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Do the Movements Matter: A Personal Reflection

04/06/2011 11:25:53 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

In many ways, I am a “post-denominational” Jew. My grandfather was a Conservative rabbi his whole working life. My family was unaffiliated when I was growing up, but as a Jew in my 20’s I found my niche in a small Conservative synagogue in San Francisco called B’nei Emuna. As my Jewish journey unfolded, it was Rabbi David Hartman, one of the leading modern Orthodox thinkers of the 20th Century, who really inspired me to become a rabbi.

Given my more traditional background, you might wonder how I ended up a Reform rabbi. The short answer is that when it came time for me to apply to rabbinical school, I realized that while I was attracted to a more traditional worship style and the treasure trove of the traditional Jewish cannon, theologically I was actually a Reform Jew! The crux of the matter was/is halakha, Jewish Law: did it have a vote or a veto in my life? My answer was, and still is, a vote. That is to say, when it comes to the ritual commandments like keeping Shabbat or Kashrut, I believe in informed choice; that is why I applied to HUC-JIR, the Reform seminary, even though all my experience and references were from more traditional streams of Judaism.

You can imagine how the interview process went: “Wow, recommendations from Rabbi David Hartman and David Gordis” (a well known Conservative rabbi, thinker and leader) are impressive, but why aren’t you applying to JTS, the Conservative seminary?” To make a long story short, even though I did not know from Reform Judaism and had no connections in the movement, I was accepted into the Reform seminary and thus began my Reform Jewish journey.

It was a rough start. I found the liturgy (or lack thereof) unsettling, and the campy music utterly foreign. However, the overall approach to Jewish life, especially the inclusive approach to who is a Jew, and to the non-Jewish world, was what I had been looking for. I was quickly intellectually if not liturgically at home in our movement. It’s funny how it works, but by now I am even liturgically very comfortable in a Reform worship setting, though if I am davening somewhere other than Shomrei Torah, you are just as likely to find me at a (liberal) Conservative shul as a Reform one, and a knowledgeable outsider observing my leadership style at Shomrei Torah can see how eclectic my approach to Judaism and Jewish tradition is. As the Dean of HUC-JIR recently said to me, “George, your approach is not exactly mainstream from a Reform perspective…” He meant that as a compliment.

To complicate things further, my main associations post-rabbinical school have been with post-denominational organizations: The Shalom Hartman Institute is a pluralistic, Orthodox institute, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality is open to all denominations, not sponsored by any.

So, back to my original question, do the movements matter? This question is really bigger than one blog can address so I will stick to the personal for now, hoping to return to this subject in a more thorough way at another time.

Institutionally, I think they do and this is why: There are real differences between the various non-Orthodox approaches to Jewish life. I have personally gained a great deal from at least three if not four streams of Jewish life: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (I might also include the Renewal Movement, inasmuch as I have been influenced by their focus on Hassidic thought and practice). The movements are also to be thanked for essential elements of Jewish life today, like the seminaries. I am profoundly grateful to HUC-JIR, the Reform seminary, for the 5 years of learning and my ordination some 15 years ago.

Ultimately, I am a pluralist; I thrive in a diverse Jewish environment in dialogue with itself. In that sense, my Jewish journey is like a page of Talmud, holding a number of different and conflicting views, in creative tension, all the time.

Eilu v’eilu d’varim chayim. – those and these teachings are the words of the Living God….

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