Magical Thinking In Reform Judaism

As a (still) dues-paying member of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, I receive the magazine “Reform Judaism.” Some of the articles are useful and interesting like a recent one about “Reinventing the Synagogue.” Some are even spot-on historically accurate like the article about the Exodus that I commented upon in a previous post.

Others are more problematic.

Almost two years ago I took the magazine to task for running a piece by a lay leader who sees angels in the “twists and turns” of life.

It seems that Reform Judaism is not done with angels.

In the Spring 2013 issue, Rabbi Cary Kozberg write about the patients he works with who suffer from dementia. In the interests of full disclosure, I know the rabbi; he performed my wedding to my ex-wife. He is a good man who I’m sure is loving and supportive of the people in his care at the senior housing facility where he works.

His ideas about some of them – the worst cases suffering from dementia – are decidedly wacky:

…Alzheimer’s can actually be a boon to someone’s “personhood”… because it is a boon to his or her spirituality. I have witnessed heightened feelings of joy, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and gratitude in people with dementia, because these feelings no longer pass through the cognitive filter of the rational mind. Sometimes I marvel that folks like [these] seem more fortunate spiritually than those of us who have that filter [emphasis in original].

…In a curious way, I have come to view persons with advanced dementia as assuming the role of “angels.” …[T]heir task (whether they are aware of it or not) is now to sing praises to God.

It should not surprise anyone that many readers were deeply offended by this inanity. Their concerns were noted in the next issue.  One reader characterized the piece as “completely devoid of even the most basic scientific/medical facts…and replete with magical thinking and appalling personal opinion….”

The same issue with that complaint also features a debate about the controversial practice of physician-assisted suicide. Like the vast majority of Humanists, I favor it under certain circumstances.  We see it as an issue of ultimate personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Rabbi Phil Cohen, adopting a position that recalls the importance of personal autonomy in historical Reform Judaism, agrees with me:

…[F]or some, even treatment at the most supportive hospice or palliative care unit does not alleviate their physical and psychological pain. In these dire circumstances, it is not right to force a human being to suffer against his/her will. We should instead honor one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking—individual autonomy—and grant a patient the right to end his or her own life.

Rabbi Barry Block takes the opposite side.  Like Kozberg, Block favors magical thinking as the organizing principle of an ethical system that opposes physician-assisted suicide:

If we do not hasten death, we also have more time to explore each patient’s individual emotional and spiritual needs. We can ask, “Do you feel right with the people in your life, and with God?” We can discuss Judaism’s rich teachings about everlasting life, which can be as comforting as any palliative care. And when we pray together with the person who is dying and his/her loved ones, we can help our fellow human beings face eternity with faith and hope.

I give you modern Reform Judaism:  Alzheimer’s patients are spiritually enlightened angels. People with horrific and painful terminal diseases should prolong their suffering so that they can wrestle with feeling right about God and face an imaginary eternity with their faith intact.

Reform Judaism honors human dignity by claiming that it stems from humanity’s creation “in the image of God.” When this leads to every day acts of kindness and progressive stands on human freedom, then I say, “Kol hakavod – good for them!”

The problem with their philosophy, though, is that even in this most liberal of Jewish traditional approaches, the ultimate standard remains God, understood as the measure of all things. This works fine when you imagine a God who wants us to treat people well. It’s a little more awkward when that God, and the legends that surround him, are elevated and given preference over the dignity and needs of actual human beings.

As for me, I’ll place people over legends any day. It’s just one more reason that I am a Humanist.

The Outcast Of Beauregard Parish

When a rabbi decides that she or he is a nontheist there is a warm, accepting professional home.  When the same thing happens to a preacher – and most especially a Pentecostal preacher – well, the option to stay in the career track are considerably reduced (eliminated).

