Learning from Others Within Judaism (Why the Mazsihisz Should Recognize the Reform Communities)

szim salom hanukkah

On December 15, 2019, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) voted not to recognize Budapest’s two Reform communities, Szim Salom (where I serve in a cantorial role) and Bét Orim. The Mazsihisz is Neolog in orientation. While the Neolog movement differs little from the Orthodox in official stance and liturgy, the personal practices of its congregants range from secular to traditionally observant. I am disappointed by the decision (along with many others, some of whom have written about it) but hope that it is not final and that the discussion will continue. The reasons for coming together–and respecting each other, even with differences–are much more compelling than the reasons for staying apart.

The consequences of the decision are not only financial, but those are important as well. In not recognizing the Reform communities, the Mazsihisz denies any obligation to share its funds with them, including Holocaust restitution funds. Beyond that, the decision is humiliating. It is a way of saying: we are legitimate, and you are not. Still beyond that, the decision shuts off an opportunity to work together, learn from each other, and strengthen each other.

Granted, the question of recognition is much more complex than I am acknowledging here; it plagues just about any religious group. In the U.S., the Conservative and Reform movements have grown closer over time; some fear that the Conservative approach–its endeavor to be at once halakhic (roughly translated: observant of Jewish law) and responsive to modern reality–will disappear. The fear is understandable: any formal religion is founded on some combination of law, text, tradition, belief, and principle. Give up too much of it, and you give up not only your reason for existence, but your core of wisdom. On the other hand, if you refuse to let your wisdom evolve, you end up hurting people inside and outside your community. So I can sympathize with those in the Mazsihisz assembly who felt caught in a dilemma. I have less sympathy for those who refuse to consider the question.

At the December 15 meeting (which I did not attend), one Mazsihisz member stated infamously that “a rabbi should not be a woman, because everyone will just be looking at her butt.” (“Egy rabbi ne legyen nő, mert mindenki csak a fenekét fogja nézni. “) Others worried that recognizing Reform communities violates the principles of the sixteenth-century Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, which the Mazsihisz names explicitly in its statutes. If the statutes were to be amended to recognize the Reform communities, the reference to the Shulchan Aruch would have to be deleted. However, as some participants pointed out, few people read the Shulchan Aruch or know what is in it–and those Orthodox communities that do follow the Shulchan Aruch don’t recognize the Mazsihisz. (The Neolog movement initially represented a break from Orthodoxy; its original aim was to offer a more modern and assimilated form of Jewish worship and life. Today, from what I understand, this difference from Orthodoxy is reflected more in the actual practice of the members than in Neolog doctrine.)

In the U.S., I am Conservative in my Jewish orientation; I like the mixture of tradition and modernization and find no limit to my role within it. It was in the U.S.–at my synagogue B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), in lessons with the hazzan of Chizuk Amuno, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary–that I learned not only the basics and intricacies of cantillation (in all six systems–Torah, Haftarah, High Holy Day, Eichah, Ester, and Festival), but the underlying principles and structures. (BJ is independent but mostly Conservative in its liturgy and practice; Chizuk Amuno is a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore; and JTS is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism.) Here in Hungary, I joined Szim Salom, a Reform synagogue, because I like what it does and because I could continue to leyn there. I did not expect to be invited into a cantorial role; when I was, in December 2017, I accepted joyfully and have continued in the role for over two years now. I admire the rabbi, Katalin Kelemen (Hungary’s first–and, so far, only–female rabbi), for her extraordinary persistence, intellect, courage, and joy. I have been warmly welcomed and appreciated by the members.

I used to think of Reform Judaism (the U.S. version, that is) as too watered down, not well versed in Hebrew or liturgy, not as solemn as I would like, not serious in its practice. This may have been true to some extent, but the situation is changing. Reform synagogues are placing much more emphasis now on Hebrew, liturgy, and knowledge of halakhah than they did in the past. As for Conservatives, they are in no way monolithic. Some members go out to restaurants after Shabbat service; others follow Orthodox practices from hour to hour. The rabbis uphold a standard while quietly recognizing a wide range. In addition, the Conservative movement as a whole has opened itself to women, LGBTQ, and people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

I am grateful for the range. It means that I have people to learn from on all sides–people who put care into every detail of their practice, people who crack jokes, and people who do both at once. I often remember a B’nai Jeshurun member who knows the Hebrew liturgy inside out–who was “davening in the womb,” as his wife puts it–and mumbles a hilarious running commentary in English and Yiddish (and sometimes French) over the course of the service. His combination of devotion and humor inspired me from the beginning. The Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun are filled with people of all ages who come for the joy of it–who, regardless of their level of observance, join together in prayer, singing, and dance. (Many people get up and dance to “Lecha Dodi” on Friday evenings; for a sense of what BJ services are like, see these videos.) Within this range, I do not have to stay still or get stuck; I can grow in knowledge, understanding, and feeling. In addition, I learn not to look down on others whose practice differs from mine. They may understand something that I do not.

At this point, in my daily practice, I am closer to Reform than to anything else. This is largely because I do not do well with excessive structure or group activity; I need some unstructured time and space, as well as solitude, in my life. Also, I need the freedom to find the level and form of practice that is right for me, and to be open or quiet about it. Yet I treasure Conservative liturgy, form, and quest. I miss parts of the Conservative services that I have known (at BJ and JTS in New York, and at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas), such as Psalm 136, El Adon (listen to this recording), the seven Torah aliyot, the chanted Haftarah, the Musaf Amidah (with its gorgeous Kedushah), and more. In Hungary, though, while I would gladly visit a Neolog service, I see no place for myself except in the Reform, since I wish to participate fully–leyning, singing, leading, studying, learning. It is a lovely place; I find the members kind, thoughtful, and serious about Jewish life and Torah.

I hope the Mazsihisz will come to embrace the range of Jewish practice in Hungary and beyond. Doing so will strengthen, not weaken, their own communities, which themselves have wide ranges. Yes, there are difficult questions of practice and law–but from its beginnings, Judaism has thrived on questioning. I know little of the long and complex history behind the vote–I have read some articles and listened to some people but realize there’s much more to learn. Yet I speak from some knowledge and experience, as well as openness. The Reform and Neolog communities could learn from each other in unforeseeable ways. I would love to be part of this learning.

With rising antisemitic violence around the world, it becomes all the more important to affirm, to ourselves and others, that Judaism abounds with contrasts, contradictions, and concordances, and that it can hold them all. Jews are not just one thing or another; Jews are not things. To the extent that we recognize each other, we fight off degradation and hatred. To the extent that we continue to learn, we fight off excessive self-certainty. It is not easy to do any of this, but it’s more than worth the difficulty. Shabbat Shalom.

The photo at the top of this post shows our 2017 Hanukkah celebration–just after I had begun in my cantorial role at Szim Salom.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it–most recently on January 5. In addition, I added to the title for the sake of clarity.

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