Reform Judaism for the 21st Century

by rabbilimmer

20th Century Fox found themselves with a wonderful problem on their hands after the summer of ’77: a relatively small-budget Sci-Fi film unexpectedly made them hundreds of millions in a single season.  Flushed with the kind of cash to which they were not accustomed, 20th Century Fox tried to figure out where to invest their windfall. Somehow they decided they should not be just in the entertainment industry, but in the “Entertainment & Leisure” business. So they acquired two pieces of property: the ski resort of Aspen and the golf course at Pebble Beach. Five years later, when 20th Century Fox was sold to new owners, they decided to be only in the entertainment business, without the leisure.  With haste, the new Fox ownership “dumped” Pebble Beach and Aspen, because they weren’t adding to the bottom line.

It is finally my turn to talk on the topic of “Reform Judaism for the 21st Century”. We have already gained insights into this issue from the Presidents of the Union for Reform Judaism and of the Hebrew Union College, the CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the new Director of our Religious Action Center.[1]  At the culmination of such a series of speeches, it is now my turn—as I am installed as Senior Rabbi of this remarkable congregation—to speak on this subject. I share with you the story of 20th Century Fox as a cautionary tale about predictions.  Sometimes we cannot foresee our greatest successes; no one would have predicted that Star Wars would become a worldwide phenomenon of a franchise. Likewise, we sometimes fail to see our greatest assets: it’s safe to say that both Aspen and Pebble Beach have done okay since 20th Century Fox deemed them disposable.  Predictions of the future are sometimes helpful, but frequently the only thing that we can foresee about our future is that it will surprise us.

Allow me one more prefatory remark regarding the movie business, however.  A few months ago, my younger daughter Lily and I sat to snuggle and watch some movie on some Sunday.  Maybe it was Night at the Museum III, perhaps it was our umpteenth time watching The Simpson’s Movie; what mattered was time spent with my daughter. As the opening titles rolled, Lily asked me a really good question. “Daddy, when are they going to change the name of this company to 21st Century Fox?”[2]  My daughter’s question reminds us that, if we don’t pay close attention, the fundamentals we take for granted exceed their expiration date:  we hum along with the opening title, but fail to notice the outdated name of the company whose theme song we sing.  That might be fine if we are viewing a film, but it is no way to ready ourselves for the onset of a new age.  Thus, while we know much about the future will surprise us, there is enough we understand about today to chart a course to tomorrow.  Tracing the trajectory connecting our current situation towards that limited part of the future we can predict is my limited goal for these remarks.  Tonight I plan to speak about three contemporary realities that dictate how Reform Judaism needs to adapt for the future, namely: an evolution in the nature of identity, the unfortunate side-effects of our American Jewish success story, and transformations in the construction of community.

The first place to talk about Reform Judaism for the 21st Century is to return to the roots of our liberal movement in the 18th century.  Without delving deep into the intellectual waters of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, we know—from our very beginnings—Reform Judaism values the ultimate dignity of every individual; our movement makes thoughtful, autonomous decisions the highest hallmark of religious life.  Individual choice and Reform Judaism have always been synonymous; we have walked proudly for over a century under the banner, “Choice through Knowledge”.[3]  “Choice through Knowledge” will remain essential in our new century as well.  But the choices 21st Century individuals make will be far different from the how’s-and-why’s of wearing religious garb or the evaluation of a religiously appropriate approach to eating.  Reform Jewish decisions in the past were made within the context of Judaism itself: how many days to observe holidays, what traditional liturgy would remain part of worship, who could qualify as clergy.  The choices autonomous individuals are making today exceed the traditional canon and calendar of our heritage because they are happening in the wide-open field of 21st century identity formation.

According to sociologist Peter Berger, Hairesis, meaning option or choice, has become the quintessential feature of modern society.  This is because “persons are no longer born and socialized into a community as if by fate.  Rather, identity—including religious identity—now becomes in large part a matter of negotiation, an expression of choice.”[4]  In our Post-Modern society, we are aware that the identities we were handed at birth are mere social constructions. Identity is no longer a reflection of the situation into which one was born or the value system by which one was raised: in our new, modern America, individuals are unafraid to construct their identity from a variety of sources. People experiment with identity today in ways that are unprecedented: a person born as a male Methodist in Minnesota can easily grow up to be New York Jewish woman.  Our selfhood is hardly determined at birth; thanks to Hairesis, identity is  fluid, a constantly evolving process.  In the 21st Century, option and choice are the defining features of how we see ourselves.

