Reflections following a Synagogue Visit Essay
Reflections following a Synagogue Visit
This paper describes research conducted before visiting a Reform synagogue, the visit itself and research prompted by the visit. Background research on the origins of the Reform movement in Judaism was undertaken before visiting a synagogue. This included identifying historical differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Worship and the role of the synagogue were of particular interest. A Jewish friend suggested attending a Reform service, because it would use more English, so would be easier to understand.
Preliminary research focused on how Reform broke away from Orthodox Judaism and how this impacted synagogue ritual. What was not expected before visiting the synagogue (actually called a Temple) was how devoted the congregation would be to the State of Israel. Reading had led to the expectation that the Temple would not be a strong supporter of Israel, that it might even be critical. This proved to be wrong. Further research revealed that while Reform Jews were initially anti-Zionist, attitudes changed over time.
Today, many Reform Jews identify as Zionists, strongly supporting the State of Israel. Developing a Reform Zionism involved reconciling Reform Judaism’s concern for universal, inclusive values with the national, particular and exclusive reality of Israel as a Jewish state. This resulted in the idea that Israel is meant to be a model state, where justice and democracy thrives. In this case, Reform Jews need to be more critical of Israel’s failure to treat the Palestinian people with justice and to achieve a durable peace. HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF REFORM JUDAISM
After centuries of persecution, Jews in Europe entered a new phase when civil and political rights were granted them by most European countries during the nineteenth century. Known as “Emancipation”, this change in political status began in France, where the Revolution declared all men equal (Meyer 25). Holland was the next country to emancipate Jews (1796). The circumstances in which Jews lived varied from context to context. By the late eighteenth early nineteenth century, many of the more restrictive practices, such as wearing distinctive dress and limitations on where Jews could live no longer applied.
Jews, though, could not attend university, vote or enter certain professions. Most Jews lived in ghettoes, where their affairs were governed by their own laws. Emancipation enabled Jews to leave the ghetto and enter mainstream society through the professions, including military service and election to public office. This meant that Jews could move from “their former distinct Jewish pattern toward the standard common in their non-Jewish surroundings” (Katz 2). As emancipation gathered pace across Europe, what is known as the Jewish enlightenment (haskalah) was also in progress.
Jews associated with the haskalah rejected what they saw as superstition and antiquated practices, especially those that “hindered Jews from full participation in society” (Meyer 18). Some began to stress what Christians and Jews shared, including the Bible, to which they gave more attention than they did the Talmud. The Bible was regarded as a source of Eternal Truths, compatible with reason. Those Jews who believed themselves to be members of a nation or of a people that lacked a land, rather than citizens or potential citizens of the country in which they lived, opposed this trend.
Some Jews began to suggest that they were French or German citizens whose religion happened to be Judaism, just as other French or Germans were Lutheran or Catholic. Reform Judaism has its origins in this concept. If Judaism was to be a denomination or religion rather than a national identity, then religious experience and devotion would need to be nurtured. Thus, “customs and ceremonies that did not serve to uplift religious sentiments, the reformers would declare, must give way to innovations which through their aesthetic appeal and instructive value were capable of transforming the inner life of the individual” (Meyer 18).
Differences between Reform and Orthodoxy Before the emergence of Reform Judaism, the term “orthodox” was not used. Reform Jews started to call Jews who continued to practice a traditional Judaism “Orthodox”, a description that they then adopted (Cohn-Sherbok 264). The Oral Torah (Mishnah and Talmud) continued to play a more central role in Orthodox life. Most Orthodox insisted that Judaism was a national identity, not merely a religion. They stress what distinguishes Jews from others. Reform Jews stress universal values, what Jews and non-Jews have in common.
They relax dietary rules, have a different view of what it means to “work” on the Sabbath (for example, they will drive a car); men shave their beards. Jewishness can be inherited through either parent (for Orthodox, Jewishness is matrilineal). The first Reform Temple was built in Berlin in 1810, followed by the Hamburg Temple in 1818. Use of the word “temple’ not “synagogue” was significant, since Orthodox Jews reserve the word “Temple” for the Jerusalem temple, destroyed in 70CE. Orthodox Jews do not regard the Synagogue as a substitute for the Temple, which they hope will one day be re-built.
Rather, Synagogue prayer is a distinct and different obligation. In fact, synagogues predate the Temple’s destruction. During the Babylonian exile (597-538 BCE), three daily prayers substituted for the sacrifices in the Temple. Tradition later said that Abraham established the morning prayers, Isaac the afternoon and Jacob the evening (Goldhill 92). Many believe that the synagogue as a venue for study and possibly for congregational worship developed in Babylon, where developments in ritual and worship “did not need a cultic center” but were of a type that could be practiced anywhere (Albertz 109).
Albertz thinks that synagogues cannot be proved to have developed in the exile but says that “forms of worship evolved in which the focus was no longer on sacrificial offering but on the word (readings from scripture, confession of faith, prayer) and that these forms represent one of the roots of later synagogue worship” (109). By the first century CE, synagogues were well established both among Jews living in Diaspora and in Palestine. The daily prayers are considered obligatory. Praying in a Synagogue is a commandment where there are at least ten adult Jewish men.
Orthodox worship is conducted almost entirely in Hebrew. Chanting is led by a trained cantor. No musical instruments are used. Women sit separately from men, having no role in synagogue worship. One of the earliest innovations among Reform was use of vernacular as well as Hebrew, singing hymns accompanied by a choir and organ and using a shorter form of the service. Both Orthodox and Reform, though, use a Siddur (Prayer Book). Portions of the Torah are read during the service, so that the whole of the Torah is read during the year.
