November 21, 2019

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Is Reform Judaism a religion?

It probably won’t be the last time I shake my head at how the US Reform movement (I’m including the much smaller liberal branch of the Conservative movement)  has replaced Judaism with progressive politics – they call it “social action” or “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) although it is always political action on behalf of the causes of the Left – but it is the first time I have understood that it is a survival strategy for them.

The last few generations of liberal American Jews joined a synagogue because they wanted their children to grow up with an idea that they were different in a special way from the majority of non-Jews among which they lived. They wanted them to have bar and bat mitzvahs and to go to Jewish camp, so they would have Jewish friends and maybe ultimately marry a Jewish person. There was still a concern that it was important to belong to the community and not to abandon it. But these Jewish parents had also grown up in liberal or almost secular households and had little Jewish literacy, and certainly no inclination to become observant.

So liberal synagogues catered to their needs. They made it clear that nothing would be expected of them in terms of knowledge or observance, and they moved back and forth on the spectrum of ritual, from “classical Reform” which resembled Lutheranism, to something closer to traditional Jewish worship, looking for a happy medium. But what primarily drew the congregants into the temples and encouraged them to pay the high dues needed to support well-compensated Reform rabbis was the feeling of obligation to provide some Jewish connection for their children.

In recent years this model started to fail. The blandness of the attenuated, content-free Judaism served up bored both the parents and the children. The newer generations didn’t remember their immigrant ancestors’ Judaism. Intermarriage was common and the “interfaith family” became a thing. Kids didn’t have time or head space for religious education; there were organized sports and academic pressures that were far more important to them. Sometimes the perceived spirituality in eastern religions and even – despite the strong taboo – Christianity, pulled them away. In particular, it was almost impossible to recruit the 20-somethings that in a few years would become the heart of the community and its leadership.

Liberal Jewish community members asked themselves why they should pay thousands of dollars a year for – what, exactly? It became harder and harder for Reform congregations to keep the lights on and to pay the “Jewish professionals” – rabbis, cantors and “cantorial soloists,” educators – that a liberal congregation needed. Many congregations merged and some closed their doors. The movement itself suffered a financial crisis as the flow of dues from affiliated congregations dried up. It was forced to cut its staff and activities drastically.

The Reform movement selected the charismatic Rabbi Rick Jacobs as president  to rescue it. He made administrative changes, he emphasized camp and social activities for the children – there is no better way to get adolescents interested in something than to provide them opportunities to interact with others of the opposite sex – and, although it had been moving this way for decades, he placed the major emphasis in the movement on “social action.”

There is no theological problem for them. Unlike traditional Judaism in which commandments are obeyed because they are commandments, Reform Jews place the moral intuition of the individual above the literal (written and oral) Torah. This leads to a distinction between “ritual” and “social” commandments, in which the former are optional and only the latter are obligatory. They consider this “prophetic Judaism” and argue that it is grounded in the Torah and Prophets, but the fact that only those “prophetic” principles that correspond to 21st century progressive ideology are honored reveals that their actual moral standards are based on something outside of Jewish tradition. Isaiah’s isolationism or Samuel’s uncompromising violence clearly don’t fit today’s Reform ideology.

Rabbi Jacobs’ maneuver has been spectacularly successful, both for the Reform movement and for other liberal groups. A recent article by Debra Nussbaum Cohen characterizes it as a reaction to the election of President Donald Trump, but the synagogue wouldn’t provide a focus for anti-Trump expression, were it not for its metamorphosis into a political action organization.

Since the presidential election, 45 new households have joined Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, said Rabbi Michael Adam Latz. “Trump may be bad for the world, but he’s great for shul membership,” quipped Latz, whose synagogue is Reform.

“We have people in their 20s and 30s with pink mohawks and people in their 60s and 70s joining who are saying they were never interested before, but now ‘want to be part of something good that is bigger than ourselves.’”

Latz is an outspoken social justice advocate and Shir Tikvah has become a sanctuary congregation, ready to offer concrete support to immigrants being threatened with arrest by the Department of Homeland Security.

That’s part of the orientation young Jews find attractive, said Gabriel Glissmeyer, 23, who recently joined Shir Tikvah. There are “definitely more people attending since the election, and more young people especially. When I started, there were seven or eight of us consistently going. Now there are 15 to 20,” he said.

“We definitely saw a surge in January and February, and are still seeing more traction among young folks in their 20s and 30s,” said Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie at Lab/Shul. “They are looking for community and action.” His is a “pop-up,” unconventional and independent congregation.

Yet the phenomenon is also visible at establishment places of worship. The wait list to join New York City’s Central Synagogue has more than doubled since the election, from 250 families to over 540. Friday night service attendance is also up, said Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, spiritual leader of the Reform congregation. “I don’t know if this is a Trump bump or not,” she told Haaretz, “but it is quite noticeable.”

And in Berkeley, California, 20 new households have joined Congregation Netivot Shalom since January 1, said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who is active in many interfaith social justice initiatives.

“In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was an enormous increase in attendance,” said Creditor of his 400-household Conservative congregation. The way people recited the “Prayer for Our Country” also changed: “There was a change in the volume, in a fresh and urgent way,” he said. Though he’s not sure he can attribute the increased attendance to Trump’s presidency, “there are more people praying and more intense prayer,” he noted. …

Congregants have been galvanized around social justice work, even where there hasn’t been a lasting increase in attendance, said some.

For years, I’ve been predicting the demise of the Reform movement in the US. I’ve agreed with those who said that it would fade away from a combination of irrelevance and assimilation. But it didn’t occur to me that its leftist politics would save it!

A particular target for Rabbi Jacobs’ “tikkun olam” is Israel, which he believes is in great need of repair because the reality here doesn’t correspond to an ideal liberal society in the sense loved by American progressives. In his public pronouncements, he often notes that his movement is the largest  Jewish religious group in the US, and suggests that he speaks for American Jews, particularly in respect to Israel. His views, unfortunately, are closer to those of J Street than to those of the Israeli government and the majority of Israelis, and he is not shy about wanting to impose them on us.

Those of us who are concerned about Israel’s welfare and who do not think that the worldview of progressive Americans is appropriate for survival in the Middle East find this singularly unhelpful, even dangerous.

In recent years, some Orthodox rabbis, members of Israel’s Knesset and even the (non-Orthodox) man who is today the President of the State of Israel have said that Reform Judaism is not Judaism, but actually another, different religion.

That is a very strong statement to make. I am not sure we want to say that a million or so Reform Jews are actually practicing “another religion” (which, incidentally, might disqualify them from aliyah under the Law of Return). But maybe the truth is that we should see the movement simply as a political group, which has stopped being about religion at all.

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