09 January 2018

Do Reform Jews Have to Do All 613 Mitzvot?

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

Do Reform Jews have to do all the mitzvot (usually translated as “commandments”)? The answer, says Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz, depends on who you believe wrote the Torah. If you believe, as our ancient Sages did, that the Torah came directly from God’s own mouth, then you know with absolute certainty what God wants you to do – and you’d be kind of crazy not to do it. But we Reform Jews tend to accept what modern scholarship has shown – that the Torah was written not by God, but by human beings seeking to know, and experience, and explain God. Personally, I believe the voice of God can be heard in our sacred texts – in the collective wisdom of our ancestors, who, in each generation, have uncovered a little bit more of the mystery.

As modern, autonomous human beings, we have the right and the responsibility to consider the traditional teachings and determine for ourselves what God wants us to do, here and now. So how do we do that? Jakob Petuchowski, another Reform theologian, says you have to study the Torah with an open mind and an open heart, and be willing to let it speak to you, and change you. Petuchowski calls it “listening for the commandment.” The idea is that God speaks to each of us differently, and wants something different from each of us based on our unique, individual covenant with God.

When you’re listening for the commandment, you’re really listening for what God is asking you to do. You won’t necessarily hear God’s voice calling to you in every mitzvah you study, but when you do hear it, you’ll know. You’ll know in your soul that this mitzvah is meant for youAnd the moment you hear the commandment, that mitzvah becomes an obligation for you. Listen for the commandment, and be prepared to be changed by it. That’s our responsibility as Reform Jews.



About the Author

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller - Senior Rabbi

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller joined Temple Israel as Senior Rabbi in 2017. He is a friendly, patient, and welcoming presence known for greeting people warmly, remembering our names, and just being himself. He is also an energetic, knowledgable, and passionate teacher who challenges us intellectually and guides us in mining Judaism’s sacred texts for insights that will help us navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives. As a prayer leader, he strives to pray not on behalf ofhis congregants, but with us, so that together we can rise toward the heavens. Most importantly, he is a caring and devoted relationship-builder who genuinely enjoys people and wants to be our friend. As Rabbi Stoller has said, “I just go out there and try to be myself because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care. In my view, a synagogue’s mission is to create this kind of community for its members. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

Following the dictum that “the teacher of Torah must be a student of Torah throughout his life,” Rabbi Stoller is currently pursuing a doctorate in halakhah (Jewish law) and has published a number of essays on Jewish law, practice, and theology. He is an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), serving on the Responsa Committee, the annual convention planning team, and the editorial board of the CCAR Journal. Rabbi Stoller received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus in 2008, and served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL from 2008-2017. He grew up in Houston, TX (Congregation Emanu El), and earned a degree in Honors Business and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Before entering rabbinic school, Rabbi Stoller spent seven years in professional politics, working on campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, and serving as Press Secretary to then-U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (IL) in Washington, DC from 1999-2003. After seeing the Pentagon burn from his office window on September 11, 2001 and learning of a childhood friend’s death from brain cancer a year later, Brian knew the time had come to follow his deeply-held desire to become a rabbi. “It was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we do not know how long we are going to be here,” he has said. “For several years, I had been too fearful, too anxious about change to pursue what I knew in my heart I wanted to do with my life, but now I was ready to go for it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting a family, it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Rabbi Stoller is proud to be part of Temple Israel, which he describes as “a warm, friendly, welcoming, close-knit congregation, with the vision and the courage to change our community and our world for the better.” He lives in Omaha with his wife Karen and his two children, Lindsay and Zachary. In his free time, Rabbi Stoller enjoys reading classical Jewish texts (yes, really!), cycling, and re-watching episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

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