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Mishpatim - or why I am a Reform rabbi 

 

It was a conversation with Raul Gottlieb, President of the Union of Reform Judaism in Latin America, that helped me understand that there is little difference between the Jews who attend Reform, Conservative and Chabad Shuls, and that these three global movements are in competition for business. Whereas Orthodox Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews are generally halachic and try to follow Jewish law in all aspects of their lives, the rest of us typically do not. But whether you find yourself in a Reform, Conservative or Chabad shul is about what you expect from your leaders. Do you want them to be Jewish like you, or do you want them to be Jewish for you, and to what extent?

Some people misunderstand me as a rabbi and think that I am quite Conservative. It’s a mystery to me why this be. Maybe it’s because I keep kosher, and have done all my life. Should a real Reform rabbi eat seafood and post it all over Facebook? Well, it’s true, I have some colleagues who would. Maybe it’s because I enjoy traditional prayers and especially old-fashioned chazzanut? I like reggae but it doesn’t make me Jamaican. I try not to work on Shabbat, send emails etc, but the only day I truly close my phone and computer is on Yom Kippur. And each year when we are done, I turn on my phone again and think - wow, that was a nice break, I should do that on Shabbat too - and then promptly forget again until the following year. Not that I’d get to any of our various shul locations on our tropical island if it weren’t for grab and a taxi. 

As part of my rabbinic programme I did spend a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I enjoyed my studies and especially the introduction to the world of Talmud. There were two groups of students at the Yeshiva: those who fitted in, and those who did not. I found myself firmly in the latter group, allergic to the robotic davening and resistant to the normative behaviour and rules that, for example, forced rabbinic students to get married beforehand, in order to live with their partners in Jerusalem. My housemate was a confirmed bachelor, a fair bit older than me. He was training to be a Cantor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and lived in fear of someone calling him into their office to ask him if he were homosexual. This was just over a decade ago, when there was still a ban on gay students becoming Conservative rabbis or cantors. Another ban - and this one may still be in place - was that rabbis could not attend even their siblings’ wedding, if that sibling were marrying a non-Jew. If they did, they would be slung out of the Rabbinic Assembly. This really made no sense to me at all - surely Judaism should put family before anything else.

And that’s why I am not a Conservative rabbi, and not a Conservative Jew. I simply don’t prioritise Halacha (Jewish law) over what seems to me to be correct. Sure, I like to play the halachic game, twisting the Torah this way and that in order to prove something one way, or equally the other. I believe that Judaism evolves continually and has evolved, and that Jewish law evolves too. And I also believe that we are often held in a tension between the traditions of our ancestors and the traditions of our own parents, and are sometimes caught between honouring one or the other. I also have grown to understand that Asian Judaism is patrilineal, and that the majority of our members have a Jewish father, but not always a Jewish mother, and that it is not necessary to convert our community’s kids. 

But above all I think that a rabbi or a religious leader can be a role-model for good and for bad, but that a rabbi is not someone who sits on a throne or should stand on a high bimah, thundering down to his flock, btselem Elohim, in imitatio dei. At the UHC we have modelled more of a Sofa Judaism, as much by necessity as by design. That is to say, a more comfortable community of equals, couched in terms of a continual conversation about what it is to be Jewish in Singapore and to build together our unique community. Our Jewish life flits between the educational, the religious and the social, people are coaxed rather than coerced into participation, dormant Jews reawakening to their heritage. It is not the laws we live by that define us, for who would dare to utter the laws that are kept by us all? Rather perhaps it is the rhythms that unite us, the festive seasons in a country with a climate that has none, the heartbeat of a minyan that thuds more strongly, more regularly, on a Thursday than it does on a Shabbat. That to me is innovation, an evolving of a tradition to the needs of our community, an ad hoc reform, non-halachic, almost absurd, Thursday? - but yet one that is meaningful and adds meaning to our lives. 

Our Torah portion this week is Mishpatim - meaning laws. They begin with the laws about slaves and how to treat them, about manslaughter and cities of refuge. Important laws, no doubt, laws that underpin our sense of justice and injustice, laws to be studied, but laws that do not speak to our everyday lives. They say that “the Talmud is a sea in which a gnat can drink and an elephant can bathe in” (actually they don’t, I mixed it up, that’s an Indian proverb about my other love, chess), but regardless, Jewish law is something I for one continue to enjoy studying. But whatever animal that makes me, it does not make me a Conservative rabbi! My instincts are far closer to giving tradition “a vote but not a veto” (in fact, a quote by Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the reconstructionist movement - but let’s keep it simple and say I am not a reconstructionist either!). I am simply a Reform rabbi, grappling with tradition and modernity, trying to meet people where they are, to encourage them to engage and enjoy being Jewish, and to build a community that celebrates and perpetuates this for our children. 

Wed, 27 May 2020 4 Sivan 5780