‘Reforming’ a Religion

Why pray 'Thy will be done' when one can pray 'my will be done'?

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Rabbi David Ellenson died December 7 in New York. I read about it in The New York Times. I’ll admit to knowing nothing about the man before I read his obituary. The phenomenon of reading obituaries kicks in at a certain age. As a child, I was always puzzled by the fact that the first thing my grandmother read after the evening paper got thrown on the porch were the death notices.

Having advanced at least in years, I’ve started reading them and — although it sounds like a twist on the old Playboy joke — the Times’ obits are actually good articles. They generally are interesting stories about someone’s life, which often makes me rue not knowing more about them while they were alive.

Ellenson was apparently a leader among Reform Jewish rabbis. The article talks about how he tried to build bridges among the various branches of Judaism while focusing on his Reform vision.

What caught my eye in the obituary, however, was one line. Ellenson was actually born into an Orthodox Jewish family, “but he bristled against the religious strictures imposed on him.” Growing up in Virginia in the 1950s, Ellenson wanted to play basketball. But playing basketball on the Sabbath violated a mitzvah (commandment), at least as rabbinically interpreted. Ellenson admitted, “I didn’t know anything about the Reform movement. I simply did not want to observe the commandments.”

“I simply did not want to observe the commandments.”

Isn’t that usually the excuse for redefining one’s faith to accommodate what one wants to do? For want of a basketball hoop, a theology grew.

People who break with their religion’s requirements usually don’t do so out of deep religious convictions or thoroughly thought-out reflections. It’s usually one thing that somebody wants to do that their religion says they can’t. Why pray “Thy will be done” when one can pray “my will be done?” The “theology” usually grows from that.

Commenting on Ellenson, UCLA Professor David Myers observes that Ellenson always asked, “How does the Jewish religious tradition adapt, transform, and resist the powerful forces of modernity?”

The problem of most “reform” movements — Jewish or Christian — is that those traditions typically “adapt” and rarely “resist the powerful forces of modernity.” That’s how the Reform movement emerged. That’s how the Protestant Mainline — the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans — largely became the “Old Line” (borrowing Richard Neuhaus’s term), selling their religious inheritance for the pottage of the Sexual Revolution. And it’s very much the mentality of no small number of today’s “synodality” advocates, for whom the Church’s Tradition is so much ballast in the way of a “welcoming” and “accompanying” denomination. How often do these “adaptations” lead to Catholic-Lite, Protestant-Lite, and Jewish-Lite?

Ellenson once told an interviewer that how he regarded Jewish law was “as an ongoing narrative, where each generation of Jews writes a different story in which they attempt to capture what it is they feel that God commands in their age.” Let’s dissect that sentence:

An “ongoing narrative.” Contrast that to the teaching, both of Orthodox Judaism and orthodox Catholicism, that there is a “definitive” narrative, i.e., the revelation of God. For the Christian, that narrative closed with the end of the New Testament (which is why Mormons are not really Christians). That is the “narrative” against which subsequent interpretations rise or fall, the “continuity” against which one’s hermeneutic of the moment is measured.

A “different” story. Well, I have two questions. First, whose story is it — God’s or yours? Because the definitive test of a true prophet was that he spoke “Yahweh’s word” (even to his own discomfort, like Jeremiah) rather than his own. Same with our “stories.” Presumably, it’s God’s story, begun in creation and arching to some final terminus in the expected Messiah (whether one still awaits his coming or celebrates it as having occurred). And, particularly if it’s God’s story, how do these human authors ensure the continuity of the story line, as opposed to its differences?

They “attempt to capture” — yes, one should be humble about attempting to speak in God’s name.

“What they feel God commands.” Like the preceding point, whose message is it, Yahweh’s or man’s? Did Moses “feel” God didn’t particularly like ten things, or did Moses know that these were God’s Commandments?

“In their age.” Genuine Jewish theology speaks of Elohim as the “Eternal” and “Omniscient One.” Speaking through the prophet Malachi (3:6), God declares “I, the Lord, do not change.” That same theme in the New Testament (Hebrew 3:8) is summed up: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God does not say one thing to one time and then “change His mind.”

Unless, it seems, He’s talking to somebody who “simply did not want to observe the commandments.”

Let me say I am not impugning Ellenson’s sincerity. I suppose his attachment to basketball was “a childish thing” that, when he grew up, he “put away” (as another well-versed Jew once observed). I am sure the priorities of a teenager are not necessarily those of a grown man.

But litera scripta manet (the written word remains). My focus is on the words. How often does the idea “but for this commandment I could do X” lead to the commandment being revised in light of the want?

No few numbers of religious “reform” movements began with accepting the commandments but for one. That one is the one in need of “reform” to be more “accommodating” — be that to my basketball, my birth control device, or my bigamy (masquerading as “remarriage”). Unfortunately, commandments, like religion in general, has a harsh quality: you can’t pull at one thread in the tapestry without quickly discovering the whole masterpiece unravels.

You then have a dilemma. You can recognize your need for conversion. Or you can look at the skein of string now on the floor, call it “modern art,” and salute your “reform.”

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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