NOTE: This entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online.
People often ask me questions like: What does Reform Judaism say about the afterlife? Do Reform Jews have to keep kosher? Are Reform Jews allowed to drive on Shabbat?
In many cases, the answer to these questions is: “It depends.”
Among the central values of Reform Judaism is pluralism – the idea that there can be multiple approaches, multiple answers, multiple ways to be Jewish. How could there be more than one right answer? Well, the Reform movement’s 1999 Platform states:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
In other words, our fulfillment of the ritual mitzvot is based around a thoughtful process of study and decision making. When a mitzvah speaks to us, we find ways to fulfill it meaningfully. When it doesn’t, we are entitled to respectfully leave it, or “reform” it based on the needs of modern life.
This is, obviously, a very different approach from Orthodox or even Conservative Judaism. Much more individualized. Certainly more flexible. And in some ways much more challenging, since there is no single, agreed-upon “right way” to do things. In fact, this kind of thinking can lead us to practice or think in ways that are very different from our fellow Reform Jews.
Within my congregation, for example, there are all kinds of approaches to keeping kosher. There are multiple views of the nature of God. There are women who wear a kippah and men who don’t, and vice versa. In Reform Judaism, the “right” practice is the one that you’ve chosen based on your honest assessment of tradition and of modernity.
The idea that there can be more than one right way to observe Jewish traditions is not new. The Talmud records (Eruvin 13b):
For three years there were disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai claimed “The law agrees with us,” and Beit Hillel claimed “The law agrees with us.” Then, a voice came from heaven and said: “Both are the words of the living God, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.
The law agrees with Hillel’s students, we are told shortly thereafter, because of their kindness and modesty. But not necessarily because their opinion is inherently more correct than that of Shammai. In other words, sometimes there can be more than one right answer to a Jewish question.
Reform Judaism is built on the idea that those differing opinions can live side-by-side – that we can pray and study and build community with each other without necessarily believing or practicing in all of the same ways. And, even more so, that diversity and pluralism actually make our community stronger.