At the CCAR Convention 2015, we honored the class of 1965, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years. CCAR is proud to share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.
Those of us who have spent fifty years in the rabbinate and five preceding years at HUC-JIR, have lived through the end of the first period of Reform Judaism and have entered the second. The first period, sometimes called Classical Reform, began in Germany, and was brought to America by, mostly, German Jews. Its philosophical base is called German Idealism, principally the philosophies of Kant and Hegel. This philosophy saw Judaism as a system of ideas, and Judaism “presents the highest conception of the God-Idea” in history. Rejecting the thoughts of Hegel, about religious history, which said that Judaism had made its contribution to the unfolding of the Spirit and it was time for it to go, Reform believed that the Jewish mission was eternal until the Messianic Age, when our purpose would be fulfilled. Thus, Arnold Toynbee, the eminent historian, accepting Hegel’s analysis, said the Jews were a fossil. This caused us great consternation, and we suspected anti-Semitism and not deep philosophy. Our founders understood our role in human history as bearing the pure monotheistic God-Idea and teaching it to the world. They knew, precisely, what was living and dead in the Jewish Tradition and saw their mandate as continuing the purity of the Jewish purpose. All of this is enshrined in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.
Much, however, has changed since 1885. Reform Judaism is no longer dominated by German Jews. Hitler destroyed our late 19th century optimism about historical progress, and German Idealism is no longer the regnant philosophy of the thinking world. In actuality, now, there is no regnant philosophy, but if we want to label our approach, it is, loosely, existential and we are influenced by such thinkers as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Eugene Borowitz. We are more concerned than Leo Baeck was, in his book, to find “The Essence of Judaism” than the meaning of Jewish existence and how to be a Jew. We look for mitzvot more than ideas, and we are no longer so certain about what, in our Tradition, is anachronistic and dead. We are more open to the Tradition and the role it plays in our lives. I was on the committee that produced the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the Pittsburgh convention of the CCAR, in 1999. It was a wonderful opportunity to witness the first attempt to articulate the new direction of Reform Judaism. The rabbis present spanned the spectrum from left to right, but pretty much, we all agreed. The discussions were more concerned with the style and format of the document than the direction we all felt Reform was going. It is a document that sees Reform evolving from its early principles, without which we wouldn’t exist, to a greater openness to all of our Jewish past and humility about our ability to know the future.
I believe that Reform is still Reform and all the achievements of our forbears have been preserved because our greatest achievements in the first period are permanent: an historical and critical approach to our Tradition, egalitarianism, social concern. I, also, believe that we are exhibiting an understanding that characterizes the entire Jewish Tradition, including Reform: the creativity, and insight that sees Judaism as dynamic. Judaism and the Jews have survived because of this creativity and our existence as the Eternal People depends on it.