Sermon – On being a Reform Jew

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 December 2011

As some of you may know, over the past few months, my family and I have been having some major work done on the house.  Thankfully, we are nearly at the end, and things are nearly back to normal.  There are still a load of boxes in the loft waiting for the first few days of my sabbatical; we are waiting for a few snags to be sorted by various tradesman.  And there is one other thing hasn’t yet been put right – as yet the new front door is without a Mezuzah.

There are a number of reasons why this is so.  Most importantly, we have wanted to make a real family ritual of putting up a mezuzah together.  As it is close to Chanukah, we thought it would be special to mark the rededication of our home in its new, cleaner form on the first night.

But the absence of a mezuzah has become a topic of conversation among a few people who have noticed.  And this has struck me as strange, as worthy of reflection.  Because, let’s imagine that I had said something different – if I had said our door was without a mezuzah because actually I don’t find it a meaningful aspect of Jewish practice.  What would that have felt like? I imagine, though I may be wrong, that you would not have been impressed.  That somewhere deep down is the feeling that a Jew ought to have a mezuzah.  In fact, a couple of people have had a look at the house driving past, have noticed, and have said exactly that.  And yet, in most other aspects of Jewish practice we are rather less prescriptive –rabbis in our movement have differing levels of Kashrut observance, differing levels of Shabbat observance – have, in common with all of us, the right to choose how to express their personal Jewish practice.

Why should mezuzah be different? Why is it legitimate to say “Josh, it really is time that you sorted out your mezuzah” and not “Josh, it is time you stopped driving to Shul on Shabbat”?

This question is at the heart of the paradox of Reform Judaism – something that we have been examining together in a series of adult education sessions I have been running here at Alyth and it is something which will be taking up a fair amount of my time in various ways during my sabbatical.  It is something with which I struggle, an area in which as yet I don’t think we have found a clear way of articulating a clear theological or ideological position.

Because Reform Judaism contains a challenging tension.  On the one hand we believe in personal autonomy – not only as a reality of our modern lives (we all do choose) but also as a religious value – that exercising our God-given rational faculties is one of the ultimate expressions of religious life. And we believe that changes and developments in the world, and therefore in our perceptions and understandings are part of a gradual process of revelation which make personal struggle and expression a more whole way of addressing the world than obedience to external forces.    And yet, on the other hand, there is a contradictory belief in Jewish particularist obligation – that being a Jew brings with it stuff that we ought to do.  This was traditionally expressed in the language of divine commandment and law, but we still have a sense of compulsion if not of command.  Mezuzah is an example of this because it still has a normative weight in Reform Judaism – I was slightly embarrassed to begin this morning as I did.  I would be discomforted if I were sitting on a Beit Din and a candidate for conversion proclaimed that they had chosen not to have a mezuzah.

This tension between personal autonomy and Jewish obligation is not a problem for Orthodoxy which does not believe in personal autonomy – at least beyond the autonomy to obey or not obey.  Nor was it a problem for Classical Reform or Liberal theologians.  For them, the concept of Jewish obligation, at least in the area of ritual practice, was a dubious one.  In the area of ritual behaviour, this was a choice, made because particular aspects were experienced positively or functional within the community.

Nor is it a problem for Masorti Judaism, which limits autonomy, giving supreme authority to Jewish Law (I believe in an act of abdication of responsibility to the text) and which claims, again, I think, erroneously, that this is an acceptable decision, stating that Jewish obligation is flexible enough to allow us to live in tune with it and modern ethics and needs.

No, the problem is distinctively ours – only we truly believe in personal autonomy and in obligation at the same time. And it is not clear how, intellectually, these can be reconciled. Of course, we do, rationally, limit our personal autonomy all the time.  We do so in part in order to be in community.  Last Shabbat morning I spoke about psharah – compromise.  In the area of communal religious practice we exercise compromise in order to live together as a community.  In the area of, for example, status, we together accept certain norms in order to create a functioning religious society. We also limit autonomy – both in public and in private – in the area of ethics, in which we understand certain principles – social justice, equality, honesty – as having greater force.

There are theologians – chief among them Eugene Borowitz who suggest that being part of the Jewish people – being part of a covenantal relationship with God – involves a necessary limiting of personal autonomy, or accepting of duty, because this is how Jews are in relationship with God.  But this does not adequately explain how we might privilege one area over another. Why this might apply for mezuzah, but not to other aspects of our practice.

So this tension is one that I will spend quite a lot of my sabbatical reflecting on – both in developing an education project for MRJ and in teaching a course at Leo Baeck College.  But I imagine that I will not reach a perfect outcome. In truth, especially in the area of personal practice, the reality of being a Reform Jew is living with the tension.  To be in a place of contradiction and to embrace it.  We recognise that we might feel a sense of should or ought but that we cannot necessarily rationalise it, and we certainly shouldn’t project it onto others.  We acknowledge that in fact this place of tension is a place that is a source of great intellectual and spiritual creativity.  The reality of being a Reform Jew is to accept that part of a belief in personal autonomy as a religious value is that sometimes people reach different conclusions to us, and can do so with integrity.  Our task as Reform Jews is to ensure that we undergo real thinking about our practice – so that we know that the outcome reached is the right one, even if it would not be the right one for us.

And so, back to the mezuzah.  We might argue that a Jew should have a mezuzah on their front door.  But I’m not sure we can really justify that.  And yet, it definitely feels that way – It feels that we should have a mezuzah.  And we will – though not for a few weeks. But if it didn’t then it would, as a Reform Jew, be my right to say so, and to do so. And our task together is not to persuade but to live with the tension.