The Name’s Panim … P.A. Panim.

2001.03.14
By

from a pre-Blogger blog

One of the cool things about being a teacher is watching the students connect the dots I sprinkle, as happened Tuesday.

Our previous class touched on Shabbat observance, and my kids expressed disdain at the possibility of avoiding work (“That would mean you can’t even move a muscle to blink your eyes!” one complained). So this time, I showed the difference between the scientific definition of work (force applied over a given distance) and the Jewish definition (stuff which Torah says we did to build the Tabernacle). We were reading in unison a list of the 39 prohibited labors (melachot), such as dyeing, tanning (“Do you mean like making leather, or lying on the beach?”), combing raw material (“You mean like your hair?” “GROSS! I’m not going to not comb my hair!”) lighting a fire, etc., when one of my students said it was all too much for her.

“There’s too many rules, and I don’t see how you can keep them all or even any of them without being afraid to break one,” L said. “I don’t see why you have to keep all of these just to be a Jew.”

“Aha!” I said. “I hope everyone was listening to L just now, because she made a very important point. This was exactly the point made 200 years ago by the original founders of the Reform movement — the group of Jews with whom our congregation is affiliated.”

“Well, then, I want to be a Reform Jew,” L said to a classmate, F.” “Me too,” F replied.

We then got into a delightfully intense discussion about the Reform stance vis-a-vis observance of mitzvot (sacred obligations) and minhagim (custom), but one which I leavened with a careful respect for those who adhere to a stricter standard — as well as pointing out the joy of trying on various mitzvot before rejecting them all wholesale. (“Billions of people on this planet live perfectly happy, productive lives without saying the Shema twice a day,” I reminded them. “So the question isn’t, ‘What happens if I don’t do that?’ but “What will my life be like if I do?’”)

A good way into this, F asked me with characteristic directness, “Are you Orthodox?”

I wasn’t surprised by her question, since the kids know I wear a kippa (skullcap) full-time and daven shacharit (pray every morning). “Actually, no,” I replied. “I’m just a plain old Jew, who thinks the mitzvot are important enough that I want to keep, or at least try to keep, as many as I can. There are a few that I just flat won’t keep, but I’ll try to understand those too.

“Of course,” I added, “that’s just me. I also think those are decisions that we each have to make for ourselves. But we can only do it by learning as much as we can.”

There was a pause while this was digested. Then F asked, “No, didn’t you say you were some kind of, ‘Reorganized,’ or something, Jew?”

“OH!” I said, remembering our earlier class on the differences between Jewish movements. “Reconformodox?! Yeah — that’s actually kind of a joke. It stands for Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox. I sort of invented that *, because I think all the movements have something to teach us: whether it’s Orthodoxy’s sense of tradition, Reform’s emphasis on the individual, Conservative’s flexibility, or the Reconstructionist devotion to meaningfulness.” To my surprise, they all made me spell that so they could copy it into their notebooks. L turned to F and said, sotto voce, “I think I want to be a Reconformodox Jew.”

“Me too,” F replied.

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