Friday, April 4, 2014

Discovering Reform Judaism and Getting Lost in It

Rabbi Sonsino
My religious training began in Istanbul, in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (ritual slaughter for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua (the main liturgical leader) of my temple. My teacher, I now realize, was a well-intentioned but narrow-minded individual.  In law school, when I discovered Reform Judaism, he quickly dismissed me from the pulpit. I was no longer kosher for him.

For me, however, finding a liberal expression of Judaism was liberating. I could now, in good conscience, become a religious and observant Jew. During my military service in Turkey, I applied and was accepted by the Reform rabbinic seminary (the Hebrew Union College) in Cincinnati. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish rabbinic school associated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I came to the States in late August of 1961. I was in heaven!

In the 60’s, Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinions among us—we are Jews after all—we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and prayerbook etc. Now things are different. At times, I don’t know where Reform Judaism stands.

I realize that it is in the nature of Reform to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective of the Reform Rabbinate (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that, “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today, however, we have more theological discord among ourselves. For example, we cannot even agree whether we support tehiyyat hametim (resurrection) or immortality of the soul, and our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, has to include both options. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity; and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices.

The only continuity we have is the particular rabbi’s style of worship and philosophy in his/her congregation. When I was a congregational rabbi, I, too, influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a religious naturalist, my services certainly reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. Every rabbi does this in his/her temple. I understand that, and congregants do too. As a rabbi who has been on the pulpit close to 50 years and a shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader) for almost 60 years, I would suggest that once in a while, rabbis and cantors review their prayer practices, and vary them as necessary. Not all services have to start with, “Let us take a big breath.”  After a while, it is boring.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

April, 2014

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