Religion is not one-size-fits-all. We understand that everyone has different needs when it comes to clothing, to computers, to furniture; heck, we even have stores with 31 flavors of ice cream! But when it comes to religion many people seem to believe that there is one way, the right way, that should meet everyone’s religious needs. Reform Judaism distinguishes itself by avoiding this theological trap.
One of the greatest blessings of Reform Judaism is that authority to interpret and apply Jewish law rests with the individual. This creates a safe space where we have the opportunity – nearly, in fact, the obligation – to continue learning, exploring, and developing our understanding of Jewish tradition and practice.
This freedom also creates one of the greatest challenges facing the modern Reform movement. Without stringent guidelines and requirements, many Reform Jews neglect their Jewish education and development, virtually disappearing after their b’nei mitzvot. As a result, community leaders must struggle to keep the ritual accessible without oversimplifying and divesting it of meaning.
Rather than drawing members back to the community, oversimplification hinders membership development. The purely secular Jews will not be attracted no matter how simple the service becomes. Meanwhile, members coming to temple for community involvement and those seeking to explore their faith will lose interest and drift away because of the lack of meaning.
My high school history teacher conclusively demonstrated that the reason most people find history “boring” is because they receive too little information, not too much. He would take stories that were normally represented as dull, two-line stories and expand them into hour-long action packed sagas that ensured the message stayed with us. The same holds true of religion; oversimplifying Shabbat services is the problem, not the solution, reducing the spiritual high-point of the week to a series of confusing, empty call-and-response readings.
Imagine, instead, if each week’s service were used as an educational opportunity, providing an opportunity for improving skill and knowledge. Members driven by curiosity would be drawn to return each week, eager for the next installment. This is how I first learned the silent amidah at summer camp. The daily services were new to me, and I struggled to keep up with my friends; I started forcing myself to read the prayers in Hebrew, reading as much as I could before the group got to Shalom Rav, and getting a little farther each day. I have not regularly attended morning prayers since that summer, but even now, years later, I know the prayers by heart and the amidah remains my favorite part of the service.
One of the greatest challenges for Reform rabbis is how they navigate this issue; how do we provide depth and meaning while promoting free expression? How do we provide guidance without enforcing direction? This is the question I hope to answer as I pursue ordination.