By Rabbi Mark Glickman
(AJNews) – When I moved here from the United States six years ago, I was surprised to learn that Judaism in Canada is quite different than it is United States. Most notable, I found, was the vastly different Jewish denominational “landscape” here. In the United States, for example, there are about twice as many Jews who identify as Reform as Conservative. Here in Canada, however, the Conservative movement is by far the largest, and, by some counts, there are Orthodox here in Canada than are Reform.
There are many reasons for Reform’s lower numbers here. Perhaps most significant is the fact that American Reform was created by the wave of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century, a time when very few German Jews were moving to Canada.
Whatever its cause, one of the results of Canada’s relatively small number of Reform Jews is some widespread misunderstanding of Reform on the part of Canadian Jewry as a whole.
Let’s start to remedy that here, shall we?
Reform Judaism is a rich and multifaceted approach to Jewish life, and although there is a lot to be said about it, here I’d like to share three things that are among the most important.
Reform Isn’t “Judaism Lite”
It is true, of course, that Reform isn’t as strictly observant of Halachah (Jewish law) as other denominations, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier; far from it. Instead, Reform calls upon its adherents to make “choice through knowledge” – to study our laws and traditions, to experiment with them, to find those that are meaningful in our own lives, and, through it all, to discern and respond to the commanding voice of God in the world. Additionally, from its beginnings, Reform has embraced the great ethical teachings of our heritage, and called upon us to act upon those values in every way we can.
Does Reform Judaism afford its adherents some flexibility in our decisions about Jewish ritual practice? Yes. But is it an easy out? Not at all. In fact, its demand that we make knowledgeable choices about our Jewish lives is quite difficult, indeed.
Reform is Traditional
If you were to take our ancestor Abraham, put him into a time machine, and transport him to a medieval synagogue, he probably wouldn’t understand a word of what was going on. And if you were to take a Jew from 10th century Morocco and transport her to a Pesach Seder in a religiously observant home today, she probably wouldn’t understand much of what was happening, either.
Yes, Judaism always changes; in every age, it adapts to contemporary ideas and realities while also embracing the fundamental ideas of Judaism. As a result, if you want to be a traditional Jew, you need to be committed to change.
This is an element of Jewish life that Reform embraces proudly and unapologetically. It insists that we allow Jewish ideas and practices to encounter modernity, and embraces the dynamic, modern Judaism that the encounter produces. Conversely, anyone who suggests that Judaism should remain static and unchanging advocates a position that is contrary to what Judaism has been since its beginnings.
A Proud Reform Tradition
Reform Judaism was the first major North American Jewish denomination to welcome women into synagogue-wide leadership roles. Since 1972 (fifty years ago!), it was also the first to ordain women as rabbis. And more recently, it was the first to ordain members of the LGBTQ community as rabbis and cantors, too. The Reform movement is active as no other religious denomination in lobbying North American legislators on issues of Jewish concern, and now is deeply involved in support for Israel. Reform Jews pioneered Jewish camping in North America, and are at the forefront of efforts to compose new music and create innovative worship experiences for our communities. Reform Judaism, in short, has a long and proud tradition of making crucial, cutting-edge contributions to modern Jewish life.
None of this is to argue for the superiority of Reform, of course, just its authenticity. To be sure, one of the great blessings of Jewish life in North America these days is the huge number of choices we have as to how to express our Judaism, with each denomination bringing its own invaluable gifts.
Canada does have its own unique Jewish landscape. And as Reform Judaism grows, it too – just like other denominations – will surely continue to offer its own gifts to our diverse and wonderful Jewish community.
Rabbi Mark Glickman is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Tikvah, the Reform Jewish Congregation in Calgary.