Judaism Unbound Episode 88: Reform or Revolution? - Daniel Freelander II

Daniel Freelander, President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for the second segment in a two-part conversation about the history of Reform Judaism. [1] In today's episode, Freelander walks us through Reform Judaism's journey from the mid-20th century to the present, and we discuss where Reform, and Judaism in general, may be headed in the future.

To play the episode, click the arrow button above. To download, hover over the player, click share (on the right), and then choose download by clicking the cloud. 
Image Credit: Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism

Image Credit: Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism

(0:01 - 15:13): Daniel Freelander begins the episode by discussing the important developments in American Reform Judaism in the 1930s and 40s. [2] Among these shifts were an increased emphasis on Hebrew, increased participation and leadership by women, and the movement of many communities from urban centers to suburban areas. [3] The Reform movement's shifts helped it to double in size from around 300 congregations in the early 1930s to 600 in the early 1960s. In the 1970s and 80s, Reform ordained its first female rabbis, embraced patrilineal descent, and began to move towards greater acceptance of Gay and Lesbian Jews. Over the course of the 20th century, the Reform movement also shifts drastically from opposition to Zionism as the norm at the turn of the 20th century to an embrace of Zionism as predominant by the late 20th century.

Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi ordained in the United States.  Image Credit: Erte Studio, Maspeth, New York.

Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi ordained in the United States.  Image Credit: Erte Studio, Maspeth, New York.

(15:14 - 31:43): The conversation shifts to a focus on Judaism today. In particular, Freedlander gives his take on the conversation thread this podcast has confronted a number of times, regarding the capacity of Jewish institutions to change. In particular, he explores the extent to which existing institutions can catalyze large-scale change from the top-down, or whether new institutions (or non-institutions) may be best situated to do so from the bottom-up. [4] He addresses the different roles that rabbis, others working professionally in Jewish life, and lay-leaders can each play in creating the changes that are needed. He and the co-hosts then take a look at the role that music has played (and can continue to play) in instigating or accelerating cultural or religious shifts. [5] In particular, Freelander asserts that Reform Jews have largely moved from a musical aesthetic geared towards instilling awe to one centered on creating intimacy and community.

(31:44 - 46:08): Freelander speaks to the various ways in which Reconstructionist Judaism and Jewish Renewal have influenced Reform. He also explores the advantages and disadvantages of such a wide variety of institutional infrastructures existing independently from one another, as opposed to consolidating them into fewer, arguably stronger, institutions. To close the episode, Freelander advocates for a few ideas and practices of our Jewish past that may be worth reviving or amplifying today. [6]

[1] Access Daniel Freelander's bio by clicking here and learn more about the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which he serves as President, by clicking here. Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism, by visiting their website.

[2] The writing of the Columbus Platform in 1937, cited by Freelander, marks a few key ideological transitions in Reform Judaism. Read the full text of it by clicking here. For two other platforms published by Reform rabbis of later eras, see "Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective," published in San Francisco in 1976, and "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism," published in Pittsburgh in 1999.

[3] For a deep look at Jewish suburbanization in the mid-20th century, see Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, written by Lila Corwin Berman and published in 2015.

[4] For past Judaism Unbound conversations on institutional change in American Judaism, we recommend the following episodes: Episode 1: GenesisEpisode 4: Exodus IIEpisode 21: jOS 4.0 - A New Jewish Operating System?Episode 53: Death and Rebirth - Irwin KulaEpisode 77: Folk Judaism, and Episode 86: We're the Jews We've Been Waiting For.

[5] Freelander is an accomplished musician who has written and co-written many well-known Jewish melodies. For video of his melody for "Lo Alecha," co-written with Cantor Jeff Klepper, click the video above on the left. For video of Broadway stars Ben Platt (winner of a Tony Award) and Cassie Levy singing Freelander's melody for "Shalom Rav," see the video directly to the left.

[6] One of the ideas proposed by Classical Reformers that Freelander would like to revive is their emphasis on Jewish education for adults. For a recent article sharing this view from a perspective outside of the Reform movement, see Shmuly Yanklowitz's article, entitled "Adult Learning is the Number One Priority for the Jewish Future," and featured in eJewish Philanthropy.