Reform Judaism is ideally suited for a society in which evolutionary choice is the zeitgeist.  But that hardly means our Judaism doesn’t need to adapt for the challenges of an age of Hairesis.  In the previous century, we already started this process: we acknowledged that being raised as a Jew, and not pure parentage, was the essential element of Jewish identity; we abolished millennia-old societal constructions and affirmed first that women—and soonafter Gay men and Lesbians—should be fully embraced as Rabbis; we were bold enough to welcome into our fold—through the sacred covenant of marriage—those who were not themselves Jewish but wanted to partner in building a Jewish home.  Here we adapted to the changing tides of the past; where will be the shifting sands of the future?

I see the sands of spirituality shifting in two different directions.  One direction follows those people raised in Jewish homes and committed to Jewish living who adopt practices of other traditions: this happens noticeably in the burgeoning community—calling themselves “Jew-Bu”s—blending Buddhism with Judaism.[5]  Those whose stated identity is Jewish-hyphen-other are a growing group: some are born into blended religious families and others adopt practices of traditions they encounter in the open marketplace of ideas.  While we should never lose sight of the brilliant integrity of a unified Jewish existence, we must make Judaism available to those who are not seeking such a solitary religious identity.  This can open new horizons for our conception of Judaism, as when we delve deeper into intrinsically Jewish mindfulness and meditation practices.  Unfortunately, we will also come up against the limits of those moments of meaning we will be able to support, as I have when I declined to officiate at a combined Bris/Baptism ceremony.  We will face both challenges and opportunities in a world where the boundaries distinguishing our sacred tradition are perceived, more and more, as permeable.

Opposite from those who enrich their lives with multiple faiths is that far larger group seemingly distanced from and devoid of religion entirely.  Here I speak of the many Jews disaffected by the organized Jewish community, and also of the Jewish individuals more likely to receive their regular dose of spirituality from a daily Yoga class than a weekly Shabbat service.  It is not that we need to compete with Soul Cycle; we do need to understand that fewer and fewer people are purchasing piousness as a package deal, and many are seeking spirituality everywhere except synagogues.  A serious challenge to the synagogue of the 21st century is learning how to bring meaningful Jewish experiences to those who think the last place they will find it is in a Temple.  However, we know people long for the meaningful framework religion provides; even the former Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, remarked last week, “People are looking for things to believe in more than just money.”[6]  Reform Judaism adds serious value to our existence with a focus on thoughtful personal choices and a commitment to continue to evolve.  Yet, given the depths of choice hairesis entails, Reform Jews will have to work harder to deliver our message of meaning and autonomy amongst countless competitors in the wide-open marketplace of religious identity.

One specific group will be most challenging to the Jewish establishment of the 21st Century: how we accept, include and integrate those who take hairesis to its etymological extreme by committing heresy.[7]  Of which heretics do I speak?  Those who are skeptical about the existence of God, doubt God’s ability to act in the world, disbelieve in the God depicted in our prayerbooks, identify as agnostics and atheists.  In 1991, Beth Adam, an avowedly atheistic synagogue in Cincinnati, was denied admittance to the Reform Movement; we refused to make room for those as confident in their disbelief as we did the crowd comfortable in their faith.[8]  Recent polls, however, document the meteoric rise in “Jews of No Religion”; Jews who describe themselves as “atheist”, “agnostic”, or “nothing in particular” today constitute 22% of the American Jewish community.[9]  These numbers increase in the younger generation: a full 32% of Jews under 35 identify as these “Jews of No Religion”.  But what is fascinating—and what should cause us to adapt our posture, and potentially our liturgy—is that these atheists and agnostics, instead of rejecting religion, still strongly identify as Jewish.  In the past, we altered our prayers and practices for a variety of inclusive reasons: we ended gendered language of God, we stopped speaking of Jewish particularism, and we expanded our messianic understanding to include all peoples. In the next generation, we will need to evaluate the sheer certainty of our God language to ensure that those who—despite their skepticism or doubt—identify fully as Jewish are as comfortable in our congregation as are those who abundantly believe.

The reason Jews are afforded a variety of contemporary choices stems from our success integrating into American life: Jews contribute across the spectra of education, government, culture and commerce.  The progress we have made is in part due to Reform Judaism encouraging Jews to participate proudly in American life.  Our success is accompanied, however, by a few unfortunate side-effects; on these negatives I don’t want to linger, yet it would be inappropriate not to take note.  The first of these has to do with the fashion in which many take aim at the successful.  Unfortunately, as can be seen in the streets of Paris and in certain American quarters as well, the great achievements of the Jewish community have fanned flames of hatred never fully extinguished: once again, we confront a rise in Anti-Semitism.  While the seeds of that hatred are deep and external to us, there is no doubt that our overwhelming success as a community will likely make us an even larger target in years ahead.

