Renewing Our Spiritual Infrastructure

Jan 6, 2015 by

Renewing Our Spiritual Infrastructure

In May 1999, about 15 ½ years ago, the Conference passed its Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Principles, by an overwhelming majority.  Two years ago, the Reform Leadership Council endorsed a “Vision Statement” which, while more concise, reiterates the same ideas.  What place have these documents in our life now?  Where is our Movement headed today?

Following the Principles’ categories of God, Torah and Israel, most of us would agree that we are much more comfortable speaking about God’s role in our lives than we used to be, and when difficult individuals challenge us, we are more and more prone to remember that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  We have joined in the struggle to preserve and protect God’s creation, lifting our voice for a faith-based environmentalism in a society that still too often sees that as a contradiction in terms.  We are not as advanced as we might be in “encountering God’s presence in acts of justice and compassion,” still too prone to give in to wary congregants’ characterization of acts and statements of justice as “political” rather than “spiritual”.  We have, I believe, work to do in that area.

Do we pray as often we know we should?  Do we study as much, as regularly?  The Principles can serve us as a goad in these realms.  The CCAR, particularly under Debbie Prinz’s guidance, has helped us in both these areas—but we need to help each other as well.  “What are you studying these days?” we can ask our friends.  “Could I talk with you about some issues I’ve been having with prayer lately?”  Perhaps the Conference might conduct a periodic call-in session to talk about our spiritual lives.  With the collapse of the regional councils of the URJ years ago, perhaps the Conference might convene such gatherings in its regions, around regional kallot.  The College-Institute would, I am sure, be glad to host such conversations for colleagues in the vicinity of our campuses.

The section on “Torah” in the Principles commits us to the “ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”. Have we looked at a list of them recently?  Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, particularly in the Moznayim edition, is an excellent place to start.  Which of them calls to me?  Which ones used to call to me that I no longer fulfill—do I still agree with that decision?  Are there mitzvot that I have been considering for a long time—is now the time to respond to them?  Are there mitzvot not in Maimonides’ list that call to me?”

The Torah section concludes with a catalog of ways to bring Torah into the world.  It’s a good idea to review that catalog periodically.  What are we doing to “narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor”? To “act against discrimination and oppression”?  “To pursue peace”—in our own homes, our communities, in Israel?  “To welcome the stranger”?  “To protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources”?  Are we giving as much tzedakah—of our earnings and our time—as we might?

The Israel section invites us to ask similar questions: are we acting on “a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors”?  The news of the past several months reminds us how much the Reform Movement is needed to help stem the dangerous nationalistic tide that seems to be engulfing the Israeli government. How do we respond to the chaos in the Middle East?  I believe that a state for Palestinians must be created alongside the State of Israel.  You may not agree, but the Principles suggest that, whatever course we affirm, we need to work for its fulfillment.

And if we respond to all these prompts, “I am so stressed, I feel so pursued by difficult congregants or troubled students—I have no cheshech to ask such questions!” Attention to such mitzvot is a way to lessen stress, to remind ourselves, at a time when we feel that others are controlling our lives, of how much of our lives we can control, how much we can contribute to being partners with God, spreading Torah in the world, and realizing our ancient visions of the people and the nation of Israel.

The financial crises which have beset the arms of the Movement over the years have weakened some of our infrastructure.  We—our institutions and our colleagues—cannot let it weaken our spiritual infrastructure, our resolve to continue energetically to serve God and Torah.  We need to be strong in this time, colleagues; we need to strengthen each other.

I hope you will respond to these thoughts on RavBlog, and I will respond to you.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

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