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Dear Friends:

     What is it in this faith of ours that maintains our Jewish identity without which, we should have long ago disappeared from sight? 

     Our faith is 4,000 years old, if we date its origin with the life of Abraham. That is two-thirds of recorded human history. As such, it was not always great and highly exalted. At times we stumbled, and at times we failed. But there were, also, times, and more of them, when we delivered our message clearly, and wrote our statements with a proud and noble hand. 

     We didn’t invent great weapons or mobilize great armies or sculpt marble statues. What we did create was a respect, a reverence, for a code of conduct: a passion for justice, a sense of caring, compassion and concern—all of which we related to our worship of God. And this is what came of our experiences.


     I offer four rubrics that can place this faith of ours in perspective.

     First: A long time ago, our faith proclaimed that God is one; and more than that, that God is good. Until we came upon the scene, there never had been a people that believed what we believed. All others believed that God or the gods were strong and willful: to be fed or feared, placated or bribed. And those gods were never good; they were capricious. 

     The Greek and Roman gods were not only capricious, they were cruel and immoral. Only by our prophets was God conceived within the realm of values and ideas, with God proclaiming justice, compassion and love, making it abundantly clear that these values were to direct daily thoughts and behaviors that would ultimately lead to a good life.

“Would that my people forget me,” the rabbis have God saying, “but keep my commandments!”  

     Our God came to represent all the forces of kindness and compassion, love and respect, decency and integrity, dignity and courage and honor. And, that is also part of what God meant. 

     Second: Since this faith of ours calls us to live by values, it always considered humanity, not God, to be center stage. Others questioned the intrinsic worth of man (and woman)—born in sin, they said, and therefore, needing to be saved. Our faith does not perceive of a humankind that is saved from sin. It affirms that even when people fail, they remain sacred, still in possession of intrinsic worth. One must learn to say: “Bishveelee nivrah ha-olam, for my sake, was the world created!” As a human being, one remains center stage, the doer, commissioned with the task of fixing the world.

     Third: It was this faith of ours that encouraged the belief that tomorrow would be better than yesterday. Incurable optimists in an ancient world of pessimism, we wrote no Greek tragedies, but sang, instead, joyful hymns to the future. Bayom Hahu, we said: On that day it shall come to pass.... Always in the future—there will be love, understanding, peace. There will be a better day, not in some other world, but here in this one, and we shall sit under our vine and fig trees with none to make us afraid.

     Fourth: This faith of ours proclaimed that there was no private path to God, that people everywhere could worship as they wished. Our way was ours and theirs was theirs, each with its own special virtues. We never suggested that ours was the only path. 

     These four rubrics do not make us better than others, and they do not make us worse; they make us—Jews. 

     We affirm our Jewishness as Reform Jews, while we recognize that the Ultra-Orthodox have leveled charges against us that have to do with performance. We do not perform what they consider the ritual mitzvot. We ride on Shabbat. We put on lights, and we cook, and we may or may not abide by the laws of kashrut. Therefore, according to the Orthodox, we break with what they consider Jewish law. 

     But my view is quite the contrary. I believe that Reform has saved Judaism from being weakened by those who remember the form, but may have forgotten the message.

     When we dared to say that there was no place for “legalities” in Judaism, we did not water it down, dilute or weaken it. When we dared to say that the Babylonian Talmud was part of our historical and cultural heritage, but the law of the land was the law, we freed the spirit of Judaism. We helped it to live again.

     When we re-examine rituals, it is not because we are for them or against them, but because it is essential that we determine which are meaningful and which are meaningless. Think, for example, of shlugging kaporus, or Tashlich, which are vicarious means of atonement. With vicarious atonement, we absolve ourselves by placing the responsibility for a misdeed on another. In the case of Tashlich, we toss away our sins through bread crumbs and are absolved. In the case of shlugging kaporus, the stand-in for our sins and misdeeds is a chicken, and we are absolved. 

     Our faith calls upon us to accept personal responsibility, and not substitute vicarious atonement. These rituals do not fit in with the Jewish value system, and when we eliminate them, we are not watering down Judaism, or weakening it; we are cleansing it and helping it to live in consonance with the essential message of our faith.

     We teach that ritual is important because it dramatizes and concretizes our values, but it must never be an end in itself. It must always lead to an ethical idea or to the performance of an ethical act. To think one is “going steady with God” by just performing rituals, and to perform them mindlessly just because our ancestors performed them, is the easy thing to do. 

     We, in Reform, affirm a Judaism in which Jews love their heritage, study it, understand it, perform meaningful rituals and rejoice in them—but refuse to live in the past.

     We affirm a Judaism that reaches out to every Jew, and calls each, brother and sister, knowing that we can have a common fate and a common future, and that we need each other. With all of the contentiousness that we find in the household of Israel, with all that divides us, ought we not see that we are only sixteen million in the world and that we need each other?

     And, we affirm a Judaism that reaches out to all people of good faith; we call each brother and sister, knowing that in the last analysis, we—all of us—have a common fate and future, that we need each other because we are members of one race, the human race.

     We affirm a Judaism for which the crucial matter is our compassion, our concern, our willingness to stand up and be counted on to defend the dignity of others and to safeguard the sanctity of life; a Judaism which holds aloft these values and aims them at the world. 

     In spite of all the horrors of this world, in spite of all the pain and hurt that come our way, in spite of all the sorrows that we witness, the cruelties that claim their victims day by day, in spite of all of this, I tell you, there are values and ideals we still cherish, and decencies in life we still embrace in spite of everything! 

     So let us search our souls, and examine our lives against the backdrop of a faith that promises much and demands even more. And let us unite to face the challenge that never ends, and the dream of what yet can be, that will never fade away.

Dr. Robert S. Widom

from the rabbi's desk

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