Jerry DeWitt is a brave ex-preacher who came out as an atheist in Louisiana.  His story is the subject of a documentary that is in the works and you can be a part of making it happen.  The filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project about this fascinating man:

Jerry DeWitt had been preaching in and around Beauregard Parish, Louisiana since he was 17 years old. Full of warmth and gifted with electric Pentecostal oratory, he was a popular figure around town. He even planned to run for mayor. But when his 85-year old aunt discovered he was an atheist, the news spread quickly. Within a year he had lost his job, the bank had foreclosed on his house and his wife had left him.

But Jerry’s story only begins there. Thrust into the limelight by a New York Times profile, he unexpectedly finds himself at the center of a growing but dis-unified secular movement. He quickly learns to navigate the intricate politics of organized atheism and sets an audacious goal: to create a sustainable human-centered ministry in the heart of the Bible Belt. It may be an idea whose time has come. But can it happen in time to save his home and his family?

Anyone involved in Secular Humanistic Judaism should be excited by the idea of a “human-centered ministry.”  And after hearing him speak – with his Pentecostal cadences intact – I think he can pull this off.

The Kickstarter campaign has only 26 days to go and many thousands of dollars left to raise.  The film and Mr. DeWitt’s efforts could be an incredible shot in the arm for secular humanism.  Please consider participating!  You can find all the details at this link.

Silly Rabbis, Why Do You Want To Marry Wrong?

Joel Alperson, a former national campaign chair for Federations, has a post on the Forward Forum responding to recent discussions about intermarried rabbis and the Reform movement.

With ridiculously un-funny sarcasm, he poses the following “challenge”:

…[T]here are many Christians who are deeply committed to the Torah and have taken it upon themselves to lead Judaicly meaningful lives, including Jewish holiday observance and Jewish studies. Theirs is a life of great passion, knowledge and deep caring for the Jewish people. There are many Christians who support Jewish causes and only wish they could involve themselves more with temples and synagogues, adding to the wonderful environments we try to create in them.

…What better way to allow them to be among those whom God blesses than to give them the opportunity to lead us, as rabbis, to greater levels of Judaic commitment?

What he misses in this failed attempt at humor is that there are already hundreds of rabbis who, according to more traditional interpretations, are not considered Jews.

The reality of the Jewish world is that we are sharply divided already. A Haredi rabbi has no use for a Reform rabbi. He has even less interest in a Reform convert who’s a Reform rabbi. We needn’t even take it to the Haredi extreme. I know Conservative rabbis who do not accept the Jewishness of some ordained Reform converts or patrilineal Reform Jews.

There are also Christians of the type he describes who are Jews by traditional halakhic standards. Some of them are even Hebrew-speaking Israelis who have served in the army and everything! If they want to have rabbis, what difference does it make to him or me?

So while Alperson thinks that he’s being extremely witty with his sardonic appeal to believing Christians to become Reform rabbis, he’s actually missed a key point: Jewish identity is imprecise. Jewish movements need only ensure that their rabbis and leaders share their approach and are considered Jews by their standards.

At a minimum a rabbi can really only represent the core values of her or his movement; nothing more. We already lack any remotely universal approach to Jewish identity or values. According to my understanding, Reform Judaism welcomes intermarried couples, so an intermarried Reform rabbi is absolutely consistent with its approach. If you don’t like it, then don’t be a Reform Jew.

National Day Of Prayer? #ChoosetoACT Instead!

This year’s presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer was notable in its mention of the desire of a growing number of Americans not to pray:

On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.

Of course it then goes on to list all of the wonderful things we should do in our prayers and turns into a mish-mash naming “those who are sick, mourning, or without hope” and saluting our service people (who certainly deserve a heckuva lot more than our prayers). Continue reading

Intermarriage And The Ghetto Mentality

Ever the hot topic in the “Shry Gevalt” quarters of the Jewish community, intermarriage still remains a bogeyman for many otherwise liberal rabbis. Even open-minded Reform rabbis who have no problem welcoming gay couples often draw the line at those who dare to venture beyond a Jewish ghetto mentality.

I’m all for Jews marrying Jews. I’m also all for Jews marrying whoever the hell they want. I love performing ceremonies for them and my single condition is that they are committed to each other and that they love and respect one another. Continue reading