Yes, I am about to be a bit controversial. As a Jew and rabbi passionate about Reform and willing to stridently defend from within Jewish tradition the authenticity of Reform, I try to choose my criticisms of Reform carefully. Over the years, the one element of our stream that has most consistently frustrated me is our removal of “offensive” texts and/or our use alternative texts to the exclusion of the more traditional. This is not to suggest that alternative texts are not important and effective. For example, our siddur offers eight pages of potential alternative readings after the Shema for those that wish to explore texts other than the three that are historically associated with the Shema. But offering choice and alternatives is far different than removing completely.
The removal of texts reflects the choices made in the wake of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) by what are known as the “radical reformers” at the end of the 19th century. Early Reform carried with it overt universalist and rationalist overtones that chose to remove texts deemed antithetical to these overtones. Specifically, texts dealing with angels, “chosenness,” the ingathering of exiles, particularistic religious ritual and clothing, and reward and punishment theology (to name a few) were edited if not outright removed. American Reform, for example, completely removed the second two paragraphs of the Shema (the Vayim Shemoa and the Vayomer HaShem) because their themes were reward and punishment (if you pray, the rains will come, if you do not, the rains will not come) and cultic clothing (you shall put fringes on the corners of your four-cornered garments) and only in the most recent prayerbook (the 2007 Mishkan Tefillah) did the second of these return and then only three years ago with the most recent Machzor (Mishkan HaNefesh) did the ability to see the Vayim Shemoa as well resurface.
Likewise, our Torah reading from Parashat Eikev this week contains selective editing. In the UK Reform Movement, we are in the first triennial cycle, but are reading a text from the second. Our text this week is the retelling of the story of the spies sent to reconnoitre Eretz Israel, and what is edited out via skipping over is:
“You shall destroy all the peoples that the Eternal your God delivers to you, showing them no pity. And you shall not worship their gods, for that would be a snare to you.”
The passage is offensive. It is backward, it is a part of imperialistic, “might-makes-right,” us versus them mentality that is best kept far in the past, far away from us. . . which is exactly why we should be studying it. Reading a passage that is offensive (and yes the Tanakh is filled with horrific examples of offense) does not mean that we agree with the passage. A central archetypical image in Judaism is of one of various ancestors standing up to and “arguing” with the Eternal. Many challenging passages bring about discomfort, but is protecting ourselves from discomfort really the purpose of our religion? Do we only read passages that are happy and life-affirming? Life is not always life-affirming. Is Torah meant to show us an unattainable fantasy world or a reflection of what life really is—filled with tendencies to vanquish our enemies rather than enter into dialogue with them?
The texts that we have edited are filled with possibility. The sentiment that “if you don’t pray the rains will not come” in the year 2019/5779 can become a midrash on global climate change. The texts dealing with tzitzit can challenge us to rethink our intentionality with entering into sacred spaces, or even what we choose to communicate with our clothing. And indeed, we can learn a lot by calls in our own texts to genocide, even if the learning is not always pleasant, not the least of which is the universality of this kind of tribalism in human history and the ability the recognize that our own present circumstances reflect the same archetypal behaviour. George Santayana (most likely) penned the famous, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Torah, by commenting on the good, bad and ugly within us at individual and societal levels gives us the fighting chance to reflect the potential atrocities that live inside all of us before they can ever be given destructive form—but only if we don’t edit them out.