The language of autonomy that has dominated the Reform movement’s discussion has been a distraction from our core principles, from what has been the driving force of our religious self-understanding.
Yes, to be sure, we allow for individual choice. And yes, that should continue. It just isn’t the sum total of our religious commitments, however. Somehow we have put the emphasis on the least important part. Rather, we are indeed commanded, in the fullest religious sense.
More specifically: we are commanded to respect human dignity in all its forms. And this commandment amounts to something much deeper, grander, and more pervasive than Kant’s philosophical ethics. Kant teaches ‘treat everyone as an end rather than a means to an end.’ He also teaches the need to universalize ethics. But where his ethics really falls short – and where the Reform movement fundamentally parts ways with Kant – is regarding the question of feeding the poor.
In Kant’s view, if you have done what is right, and have attended to all of your moral duties, it is possible to walk past someone who is hungry without a thought. A sense of pity, in fact, is a moral weakness, for it might distract you from the rational calculation of your duties. As long as you yourself have not done something directly that was immoral to cause that person’s poverty, you have met your moral obligations.
We Jews say no. To the contrary: a person who is hungry is indeed a person. And leaving that person to remain hungry is to profane the very name of God. You must act. You are commanded to act. The commandment to practice tzedakah – righteousness – that is, the commandment to engage in righteous living, to respond righteously to the challenge of hunger is a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice and belief. We differ as to the best ways to go about doing that, but you must act. You are commanded to act in response to this person, created in the image of God.
This commandment is a point of agreement across all streams of Judaism. Where the liberal movements part ways with the Orthodox, however, is on the question of extending that sense of human rights beyond the challenge of hunger. We Reform Jews take that commandment so seriously that we extend its reach: we are also commanded to treat persons with dignity in all other areas of life, which (among other things) means offering an equal opportunity to participate in the community.
Let me give you a concrete example, drawn from my own experience, to highlight this point. The first time I walked the synagogue doors, I was a lapsed Methodist engaged to a Jew. I was there, in fact, to ask the rabbi to officiate at my wedding.
Twenty years later, I am an ordained rabbi, serving in this most wonderful congregation, scheduled to receive my PhD in Jewish Thought this June.
How did that happen? When I entered the Reform synagogue that first time, the rabbi did not treat me like an uninvited guest. From him I received instead a warm handshake and a flyer for the Introduction to Judaism course.
And it was that act of kindness that allowed me the space to move past a dogmatic insistence that religion is nonsense, in order to learn, really learn, the full range of Jewish thought and to fall in love with our grand tradition of scholarship. In a Reform congregation, all of those annoyingly penetrating questions by nosy brainy outsider girls are welcome. Encouraged, even. Pull up a chair; we’ll set a place for you.
In a community where everyone knows their place, however, or more specifically, in a community where it is not possible to change that place, my story cannot take place. I am a woman. I was born an outsider. And in Orthodox circles, because of those two facts of my birth – things that I simply cannot change, not ever – I will never be an insider to them. Modern Orthodoxy is now, indeed, ordaining women one at a time, and there are indeed provisions for conversion. So a woman rabbi is not completely out of the question, nor is conversion out of the question. But you certainly cannot do both. My presence is disruptive and dislocating; I should not, to that way of thinking, even exist.
A friend of mine, a Jewishly knowledgeable man, has taken a right-ward turn in recent years and is now a member of an Orthodox congregation. In his heart of hearts he believes that is the ‘real’ Judaism and that what I practice is a pale imitation. And I think to myself: that is all well and good for you, and I am glad that you have found your spiritual home, but you should know this: I cannot follow you; it is not a possibility; I am not wanted there. I want to ask him: Why should it be necessary to write me off, and people like me off, as necessary casualties in the pursuit of authenticity? Why is it that this exclusion does not trouble you?
If you are going to take the text literally, why not take literally the injunction, ‘do not oppress the stranger, the widow, the orphan, for you were strangers in Egypt’? The stranger is the one who seeks to convert; the widow is the woman who determines her own fate; the orphan is the person without a Jewish family. Do not oppress them.
I am a woman. I am a Jew. I am a rabbi. These last two facts are not delusions but rather the fundamental pillars of my core identity. This is who I am; I have more than earned both of those titles through twenty years of study.
As our world changes around us suddenly, irreversibly, my life-experience (and the life-experience of those who are like me) will become emblematic of our age. This is the way forward: welcoming the stranger and inviting them to learn.
Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a congregation in the northernmost part of New York State and has just heard that ‘this year is the year’ with regard to her graduation. She will receive her PhD in June.