Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Meetings 2 and 3: Reform and Reconstructionist

I'm actually not going to go into my meeting with the Reform Rabbi for several reasons the main one being that we mostly talked about our own congregation and my feelings about it. That's private.

However, I had a very interesting meeting with the local Reconstructionist Rabbi that I'm happy to blog about. Plus, I've got to get busy because I just scheduled a meeting with the Humanist Rabbi for THIS AFTERNOON so I've got to get done with the background info before my journey takes another turn.

I learned a lot about Reconstructionism, namely that:

1) Reconstructionists reject the notion of "Chosenness." I like that. If I'm a Humanist, how can I say that some people are chosen by God as special? Reconstructionists, if I understand correctly, believe that we, as Jews, have chosen special responsibilities (mitzvoth, or commandments) toward God.

2) They believe that the scriptures were written by people. This is essential to me for two reasons. First, since I no longer believe in God, it's hard to embrace the whole given-by-God thing. And second, the most important thing to me about religion is being able to question the text. It's what I love to do and it's also where I think the wisdom in our heritage lies. (More on that later.) My favorite quote from the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordechai Kaplan is, "Tradition gets a vote, not a veto." That sounds sensible to me.

3) On the vote, not a veto score, Reconstructionists study and discuss when they want to make change. The basic idea (again, as I understand it--I'm hardly an expert) is that decisions about religious practice can't be made in a vacuum. If you're part of a religious community, then those decisions should be made with the community. So Reconstructionists go through a process where they discuss things like "What does prayer mean?" They hear all the voices in the congregation, and they study the voices of the past through scripture and commentary. Then they hopefully come to a consensus about what to do in their community.

This all appeals to me. I like the deep questioning, and the basic tenets seem to align with my beliefs (as all the Rabbis kept telling me they would.) However, the Reconstructionist congregation near me is tiny. Really tiny. I went to a service and there were about 15 people there. Three of them were with me. This has pluses and minuses for my purposes. It's not the vibrant community I'm looking for, but could it be?

One thing that's very appealing about this congregation is that because they can only afford to have the Rabbi lead services once a month, they have lay leaders who lead the rest of the time. I could be trained as a lay leader and do pretty much whatever I want (within reason, of course, but since the whole studying/questioning thing is right up my alley, whatever I want should fit in just fine.) And if I could attract a significant number of Humanistic Jews to the congregation, we could be our own community-within-a-community.

I promised more about the wisdom of Jewish tradition. What I think is great about Judaism is that there has never really been one text. Sure, there's the Torah, but even that contradicts itself. And in addition to the Torah, we've always had priests, rabbis, Writings, Prophets, and the Talmud. Jews are supposed to study in chevrutah--with a partner. So while we hold certain texts as sacred, and some believe they come directly from God, there has never been a notion that one human can understand these texts perfectly. We've always argued about them. And there are reams and reams of paper, parchment, and memory recording these arguments. We even record the arguments of the people who lose. And we still revere these people as wise, even when the tradition turns away from their arguments. Jews have always had a living relationship with the text.

What's even better about Progressive Jews is that we can choose what do do with this information. When we study, we can decide whether the passage we're studying still has relevance or is out of date. Or if it's MORE relevant than it used to be, like when a student said that this quote:

“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.”  
Leviticus: 19:14

shows us that we shouldn't bully people on the internet. Even if the person doesn't know it's you, it still hurts their feelings. See? Religion is good when it leads to that! But religion is bad when it causes people to oppress gay people and throw stones at little girls on their way to school. Progressive Jews get to decide what we stand for, and we can apply common sense and modern values to what we read. We can even learn from science that while homosexual behavior might be unnatural for me, because I'm straight, it's very natural if you're gay. And if you love someone and want to make a family with that person, you should have the legal protection of marriage. Sure, the people who wrote the Torah thought differently, but they were people recording the wisdom of their time. Some of it is still wise. Some of it seems really foolish now. 

It's wise to study history, to feel connected to a people with a long story, and to learn from the past. It's foolish to live in the past and to ignore the present. 

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