Elastic Reform Judaism and the Pittsburgh Platform

This sermon (Devar Torah) was delivered in July 1999 at Temple Beth Am, Seattle, Washington

Tonight, I want to discuss with you "Elastic Reform Judaism" and compare it with the Pittsburgh Platform, recently (May 1999) published by the CCAR.  Normally, I would go through the platform and through Elastic Reform point by point, comparing and contrasting as I went along.  This style of my own thought dates back to 1970 when I studied english under Myra Geotz, who was a brilliant teacher of english and is now selling real estate in Bellevue.

What is "Elastic" Reform Judaism?

"Elastic Reform Judaism" is the idea that Jews can pick and choose what Judaism means and what laws they will follow.  This idea my father attributes to Buddy Williams, although Mr. Williams has credibly denied any knowlege of this school of thought.  Its most ardent advocate is my 14 year old son, Daniel, who has uses it to justify not attending Sunday school.  I am sure that this was not the intent of my father, who is a brilliant physician, a learned man, and my good friend.
Although I am not a learned Jew, it is, or was, my aspiration that my children might become learned Jews.  At first, I attributed the problem to simple adolescent rebeliousness.  When I was my son's age, I myself once argued that Section 11 of Article 1 of the Washington constitution, the first amendment of the United States constitution, the declaration of independence, and the Magna Carta all endowed me with the same right to avoid Sunday School.  I was stupid: the man I was arguing with at the time was Fred Tausend, who was President of the Washington State Trial Lawyers association, and arguably one of the finest lawyers in the state.

I have discussed this situation with some of my friends; some of whom are Orthodox.  Their comments were insightful:

What is the Pittsburgh Platform?

    To be a Jew in America these days, one must know three alphabets: the normal alphabet used by everybody, the Hebrew alephbet, and the soup of letters used by organizations.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) got together in May of  1999 and created a platform, a statement of beliefs, which I have arranged for you to have on the handout.  This platform is an update of the Centenary Perspective, which was released on the 100th anniversary of the founding of UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  The platform is divided into a preamble, and sections on God, Torah, and Israel.

    There are some sections of the Pittsburgh Platform that please me and my knee-jerk liberal tendencies.  For example,

We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to      (gerim), those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a jewish home.
I wish that the platform took an explicit stand on the question of patrilineal descent; perhaps that was too politically radical.  I am concerned that Israel might not recognize Sarah and Daniel as Jews under the Law of Return.  Daniel does not recognize himself as a jew.  The neo Nazis do recognize him as a Jew.  It would be ironic, wouldn't it, if, after all the work that they have done, that the Israelis might turn them over to persecutors?
 

Comparing Elastic Reform and the Pittsburgh Platform

Elastic reform and the Pittsburgh Platform are remarkably similar.  In particular, the following paragraph strikes me as very similar to the ideas of elastic reform:
 
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of  (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these  (mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.
This paragraph suggests that there is some method by which individual Jews can choose which commandments they will follow.  However, this paragraph does not get Daniel off the hook, because it also calls for study.  And, for fourteen year old boys, that means Sunday school on tuesday nights.

So, for example, Daniel has been engaging in his adolescent rebellion by eating pork in my face at every opportunity.  While this is upsetting to me at one level, there is another way to think about it which only those people who actually come to the service and hear the sermon will find out about.  Heh, heh, heh.  Daniel has a web browser... he will read this, but he won't get it.  But Daniel hasn't murdered anybody, he hasn't stolen anything insofar as I know, he is truthful, he is genuinely brilliant and can be a joy to argue with and a valuable and agreeable companion when the urge hits him.  Perhaps, at this stage in his life, Dayenu.  If somebody had told me, a quarter of a century ago, that I would someday volunteer to lead a service here (with my parents and my wife here, no less), I would not have believed them.  Clearly change is possible, one should keep the door open to change, and both the Pittsburgh Platform and Elastic Reform support the idea of change.
 

Sometimes, when you look for something, you find something else.

I have been doing a lot of reading, thanks to The Internet.  One of the things that came to me as I have re-read some of these great works of literature and law (yes, I went back and reread  Section 11 of Article 1 of the Washington constitution, the first amendment of the United States constitution, the declaration of independence, and the Magna Carta ).  The internet is wonderful: Martin Buber has been dead since 1965 and even he has an official web page (In Germany, no less, and remarkably, in English).   I have come to the conclusion that we discuss some of the Great Ideas in terms of what matters to us personally.  In the past, I have tried to argue questions from the point of view of what is best for the greatest number.  I am beginning to think that maybe this isn't the best tack to take.  Perhaps I ought to think more in terms of the effect of and on the individual.  For me, this is a significant change in my thinking about social policy: why not treat the people within a society as if they were individuals?  As a reflection of that thinking, tonight I have discussed some of my thinking about Reform Judaism and what we believe in terms of my parents and my children.  I know most of you, and I have a lot of respect for your opinions.  I would appreciate from you some feedback: what do you think of these ideas?
 


1.  The fact that this comment is also redundant and repetative obviously escaped its author



This sermon was delivered 16-July-1999 at Temple Beth Am, Seattle, Washington USA.