What is Classical Reform? Clearly it is more than a style of worship. Although the stately sounds of organs and choirs and use of the Union Prayer Book are a visible hallmark of Classical Reform, it is a mistake to think that aesthetics is all it is.
As a convert to Reform Judaism, I began in an Orthodox shul, and only gradually moved into Reform, where I eventually made my conversion official. The synagogue I joined, Congregation Micah, was in many ways a typical modern Reform synagogue. At the time, Gates of Prayer was the standard siddur, having replaced the Union Prayer Book in most congregations nation-wide. Gates of Prayer would soon be replaced by Mishkan T’filah.
Gates of Prayer was designated “The New Union Prayer Book”, but what was noticeable to any worshipper was that it was rather unlike the old Union Prayer Book. There was an option to purchase it opening from left to right, in order to better read the Hebrew inside it. It also adapted prayers from the Orthodox siddur that had not been part of the Union Prayer Book. For those Reform Jews who were put off by this, Mishkan T’filah was a real shock. Opening only from left to right, in order to read the Hebrew correctly, the first thing one noticed was that there are two page layouts. The first, on the right, gives one the traditional prayers and translation into English. On the left is a page of reflections that can be used alongside, or in place of, the traditional prayers.
I became a Jew during a time of liturgical experimentation that had been going on since at least the late 1950’s, not only in Reform Judaism, but in both Catholic and Protestant Christian Churches. Having wanted to be an Episcopal priest, I had studied with great interests the disputes going on regarding the merits or demerits of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This experimentation within Judaism had been predominantly within Reform Judaism. The Orthodox and the Conservative movements had been largely steering clear of the whole thing, by holding rather rigidly to the traditional Siddur (or, mostly traditional siddur with slight innovations in the case of the Conservatives).
What was most noticeable to the “Jew in the Pew” in his local Reform Temple was the fact that, ever since the release of Gates of Prayer in 1975, there seemed to be two opposite tendencies in Reform. Socially, Reform allowed women rabbis, permitted interfaith marriages, and became open-minded on matters of sexuality. Additionally, there was a wider concern with social justice broadly, and concerns regarding the environment, nuclear disarmament, and other modern causes.
Alongside this, however, was an increased preoccupation with the traditionalization of liturgy. While the Conservatives began to open up on social matters, Reform Jews seemed to be going more conservative (with a lower-case “c”) on liturgy. The once popular use of a predominantly English liturgy, confirmation classes instead of bar mitzvahs for young people, and more modern looking Temples that bore superficial resemblances to Lutheran churches were all declining. Today, as I looked around myself to see this brave new world of which I was now a part, I was confused. More Hebrew (a language that I did not, and still do not, understand), traditional bar mitzvahs for the youth such that they had to study with the Rabbi for at least a year, and more traditional looking synagogues, albeit gender integrated, seemed to be the order of the day.
At first, I liked the idea of kosher being encouraged, wearing a yarmulke at all times, having a traditional beard uncut at the corners, and using a tallis katan daily. It seemed important to me to “look like a Jew” as well as being a Jew. In fact, for the most part, I personally still maintain those practices.
And then I started seeing what was apparent to many Reform Jews. Namely, that being a Jew is more important than looking the part. When I first had studied to be a Jew, I had found a copy of the two-volume Union Prayer Book 1940 Edition. It was really the only siddur I could use in those early days, when my Hebrew was so rudimentary that I could not even follow along well with transliterated texts.
But even as I learned enough Hebrew to make sense out of the basic prayers in shul, I found myself missing the old Union Prayer Book. It was like an old friend, too quickly cast aside for the latest, prettiest thing. And then, when I wanted a copy, I found there were none to be had!
Living in a different city now, far away from my old haunts down South, I gradually returned to observance. The shul where I worship now is a mix of modern Reform and Conservative Jews. Nary a Union Prayer Book to be had.
And then, I encountered for the first time the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. What was this? A society dedicated to preservation of the Classical Reform liturgical practices that I had never really experienced, and always wanted to. Interesting, I thought. I might as well check it out. I contacted the Society, and was duly rewarded with several copies of the Reform Advocate, the Society’s journal, two cd’s of Classical Reform worship, and wonder of wonders, the greatest prize, the Union Prayer Book, only slightly modified from its 1940 edition!
I thumbed my way excitedly through the books, paused, put in the cd, and returned to the books. Slowly, the strains of a pipe organ could be heard. From there, it was off to the races, an experience of a Sabbath Eve service combining the familiar words of the Union Prayer Book with the tradition of European choral and instrumental music.
This was I something I could get into! The Society for Classical Reform Judaism upholds the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. This platform basically taught that Judaism was a Faith of ethical monotheism that could be universally applied, rather than being the property of a single ethnic group. It developed certain ideas with which I agree, albeit I choose a more traditional approach to most of them.
The principal aspect of the platform was an acknowledgement that each Jew is autonomous person, and that Jewish Law is binding on him only insofar as it lifts his spirit and makes him a better man. In my case, this means the use of many Orthodox practices. For many Reform, however, it means re-evaluating concepts such as kosher purity and issues of that sort.
Now I have the best of both worlds. I still maintain strong ties to my Orthodox past in the use of prayer three times daily, keeping kosher, wearing a tallis katan, a yarmulke, and an uncut beard. At the same time, I can embrace a ritual that is at the one time both fully Jewish and European. I could get the best of both worlds from my solidly English roots in Christianity, and bringing them over to Classical Reform.
So, for me, this is what Classical Reform is. A chance to be fully Jewish, and not turn one’s back on one’s background. To worship predominantly in stately English, but with a strong grounding in Hebrew. To follow Judaism at its most prophetic, honoring the ancient Hebrew Prophets and the message of liberation that they brought to the world. To recognize that non-Jewish religions for the non-Jew can be for them as valuable as Judaism is to us, and perhaps to give them a little something of what we have, and take a little something in return. Ultimately, to know that to be a Jew is not to look like a Jew. That is but the crowning, the externals. It is important, but more important yet is being a Jew in one’s heart and mind. Classical Reform helps me to do that.