Sermon: Yom Kippur 5776 – The True Torah Judaism is Reform Judaism

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 September 2015

What have been the building blocks of your year?  The things that have made you laugh, or cry, or shout in frustration.  The individual moments – some small, some momentous – that make up a year?

In this period of reflection, we can think back to those interactions and encounters that came together to build the 12 months just gone.

This morning I’d like to share two of these for me.  Two interactions – one profound and moving, one upsetting.  Two encounters representing two very different forms of religious life.

Let’s start, why not – with the more difficult encounter.
It was with someone who I’ve never met.
Someone who will probably never hear or read this sermon.
His name is pretty much all I know about him: Danny, from London.

I encountered Danny ‘virtually’ – a tiny footnote to one of the most important aspects of my year.  I’ve been very involved in developments in our Movement’s attitude to questions of inherited status.  How we will, as Rabbi Laura put it last night, provide an ‘audacious welcome’ to those whose status is more complex.  I’ve spoken and written about this at great length elsewhere, and look forward to continuing this conversation in the year ahead.
As Vice-Chairman of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis, I’d written an article in the Jewish News on the issue.  On the website version, Danny from London offered a comment:
“There is only form of Judaism and that is Torah Judaism,” he wrote, “Reform… is not the original and one has to wonder why the original which was given to the Jews by God is now considered not good enough.”
This was not all.  I’d written about Reform Judaism’s ‘centuries long commitment to balancing tradition and modernity’.  He wrote of a ‘centuries long commitment to wishing to be called Jews without practising Judaism’

Now I have no idea who Danny is.
I wish he were here today to see that there is not only one form of Judaism.  Even in one community.  To see a thriving community experiencing diverse forms of prayer and learning, practising Judaism.
I’d like to invite him to a Shabbat morning shiur, or a Talmud class; to our refugee drop-in or homeless shelter; to Summer madness or a festival tea; to a welfare support group, to see our community expressing Jewish ideals, studying, praying, gathering together, in diverse and creative ways.

But I doubt I’ll ever have the chance.
It is one of the challenges of the modern age that we are able to do things like post comments, with almost complete anonymity – thereby avoiding real conversation and real debate.  The internet, which in so many ways enables us to broaden our horizons, to learn and teach in wonderful new ways – also allows us to hide from real conversation with those with whom we differ.

I’m also pretty certain it wouldn’t make any difference.
Because Danny’s position is not about this – not about what is happening here today.
It is not about the quality of our Judaism.
The position represented in those short comments at the bottom of a webpage is ideological, theological.  It is about validity.
I know this because he used an insidious and ugly phrase which has crept into modern Jewish debate: Torah Judaism.
It is a relatively new phrase and is utterly polemical – it is a modern and conscious attempt to label our Judaism as being divorced from the Torah; a conscious attempt to claim Torah for one version of Jewish life alone.

It is not, yet, a mainstream Jewish voice.  But it represents a voice that many of us have encountered – may, perhaps, even have internalised.  A voice which judges all religious life against a ‘gold standard’ of Judaism – the original, the valid, the one True form of Jewish life.

To encounter this voice was expected. But still, to me, deeply upsetting.  Partly because I am extraordinarily proud of the developments in our movement – the values they represent, the rigour with which the process has taken place.
But mainly because I am extraordinarily proud of the Judaism that he rejects so dismissively.  Not only because it is authentic – because it is, in fact, true Torah Judaism, but because it is able to be so while also being intellectually robust in a way that few religions are able to be.

Ours is an authentic Torah Judaism in that it begins where all Judaisms do – in our relationship with the text.  Like all Jewish movements, this is where we start.
We are all heirs to the same literary and religious heritage – it belongs to all of us.  And so, when we study, when we pick up a prayerbook, when we live Shabbat, when we perform ritual, we are doing text.  When we care about the other, when we seek to make the world a better place, we do so out of Jewish values that stem from our relationship with the text.
When Colin spoke on Erev Rosh Hashanah about the journey of this time of the year, he did so out of the text; when Mark spoke on Rosh Hashanah morning of the obligation we have to refugees, he did so out of the text.  When Laura spoke last night about the institutions of our communities, she did so starting with the text.

In our communal and personal religious lives we express relationship with Torah, with rabbinic literature, the formative material out of which the Judaism we live grew.

Even where we are radical, as in the way that we seek to welcome into our communities those with complex status, or in our decision to celebrate diverse models of committed loving relationship, we are still from the text: from its values, from respectful thought and study.  Even where we are radical, we do so as heirs to an authentic Jewish tradition of radicalism.  Judaism was a creative, dynamic force, up until its calcification in the middle ages.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, when the early rabbis felt that their Judaism was in tension with the needs or values of their society – as in issues of status – they were entirely comfortable with changing it.   They subverted, overturned, put on hold, aspects of Judaism in response to shinui ittim – changing times. There was, of course, also a deeply conservative voice in rabbinic tradition, but there is nothing more ‘authentic’, more ‘Torah’ in reflecting rabbinic conservatism than in tapping into the radical strand in classical Judaism.

