American Reform Responsa

1. Propriety of Using Discarded Practices in Reform Services

(Vol. LXV, 1955, pp. 88-90)

QUESTION: In the area in which my Temple is located, we increase our membership by attracting men and women from Orthodox and Conservative homes. The new members, when principals in a wedding ceremony, will often ask that the older forms to which they are accustomed be retained in the service. These include the covering of the head by all participants, the reading of the traditional Ketuba, and the breaking of the glass.

Similar requests come at times from the parents of a Bar Mitzvah. To please an older member of the family, they would have the boy wear Talit and skull-cap during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The members of our Ritual Committee take the stand that the rabbi of the Temple, when acting as officiating minister, must conform to the practices of Reform Judaism. They likewise insist that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony as conducted in our Temple must be viewed as a form of initiation into the ways of Reform Judaism, and should therefore present no feature that is glaringly inconsistent with our established practices.

What do you think of the position taken by the Ritual Committee?

ANSWER: There is an erroneous impression abroad, which we have done little to dispel, that while the undevising traditionalists are ruled by a sense of loyalty to Torah, we who have espoused the principle of Reform are guided by such motives as personal convenience and temperamental preference.

Of course, the student of our religious history knows quite well that the forms and customs sanctified by tradition had their origin not in a special divine revelation but in the compelling conditions of human living. As life changes and new situations arise, there also springs up the need for other ways and methods by which the high purposes of our faith may best be fulfilled.

What passes for Torah-true Judaism reflects very often a contemptuous disregard for the needs of the present, and not solely a tender attachment to the teachings of the past; and what draws so often the fire of our opponents against us, carrying the taunt that we play fast and loose with tradition, issues just as often from a deep conviction that the discipline of religion, even as the spirit of religion, must be rooted in reality and not in sheer fantasy.

Reform Judaism has eliminated the Ketuba from the marriage ceremony for the good and sufficient reason that the changes which have taken place in Jewish life and law have divested the document of its ancient meaning and importance. Long before the rise of Reform, the judicious curtailment of the right of the husband to divorce his wife against her will nullified the practical usefulness of the Ketuba, making its retention in our time an empty, meaningless formality (Mielziner, The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce, pp. 88-89).

Nor is the omission of the breaking of the glass from our marriage ceremony dictated by anything other than the very doubtful nature and value of the explosive gesture. Whether the practice was originally intended to curb excessive hilarity on a joyous occasion, or to recall the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, or-- as Lauterbach would have--to frighten away evil spirits (Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, vol. 1, p. 98), it is certain that the crude dramatic performance tends to distract rather than to inspire, to mar rather than to enhance the impressiveness of the occasion.

As to the clamorous insistence that we must keep the head covered while at prayer, one need but read Lauterbach's exhaustive and illuminating study of the subject to realize the restricted and uncertain character of the custom (CCAR Yearbook, vol. 38, pp. 589-603). While in Babylonia Jews worshiped with heads covered, in Palestine it was the custom to worship bareheaded. In the early medieval period, the Spanish Jews followed the Babylonian practice, while the French and German Jews followed the Palestinian practice. As late as the 18th century, the Wilna Gaon, unable to find support for the custom in Jewish law, reduced the question to a mere matter of good manners. Since in our time, and in this land, it is the very best of manners to express respect by uncovering the head, we should think it an act of willful and useless self-isolation when an American Jew chooses to make of the skull-cap an important symbol of Jewish piety.

Of course, there is here, as elsewhere, the important person, the "older member of the family," whose fixed habits make him uncomfortable in the presence of change; but then, there is also the rebuke administered to Joseph by the Patriarch: "Shall I and thy mother and ~thy brethren come to bow down to thee?"

The firm stand taken by the Ritual Committee augers well for the continued stability of our Reform religious practices.

Israel Bettan

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.