vital elements: community, commitment and content. Nehemiah knew what he was doing as he knew about the power of community, commitment and content. He called all the people together to form a community, led a public oath of commitment and read the Torah aloud to provide the content.
As Reform Jews we continue the Nehemiah tradition of evolution. Our Israeli sister Movement calls it “a tradition of religious renewal”. Rabbi Michael Marmur sums this mischievous paradox as, “the most traditional thing a Jew can do is change.” Now is our time. So how should we continue to that tradition of renewal and change?

I was jolted recently by an article written by the American Reform Rabbi, Leon Morris entitled, “Reform Judaism Must Move Beyond ‘personal choice’ “.  He states that we need a far-reaching ideological reorientation to close the gap between our ideals and our practice. “Reform” he says, “needs to retire once and for all the phrase that has become synonymous with the Movement itself, ‘personal choice’… No one disputes the fact that ultimate autonomy lies within the self… but trying to build a movement on the basis of this is like building a nation on the assertion that ‘it’s a free country’.”

Morris claims that ‘informed choice’ “can confer a seemingly ideological veneer upon the most haphazard and unreflective religious decision. Convenience can be masked as commitment. Personal choice undermines the notion of standards of any sort, making anything defensible and everything an equally valid choice.”

I may not be as strident as Rabbi Leon Morris but I agree with the challenge that he sets: to re-balance individual choice with the communal framework and to frame choice as a right and responsibility that grows hand-in-hand with community, commitment and content.

I would really love people to stop saying “I don’t have to do this or that because I’m Reform”. Just ‘being Reform’ is not a rationale. If someone says, “I don’t want to do something because I understand it and I don’t think it is moral, religiously compelling”, that’s fine. But I fear that using ‘Reform’ as an infinitely flexible get-out clause leads to a reduction in our Judaism – in all three aspects – community, commitment and content.
Making informed choices is wise and essential but it has become a disproportionate guiding mantra of Reform Judaism. It became our ark of the covenant, at the core of the Ohel Moed and my fear is that the overemphasis on choice meant most of us just stood at the very edge of the Ohel, peeping in, just opening the doors but not taking the Torah out to engage with. Many walked away, distracted and with the echo of ‘informed choice’ ringing in their ears, enabling lack of engagement, comforted by us lowering our expectations.

Reform Judaism is not Excuse Judaism.

Research into the patterns of Jewish communities shows that the communities who thrive are those whose members choose to take on commitments, whether to the community, to study, to social justice work – commitments to mitzvot. These members stay involved and are in turn nourished by their involvement.

Throughout the international Reform world, we are already changing – placing a greater emphasis on learning and participation.  Just look at Chagigah, bursting at the seams with opportunities for learning and participation.

This past year, our members gave us a strong direction in the Strategic Review – they want the Movement to lead us in a Judaism of meaning and significance.

The Nehemiah pledge resonates with this desire for a compelling message. In the haftarah that Andrew read, the people pledged: וְהֶעֱמַדְנוּ עָלֵינוּ מִצְוֹת Ve he’amadnu aleinu mitzvot “We take mitzvot upon ourselves”, we commit to Judaism.

What’s in this short phrase?  וְהֶעֱמַדְנוּ עָלֵינוּ מִצְוֹת Ve he’amadnu aleinu mitzvot – It’s from the root עמד  Ayin, mem, daled as in the Amidah, עמידה – our standing prayer. When we stand by something and when take something on ourselves, then it is , עמיד amid it can stand up, stand the test of time, it is long-lasting, durable, and resilient.

In response to our members’ call for more substance and direction, this afternoon we are launching our national adult education programme, named ‘L’Chaim’, the first unit of which was written by Rabbi Josh Levy. L’Chaim is about action, about how we live and how we give substance to our choices. We called it ‘L’Chaim’ to emphasise how we live as Reform Jews rather than just how we choose.

L’Chaim was designed to convey depth and durability of living a Reform Jewish life. L’Chaim illuminates our beliefs and values and it enables us to learn together in a series of guided conversations. We offer you four taster sessions from the first unit of L’Chaim here at Chagigah. Helped by your feedback we plan to write more units and to train facilitators to take L’Chaim around the country.

L’Chaim is about the beliefs and values that we identified as core to our Judaism. It takes the language of our strategy and expands and explores it by laying pathways of study.

The L’Chaim programme promotes Reform Judaism that centres on living a life of integrity, respecting other individuals, the wider Jewish community, Israel and the wider world.

Reform Judaism is loving God – however we understand that – by striving for kedushah, for holiness . This means pursuing justice, healing the world in our everyday lives, and the equality for every member of our community, whatever gender, sexual orientation or background.

Our Judaism recognises the centrality both of Jewish tradition and of our own responses. Our Judaism involves living a life of integrity by matching what we say with what we do.

And it means living with knowledge – understanding the origins of our traditions, their history and their development, and in this way appreciating the multiple voices and meanings of our texts. Texts are at the very heart of our Judaism and all Judaism; they represent our people responses to their encounters with God.

Living a life of integrity, living honestly, aligning what we do with what we believe.

For me these are the substantial, nourishing and sustaining elements of our communities, our commitments and content.

So back at our town square, after the public reading of the Torah was concluded, Nehemiah told the people to go and feast; to eat and drink and participate in a great celebration – what could definitely be called a ‘chagigah‘. And for once this stiff-necked people happily obliged, not only because of the prospect of food and drink, though. They went and did so because (as the haftarah tells us) “they understood the reading that had been given to them.”

So, let’s go, feast, eat and drink and celebrate as our Chagigah will ensure that we too will understand – we will understand and live – l’Chaim!

Photograph: Howard Barlow

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