But, of course, this is not Danny’s definition.
When he uses the phrase Torah Judaism, what Danny means is something different – to him the only authentic Judaism is one based on adherence to halakhah as a normative system which tells us what to do.
His ‘Torah Judaism’, has a very different understanding of our relationship with the text.  It holds that God chose to communicate divine will for us through the means of revelation of Torah – given at one moment in time, but of eternal truth.  This model which is known as “Torah min HaShamayim” (Torah from heaven) or as “Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai” (the Law of Moses from Sinai) presents a position in which every story should be read as ‘true’ and every law as binding – for all of them come directly from God.  In this model, the primary human exercise is to mine the divine text – or rather to follow in the steps of those who have mined it in the past – to ensure that we are following God’s will.

And this is where we differ.
Because his position is not one that I can, with intellectual integrity agree with.  As the Orthodox Rabbi turned academic Norman Solomon has eloquently shown in his recent, exceptional book ‘Torah from Heaven’, the doctrine of an infallible, divinely revealed text is deeply flawed.
If we start with the text itself, we see that it is not a unity but a collection of documents woven together. When we start with the text itself, we see that the authorship which Torah Judaism asks us to assume must be in question. And even that is to assume that we know which text we are starting with – which of the multiple versions of the text existent in antiquity was the one of Moses on Sinai.

To assert that there was an original given to the Jews by God, to use that as a jumping off point for an all-encompassing, authoritative system of binding law, is not a position based on evidence – it is a fideistic position – one that maintains that faith is independent of reason, and that when reason and faith are hostile to one another faith is superior.

And Reform Judaism does not ask us to put faith above reason.

And it is this that makes our Judaism very special.
Because, while still utterly immersed in the text, we seek to also approach it with our intellectual integrity intact.

As this type of Torah Jews, we seek to privilege that which is good and ethical over that which is outdated and ugly – that which, in the words of our teacher John Rayner is “so plainly human… that to hold God responsible for them is a ‘profanation of God’s name’.  To engage with it all, but to name that which is evidently not divine as such.

As Torah Jews, we seek to approach Torah, Midrash, Talmud as some of the most beautiful human literature in history, but without binding ourselves to its law or legal interpretations – because we do not share the underlying theological assumptions on which they are based.  And because, like the early Sages themselves, we sometimes need to embrace change.

As Torah Jews, we seek to engage with our textual heritage as a source of challenge and inspiration – to give us language to ask the questions of our lives.  Just as, as it happens, the early Sages did in their Aggadic tradition, in which they used Torah as the mechanism for their own theological and spiritual questioning.

It is this privileging of human intellect that makes us distinct.  And this, too, is Torah Judaism. It is a religious value that comes out of our engagement with the text.  To quote Jacob Neusner, an American rabbi and prolific academic who left Conservative Judaism for Reform Judaism, the ideals of our Judaism are there:
“in the Torah’s conception of who and what we are as human beings — portrayed by Scripture as “in our image, after our likeness,” or “like God,” which Rashi glosses as “creators of worlds.”  The way we create worlds of meaning and truth is by exercising our power of rational thought and our autonomy of judgment, our capacity to think for ourselves and our non-negotiable capacity to be free.”

Our belief in the power of rational thought and our autonomy of judgment are Torah ideals.  And they are not ones reserved only for an elite.  All of us are created in the image, all of us capable of thought.  It is not only rabbis, not only ‘true believers’, who can be sources of wisdom.  Not only an elite who can be ‘legitimate guardians’ of Torah, but all of us.

Which brings me to the second person from this year.  This was a real, human interaction. Profound and moving.
A few months ago I was sitting on a Bet Din for conversion – in fact, Colin was there too, sitting as Av Bet Din.
A Bet Din is often a very powerful thing – a reminder of why what we have is so special.  And this was one such occasion.  The candidate had been born in Somalia, she had fled to the west as a child after the murder of her secular Army Officer father; her mother had reacted to western society by sending her to a strict Islamic school, adopting an increasingly conservative and literalist version of Islam.  Her mother would go on to be a prominent member of the Somalian Islamic militant group Al Shabaab.  But our candidate rejected religion, becoming a central figure in ex-Muslim atheism in the UK.
Until she found Reform Judaism.

This woman whose background, quite reasonably, led her to reject all religion as authoritarian and irrational found a religious space in which, in her own words, she was allowed – encouraged even – to be sceptical; a space in which she was enabled and encouraged to question and to challenge within the context of a religious community.
A woman who had seen and experienced almost the worst of what religion can be could also find a home within religious life.
A religion which allowed her to retain her integrity.

Of these two encounters from 5775, I am deeply proud that the Judaism we live is the one that created a home for her; not the One, the ‘true version’ that the other encounter represents.
I am deeply proud that our Judaism is one that allows us to live utterly immersed in the text, as full Torah Jews, but also within modernity.  One that encourages us to create powerful religious lives, with argument and disagreement, and doubt, allowing us to retain our intellectual integrity, encouraging us to argue together at Kiddush.

As we move into this 5776, as we reflect on the encounters we may have, the building blocks of the year to come, the place Judaism will have in our lives from this Yom Kippur to the next… may we continue to enjoy this thriving, vibrant robust, version of Jewish life.   May we live between the Jerusalems, within modernity and tradition.  May we enjoy both an intellectual sceptical religion, and this true form of Torah Judaism.