Jewish Renewal: A Book Review in Parts, #2

This is part 2 of a review of Niles Goldstein and Peter Knobel’s Duties of the Soul, which you can get here.

As I said yesterday, this is a book review that should have interest for Christian, Jewish, and Messianic Jewish readers. For Messianic Judaism, this book has a lot to make us think about halakhah (practical guidelines for keeping Torah). For Christians this book has some challenges to the way people view God’s commandments and our freedom.

The first chapter is by Daniel Bronstein, a fellow rabbi with Goldstein and Knobels in the Reform Roundtable. It is about Reform Judaism and Mitzvot (commandments, deeds).

Starting with a brief explanation of why there was never a chief rabbinate in North America, he gives a brief history of Reform Judaism and evolving positions on commandments. I will cover just the beginning of that history, through the Classical Reform era in America, and then comment on the view of the law espoused by Reform Judaism:

I. Early American Judaism showed innovation, such as Jacksonian-era congregations who prayed in English, preached in English, and modified the Siddur (Jewish prayer book).

II. Classical Period (1880-1935) is defined as that period before the Columbus Platform (explained below). There was a sense of unity in Reform and mitzvot or at least a system of halakhah was not an issue. Used the term “mission of Israel” instead of “mitzvah.” Concerned with social justice and ethics, not God’s commandments. A secularizing view of law as social duty. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and Hebrew Union College formed. Hopes were for one Judaism for all of America, and that was Reform. On July 11, 1883, a group of rabbis held a banquet called known now as “the Terefah Banquet,” meaning a banquet of unkosher foods (in this case, clams, crab, shrimp). This outraged observant Jews. It was the spirit of Reform Judaism, which saw ceremonial law as unimportant (like many Christian views of the law). Then there was the Pittsburgh Platform, a statement by the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) which said, “we accept as binding only the moral laws” (sounds like Reformed Christianity). They looked to the Torah for eternal principles, not literal commandments.

To understand Reform Judaism, you have to understand the Haskalah in Europe. Jews had been ostracized and killed for centuries in Europe. With the Enlightenment, many Jews saw a hope that with intellectual achievement and by abandoning God’s covenant signs (Sabbath, dietary law, circumcision) they could be accepted by society. Many converted to Christianity, most without any sincere intent other than advancing their social position. It was a dream that failed as made clear when the Nazis murdered all Jews, even those who had converted and been baptized in Christian churches.

Classical Reform Judaism was a counterpart to liberal Protestantism. There was a lot of mimicking, with Jewish services being held more and more on Sundays and with a pipe organ and hymns (Jewish ones, not “Amazing Grace”).

And what did these Jewish leaders see as immediately necessary to get along with the “Christian” world and to be true to “evolutionary” science: abandoning God’s call for Israel to be distinct.

In Duties of the Soul, the concern is to show Reform Judaism’s changing views on the meaning of commandment. This raises a question for all Christians, Jews, and Messianic Jews: what does a commandment from God mean? Are some of them moral and others we can disregard as outdated ceremony? If God commands a certain diet for Israel, can a Jew say it is obsolete since it is not moral?

The book will go on to give some profound insights into the power of commandment and obedience. From this inauspicious beginning, where it may seem that Reform Judaism has nothing to teach us, we will see that Reform is saying powerful things, in some circles, today.

Next part: The Columbus Platform – Reform grows up.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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