The Political Orthodoxy of Hebrew Union College – Tablet Magazine
Orthodoxy reflects temperamental tendencies as much as actual thinking through of issues, and assessing them on their merits. It therefore comes as no surprise that Reform Judaism–in this case Hebrew Union College–struggles with its own process for meaning making and decision making on all sorts of issues, particularly Israel.
When I served in a pulpit, a neighboring colleague who served in the nearby Reform temple, told me the following story. When he came to the synagogue, more or less fresh out of rabbinical school, if memory serves, he wore a kippah, pretty much all of the time. He informed the temple’s senior rabbi that he planned to wear his kippah at prayer services. The senior rabbi accepted this practice, though he maintained no such observance for himself. But he asked the junior rabbi to speak to a senior board member and to inform him of his intentions. The younger man spoke to this board member, who responded, “That’s fine, Rabbi, but if you do so I’ll resign from the temple.”
What we see in the recent controversy at HUC reflects this historical tension in what it means to be a liberal Jew. Does this term refer to the phenomenon of Jews “liberated” from large, pre-existing entities like Church and State and by implication free to chart their own course? Or does liberalism constitute a set of fixed positions on any given issue or cluster of issues? That board member, and by extension the “orthodoxy” at HUC, reflects the latter view, one that leaves little room for the illiberal view on anything and everything from Israel to social action to ritual concerns. Historians see “Classical Reform” in that light, a late 19th century worldview that sought to articulate and legislate a coherently anti-ritualistic Reform position. That view supplanted but I would argue undercut an older view that made more room for a religious liberalism centered on personal autonomy. Autonomy guarantees self-expression, but can one maintain strong communities unified around anything? That struggle continues to live at the heart of religious liberalism everywhere.