Architecturally, many features of Orthodox and Reform synagogues are the same but the Bimah (table) from which the Torah is read is more centrally located in the former. Torah scrolls in both type of synagogue are kept in cupboards known as Arks and are decorated with a breastplate and crown. They are paraded through the synagogue. Men and women take part in Reform worship, both wearing a prayer shawl. Reform synagogues ordain women as Rabbis. Both types have an eternal flame and letters representing each of the Ten Commandments above the ark. THE VISIT The Reform synagogue, called a Temple, had a woman Rabbi.
She had lived and worked in Israel for several years. The Cantor was a pianist, although the literature says that organs and choirs are common in Reform synagogues. The Rabbi, who knew that a visitor would be present, referred to page numbers in the Prayer Book as the service proceeded. The Hebrew text was transliterated into English, making it possible to join in as the congregation responded. Not everyone read the Hebrew. In fact, while the Rabbi was very enthusiastic especially during the singing, it seemed at times that only she and the cantor knew the songs. She certainly did her best to carry the congregation with her.
The highlight of the service came when the Torah was taken out of the Ark and paraded around the Temple. This was a colorful spectacle, in what was otherwise a somewhat gloomy space. Many of those present touched it with their prayer shawl. Somebody then went up to the Bimah and read, using a pointer to keep their place. In conversation after the service, I learned that any adult (who has undertaken a Bar or Bat-mitvah, becoming a son or daughter of the commandments) can be invited to read the Torah portion. Orthodox Jews do not hold coming of age ceremonies (Bat Mitva) for girls.
I learned, though, that people at this Temple volunteer to read the portion and practice with the Rabbi during the week. The service was easy to follow. Although I was unfamiliar with the service, I felt comfortable and welcome. I had been warmly greeted before the service began. Afterwards, several people asked me where I was studying and whether I enjoyed the service. What surprised me most was a description, on the leaflet handed out as I entered, of its “support for the state of Israel. ” The Temple belongs to the Association of Reform Zionists of America (AZRA).
REFORM ZIONISM This discovery led me to research the relationship between Zionism and Reform. Zionism refers to the movement to establish a Jewish state as a place of refuge for Jews. It also refers to the conviction of many Jews that G-d always intended to restore the Jews to Israel, their promised land from which they have been exiled for centuries. While Reform saw assimilation as the answer to what some called the “Jewish problem” – the charge that Jews were disloyal and did not “fit in,” others questioned whether assimilation would prevent discrimination.
Following the Dreyfus affair in France, when a thoroughly assimilated Jewish army captain was falsely convicted of treason, Theodor Herzl (present at the trial) became convinced that “despite … emancipation, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in European societies” thus “Jews would never be accepted in the countries where they lived” (Cohn-Sherbok 274). He went on to argue that only by establishing their own state would Jews avoid persecution. Many Orthodox Jews, for whom Jewishness was a national identity as well as a faith, agreed.
Known as Zionists, their goal was a Jewish state. At first, any piece of territory would suffice. Then increasingly Palestine, then under Ottoman rule, was the preferred location. The Jewish population of Palestine was already growing. Organized “returns” began in the 1880s. Reform Jews were among the harshest critics of Zionism. Before the World Zionist Organization met in 1897, Reform Jews in the USA announced their total opposition to “any attempt at establishing a Jewish state … since the Jews were seen to constitute not a nation but rather a religious body.
” Establishing a Jewish state was a “misunderstanding of Judaism’s mission” (Kaplan 223). In 1919, as the British set about establishing a League of Nations mandate in Palestine with the eventual aim of establishing a Jewish homeland, Reform Rabbis in the USA declared that Jews around the world should dedicate themselves “not to any aspiration for the revival of a Jewish nationality or the foundation of a Jewish state, but to the faithful and consistent fulfillment of its religious mission in the world,” that is, working for universal justice (Gurock 383).
However, even before Israel emerged as a sovereign state after World War II and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, many Reform Jews had changed their ideas. They aided the settlement of Jews in Palestine, although “echoes of traditional anti-Zionism were still heard” in Reform circles (Gurock 394). Kaplan says that, “serious thinking about Zionism in Reform is only two decades old” (223). Israel’s survival against the odds means that Jews need to come to terms with its existence. In 1975, Reform joined the World Zionist Organization (Kaplan 223).
In 1997, the Miami Platform encouraged regular visits to Israel and “even encourages immigration. ” The Platform describes Israel’s mission as striving, “towards the attainment of the Jewish people’s highest moral ideals to be a mamlechet kohanim [a kingdom of priests], a goy kadosh [a holy people], and l’or goyim [a light unto the nations]” (Miami Platform). Conclusion How Israel treats non-Jews, including Muslim Palestinians in occupied territory, must be a major concern for those who see Israel as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 51:4).
Unless Reform Jews abandon their commitment to universal rights and values, they should campaign for a just and sustainable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s creation has displaced others, who have an equal right to justice. Works Cited Albertz, Rainer. Israel in Exile The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B. C. E. Studies in biblical literature, nr. 3. Atlanta, GA: Soc. of Biblical Literature, 2003. Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Judaism: History, Belief and Practice. London: Routledge, 2003. Internet resource. Goldhill, Simon.
The Temple of Jerusalem. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. Gurock, Jeffrey S. American Zionism: Missions and politics. London: Routledge, 1998. Kaplan, Dana E. Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism: Conflicting Visions. New York: Routledge, 2001. Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1998. Miami Platform, Central Conference of American Rabbis, June 24 1997. July 31, 2010. <http://ccarnet. org/Articles/index. cfm? id=42&pge_id=1606>