A conversation between — and about — denominations

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Ari, we separate our movements based on our philosophical approaches to Judaism. Yet I feel that there is a disconnect between what movements purport and what we actually do.

Reform Jews are supposed to have a deep education in Jewish text and tradition in order to make an informed “choice through knowledge.” Because we believe our Torah was shaped by imperfect humans striving to understand the Divine, we have flexibility in approaching tradition in ways that your community — with its view that God dictated Torah through the hand of Moses — doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Reform Jews often exchange flexibility with non-engagement. Shabbat attendance and ongoing learning aren’t nearly as central to Reform communities as the clergy would like.

“Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education.”— Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Why would I still choose Reform Judaism? Because I think your community, too, struggles with a disconnect between purported and lived values. I choose the flaws of my community over those I perceive in yours.

Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education — conveying core values about what it means to be Jewish in the world. Some say we overemphasize universalism, but the Torah, our prophets and our most-respected modern philosophers all seem obsessed with the central core value of human dignity. I take pride that Reform Judaism has been at the forefront of each era’s fight for human dignity.

The Orthodox community will nearly always beat us on fidelity to learning, Shabbat practice and kashrut. But I fear that focusing on these values comes at the expense of the our tradition’s moral core, which demands that we transform our faith into social action.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

Sarah, first, I don’t claim to be the representative of the Orthodox community. But I’ll do my best to present a fair and constructive perspective on it.

I think you’re right: A major tenet of Jewish thought and tradition is social action and, generally speaking, the Orthodox community does not make it as central as it ought to be. But some contextualization is also necessary. To claim that social action alone is the “moral core” of our tradition ignores the binding nature of mitzvot as they appear in the Torah and rabbinic literature.

Regardless of how you define revelation, a Judaism that doesn’t place ritual, God and some form of halachah…

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