Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Meet the Reform Rabbi (Part 2)

During our interview, Rabbi Hayom was kind enough to answer some questions I knew were impertinent and rude. I asked them anyway because I know they are the sort of things Orthodox Jews want to know.  You can see them after the jump.

I apologize again to Rabbi Hayon for asking these questions, and thank him publicly for his thoughtful replies.

Tomorrow, I'll run Rabbi Hayon's answers to some follow-up questions

Why Reform Rabbis are entitled to be called Rabbi:
If you're looking for a halachic defense in particular, I don't have the space to go into great detail in this forum; I would, however, recommend to your readers two relevant Reform teshuvot that may be helpful in identifying how the movement itself views the institution of semichah, and why it believes that it (along with other contemporary yeshivot and seminaries) has the right to ordain rabbis. The first teshuvah is here (see section 2), and the second one is here.

Also on the topic of halachic material, though, I'd also add that I'm fond of the suggestion that R' Shlomo Riskin puts forth on this topic. Rabbi Riskin turns to Rambam's commentary on the Mishnah, and points out that his remarks on M. Bechorot 4:3 indicate that Rambam believes that semichah depends primarily on communal approval of a prospective rabbi. It's a really interesting text, and I wonder what would have happened if he hadn't backed off quite so much from that democratic model in the Mishneh Torah. (Note that he does set out this option in Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11, but he backtracks from it a little by adding that disclaimer at the end: "...v'ha-davar tzarich hechreiah" - "this matter needs resolution.")

Regardless of whether you like those halachic justifications or not, it seems to me that certain facts remain which demand that communities assert their right to ordain rabbis. Classical semichah no longer exists, and if we expect our communities to have reliable leaders (whether they're dayyanim or teachers or whatever), we need ways to form students into rabbis. The third century was a long time ago, and every Jewish community since then has had to grit its teeth and acknowledge that there's no more laying-on-of-hands like in the good old days. Every Jewish community since then has ordained rabbis for itself, and the Reform Movement is no different. I am a rabbi because my community has made its determination of what makes a rabbi; when I met those requirements, I received a certificate of ordination. I don't expect to render halachic decisions for every Jewish community on earth. But I do expect that other Jews acknowledge that I deserve legitimacy as a rabbi because I have met the standards of my community and my teachers. That's why I call people "Rabbi" if they receive semichah from other movements, and it's why I expect the same acknowledgment too.

Why he isn't Orthodox, or Conservative:
It's a good question. I could conceivably make my home elsewhere along the spectrum of Jewish denominationalism. I tend to find myself hovering around the more traditional end of the Reform community, and I'm quite comfortable learning, praying, and socializing with Jews from more observant circles, and have made my home in different kinds of affiliated synagogues at different times in my life.

Ultimately, though, I decided to pursue ordination in the Reform Movement for two reasons, and they're both significant enough to make me pretty firm in my fidelity to the Reform community.

First, the notion of individual religious autonomy is really important to me. I think it's vital that Jews educate themselves about Jewish texts, customs, history, and ritual - and then make decisions for themselves about how to live their Jewish lives. There is no more formal coercive authority among Jewish communities, and that's a good thing. Today, people need to make decisions about how to live their religious lives based on what is meaningful to them, what makes their lives richer and more significant. Religious autonomy is something that (as far as I know) is an organizing principle only in the Reform Movement, and I think it's a really important one.

Second - and this is the one that has given me the deepest personal challenges - I find it impossible to believe seriously in the concept of a Divine authorship of Torah which is perfect, precise, and personally dictated to Moses. It was a really painful process for me to come to this realization, but at some point I had simply studied enough of the documentary history of the Torah (and other Ancient Near East literatures) to realize that such a premise - as attractive and useful as it is for Jewish ideology and ritual praxis - is just untenable. I still value the symbolic importance of halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, but coming to learn the truth about how ancient texts were composed and edited, and how they developed over time has meant that I cannot take that concept to be a literal truth. Once I reached that conclusion, it became clear that I couldn't accept the foundational assumptions of orthodox Judaism (or any other orthodoxy, really). At times I wish I could, but for now, in good conscience, I cannot.

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