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Reform Judaism Needs to Retire the Concept of 'Personal Choice'

June 1, 2011 By:
Leon A. Morris
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Change is afoot in Reform Judaism. A new president of the Union for Reform Judaism has been selected. The movement has launched a series of nationwide public forums to discuss its future. Hundreds of Reform rabbis have endorsed a plan to achieve greater efficiency in the movement's institutions.

Rethinking dues structures, using technology more effectively and sharing best practices are worthy things to focus on for American Jewry's largest religious movement. But what Reform needs most is an ideological reorientation that seeks to close the enormous gap between its stated ideals and the conventional practice of its adherents. Toward that end, Reform needs to retire once and for all the phrase that has become synonymous with the movement itself: "personal choice."

No one today disputes the fact that the ultimate authority lies within the self. Each of us knows that we are free to make our own decisions about every area of our lives, chief among them religious practice. Teachers from all denominations of Judaism appeal to notions of "relevance" and speak in terms of "personal meaning." Everyone acknowledges the supremacy of what Steven Cohen and Arnie Eisen coined as "the sovereign self" in their groundbreaking study, The Jew Within.

But trying to build a movement on the basis of this term is like trying to build a nation around the assertion that "it's a free country." Of course, we would say, but there is so much more that follows. A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have "personal choice" as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever. Rather, personal choice must be seen as a given and the starting point for a variety of commitments.

Personal choice is a seductive motto because it can confer a seemingly ideological veneer upon the most haphazard and unreflective religious decisions. Convenience can easily be masked as commitment. In addition, personal choice undermines the notion of standards of any sort, making anything defensible and everything an equally valid choice.

It is noteworthy that even the official standards of the Reform movement itself are routinely disregarded because "personal autonomy" trumps them. Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to Reform lay people and too seldom consulted by the rabbis, gather dust in libraries because such literature is often at odds with a Reform Judaism for which personal choice is the central value.

Personal choice also diminishes the significant role of the larger community. Many of us affiliate with religious institutions out of a desire to overcome a sense of isolated individualism. People increasingly are looking to communities of faith in order to be a part of something larger than themselves. Many of us are even willing to expand our own practices in order to connect with a community that gives us meaning and purpose.

We understand that belonging comes with expectations and responsibilities that emerge from those relationships that help us to mark time, celebrate and give to others.

Finally, the impetus for learning is greatest when one feels claimed by what one studies. A disproportionate emphasis on personal choice has "dumbed down" our movement. In general, we Reform Jews are not conversant with the vast literature of our past.

While the greatest success of the American Reform movement has been its ability to reach out to the most peripheral and unaffiliated Jews and bring them closer to Jewish life, it now needs to simultaneously build a committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts.

Reform has distinguished itself in its commitment to social justice, but now it must ground those commitments within a broader religious life that joins together the ethical and the ritual, the global and the local, the societal (repairing the world) and the interpersonal (repairing oneself).

If we can move personal choice from the very center of Reform Judaism, other more worthy and urgent Jewish values can take center stage. On both the ritual and the ethical spheres, we will make possible more meaningful engagement, increased creativity and deepened commitment.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the spiritual leader of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

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