Rabbi Yair Robinson
Parashat Mishpatim/Heritage Shabbat 2024
We were supposed to go to Rome.
After leading my congregational trip to Israel, we had a week to kill between its end and my son’s program beginning, and the original plan was to visit Italy before dropping him off in Warsaw. Of course, man plans, and God laughs—it turned out to travel from Israel to Rome and Rome to Warsaw is nearly impossible. So instead, my family and I looked at each other and explored our options, and settled on Vienna, Austria. Now, those who know me know that Austria, never mind Warsaw, were not on my bucket list. But it was a chance for us to have a family vacation and see a part of the world none of us knew well. It was not meant to be a specifically Jewish trip, yet our first morning we found ourselves near the Stadtempel, which was conducting tours, so we popped in. For those who have not been, it is a beautiful sanctuary, really one of the crown jewels to have survived the Shoah, and thankfully, one that is still in use. But as we were waiting for the tour to begin, we noticed a marble plaque hanging high above the door, among the plaques celebrating the various past rabbis of the community, remembering members who died in World War I and the Holocaust, and the like. It was a plaque celebrating the ubercantor, the head cantor, Solomon Sulzer, one of the great musical composers of the early Reform movement. This place was meant to be modern Judaism, a Judaism that integrated Jewish religious expression with Viennese society, where Sulzer did not just innovate the music that would come to define our movement and even Jewish music of the West but performed musical arrangements of Psalm 92 written specifically for him by Franz Schubert. Above the ark the words of Psalm 100 appear as if descending from the heavens: “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.” Not only are those words classic words to hang above the aron hakodesh, they are words that are deeply appropriate for our Reform movement, not only in its origins but today as well.
So often, I hear people describe Reform Judaism as a religion of rejection—we reject the tradition, we cast off this or that mitzvah. Or I hear even from well-meaning people about how ours is a simplified version, an easier kind of Judaism. Even the leaders of our movement tend to look at our founding fathers and mothers: Penina Moise, Isaac Meyer Wise, Kaufmann Kohler, David Einhorn, as rejectionists and rebels. Essentially, they are saying that the words of Torah we heard a few moments ago, that Israel spoke with one voice accepting God’s sacred obligations, is simply not who we are. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is one line in the Pittsburgh Platforms of 1885 that speak of casting off those traditions that no longer speak to us, but the majority of that document and the early writings of the Reformers were all about embracing and moving toward a Judaism of meaning and devotion, a kind of faithfulness that embraces the pluralistic values we continue to affirm today, as we have for 150 years.
No, our Judaism is one that evokes the words above that ark Sulzer sung beneath: we are always walking forward, always entering God’s gates with praise and gratitude. We do not define ourselves but what we reject but what we embrace: whether it is the role of women, or LGBT+ individuals, those born of interfaith families and the non-Jewish parents and partners of those families. And not just accept, but truly embrace and celebrate their participation and engagement. When our Classical Reform forebears spoke of a worship that elevated the spirit, they meant that seriously, whether it was the music, or the use of English (or the vernacular) to make the service accessible, and to allow multiple avenues into understanding our role in serving God’s covenant.
Indeed, the idea that our mission as Jews was closer to a universalistic mission, to raise awareness of the challenges around us, and to fight against the injustices of our society, not only for us as Jews but for all people, was a radical notion. Today, Jews and even non-Jews use the term “Tikkun Olam” and apply it to all kinds of different activities from feeding the hungry to fighting for economic justice, but the use of that term outside of Kabbalah really emerged from a Reform commitment to social action and social justice; that it was not just God’s job but our job to raise up those who slept in the dust, that the ritual we practice in here must lead us to serving the community around us—Jewish and non-Jewish—out there. It was not enough for the service to elevate the spirit, or worse, become mere entertainment; it was meant to inspire us to action for the betterment of our world. In taking our students to L’taken this past weekend, I was reminded of how our Religious Action Center is not just producing some of our best programming and learning but is also arguably the most important of our movement’s institutions, allowing us to translate our values into meaningful action.
So, we return to our verses of Torah. How do we as Reform Jews understand the idea of Israel with one voice saying, “all that God has said we will do.” Reform would demand a kind of humility in our approach to this text. Just because we spoke with one voice—as Reform congregations lift up their voices together in song and reading—does not mean that everyone understood the words the same way, had the same idea of what it means to live those words that God has commanded. This is not a moment, like the Tower of Babel, where the people ‘spoke one language with one set of words’, exhibiting groupthink and a lack of critical thinking. No, as Reform Jews we should read these words as our own, as we walk through God’s gates with thanksgiving, each of us in our own wonderful diversity.
So, as we celebrate our Reform Heritage, and especially our classical Reform heritage, we celebrate what we have embraced, not rejected: a devotion to pluralism and diversity, a religion of universal values and uplifting ritual, that inspires us to bring about a world transformed in God’s image and sovereignty. We may not always agree on how we fulfill God’s vision and sacred obligations, but with gratitude, we will always proclaim that we will faithfully do so, forever, and ever. Amen.