[URJBiennial] Worship
[URJBiennial] Madeline Albright

[URJBiennial] Innocence Project and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

Once again I was late to the evening plenary, this time because I went out for barbecue with the North Adams delegation and the Madison, WI delegation. Cantor Diane Krasnick, who lives in Wisconsin year-round but celebrates the Days of Awe with us, invited us to join them. (I hope it was fun for her to have folks from her two congregations together!)

Anyway, I got to the plenary just in time to see the presentation of Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to the World Community to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate those who are wrongfully imprisoned; an Eisendrath Award for Service to Reform Judaism was also given to Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a major Reform teacher and theologian.

I didn't catch the name of the former prisoner who spoke when the award was presented to the Innocence Project, but here's what he said:

I'm the 113th person exonerated through our program. I hope for the day when we have a justice system that doesn't make mistakes...For years, I sat on death row, and it was like I was all alone out there. I would pray and pray for the truth to come out. Eventually God did bless me...but I just want to say that the Innocence Project has been working to save lives. Not only does it save lives of people like myself, but it also gives the victims who were victimized justice also. Because if the wrong person's in prison for a crime, then there's no justice... It's really great that we have the Innocence Project. There's a lot of people in prison waiting to be discovered, in this flawed system, and we really appreciate it.

Texas state senator Rodney Ellis accepted the award and welcomed us to Houston. "As you know, we're in the heart of the religious right here; we're glad to have visitors from the religious middle and the religious left!" He accepted the award on behalf of his colleagues, staff, and the 163 people who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

He said, "I want to stress how important religion has been for all of our clients, and anyone who has been wronged by a criminal justice system. It has been the primary reason they can survive and go on with their lives. This award from you matters; it shows you think our work is important, and that's how we can go on doing what we do. Thank you; this shows that justice really does flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."


The whole room rose to standing when Rabbi Borowitz came onstage. Having transcribed his speech (which follows) I can see why he's such an influential thinker and teacher...

"The notion of pious Reform Jews will strike some people as incongruous. If, however, piety means taking your religion to heart, and in our case trying in your own way to live by its teachings, then there have long been significant numbers of pious Reform Jews."

"We can best understand the first phase of Reform Jewish religiosity by extrapolating from...voting. The election officials didn't care if the person before you believed fervently in UFOs, or if the one behind you was the high priestess of the local druid coven, and they didn't care if you were a Jew. As long as you were a citizen, hadn't committed a felony, and were registered in this district, you could help decide who would govern. Any Jew, sensitive to the 1500-year history of Jews as pariahs in the Western world, would find that simple act uplifting. To be free of discrimination, to be just another person, is to feel in your soul the maturation of human goodness, and to know that by your ethical behavior you and other Jews can validate your North American emancipation. The first phase of Reform Jewish piety was dedicated to these high human goals, and considered them a modern restatement of the universal aspects of Judaism's ancient teaching. You can still find examples of this older Reform Jewish piety in our congregations, not the least by their complaints about the changes that have taken place in their temples!"

If you can't do that, try screening the movie Driving Miss Daisy. Culture-bound as it was, there is no mistaking her ethical dedication and personal rectitude. No wonder, for real now, her Temple in Atlanta was bombed by militant segregationists. They may have been terribly wrong about what America stood for, but they certainly understood Miss Daisy and her ilk's ethical religiosity."

"Hindsight makes clear the defects of their creative spirituality. If all that really matters is ethics, why bother about religion? If every thoughtful person has similar human goals, why care about being Jewish?... All the distinguishing signs of Jewishness, like Hebrew or chant or holy language or the body language we have, should certainly be stripped from our worship. What primarily doomed the older Reform piety was its optimism. The 20th century brutally forced us to confront the human genius for doing evil. Nothing made that clearer than the Holocaust. The God we lost in that horror was not Adonai. We had long been too agnostic for that belief. The God who died for us was the one we had truly trusted in: humanity's rationality and ethical competence. And intellect confirmed the new realism by burying the notion of universal human thought under a barrage of criticism. Anthropologists tied thinking to one's culture. Psychologists anchored it in our childhood. And people of color denounced the idea as another instance of colonialist arrogance. But universalism's doom was finally sealed by feminism's insistence that universalism was another strategem for male dominance, and the demand that gender now be fundamental to any discussion of humanity.<"/p>

"Something like this dizzying passage from the modern to the postmodern turned the old Reform piety upside-down. Instead of believing that we are a community of universalists who retain some old Jewish roots, we now see ourselves in particular terms. That is, as North American Jews whose ancient traditions and recent emancipation engender in us a uniquely intense dedication to the messianic unification of all humankind. One sees this transition most vividly at our services. Though the patterns vary widely, our prayers now have lots of Hebrew! But almost no singing of English hymns. Our music tends to be participatory, and is almost always more concerned with what the congregation will feel than what they will find impressive. A good number of us now wear kippot, or tallitot, or express ourselves in body language. The sermon, once a major part of the service, is now a relatively brief d'var Torah. An exegesis of Jewish text, rather than a serious-minded text responding to an issue agitating North American culture or politics."

