For Stuart Gershon, rabbi for 25 years of Temple Sinai in Summit, a glaring misperception held by observant Jews is that Reform Judaism is “Judaism lite,” he told NJJN in a phone interview.
Reform Judaism is misunderstood, Gershon said; belonging to the denomination does not equate to being less religious or observant.
The aim of challenging misunderstandings and building common ground was the impetus behind “Comparative Judaism: Four Denominations,” a speaker series Gershon launched at Temple Sinai. He was the opening speaker on Jan. 8; the other rabbis, speaking on successive Tuesdays through January, are affiliated with the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox movements, respectively.
“This is long overdue,” said Gershon in his opening talk, which lasted more than one hour and included a question-and-answer period. “The goal is to better appreciate denominations different from our own.”
For Rabbi Hannah Orden, who will be the speaker on Jan. 22, fostering unity among the Jewish people was important in a divisive political climate.
“I think we are living in a difficult time,” said Orden, the rabbi at the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. “We need unity amongst all people. We need to try and counteract some of the things happening with Trump as our president.”
About 60 people attended the opening program, many nibbling on pastries while listening to a historical lesson on the beginnings of the Reform movement.
Gershon discussed the impact of the French Revolution, the establishment of the first Reform synagogue in Germany, and the tensions caused by the movement’s attempt to maintain tradition while adapting to the modern world.
“Reform Judaism says the centrality of Judaism is around ethics,” giving ethical concerns priority over rituals, Gershon said. “To be a Reform Jew is to be a good, decent, moral human being.”
Going back more than 200 years, Gershon explained that French society had a difficult time figuring out how to apply the mantra of the French revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” in respect to the Jews. At the time, in the late 18th century, Jews throughout most of Europe were considered second-class citizens and were forced to live in ghettos.
After their emancipation in 1791, when French Jews were granted civil rights, they had the freedom to develop religious practices while maintaining their identity as citizens. As a result, an emphasis was placed on regarding Jewish identity as secondary to the importance of protecting the French nation.
If the French Revolution and emancipation had not occurred at this period of time, said Gershon, Reform Judaism “may not have been born.”
“It was fabulous, I really loved this event,” said Beverly Schwartz of Union, a member of Temple Sinai and a former religious school teacher. She said learning about the impact of the French Revolution on Reform Judaism “was interesting to hear.”
Jews have long grappled with how to construct their identity while keeping an eye toward modernity and maintaining tradition. Reform Jews, Gershon said, have sometimes advocated doing away with certain traditions, such as keeping kosher or wearing a kipa, and at other times have wanted to re-engage those practices.
The use of Hebrew in worship services is another practice that illustrates the tension between modernity and tradition. During some periods, Reform synagogues have included less Hebrew in services; at other times, in certain congregations, more Hebrew is included.
It’s not only the Reform movement that contends with such issues. “Both Reform and Reconstructionist are very progressive on social issues,” Orden said, pointing out that both movements in the United States ordained their first female clergy within two years of each other, Reform in 1972 and Reconstructionist in 1974.
But, she said, in terms of preserving traditions, Reconstructionism is similar to Conservative Judaism.
“I’m glad that the various denominations exist,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the Conservative United Synagogue of Hoboken in a phone interview. “There is something that I can learn from all of them,” adding that it is great for people who disagree to have cordial conversations.
Scheinberg, who was the series speaker on Jan. 15, also said that some Jewish differences are codified. “All contemporary Orthodox scholars also acknowledge that there is some degree of pluralism in Jewish law. For example, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews practice Jewish law somewhat differently, but both are valid.”
Rabbi Elie Mischel, of the Orthodox Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, will conclude the series on Jan. 29. He said that although he thinks there is a right and wrong way to practice Judaism, he views all Jews as family — and families have disagreements.
In regard to how he views intra-denominational differences, Mischel said he can say to members of other groups, “‘I think you guys are wrong,’” but then add, “‘I love you, my brother….’”
In spite of numerous differences, the denominations share concerns and interests. “We believe in the importance of the Jewish nation,” Mischel said. “We are brothers and sisters.”
Gershon seemed to agree, somewhat. “There is unity,” he said in his talk, but “it could be better; we are unified around some areas but polarized around others.”