The other potentially troubling outcome of our achievement is not how our success makes others feel about us; the problem stems instead from how we look at ourselves.  Here in Chicago, we can trace how a poor immigrant Jewish community settled on Maxwell Street, made enough money to move to Lawndale, found even greater comfort in relocating to the suburban North Shore, and now has found a new home in central Chicago, on the aptly-named (and thriving) Gold Coast.  Our prosperity has led us to posh places; our affluence affords us the ability to be removed from some of the uglier parts of our world.  My concern is that the American Jewish community is becoming complacent; our ease and wealth distance us from the reality our Jewish tradition forces us to face.  Our Exodus story teaches we were brought out of bondage not purely to pursue our own success, but rather to work for a world where no one suffers the oppression we experienced in Egypt.  It is increasingly difficult for us, in our daily lives, to see who it is that is being oppressed today; we experience neither the depths of poverty nor utter hopelessness about our children’s future. We read about crime in the paper; see evidence of human hardship on TV.  Yet we know, simply by the roads we choose to travel and the neighborhoods we never visit, we are distanced from experiencing real oppression in our lives.

It is hard for us to work against oppression if we don’t really understand its forms and causes.  Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that the first thing we need to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes; he recalls his grandmother teaching him, “You can’t see understand the important things from a distance, you have to get close”.[10]  We are so far removed from so many injustices: the ordeals of new immigrants; the cruelties of our system of mass incarceration; and the visceral fear of living amidst rampant gang violence, to name just a few.  In the 21st Century, we Reform Jews who are fundamentally committed to justice will need to overcome the trappings of our own success: we must get close and get proximate to suffering and hardship if we have any hope of living up to our religious mandate of repairing our broken world.

So, where does the synagogue fit in to this difficult American landscape of hyphenated hairesis and the potential pitfalls of our achievement?  How can the primary institution of Jewish life, the synagogue, respond to the emerging challenges of our new day?  We will need to create new approaches for Jewish engagement, innovative opportunities to get close to society’s ills.  In blazing these news trails for our future, we can look back to paths we paved in the past.   Fifteen years into the 20th Century, Chicago Sinai Congregation adapted to the new realities of an American Jewish community whose adults had, for the first time on these shores, been raised in secular society.  In 1915, the Jews of Chicago—or at least Sinai’s German Jews—went not to yeshivot but to secular schools; they knew top hats, but had never heard of a yarmulke; they understood far more about the American Constitution than they did about Torah or Talmud.  For that generation, Chicago Sinai made needed changes: times called not just for a house of prayer to inspire the Jewish community; the age necessitated a synagogue that could teach the very fundamentals of Jewish life.  In 1912, we built a new congregational home with something novel: the Sinai Social Center.  This center was to be a school for Sinai’s children, a home to Jewish women’s organizations that—in the age of Jane Addams—were beginning to flourish, and also a cultural hub for entertainment and even sports.[11]

Fifteen years into another century, Chicago Sinai Congregation must again adapt its forms for a new age.  We will need to alter the predominant patterns of the last hundred years: institutional silos, synagogue structures, and fiscal sources.  For too long we have been educating pre-schoolers in one place, young children at a separate time, and adults in other ways.  In the future these programmatic silos will likely collapse: we will need to integrate our ages and interests, teaching parents as we educate their children, fusing all into the fullness of congregational life.  And that congregational life can no longer be limited to the physical structure of the synagogue: we need to bring learning to the loop, Shabbat to Bucktown.  If, in this era, many Jews are intimated by or turned off to synagogues, it will be our responsibility to bring meaningful Jewish experiences to them, wherever they may be located.

Lastly, we will need to re-examine the resources by which we sustain ourselves.  The last decade witnessed the disintegration of the dues-based membership model.  It is not just that congregations are unable to fund themselves solely through dues; the message of individual “membership” is incongruous with our creed that Sinai is a house of prayer for all people.  Pragmatically, in this age of fluid identity, it takes years before people feel secure enough in their Judaism to put money down on that proposition.  More importantly, making financial mechanisms the primary determinant of “belonging” undermines Jewish values.  Obviously, we do need, literally, to keep the lights on.  But we need to discover new ways to make our ends meet our goals.  We need to work towards a future—this will take great ingenuity and greater generosity—where the bottom line of belonging is not membership dues.  It should not be our goal to get more and more people every year to say “I belong to Sinai.”  It is our job to create such a center of inspiration and action that more and more people say, “I belong at Sinai.”[12]

Reform Judaism for the 21st Century demands we dismantle structures of the past as we build new models for an emerging era where community and identity are continually being redefined.  We may need to let go of long-loved programs, and face the fright that often accompanies meaningful change.  Growing pains will sometimes be painful as we evolve to meet the new needs of our community.  Yet what is so special about Chicago Sinai Congregation—and what fills me with faith and enthusiasm for our future together—is that while our forms might transform in coming years, our inherited allegiances will not change; the fundamental values of Sinai will always be there to ground us.  In fact, our core qualities are precisely what Jews of the 21st century seem to be seeking.[13]  Our dedication to open and honest religious inquiry, our continued commitment to interfaith partnerships—between institutions or within families—and our unwavering fervor to bring justice to every crooked corner of our society: these are precisely the religious values that resonate widely in our new world. [14]  I am honored to partner with this inspiring congregation to make history in our future as we bring these values forward to enhance, enrich and invigorate Jewish life for the 21st Century and beyond.

