Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reform Judaism or Refrum Judaism?

People generally think of Orthodox Judaism as being more "religious" than Reform Judaism, but last week I found that is not always true.

A family from another city came to Omaha to do a stone dedication, a.k.a "unveiling" for their mother who passed away and was buried here a year ago.  I met with the family at the cemetery and since it was a small crowd I explained to them that there was really no formal prayer to say, rather we gather together to visit the grave and establish it as a place where future generations can come and learn about their ancestors and recall family stories of the good deeds that they performed when they were in this world.

They asked me if there were any special prayers to say.  I told them that there are different customs associated with the ceremony, but in my view they are just that - ceremonial.  Since we were a small and intimate crowd I did not think that the high church approach was necessary.  So without any official service I told them a short dvar Torah and they stood around the grave and told some stories about their mother.

The following week I called the family to follow up on some unrelated shul business that we discussed while they were here.  One of the family members mentioned how she had gotten together with her Reform Rabbi and he said that I was incorrect.  He felt that the prayers at an unveiling MUST be said and that the unveiling that I did was not kosher.


At first I couldn't believe my ears!  I am Orthodox.  We have prayers for everything!  Three times a day we fly through pages and pages of prayers!  If I snack on a single grape I have to recite a few paragraphs about making a pilgrimage to the Temple!  We even have a prayer for going to the bathroom!

When an Orthodox Rabbi tells you there is no prayer for an unveiling - that means that there is no official prayer for an unveiling!

How dare this Reform dude tell ME that I am not kosher!!!

But after I thought about it, I realized that perhaps this Rabbi had a point.  This family traveled a long way to be at the cemetery for the unveiling.  Would it not have been more meaningful to say a few chapters of Psalms with them?  I figured that they would not appreciate it, but maybe people do want some kind of official Hebrew stuff to capture the moment and bring some Judaism into the mix in an official-like capacity.  Perhaps it was insensitive of me not to think that the family would appreciate that.  Perhaps I sold them short by thinking that they couldn't handle it.

Maybe the Reform dude was right after all.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I was out-frummed by a Reform Rabbi.

I explained my position again to the family but conceded that I could have done more.  Please God, next time they come in may it be for a simcha and we will recite many brachot together.


  1. Even if your assessment is correct that you should have "formalized" the prayers more, it was wrong of the Reform Rabbi to tell the family *after the fact* that the unveiling was not kosher. The grief that such a statement could cause a family is completely and utterly unnecessary.

    The Wolf

  2. It was necessary for self-aggrandizement and to marginalize Orthodoxy, the only "religion" contemporary Reform has left.

  3. I understand your second-guessing; but you original thought and instincts were correct. All over America we contend with this well established routine of 'ceremonializing' or 'ritualizing' everything about Judaism. All it does is add another distracting layer and falsification that makes finding the true traditional beauty and depth of Judaism so much harder. First Reformers removed most of the traditional behaviors from Judaism; then, discovering that nature abhors a vacuum, they had to invent ceremonies to fill the gap. We mustn't fall into the same falsification pattern.

    I suggest that if you DO choose to say some tehillim, etc. at an unveiling (I do), continue to make it clear that this isn't a formal requirement and encourage the participants to personalize the moment as you did. The rav can help and guide others to find their connection to an important moment - that's part of what they need of you. But as the conveyor and promoter of Tradition, you did well by steering them away from false impressions.

  4. I want to be clear, I don't fault the Reform Rabbi. I am sure he did not say it to malign me, or Orthodoxy, or to cause the family grief. I think he was just surprised because he learned in Rabbinical school that this is what you do at an unveiling and he was probably surprised that an Orthodox guy didn't know that.

  5. I like doing some of the chapters in the Madrich in Hebrew and then have the assembled family recite them out loud in English. It allows for the feeling of authentic ritual(which reciting tehillim is) combined with something they can participate in and because of their English reading,hopefully, find meaning in as well. But the ceremony of the hakamat ha'matzeivah is only there as a further opportunity for hesped and divrei chizzuk--so you did just fine. Halivai all reform rabbis and Jews should end up becoming so observant in dikdukei halacha that they are on par with the ortho--at that point we'd be able to throw away the denomination labels altogether

  6. From my little experience with non religious Jews (hardly any with Reform or Conversative in Israel, and I grew up outside Israel), I notice that some things take on a meaning of tradition, and some people may be the most irreligious, but where it comes to tradition, they might be "strictly" traditional (even if the tradition they are doing is in fact wrong), and thus, they expect (and deserve) a traditional experience.

  7. Maybe you should have said a Kel Maleh Rachamim and have the mourners say Kaddish? That's kind of standard, isn't it? It might also have added insult to injury if you charged the grieving family for the non-service.

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