"You also find a shift in our theology. Our hard-gained humility about human competence has opened us up to spirituality. For when we are a little less timid, it has opened us up to a place for God in our lives. We talk about that now not in the accents of rationality, but rather by reference to experience or relationship or even mysticism. That is accompanied by a fresh appreciation of what the classic texts of Judaism can teach us when they are read through the lenses of our emancipation."

"Seeing all this, the North American Jewish press is apt to gloat that we are becoming more Orthodox. What a senseless charge that is! Ours is the movement which -- far too slowly, we must admit -- pioneered the ordination of women, and the continuing growth of women in roles of leadership. Ours is the movement which insists that the child of a Jewish father, brought up with Jewish study and celebration, must be considered the equal of a child of a Jewish mother. And ours is the movement which has sought to welcome gay and lesbian Jews to our congregations, and fought for their civil rights to marry."

"I should like to see the day when, for a chance, the Jewish press will focus on how much of Reform experimentation has later been co-opted by the community as a whole! Recently a respected scholar of North American Jewish sociology wrote a penetrating article about how the small birth rate of modernized Jews posed a threat to our continuity. Yet, though a leading official of the movement dedicated to a modern reading of Jewish law, he strangely did not call on his readers to fulfil their post-Holocaust Jewish legal duty to procreate. His omission came surely from his recognition that they would almost certainly, with all due respect, evaluate his proposal in terms of what they personally believed to be their 'Jewish duty.' Ideology aside, all such people are closet Reform Jews." [laughter]

"Something similar occurs in those who seek to take kabbalah seriously. Alas, our classic mystic movement is arguably the most sexist theology in all of Jewish thought. It identifies the feminine with the harsh aspects of God's sefirot, as well as with all that is dark and dangerous in human life. But none of these people, seeking to win converts to a contemporary Jewish mysticism, would be given a hearing if they did not espouse the full equality of women. Surely theirs is a Reform kabbalah!"

In the 1780s, Moses Mendelssohn produced an elegant German translation of the Torah, almost certainly because he believed that the mastery of the vernacular was necessary if Jews were to participate in german society. For the same reason, the leaders of the traditional Jewish community bitterly opposed the translation. Some decades later, when Reform Judaism came into being, it enthusiastically utilized the vernacular so modern Jews would fully understand their religious practice. Today the greatest North American Jewish publisher whose rightwing Orthodox credentials are impeccable is extroardinarily successful precisely because it accompanies its classic Jewish texts with English translation and commentaries. I cannot help but see in this another silent co-optation of a practice identified with Reform Judaism."

"Flattered by what others have borrowed from us, we can with some confidence embrace this second phase of Reform Jewish piety. But even as a prior generation overdid its universalism, we may well take our new particularity too far. Thus it is a satisfying fulfillment of our tradition to increase the amount of Hebrew in our services -- but not when it goes so far that it robs us of our understanding of what our prayers mean. It is positively redemptive to unleash our depth of feeling as we sing together the new romantic music of the synagogue -- but not when feeling so good leads us to forget that we come together for services not merely to bask in a sing-a-long, but to reach out to God and renew our community's covenant with God."

"Our greatest challenge, however, is that in our newfound enthusiasm for our Jewishness, we shall slacken our dedication to mending the world. Neither the State of Israel, nor the Holocaust, nor our focus on our particularity, can function as a master narrative of contemporary Jewish existence. Rather, I believe that in an awesome recapitulation of the Exodus, what still most seismically moves us is our emancipation. After a millennium and a half of denigration and segregation, Adonai our God brought us up out of Western European ghettoes and Eastern European shtetls and the North African melas and made us equals in the Western world. And in this liberation, government was the enabling agent of God's mighty hand and outstretched arm."

"And because our family forebears were not too long ago a despised and oppressed community, we know the heart of all those minorities who are today's pariahs. It was government and their far-seeing morally-concerned leaders, and not market forces or individual philanthropists, who were principally responsible for giving us the political and economic rights in which we now glory. When, therefore, we see government discriminate against one minority or another, we feel our own sense of security challenged and our own bitter history demands we protest."

"Then and every day, conscience and experience combine to powerfully command us to make government more moral! Of course thoughtful citizens will disagree about which particular government plan will create the greatest human good. And none of us, Judaism says, have infallibility. Nonetheless, few Jewish ethical lessons can be clearer than that the community as such has a primary obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, that is, all the powerless among us."

"Let us not forget that for all that private activity can do, government action has an incomparably greater sway. That is why, to the consternation of political experts, Jews in election after election still disproportionately do not vote their pocketbooks, but continually seek the greater communal good. Any embrace of Jewishness which does not enshrine the recognition that our emancipation radically enlarged our horizon of Jewish religious duty is unworthy of our allegiance. But all those pious Reform Jews who know that Torah today demands not only deep Jewish roots, but unending dedication to repairing our shattered world, are worthy of God's richest blessing. May God bless us all."

-- Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

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