Allow me one final thought in this sermon spurred by my daughter’s question about the 21st Century.  In this coming year alone, we will celebrate countless weddings, mourn at myriad funerals, and rejoice with precisely 29 bnai mitzvah.  One of these b’not mitzvah will be my older daughter, Rosey.  I know well that the families who mark their lives with Jewish meaning here at Sinai do care about the future of Reform Judaism.  But I also know that these same families need us to support them, to celebrate with them, to comfort them, to challenge them and to educate them in the here and now.  Even as we discuss our grandiose path to the future, we cannot forget the enduring importance of the present: we need to be present, here and now, or else tomorrow is unimportant.  So let us go forth tonight into our shared future with a dual challenge: let us build together—on the remarkable foundations we have inherited—a transformative congregation for a new era of the Jewish people; and let us work, together, every day to make sure we value and take care of each and every person who walks into our home, this sanctuary we are honored to call “A House of Prayer for All People.”[15]

[1] My thanks, respectively, to Rabbis Rick Jacobs [September 12], Aaron Panken [October 31], Steve Fox [January 30], and Jonah Pesner [April 10], who have made this such a remarkable year of learning here at Chicago Sinai Congregation.

[2] In fact, 20th Century Fox arrived at this conclusion themselves, albeit not until 2013:

21st Century Fox was formed by the splitting of entertainment and media properties from News Corporation. News Corporation’s board approved the split on May 24, 2013, while shareholders approved the split on June 11, 2013; the company completed the split on June 28 and formally started trading on the NASDAQ on July 1. Plans for the split were originally announced on June 28, 2012, while additional details, and the working name of the new company were unveiled on December 3, 2012.

[3] Witness the “Centenary Perspective” published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1973 on the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Hebrew Union College and the anchor institution of the Reform Movent, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [now the Union for Reform Judaism], “Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.”  [Quoted from Reform Judaism Today, Eugene B. Borowitz, p. xxiii.]

[4] David Ellenson, “Interreligious Learning and the Formation of Jewish Religious Identity,” in Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice [JPS: 2004], p. 166.  Ellenson cites Berger’s The Heretical Imperative regarding hairesis in this article originally printed in 1996.

[5] Jew-Bu’s, and other religious integrationists, are intentionally combining our religious heritage with other theological systems  Roger Kaminetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus, proudly affirms he is ushering in “a new stage of Judaism,” where “my teachers are not all  Jews”.Roger Kaminetz, The Jew in the Lotus, Introduction.

[6] At the opening program of The Chicago Forum on Global Cities hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavillion on May 27, 2015, I posed a question to the panel, “What is the proper role for faith institutions to play in helping their cities to excel?”  While my inquiry at first stumped the panel [another former Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, deferred answering as he admitted, “I wasn’t prepared for that kind of question”]  Henry Paulson, however, gave a lengthy and thoughtful remark that included the following: We need a civil society, and not just government… People are looking for things to believe in more than just money… values of religion hold communities together.”  A satisfying if not surprising response from  the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and the many whose signature is featured on U.S. currency!

[7] “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein which means ‘to choose’. A hairesis originally meant, quite simply, the taking of a choice.”  Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, p. 24-25.


[9] The Pew Research Center, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 2013.

[10] See Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

[11] “Apart from offering a better home for Jewish women’s organizations, Sinai aimed at the many unaffiliated Jews and especially their children.  The center was not uncontroversial.  There were concerns that religion would be sidelined by sports and entertainments.” Tobias Brinkman, Sundays at Sinai, p. 239.

[12] Thanks to Ted Naron for his help in getting right the formulation of these two sentences.

[13] This, not just from anecdotal stories, but from the Pew Poll Data, which contains these points: 69% of all Jews believe leading an ethical life is an essential part of being Jewish; 56% believe working for justice is essential to being Jewish; and 49% maintain “being intellectually curious” is essential to being Jewish.  These three commitments overlap with such a large portion of Sinai’s historic mission.

[14] Amazingly, the notes from the 51st Annual Meeting of Chicago Sinai Congregation, held at the outset of a new Century on May 22, 1912  state those core qualities perfectly: “Our gates are open to all that will enter, be they women or be they men, be they white or be they of other color, be they Jews, or be they non-Jews.  Here shall be at home all who search for knowledge.”

Tobias Brinkman, Sundays at Sinai, p. 240, citing Sinai Papers in the collection of The American Jewish Archives.

[15] These, the words from Isaiah 56:7 that have been emblazoned above the doors of every building Chicago Sinai Congregation has called its home.