By Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
In the 200 years since the first Reform service was held in Seesen, Germany, I can think of no rabbi or religious leader who has had the benefit of learning from as many illustrious teachers and mentors as our own Rabbi Harold S. Silver.
Not only did Rabbi Silver benefit — as did his fellow rabbinical students – from the great minds who comprised the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City in the late forties and early fifties, he also had the unique experience of day in and day out tutorials and discussions with his very learned father, Rabbi Maxwell Silver. Rabbi Silver’s father left the pulpit rabbinate to pursue a career in business, but he maintained a rigorous discipline of study learning, and writing of which Harold was the chief beneficiary, throughout his life.
Rabbi Silver is also the nephew of one of the most famous and learned of all Reform rabbis, Abba Hillel Silver. If that were not enough, his rabbi as he grew up in New York City was the equally renowned Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Now, Abba Hillel Silver was a staunch Republican and Stephen S. Wise was a Roosevelt Democrat, and the truth is that these two rabbinical giants were rivals who did not get along so well. One of the rare occasions, though, when Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise came together amicably was to celebrate Harold’s bar mitzvah.
World War II, during which he served with distinction in the South Pacific, interrupted Rabbi Silver’s formal education, so he began his rabbinical studies already steeped in both Jewish knowledge and practical experience.
After ordination and his marriage to Ruth Lee, Rabbi Silver studied and lived for several months in Israel before assuming his first rabbinical post under the tutelage of Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof of Pittsburgh. When it comes to grappling with the questions of what does it mean to be a Reform Jew, Rabbi Freehof is the acknowledged master teacher of our movement. His several volumes of learned responses to questions posed by other rabbis are staples of any credible Jewish library.
Fortunately for all of us interested in the ongoing viability of Reform Jewish life, Rabbi Silver brings all of his training, experience and knowledge to bear in his recently published guidebook, “Converting to Reform Judaism.” Rabbi Silver’s remarkably clear writing style makes the book a pleasure to read.
“Converting to Reform Judaism” is the second book that Rabbi Silver has published in a retirement career which continues to be – and may it be so for many, many more years – an illustrious sequel to his 42 years in the active rabbinate. His first book,”I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me,” is primarily, though not exclusively, written for rabbis and is a valuable guide to understanding the disparate forces that shape Reform Jewish life at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
“Converting to Reform Judaism” speaks primarily, though not exclusively, to people considering becoming Jews by Choice. It is in Rabbi Silver’s words, “a mini Introduction to Judaism,” and, I would add, a most valuable one. The great strength of the book is that it offers profound insights into complex subjects in clear, concise fashion. It is a remarkable achievement.
Rabbi Silver begins by informing us that the concept of a “Chosen People” does not suggest any claim to favor or privilege. It is rather an affirmation that many peoples have had their unique destinies. And so do we. The task for which the Almighty chose our people is to teach the world about a single, good caring Deity who yearns for humanity to create a more just, caring and moral world.
In chapter two, Rabbi Silver skillfully elucidates one of the vital differences between classical Jewish and classical Christian thought. In clear layman’s terms he explains the difference between the Christian idea that the human soul is tainted at birth and only redeemable through faith in Jesus, and the Jewish idea that we are born with pure souls that through our actions in life become either good or evil.
With similar clarity and sensitivity Rabbi Silver discusses the evolving Jewish viewpoints on life after death, the Messiah, and particularly the role of Jesus. Rabbi Silver is most helpful when he distinguishes between Jesus who lived and taught in the Galilee in the first century, and the religion about Jesus, Christianity, which was promoted by Paul and evolved long after his death. With the teachings of Jesus himself, Silver contends, contemporary Jews have little about which to quarrel, but there are significant and important differences between the teachings of Judaism and the teachings of the Christian religion.
Masterfully, Rabbi Silver challenges familiar stereotypes in his chapters about the nature of God and the comparison between the morality of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. A concise review of the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish demography leads into a wonderful – and again concise – presentation on how the current movements in the Jewish world evolved. In the span of a few short pages Rabbi Silver allows us to understand what other historians have spent entire books trying to explain.
When he discusses our Holy Days and festivals, Rabbi Silver wisely does not try to explain the complete and varied set of rituals attached to each. Instead he explains the essential reason for observing the sacred occasions of the year. At the end of the chapter he also offers in almost bullet point form valuable take-away challenges that each of the Holy Days and festivals present to the contemporary Jew. It is a brilliant innovation that I have never seen before.
The last three chapters of the book are among its most important because they deal with vital issues to anyone considering joining their fate with that of the Jewish people. The chapter on Israel focuses less on the realities of Israel’s hopes and efforts for peaceful coexistence with her neighbors and more on what makes Israel, whose population is largely non-religious a Jewish state at all.
The last two chapters discuss the crucial issues of why most Reform rabbis do not officiate at the marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, and the status of children of interfaith marriages and mothers converted by Reform rabbis. They are must reading.
Students who take our Introduction to Judaism class in the fall will be blessed as no previous groups of students have been simply because they will have Rabbi Silver’s book to read. If they read it thoroughly, preferably at the start of the course, and refer back to it as their studies progress, I have no doubt that the life time of learning, thinking, analyzing and teaching that Rabbi Harold Silver has put into this work will be of incalculable benefit to those thinking seriously about “Converting to Reform Judaism.” Thank you, Rabbi Silver, for this wonderful contribution to the advancement of Jewish knowledge!
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, D.Min., DD is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford. Rabbi Harold Silver is the congregation’s rabbi emeritus.