February 28, 2024 -

Our movement’s emphasis on the Adaptability of the Teachings of the Talmud

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, was shared at the May 16 Shavuot/Confirmation Service by Easton Singer, a Religious School Confirmand and recipient of The Barnett R. Brickner Memorial Award. 

Good evening. While I know that we all wish we could be in person celebrating this special occasion together, I am still thankful that we get to have this virtual experience of leading a service through Zoom and the livestream. It is a testament to the resilience of our class and our community that everyone chose to be here online today. I am honored to accept the Rabbi Brickner Memorial Award on behalf of the Confirmation Class of 5781. Barnett R. Brickner (born 1892) was a rabbi who initiated the growth of the Anshe Chesed community and guided it to its present-day location at Fairmount Temple. He led the congregation for over 30 years while actively participating in many local and national Jewish organizations. I am very grateful to be able to accept this award in his name and remember one of this congregation’s greatest rabbis, speakers, educators, and activists.

            One of Rabbi Brickner’s actions in Cleveland was to center the Anshe Chesed congregation on traditional Reform Judaism, as he did five years earlier with a previously-Orthodox congregation in Toronto. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on how being specifically a Reform Jew has impacted our lives up until now, and how I believe it will be important to our lives going forward. In particular, the Reform movement’s emphasis on the adaptability of the teachings of the Talmud is a driving factor in the way we have learned to see the world.

           Of course, Conservative and even Orthodox Jews have some autonomy in the modern world over their individual religious thought, but Reform Judaism especially encourages individual thought and critical thinking as some of the best ways to interact with our age-old texts. Some definitions of Reform Judaism focus on it having “modified or abandoned many traditional Jewish beliefs, laws, and practices” (Encyclopedia Britannica), but I think the negativity conveyed in the word “abandoned” is misplaced. Maybe better words would be evolved, or modernized. According to reformjudaism.org, Reform Jews “believe that Judaism must change and adapt to the needs of the day to survive, and we see the Torah as a living, God-inspired document that enables us to confront the timeless, timely challenges of our everyday lives.” Change and critical thinking go hand in hand, as any amount of change requires first thinking outside the box to come up with the ideas that inspire change. What really defines Reform Judaism then are those two concepts — change and critical thinking — applied to the wide variety of laws, responsibilities, suggestions, and advice set out in the Torah and by thousands of years of rabbis’ commentary. Any Jew can ask, “How do I follow the Jewish teachings?” but a Reform Jew is taught to ask as well, “How can I follow the spirit of the Jewish teachings today, this month, this year, this lifetime?”

            Many of us in this Confirmation class have attended Monday school for a few years, and I think it’s a great example of the teaching that the Reform movement encourages. Much of the K-6 curriculum is focused on teaching younger kids the fundamentals of Hebrew and the prayer service, but as early as 7th grade, we’re turned loose to explore the topics that are interesting to us. Although the Monday school teachers and the clergy still facilitate our learning, the style of teaching is not about grinding facts into us but rather making the resources available for us to synthesize our own opinions based on precedents and evidence. I think any of the Monday school teachers would truthfully say that they’ve learned something about Judaism from us, and I find it wonderful that the Reform movement not only allows but encourages everyone’s perspective to be expressed, heard, and considered by everyone else. Rabbi Caruso shared a great quote with me about that from Rabbi Chanina: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.”

            Due to the pandemic, I had the pleasure of being able to attend many consecutive weeks of Saturday morning Torah Study through Zoom last summer. I had previously heard of my grandparents going to Torah Study, but until I went myself I thought the only purpose was to “study” other people’s translations and interpretations of that week’s Torah portion, especially given that there is no short supply of commentary on the Torah. What Torah Study really was, though, was a gathering of people sharing their own conclusions based on their perspectives and what other people’s sharing inspired them to think. Participants in these discussions ranged from those knowing only a few words of Hebrew to near-fluent speakers, from lifetime Jews to recent converts. What hearing all of those voices really taught me was that everyone’s opinion carries some weight, even the words of a teenager about a document that’s thousands of years old. Opportunities to research, study, listen to others, and then finally draw your own conclusions are common and valued highly here at Anshe Chesed.

But why does any of this matter? Why should we care that we have been taught to form our own opinions? Because this is a skill that has vast applications throughout our lives, not just in Judaism. When our best friends are dead-set on doing something, but we’re not so sure it’s a good idea, we can decide for ourselves what our best course of action is, because we know how to identify and compare the pros and cons of a choice. When there is a conflict that forces us to pick a side, we won’t just shut our eyes and ears and play the easy part, because we know how to listen and evaluate both sides of an argument. When we are old enough to vote, we won’t necessarily vote for the candidate with the letter D or the letter R, because we know how to research and formulate our own opinions on the candidates. Our upbringing as Reform Jews has equipped us with the best tools for making the most nuanced decisions of our lives; I appreciate that, and I hope the rest of you do too.

            I would like to conclude by thanking the wonderful clergy and teachers at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple for all they’ve provided us with for 10+ years. I would like to thank my family and all of the Confirmands’ families for guiding us and supporting us in our lives. Thank you to everyone who joined this service this evening or are watching the livestream. And last but certainly not least, thank you to our class, the Confirmation Class of 5781, for teaching me and learning with me for such a large portion of our lives. It’s been a blast. Chag Sameach Shavuot!