The Inherent Conservatism of Religious Texts

When I first raised my fingers to begin typing, in my mind was the “inherent conservatism of religion.” Then I paused. Too often, those of us from culture dominated by one of the three Abrahamic religions fall into the trap of assuming all religions follow the model of those three.

The original prompting was an article on Reform Judaism that appeared on the website Breitbart. The title is “Reform Judaism Adopts Far-Ranging Transgenderism Resolution, Because They’re Not Jewish.”

I always find it funny when people outside the United States think all religion here is the holy-roller stuff. The lack of an establishment church resulted in an environment where religions compete with each other in a chaotic marketplace. All I would need to establish myself as head of a new religious movement is a couple people willing to agree I was.

So, yes, we have the holy rollers in their storefront churches in the cities and the preachers of the prosperity gospel in their megachurches in the suburbs. We also have Scientology, Mormonism and Christian Science. Quakers didn’t arise here, but they prospered here. The Reformed Church of the Netherlands became the mild mannered Reformed Church in America, highly criticized by traditionalists. Religion, one could say, is almost a competitive sport.

Another notable religious movement in the United States is Reformed Judaism.

Until the modern era, most (if not all) European countries enforced restrictions on the Jewish populations within their borders.

Jewish involvement in gentile society began during the Age of Enlightenment. Haskalah, the Jewish movement supporting the adoption of enlightenment values, advocated an expansion of Jewish rights within European society. Haskalah followers advocated “coming out of the ghetto,” not just physically but also mentally and spiritually.

On September 28, 1791, France became the second country of the world, after Poland 500 years earlier, to emancipate its Jewish population. There were 40,000 Jews living in France at the time. They were the first to confront the opportunities and challenges offered by emancipation. The civic equality the French Jews attained became a model for other European Jews.

That paragraph from Wikipedia mentions “opportunities and challenges.”

One of the challenges was how to maintain their identity and religious practices within a society that no longer excluded them by law. One response was the creation of Reform Judaism. Although most of the originators of this form of Judaism were in Germany, it took hold in the United States.

At Charleston, The former members of the Reformed Society gained influence over the affairs of Beth Elohim. In 1836, Gustav Posnansky was invited to serve as preacher and minister. A native of Hamburg, he knew the rite of its Temple. Posnansky was at first traditional, but around 1841 he excised the Resurrection of the Dead and abolished the Second Festival Day in the Diaspora, five years before the same was done at the Breslau conference.

In addition to Posnansky himself, the American Reform movement was chiefly a direct German import, brought along with the many Jewish immigrants from that country. In 1842, Har Sinai Congregation was founded by such in Baltimore. Administered from its inception according to the Hamburg rite, it was the first synagogue to be established as Reformed on the continent. In the new land, there were neither old state-mandated communal structures of the European variety, nor strong conservative elements among the newcomers, who were mostly thoroughly modernized individuals. Reform Judaism quickly became dominant even before the Civil War.

As I mentioned in other posts, until middle school my family lived in a town which was about a third Jewish. Our immediate neighborhood was probably even more so. The local congregation was a Reformed Congregation and the variety of Judaism practiced by most of my friends was Reformed. So when I see a headline about Reformed Jews, I see in my minds eye, not a faceless mass of people, but specific individuals with whom I grew up. They vary in their religiosity. It might surprise some people who associate more orthodox forms of religions with devotion, but a few among them were quite strong believers. Not everyone agrees that rigidity in the external forms of religion is a reflection of inner feeling. With precious few exceptions, I would say they were proud to be Jews. Those few exceptions would likely argue against the importance of ethnic identity more generally. So, when I read a post in which someone says that Reformed Jews are not Jews, I have to take it as an insult directed at some of my childhood friends.

Not being Jewish, I can’t really get into a theological discussion of what Jews should believe and can only discuss what they say they believe.

Throughout history, Jews have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, even as we learned much from our encounters with other cultures. Nevertheless, since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. – See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/what-reform-judaism#sthash.dc3C6ygm.dpuf

I supposed I am a little biased, but I think that Reformed Judaism is one of the most humane and beautiful religious traditions there is.

The event that caused Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro to declare that Reformed Jews were not really Jews occurred earlier this month:

The largest movement of Judaism in the U.S. passed the most far-reaching resolution in support of transgender rights of any major religious organization, saying Thursday that it’s a continuation of a tradition of inclusion in the Reform Jewish movement.

Other religious bodies, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, previously approved resolutions affirming equality for transgender and non-gender-conforming people. None, however, go as far as the one offered by the Reform Jewish movement, which counts 1.5 million members.

Shapiro writes in his post:

The challenge of organized religion has always been the question of interpretation: how literally should texts be interpreted? When should certain texts outweigh others?

Indeed. And that is the great problem with text based religions. All these religions will be riven with people who want to go back to the original text and interpret it as literally as possible. They come with built in fundamentalists because while society changes, the texts do not. It might be amusing when it comes in the form of an Amish man who refuses buttons. It is much less amusing when fundamentalist Muslims throw suspected homosexuals off of buildings.

In a related issue, Richard Dawkins retweeted a link to a video. In the video, a questioner asks a panel of prominent Muslims why “the media” always attacks Islam over issues like homosexuality, when, as he says, the same punishments exist in Judaism and Christianity. “For example,” he continues, “in the buses in Jerusalem women sit separate from men.”

As the debate about how Jewish congregations should related to their trans congregants shows, there is a lot of debate within Judaism and Christianity on just these issues. Many of my female Jewish friends have been highly critical of the attitudes towards women in many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities. A friend who considered herself a Conservative Jew (another interpretation of Judaism) worked for a time at an Orthodox school and had many critical things to say on the subject. The issue of segregated buses in Israel, specifically, has been brought up with often quite heated emotions. It doesn’t get much attention outside of Israel and Jewish enclaves because Jews rarely foist their rules on others outside of Israel. On the occasions when they have, people are just as willing for push back as they are towards Muslims.

http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/176270/israel-seeks-to-end-back-of-bus-segregation-for-wo/

When a gym in Montreal tinted its windows at the request of a nearby synagogue, many heated words flew over that one.

The video is shown more for the response than for the question, I just thought that since I was writing a post about reformed Judaism, I would note that the question is not a valid one since the questioner clearly has not been paying attention to debates among Jews.

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